The Science of Doing Good – Global Altruism

On the Sunday address by Dr Francis Macnab, 16 August 2015.
By John Abbate.


“Unkindness involves a failure of the imagination so acute that it threatens not just our happiness but our sanity. Caring about others, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued, is what makes us fully human…The self without sympathetic attachments is either a fiction or a lunatic.”—Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor, On Kindness (2009)

“A giving person is not only a person doing good, but feeling good.”—Dr Francis Macnab

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution has long been associated with a picture of nature in conflict, with the dominion of the strong over the weak, and with a ruthless competition for survival. This is an unfortunate, persistent distortion that has always had both proponents and detractors. Darwin himself argued that sympathy was our strongest instinct. The qualities of kindness, compassion and altruism are infinitely better aids to survival than selfishness and belligerence.

Studies show that a giving, open personality correlates well with individual emotional health, work satisfaction, and the ability to cope with stress. Why should that be so? “Doing good connects us with a person, or the cause that person supports,” said Dr Macnab. “It connects us also with a larger Good…and we feel right, and good, in making that connection.”

In his address, Dr Macnab identifies the great paradox that being kind is not something we do as often as we might. We know that doing good will make us feel good, so why do we continue to treat each other badly?

Dr Macnab goes on: “The more we practice kindness—the more we practice goodness—the more our humanness is enlarged, and [this] thereby reaffirms our social nature.”

Doing good is contagious, but sometimes the contagious spirit of goodness weakens. It must be monitored and restored by our own rational awareness and affirmation. “We need reminders for that,” said Dr Macnab. “We need inspirational words, inspirational themes. We need a good presence.”

“Altruism exists on a personal level, it exists on a community level, and it can exist on a global level.” But doing good and feeling good can sound like very small, even irrelevant things, alongside the large-scale evils and harms of the world. In such a world altruism must be spoken about in global terms. “Global altruism is possible,” affirmed Dr Macnab. With Peter Singer, Macnab believes that “altruism offers grounds for optimism about people and the future.”

At the end of the address, Dr Macnab summarises his key assertions about the nature of doing good:

Doing good…

  • Connects us to a larger Good
  • Can be a gift of pleasure, of gratitude, of enablement
  • Evokes positive changes in the brain, in our chemistry, in our moods
  • Changes our focus; can bring us closer together
  • Enlarges our humanness
  • Has the potential for being contagious
  • Keeps alive the belief in the potential of global altruism

“Global altruism has to be written in large letters as an urgent part of our agenda,” said Dr Macnab. “Where our religion can support and endorse that, surely we want to be part of that religion.”



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