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Antonela TedFan

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Is helping others a moral obligation?

A few months ago, we were debating in our Debate and Speech club about "it is a moral obligation to help those in need". I recently read a book by Dalai Lama "The Road to Happiness" I believe, in which this "issue" came back again. Are people born selfish? Can they change? Are people altruist? Can we help others? Should we help others? In case we do, is it because of the good feeling we get, or just because we want to help them? Can this be confused with weakness?

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    Jun 14 2012: The norms of society ebb and flow. What was taboo is now accepted. I am 70 and look at thing quite different than when I was at any younger age. I now see that America elevated Dr Spock and Freud to a status that is probally not deserved. I do not infer that child care and mental health are not important. I simply believe that we now analyze things to death. The kid acts up and he has ADD give him drugs. Why did Johnny do that? My answer is because he wanted to. Put candy in front of a kid he will eat it because it is there. There are people who cuss me and call me names that I like and there are some who say hello and are really nice that I just do not like. I really don't even know why. A psych may tell me it is because I hated my mother or dad. I help some people because I want to. I am more likely to help someone who is in distress or over their heads in a situation. I willingly give a hand up but seldom give a hand out. I deplore the welfare society that we are in and some wish to expand. I think we have killed the work ethic in those people. Rights without responsibilities is wrong. Life has been good to me and I give back. I volunteer my time. I coach basketball, football, and track, I am on the school board, I write for the local paper, I am a man tracker for search and rescue, and am currently writing another book. I do these things because I want to and it pleases me. When I no longer enjoy these things I will quit. I do not consider myself either altrustic or selfish. My wife and I do not have girl and guy tasks. If it needs done do it. She is better at most things that I am. Stop analyzing it and jump in. A complex is also a housing unit. I am neither strong or weak. As Poppy says "I AM WHAT I AM" All the best. Bob.
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    Jun 12 2012: The emotional payback we get after doing an altruistic act I don't think is a weakness. Emotional payback and 'good feeling' still lies within the somewhat blurred bounds of altruism.

    A presumption towards materialistic payback for helping others is, in my opinion, very weak, false, and amoral. It is a way of commodifying kindness, and can therefore no longer be called altruism.

    Helping others is a moral obligation, but it has to originate from the heart, rather than the head.
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      Jun 12 2012: why is it better if originates in heart rather than head?
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        Jun 12 2012: Because I think the heart is where altruism mostly originates.

        I would think that a good doctor, as an example, would be drawn to his/her profession at first through their heart, followed by the head.

        If the heart is not in it, then helping people would be a forced form of kindness, tainted by falsehood and compromise - and too much 'ought' at the expense of 'want'.
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          Jun 12 2012: so if someone rationally counts that altruism is an optimal arrangement, it is forced? how? why? i don't get it.

          isn't it the other way around? if the heart motivates you, it is not your action. it is just instinct. your personality has nothing to do with it. it could just as well be a biochemical function, you can't help it. however, if it is a conscious decision, you can claim full credit for it.
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          Jun 13 2012: Allan, I'd suggest altruism may be (1) an instinctual act resulting from evolution or (2) a rationale choice or (3) an emotional act [see (1)] or some combination.

          You might pursue medicine to help people, to make money, for status, to meet family expectations etc some could be simultaneous motivations.. Many of these things could come back to evolutionary drives or human nature.

          Our heart actually pumps blood and doesn't seem to be involved in any behaviour or decisions.

          I'm with KP on this one.
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        Jun 14 2012: Krisztián and Obey: I am very aware of the heart's physical function. I use 'heart' in this context as a commonly accepted metaphor to illustrate the seat of truest feeling, source of emotion, and sincerity.

        The well-known phrase 'Hearts and Minds' roughly equates to emotion and intellect. It is my assertion that the two are bound together in a process of referral and re-referral back and forth to each other in many areas, including acts of altruism. In altruism I think the emotion comes first, which then gets verified by the intellect, which then gets re-referred back to emotion - back and forth several times until the altruistic act becomes confirmed as a rationalised action of both heart and mind.

        My belief is that the birthplace of altruism is more likely to be within the bounds of emotion and instinct, not the intellect - though the intellect plays a crucial part in post-rationalisation of the emotion.

        I see what you guys are getting at, but I have to say that consciousness and the unconscious mind are uncertain quantities, so what we are discussing here is mostly hypothetical. This is what makes it interesting, because we are justifiably approaching the subject of altrusm from the perspective of our own thinking styles. Either could be right.
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          Jun 14 2012: i also used the word metaphorically. the crux of my position is this:

          "isn't it the other way around? if the heart motivates you, it is not your action. it is just instinct. your personality has nothing to do with it. it could just as well be a biochemical function, you can't help it. however, if it is a conscious decision, you can claim full credit for it."
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        Jun 14 2012: Krisztián ,
        instincts are not motivated my heart. its the enviornment that we are in which generates instincts, mostly a biochemical reaction designed for our survival. instincts will be same for almost all humans...but it is not motivated by our heart. what motivated by heart is emotions that we feel on certain situations and that wont be same for all humans... it will depend on ones personality and point of view.
        ofcourse, all emotions are generated inside our head, but that part of the brain which generates emotions are metaphorically called HEART, i think
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        Jun 14 2012: I don't think it's the other way around Krisztián.

        I think the heart very commonly motivates one into action (action being the head's response to the heart) - and such action is linked strongly to instinct, depending on personality type (which might include the effects of biochemicals).

        Example: A career change motivated primarily by job satisfaction in spite of a significant drop in salary, is an action initiated by the heart rather than head. If that same career change involves helping other people, then it is also moving very close to altruism because that person is disadvantaging himself materially, and on purpose, in order to satisfy a heartfelt career path. In this case, I suspect that the head is providing verification to the heart that all will be ok in the spiritual sense, despite material loss.

        I concede that not all personality types either want - or are able - to do this.
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          Jun 14 2012: i didn't claim it is not often the case. you said it is better, not more frequent. i agree that acting from heart is more frequent. my point was that it is not only not better, but in fact worse.
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        Jun 14 2012: Would you say that it is worse across the board? Why?

        Is the judgement of what is better/worse dependent on what the heart/head is involved in?

        Is successful human to human contact only dependent on rationality and logic - and the infrequency of what the heart has to offer?
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          Jun 14 2012: if it turns out that what you do is wrong, can you change your feelings? can you change your heart? no. but you can change your reasoning. you always can opt for another strategy, as long as you are conscious about it. but you can't change what you like. feelings are easy to manipulate too.
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        Jun 14 2012: You said: "if it turns out that what you do is wrong, can you change your feelings? can you change your heart? no."

        And then: "...feelings are easy to manipulate too."

        Not sure I understand that - can you explain?
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          Jun 14 2012: manipulate like exploit. tv ads, politicians do this all the time. like they try to attach feelings to their product. you have to support this government program, or else you are heartless, you don't have empathy. such techniques are used all the time to silence reason.
    • Jun 14 2012: Helping others is wen you forget about yourself, get out your litle world, and you give somenthing, it can be a smile, a word, a hugh, food.......... and wen you are capable of doing this hard thing about forget yourself and give for a moment your existance to another being without hesitate (a sun,a friend, a person unknown, an animal, a plant,....), the felling is so big that your heart will almost explode of joy. We were made to be happy, to feel hapiness, it´s should more than our moral oligation, it´s a question of survival of our own happiness.
    • Jun 15 2012: This question of motivation for altruism can stir up very lively debates, which can be very interesting.

      When someone provides food to a starving person, does the starving person care what the motive is?
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        Jun 16 2012: Barry - I don't think it matters what the receiver of an act of kindness thinks in the context of altruism. Isn't it more to do with the motive, and the effects that motive has on the giver?

        Isn't it still even more an act of altruism where there is no demonstration of gratitude from the receiver, and absolute self sacrifice of the giver?

        What do you think of the notion that altruism cannot really be assessed as a single quality of helping/giving, but more as a kind of qualitative 'spectrum' of selflessness? In other words, having the ultimate in self sacrifice at one end of that spectrum (which might include death of self, in order to help another) - while at the other end there is an expectation of material and emotional reward for helping someone?
        • Jun 24 2012: I understand your point, and agree with you, that the motive can be very important with respect to the giver. I just have to look at the whole situation. How about the case of someone, who is way out there on the self sacrificing end of the spectrum, does something with the best of intentions and the unintended consequences are tragic? An excellent example is the 19th century missionary who traveled half way across North America to save the souls of the Native Americans, and brought along a case of influenza which killed off a whole village.
  • Jun 14 2012: I believe that the reason we help others is directly related to the degree of emotional connection we have with them. If we have a very strong emotional connection with a person like family, partners or very close friends most of the times we help them because we want to, because we love them and want them to be happy.

    If the degree of emotional connection is almost null (strangers or people you dislike) we would probably, most of the times, help them because it’s a moral obligation.

    There could be also a case where you don’t know the person in need but you can still feel a strong emotional connection because you can identified yourself with that person or with the situation they might be going through so you feel the urge to help them and do it selflessly
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      Jun 14 2012: I agree that an empathic connection is a strong force in deciding to help someone. I think that a moral code and hence obligation can sometimes carry a lot of cultural baggage with it. It is possible to want to help someone for empathic reasons, despite the help contradicting you or your communitys' moral or religous code. There are talks on TED proposing that the empathic collaborative response is "hard wired" into us.
      See Jeremy Rifkins talk on an empathic civilisation and Frans De Waals talk on empathy in primates.
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    Jun 14 2012: I think we need more people willing to help each other out in these times, well, at least in America. To many people are blinded by the expectations of society.
  • Jun 12 2012: Nothing is a moral obligation. If you build your moral ideals you act according to them because it is your personality.
    When someone has the "moral obligation" to do something it is because is pretending to act morally right despite it is not on his/her personality.

    That is why helping others shouldn´t be a moral obligation. If it is in your moral code you won´t do it as an obligation but as a natural action.

    The solution: Build a strong moral code in order to act naturally and not pretending.
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    Jun 12 2012: Suggest not doing harm to others is a moral obligation.

    Suggest helping others is part of what helps hold a society together and increases well being.

    Not sure if obligation is the right word, but helping others seems to make a positive impact on the human condition.

    I'm sure there are examples where too much help has adverse consequences but in general it is a good thing, but you'd need to assess each situation case by case. Some people may think they are helping by enforcing values or behaviours that may have net negative aspects.

    I suggest we evolved as group animals so there are norms and behaviours that encourage healthy group dynamics but also some negative aspects. Life is more complex now and we have moved past being dominated by instinct and limited reason. Life is about a balance. It is competitive but we can have better lives with some cooperation.
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    Jun 12 2012: There are many moral codes. Under some it is. Under others it is not.
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    Jul 11 2012: Here is my take even though some on TED conversations resent my sharing about my experiences of the last 7 months or so.
    I started to get better when i took the focus off myself and started trying to help others. i stopped believing that this was the worst thing that ever happened when I deliberately tried to take my attention off vomitting 10=13 times a day and tried to fill a human need. When I realized that even with 2 clots in my brain - I Could fill a human need that there was no one else to fill, I started to improve dramatically.
    I do not know how or why this worked this way but getting the focus off of myself and on to others somehow made me believe that it could be done and that what was required was some human courage and good will to others.
    For me it was a moral imperative to reduce some of the suffering I saw around me. BUT even if it is not so to you, I hope my situation demonstrates that you should do it anyway to help yourself.
  • Jun 29 2012: I believe that the definition of 'moral obligation' would differ from person to person, depending on their upbringing and their personal value systems. Thus, perhaps my definition of a moral obligation would be to help anyone in need, person X's could be to help him family in need and person Y's would be to only help himself in need. In the fast paced world we live today, the highly competitive surroundings have made us very selfish. Nonetheless, is this selfish attitude a necessity for survival ? Isn't it necessary to be selfish in order to live up to your aspirations, in order to ensure that people do not take advantage of you? Albeit I provide a highly pessimistic insight, I believe it to be true. On the contrary, helping some one would always involve on us giving up on something and this would portray strength.
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    Jun 14 2012: I guess that depends on how morality is justified or constructed by the individual or by the institutions that are established by the collective. Moral obligation is a metaphysical commitment, but in the long run it is supposed to produce something physical, like action or change. You might ask why am I helping this person, is it because helping someone is in and of itself good or am I helping this person because the change it produces is somehow beneficial. Some philosophers have demonstrated using game theory that altruism is actually more beneficial than egotism, under the circumstance that everyone agrees to act altrustically. Taking an altruistic position towards someone is showing weakness. However in an altruistic society you are likely to benefit more from the weakness of others rather than suffer from your altruism. This makes altruism a viable driving force for survival and it could be one reason why it evolved and it is observable in species other than humans. Are humans intrinsically altruistic? I'd say no, humans are malleable and can take on a wide range of behaviors in different contingencies.
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    Jun 12 2012: A very good question Antelona.
    Well my opinion goes this way , as long as you can help someone you should . If you can't help them , we can't do anything about it ,it doesnt mean we are selfish. It just means ,we are not in a position to offer help. We cannot come to conclusions that people are selfish , they never change.
    I have observed that I get more happiness when I help someone be it a small or a big favour because the smile on the other person's face is priceless. So help whenever you can but it is safer we make use of our intellect too when we are offering help rather than being emotional.
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    Jun 12 2012: If we don't feel that way can you tell us 'that is a moral obligation , you should do it ' as many times you want , who would care ? I wouldn't .
    So is it a moral obligation ? If it is, why ask (because I repeat : "if we don't feel that way...")
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    Jul 11 2012: If it became part of ones moral, then yes. Does it have to take part? No, but I like it if it does!
  • Jun 15 2012: My short answer is yes.

    After reading the other submissions, perhaps we should first debate whether the concept of moral obligation is still relevant.
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    Jun 12 2012: who are "we"? should "we" be a hive mind, acting on the same principles? or maybe some people feel like helping, others don't, and it is OK that way? maybe we should celebrate Gates who does, and don't celebrate Jobs as he did not? or we have a more complex issue at hand?