Love Thy Neighbor

Love Thy Neighbor

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Altruistic love (or “love of neighbor”) can be directed to kin, friends, strangers, the neediest, and even for enemies.  To better understand the profound human phenomenon of such love, a highly integrative approach is needed, one that links the biological and social sciences with philosophical, ethical, and comparative religious themes.

The word altruism derives from the Latin alter, or “other.”  By altruistic love we mean a genuinely other-regarding affirmative affection.  In the words of philosopher Irving Singer, “To love another person is to treat him with great regard, to confer a new and personal value upon him.”  Such love couples affect with the capacity to see value in the other with respect to his or her present actuality as well as potential fullness.  Altruistic love can be contrasted with intimidation, stigmatization, invalidation, objectification, mockery, disparagement and all those elements of human experience that convey to others that their existence rests on a mistake. Altruistic love precedes care but is very closely linked to care, which is the form altruistic love takes when attending to the other in need.

The phenomenology of such love within the human context is the appropriate point of departure, coupled with social scientific research into the question of the reality and nature of such love, considered both quantitatively and qualitatively, is.   Social scientists have devoted much attention to measures of motivational altruism and other-regarding tendencies in human experience.  Some of this literature has focused on rescue behavior that places the agent at some risk, with considerable disagreement as to the authenticity of other-regarding motives.  However, other-regarding love need not include risk to the agent, and that such love can be studied in a broad range of contexts such as volunteerism, professionalism, family life, friendship, and various other relationships.  Indeed, to focus social science narrowly on high-risk behavior is unjustifiable.

Altruistic love is usually pronounced on the parent-child or kin-selective axis, but is it determined at some level by “selfish genes,” as some would suggest?  If genuine altruistic love can exist within a genetic hermeneutic, can it extend beyond kin to larger groups and even to the religious and philosophical moral ideal of all humanity? Or is altruistic love more limited in scope by degrees of genetic determinism?  The current scientific research in evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology regarding the nature and scope of altruism needs to be considered in dialogue with theological anthropology.

While other-regarding love clearly requires an act of moral imagination that sees the other as other and as worthy of love regardless of condition, the emotional aspects of altruistic love are equally important.  Studies on empathy in both humans and nonhumans are a useful starting point.  A substance dualist view of the moral agent has historically focused entirely on properties of disembodied mind or soul, dismissing the biology and evolution of empathy and other affective states that contribute to love.  How can empathy be better understood?  Why some persons are more or less empathic than others?  This biological approach has its roots in the Scottish Enlightenment’s urge to find a constant moral force in human nature akin to gravity in the universe.  But how strong a force is empathy, is it always used for loving purposes, and is it a necessary feature of love in humans?   What are the discontinuities between human and nonhuman capacities that allow for the emergence of a regard for the other as other?   Where do culture and symbol enter into the distinctly human capacity for universal altruistic love?

The central questions to explore are:

                -What are the evolutionary origins and neurologic substrates for altruistic behavior?

                -What developmental processes foster or hinder altruistic attitudes and behavior in various stages of
                life from early childhood  onwards?

                -To what extent do human individuals and societies manifest behavior that is motivationally or
                consequentially altruistic? What psychological, social, and cultural factors influence altruism and

                -Do spiritual and religious experiences, beliefs, and practices influence altruism?

                -How does the giving and receiving of altruistic love interact with personal well-being and health?

                -How can researchers from various disciplines collaborate to enhance this field of study?

                -Overall, is it possible to gain new insights which can be utilized to help people and their communities
                to better appreciate the significance and importance of love, and benefit from its expression as a lived

Please consider these questions and help us to better define our terms, as well as to better understand the possibilities for research in this general area.