By: Emil G. Hirsch
A term derived from the late Latin alter hic ("this other"); dative, alteri huic, contracted to alteruic. It seems to have been first used by Comte (1798-1857), to designate conduct impelled by motives utterly unselfish and inspired by the sole desire to bring about the happiness of another without regard to, or even at the expense of, one's own. As such it is opposed to egoism. It stands to reason that there is no equivalent of it in ancient or modern Hebrew. The very idea which it connotes, exaggerated self-obliteration, is not indigenous to Judaism. An analysis of the basic idea of Jewish ethics will reveal the reason why. Both Altruism and its contrary, egoism, belong to ethical systems founded on the concept of happiness as the ultimate motive of conduct and the summum bonum. According as the happiness of the individual self or that of the individual other or others is projected into dominant importance, hedonistic (i.e., happiness) ethics becomes either egoistic or altruistic. And even those systems, largely theological, that seemingly have harmonized Altruism with egoism have done this by accentuating that self-happiness will only be attained through conduct leading to the increase or the establishment of the happiness of another.Ethics of Christianity and Buddhism.
In this sense both the ethics of Christianity and Buddhism were at one and the same time egoistic and altruistic. Self-obliteration in this life assures self-realization in the other. Self-realization being, according to Buddhism, the mother of all evil, self-obliteration is the road to permanent happiness. Buddhistic as well as Christian Altruism are thus founded on other-worldliness, which in the Christian scheme flowers in the assurance of personal felicity in a higher state, whereas in that of Buddhism it promises release from all evil of self-existence in the blissful and happy Nirvana.
The non-theological systems of ethics, almost without exception, have failed to establish a higher harmony between egoism and Altruism. In the more recent writings on evolutionary ethics—the school of Herbert Spencer—the endeavor is made. Upon psychological grounds it is maintained that every altruistic act is, if not in its motives, always in its effects egoistic. Maternal love, for example, leads to the happiness of the mother through her own self-sacrifice. The pre-Spencerian (hedonistic) schools have posited either self or the other as the fountain-head of moral conduct. Comte virtually reverted to the fundamental thought of the English moralistsof the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, according to whom the sympathies rooted in human nature are the mainsprings of morality (Cumberland, Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Butler, Paley, Adam Smith). Modern Altruism is a reaction against the exaggerated egoism of the philosophy of the French Revolution, leading to the exaltation of such figments and abstractions as the economic man—a being supposed to act upon one sole motive to the exclusion of any other; viz., unmitigated or even enlightened self-ishness. Modern liberalism in politics, religion, and economics having taken its cue from the writings of Rousseau, Voltaire, and the encyclopedists, it was but natural that the pendulum of thought should swing back to the opposite pole and posit as the secret of all true life an equally excessive love for the fellow, in which the self of man failed to receive its legitimate due. This one-sided emphasis upon altruistic conduct in turn evoked the counter-revolution culminating in the apotheosis of the selfish, desocialized man, the "overman" of Nietzsche's doctrine, as before him Max Stirner had developed the theory of the selfish man's supremacy and autocracy.Morality Summed up in Service.
This fatal antithesis beween self and others is avoided in the ethics of Judaism. The fundamental motive of the moral life is, according to Judaism, not the quest for happiness. Morality is summed up in service. The purpose of human life is service now and here. In the creation narrative man is destined to be ruler over every being and thing created. In this purpose all that live and breathe in the wide sweep of human fellowship have a part. None can be spared. He who should efface himself would commit as grievous a breach of the covenant as he who should crush another. The measure of the service which is upon us is contingent upon the strength, talent, possession, and power which have come to us. The ethical ambition on this basis runs to the desire for increase of strength, knowledge, possession, and power. Weakness is not a virtue. The stronger the man the better able he is to render service. Therefore, the appeal of Judaism is that each shall become a self and strive for the realization of the fullest possible measure of self. Self-realization is the realization of a part of the service placed upon all. But, on the other hand, and flowing from the same concept of service, what is ours is ours only as a means to enlarge the common life. We are stewards of our talents and property, trustees thereof in the service of all. As the weakness of one diminishes the sum of service rendered, it becomes the duty of the strong to look after the weak; to help them to strength, in order thus to increase the sum total of strength at the disposal of all.
In this way Judaism overcomes the opposition of egoism to Altruism and finds the higher synthesis on the basis of the community of service. Self-assertion flowers into the sympathy and help extended to others struggling for fuller self-realization. In the Jewish view of life as a service both ego and alter find their higher harmony. Hillel's maxim, "If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when then?" epitomizes this concordance of self and the others. Egoism is limited to its legitimate field, that developing every man into as strong a self as is possible with a view to more perfect service; and even so is Altruism saved from exaggeration. Self-effacement is contrary to the moral law of life. The highest aim in the economy of society and of creation is self-assertion in the service of all. Not egoism which feeds self at the expense of others, nor Altruism which effaces self while thinking of others, but mutualism as implied in the words, "Love thy neighbor as thyself," is the guiding principle of Jewish ethics.