Altruism is rightly celebrated as one of the most important human virtues. It evokes ideas of generosity, mercy, and self-sacrifice for others. Values can vary across cultures, but risking one’s own good for another person is universally praised as the ultimate form of generosity. Altruism is part of what makes us human.
Altruism gives us the empathy to want our fellow man to be happy, not just ourselves. Evolutionary biologists are learning that altruism is so fundamental to survival as a species that it in fact can be witnessed in other mammals. Generosity and selfless risk without thought of reciprocity benefit all of us instead of an individual. Altruism helps our species survive, but it alone does not move us forward.
Our innate sense of altruism is complemented by our instinct to improve ourselves through discovery, learning, and creating, which is also a uniquely human trait. If altruism helps us survive, learning helps us advance. By continually learning and sharing that knowledge with our fellow man we move society forward. Consider it our generosity of knowledge.
The spark to all discovery and learning is curiosity. Asking why. Asking how we can improve ourselves. Curiosity is the under-appreciated and uniquely human virtue. Despite how vital curiosity is to the human experience, it is rarely celebrated the popular consciousness. Modern novels and film as well as ancient epic poetry and classic dramas are replete with celebrations of altruism, but curiosity is rarely a topic of celebration.
Too often we stand in wonder at the fruits of curiosity like the Pyramid of Khufu, the Large Hadron Collider, and the International Space Station, and appreciate such marvels without appreciating the curiosity and insatiable drive for discovery that led to them. The end product is celebrated instead of the process. The destination is remembered while the journey is forgotten.
There are a few times when curiosity gains a foothold in popular interest. The space race put a value on curiosity and problem solving that we had not seen again in the modern world. This led to a whole generation of new engineers, scientists, and mathematicians inspired to discover, led by the virtue of curiosity.
Curiosity is often celebrated in the young. Adults marvel at how quickly children learn and how they constantly get into things, always wanting to learn more about the new world they find themselves in. This behavior is remarkable and endearing. However as the child grows some of this curiosity starts to be seen as a nuisance. The acceptance of curiosity in one’s lifetime goes from “awe isn’t that cute” to “boo, nerd!” far too quickly. Why is this?
Curiosity is equal parts honesty, humility, and audacity. Honesty to admit what you don’t understand, humility to know that you might not ever understand, and audacity to try to understand anyway. In our jaded and self-centered modern society, humility, honesty, and audacity are in short supply. This makes it even more vital to recognize and praise curiosity when we do see it.
Just as we celebrate altruism, recognizing it as good for its own sake, we need to encourage curiosity as an equally noble and vital virtue. Curiosity is not and should not be limited to hard science. Curiosity about philosophy, music, visual art, literature, and performing arts are just as important to society and the question of “why” is valid for any discipline.
Though it might be some time before there are epic poems written about it, let’s recognize curiosity as the virtue that it is. We can start with ourselves, learning a new skill, taking up a new hobby, or reading a new book and sharing what we learn with anyone who will listen. Enthusiasm is contagious.
And just keep asking “why”. As Dan Barker once said,
If you stop learning, you stop living.Dan Barker