Why is it that in the face of great suffering or crisis that some people respond with a heroic compassion and generosity, endangering their own lives to help others, while other people, when faced with the same situation act selfishly, or further on the other extreme, actively harm others?

Our culture often promotes a cynical and pessimistic view of human nature as being driven by self-interest, looking out for number one, competitive and dog-eat-dog. But there are enough examples from history, as well as from everyday life, to show that we at least contain the capacity to transcend narrow self interest and act in altruistic ways. Some examples of this would be those who actively helped the Jews during WW2, even though, in doing so, they were putting their own lives in danger.

Researcher Kirsten Renwick Monroe has argued that the difference lies in what she calls the ‘altruistic perspective’. This means that altruists feel themselves connected and bound to others through awareness of their common humanity. Instead of seeing people as ‘other’ or strangers, altruists see people as fellow human beings. They experience a ‘fellow feeling’, a sense of kinship that transcends any labels of separateness. Altruists have a different worldview which does not make such large distinctions between self and other. This ultimately comes back to identity – their sense of self is based on some sense of obligation or responsibility to care for others.

Monroe emphasises that we all have an ‘ethical perspective’. We all hold a sense of what is fair and right. But altruists seem to take this perspective a little bit further than others because their self-image is different. Their image is based on a broad base of inclusion that does not draw sharp lines between my circle of concern and what falls outside of that.

These ‘rescuers’, as Monroe calls them, have a strong sense of agency – the believe that they can effect change. Bystanders (those who don’t get involved) have a weak sense of agency and believe they have little control over their lives and the world. They also think in terms of exclusive group identity rather than universally, as being connected with all of humanity.

This highlights the point that it is only those with a strong and healthy sense of self (at the core of which is the belief in one’s efficacy and agency) that can really help others. When I feel that I am much, that I am capable and resourceful, I am more likely to give. When I experience an inner wealth, I am less threatened by the prospect of helping others and of sharing. Whereas if I feel a sense of lack or scarcity and do not trust in my own abilities to accomplish goals and make things happen then the needs of the world are too overwhelming – I am just managing to keep my own head above water, how can I think about helping others?

Cultivating a healthy sense of self then can be understood as playing a critical role in promoting prosocial behaviour. Nietzsche noted that we give out of fullness; generosity is an overflowing of riches, a natural outpouring and sharing derived from fullness of being. A culture that creates the conditions in which people can grow into their full potential and achieve a sense of meaning and purpose is likely to be one that will lead to an increasing number of people with an altruistic perspective. The other part of the jigsaw is learning to see that we have at least partial responsibility for our world and other people and life forms. If I have the ability to help, to make a difference in some way, I am perhaps morally obliged to do so.

As humans we grow outwards – human development is a movement from selfishness and egocentric worldviews to, at the higher levels of moral development, a movement towards transcending narrow ego boundaries and embracing the unity of life. This shift from ego-centric to eco-centric, from selfish to altruistic perspectives is perhaps both the greatest challenge and the most pressing need facing humanity right now.