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THE PROBLEM OF ALTRUISTIC MQTIVATION IN THE LIGHT OF MODERN PSYCHOLOGY1 .r H. vv. WRrGHT THAT men do .frequently act unselfishly is, of course, a fad. But what motivates them to such altruistic behaviour is still an unsettled question. Can it be said that among the original springs of human action there is one which dn occasion impels the individual to seek the good of his fellows rather than his own private interest? Or is altruistic action motivated by enlightened prudence-meaning in this case the self-preservative and egoistic drives, modified by an understanding of the mutuality of all individual human interests? This question, always important for an unders ,tanding of 'human nature, has taken on a new urgency 'in our day. The history of Soviet Russia has demonstrated what can be achieved in time of peace by -the co-ope.~ative effort of all the me~bers of a great modern nation.. The atomic bomb has given warning to mankind that the nations .of the world must learn' to co-operate in order to escape destruction. Thus no one can question today the imperative, even .desperate, need for more thorough-going and effective co-operation in both the national and the international fields. The only remaining doubt concerns the reladon of such complete and far-reaching co.,..operation to the freedom of human individuals.. The Western democracies believe that individual citizens can be induced to co-operate voluntarily in· the pursuit of common national goals, and that ·a world government can likewise be based upon a willing .co-operation between nations. Totalitarian regimes undertake tb make such co-operation compulsory. They proceed on .the assumption that the degree of co-operation requisite to conserve human welfare can be obtained from a citizen-body only if it is enforced by governmental machinery and the ~rganization of social life. Of these two political doctrines, that one is probably destined to prevail which is most in harmony with the nature and constitution of man. The answer to the problem of which doctrine fits human nature best depends very largely upon the facts of human motivation. Is there an original altruistic motive operating in kindly and helpful, in patriotic, public-spirited, humanitarian action, or does all such· altruistic behaviour spring from the basic self-preservative drives directec.l by prudential intelligence? This problem of the nature of altruistic motivation is by no means a · new one. It has been discussed. and debated at great length by the philosophers and moralists of the past.2 At present, ·anyone who wishes to 1The substance of this paper was read a.t the 1946 meeting of the Canadian Psychological Association at Queen's University, May 15-17. · 2This is particularly true of English moral philosophy. During the two centuries beginning with Ho_bbes in the seventeenth, and continuing to J~ S. Mill in the nineteenth,· the principal alternative views on altruistic motivation were defined, and many of their social and moral implications made dear. Hobbes held that all human impulses are ego157 158 THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTER~Y know the real facts and find out what conclusions they warrant turns naturally and hopefully to scientific psychology. It must be admitted at the start that present-day psychology gives no clear and simple answer to the question of what motivates human beings to act unselfishly. This ]s not becaus'e psychologists of our day in attacking such a problem are content ·to express and defend on speculative grounds their own individual opinions> thus continuing the controversies of the past. It is rather because empirical and experimental studies in this field of psychologic~ research have brought to light a great vari~ty of facts relating to this mode 'of behaviour, and because these fa·cts, while pertinent and evidential, are not easy to interpret and often appear to point in different, even opposite, directions. In dealing with this problem, as with many other problems of human behaviour, the psychologist of today is not handicapped by paucity of factual information: he is embarr~ssed by the amount and complexity of it. When, however, we review the results of psychological studies in this field, consider what they imply in...


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