Reaching beyond Self-Interest: The Power of Altruism

Reaching beyond Self-Interest: The Power of Altruism

by Jeremy Henzell-Thomas

In the run-up to the celebration this month of the bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade (25 March 1807) I was inspired to hear on the radio this morning an extract from William Wilberforce’s famous speech in the House of Commons in 1789 advocating this momentous reform. His four-hour long speech, delivered to a largely hostile audience entrenched in self-interest, has been described as one of the greatest speeches ever given in the House. 

The one big idea which stood out for me was the absolute clarity of Wilberforce’s judgement that the trade was so “irremediable and wicked” that the “consequences” of its abolition had absolutely no bearing on the issue: in other words, the damage done to people’s economic interests was irrelevant and the moral justice of the cause overrode all other considerations.

How different is such a totally principled stand from the prevarication, duplicity and hypocrisy embedded in the self-serving doctrine that potential damage to our economic interests is often far more important than upholding either the law or moral principle.

The contrast between the moral clarity of Wilberforce, derived from his Christian faith, and the moral fog which many would say has engulfed our political system could not be starker. It explains why, 200 years on, we are celebrating the legacy of one of our greatest parliamentarians and one of the most influential humanitarian reformers of all time, and why at the same time no one seems to have the foggiest idea how to describe the contemporary “legacy” of our political leaders.

We should not of course forget that Wilberforce himself was the parliamentary spokesman for a tireless campaign whose driving force had been another Christian, the Church of England pastor Thomas Clarkson, with strong support from the Quakers.  Clarkson dedicated his whole life to the cause, travelling over 35,000 miles on horseback to gather support around the country.

We should not imagine that the abolition of the slave trade was easily accomplished. Slavery was a virtually unquestioned part of life in the 1700s, supported by both Church and State, and regarded as an indispensable basis for Britain’s wealth and economic prosperity. If you had proposed in the London of early 1787,” writes Adam Hochschild in his book Bury the Chains, “to change all of this, nine out of ten people would have laughed you off as a crackpot. The tenth might have admitted that slavery was unpleasant but said that to end it would wreck the British Empire’s economy.”

There was little support within parliament for the abolitionists’ campaign, and even in 1791 a bill had still not been pushed through. What turned the tide was an outcry of public outrage, “a whole nation crying with one voice” in the words of the poet William Wordsworth - which was unprecedented in British history and the model for future citizens’ movements and campaigning organizations.  In 1792, following a mass public petition, the government of the day had no choice but to capitulate to public feeling. A bill abolishing the trade was finally passed in that year, though blocked by the House of Lords. It was another fifteen years before the trade was finally abolished, and another thirty years before slavery itself was ended in the British colonies. 

What was truly remarkable about the popular campaign was its altruism. The fact is that the trade did not adversely affect the lives of British people at the time. The livelihoods of many people depended on it. They could have continued to turn a blind eye to it. And yet, the British people overwhelmingly took up a cause dedicated to an overriding principle of justice, and put the improvement of the lives of others above their own self-interest.

Self-interest is not only a matter of economics, but can take many forms - nationalistic, ideological, sectarian, and, indeed, the tribalism that can revolve around religious identity. The arrogant fiction that “I am better than you” is the starting point of all tribal prejudice, whatever its form. The abolitionists appealed instead to the equality of mankind in the form of an image of a kneeling slave with the inscription “Am I not a Man (or Woman) and A Brother (or Sister)? Inscribed on medallions, brooches, cufflinks and hatpins, this logo was one of their most effective tactics in changing public opinion. .

In Qur’an 49:13, God advises us that we have been made into nations and tribes so that we may come to know one another and that there is no superiority of one over another except in taqwa, that consciousness and loving awe of God which inspires us to be vigilant and to do what is right.  This verse is an implicit condemnation of all racial, national, class or tribal prejudice (‘asabiyyah), a condemnation which is made explicit by the Prophet Muhammad: He is not of us who proclaims the cause of tribal partisanship, and he is not of us who fights in the cause of tribal partisanship, and he is not of us who dies in the cause of tribal partisanship. When asked to explain what he meant by tribal partisanship, the Prophet answered, It means helping your own people in an unjust cause.

This verse establishes the brotherhood of man on the broadest foundation. It teaches that God does not judge men or women on their appearance, social standing, wealth, or stated affiliation, whether tribal, national, or religious, nor even on their skill or intelligence, but only on their striving to be faithful to an innate sense of what is true, just, right and good. This is within the reach of every human soul, and not the preserve of any privileged or exclusive group.

The Prophet affirmed to us that All creatures are God’s children, and those dearest to God are the ones who treat His children in the best way. 

A true Muslim hero and model of chivalry who exemplified such universal humanity was Amir ‘Abd al-Qadir, the leader of the struggle and insurgency in Algeria against the French colonial forces until his surrender in 1847 and eventual exile to Damascus in 1855.  In 1860, when the Muslims of that city attacked the Christian quarter and killed over 3000 persons, ‘Abd al-Qadir and his personal guard rescued large numbers of Christians, bringing them to safety in his house and in the citadel.

In his celebrated letter to Malik al-Ashtar, Imam ‘Ali writes: Make your heart a throne of mercy towards your people. Show them perfect love and care.  For they are in one of two groups: either your brother in religion or your fellow-human being. This broad view, in total harmony with the Qur’an, embraces all races, all cultures, all tongues. It asserts the unity of the human race and the equality of all human beings, demanding compassion for all and not only to members of one’s own group.

The Qur’an teaches us that our intellectual faculties are not designed to exist in a moral vacuum. The various words in the Qur’an which denote these faculties (‘aql, albab, basirah, rushd) also carry a profound sense of moral valuation.  There is a criterion (furqan), a touchstone within our own hearts which enables us to distinguish between the true and the false, and between right and wrong.

To that layer of moral valuation, we should add too the imperative of right action, described so simply and beautifully by the Catholic monk, Thomas Merton: “The activity proper to man is not purely mental, because man is not just a disembodied mind.  Our destiny is to live out what we think, because unless we live what we know, we do not even know it. It is only by making our knowledge part of ourselves, through action, that we enter into the reality that is signified by our concepts.”

In their campaign to abolish slavery, the British people actualised their altruism, and in so doing they overcame the moral corruption of vested interests. 

The spiritual tradition of Islam affirms the humanitarianism that underpins such universal altruism and concern for others. How can we reach beyond self-interest and be models of altruism within our own society today? Neal Lawson (Guardian 22 February) laments a national culture of “social recession” which puts the market ahead of people, has “corroded solidarity, empathy and humanity” and created widespread social decay. Britain ranks bottom in child welfare out of 21 developed countries according to the recent UNICEF report based on over 40 indicators including poverty, neglect, education, happiness, and quality of relationships with adults and peers, and other studies report levels of mental illness in Britain as over twice that of mainland Europe.

In an article in The Times of 26 February, William Rees-Mogg comments on these lines from The Deserted Village by the 18th century poet Oliver Goldsmith: Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey/ When wealth accumulates and men decay. “If they seem to apply to our modern societies,” he writes, “ religion is not the problem; it is the only possible remedy.”

The challenge for Muslims in Britain today is to embody the altruistic love of humanity which is the core of all authentic religion.  It is to come of age, to assume the mantle of a truly creative minority which can inspire social renewal and help the nation as a whole to lift its ambition, rediscover its moral compass and heal its social maladies. This is a task which cannot be accomplished by groups acting only in the interests of their members, but only by all people of goodwill acting together for the common good.

© Jeremy Henzell-Thomas
First published in emel Magazine April 2007


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