Andersen: What’s wrong with altruism?
November 5, 2015
I asked that question recently to a conservative Republican friend of mine (yes, I have a conservative Republican friend), and he took umbrage at such a suggestion. The only truly effective motivation for man, he said, is self-interest. That's what makes the world go round.
He may be right. Self-interest is a survival trait that's embedded in our psyches. But does that make altruism an evil? It was to Ayn Rand, who wrote: "If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject."
That's a strange notion — the rejection of altruism as a way to save civilization. But if that's what it takes to save civilization, then perhaps we need to reject the notion of any civilization that fosters such an idea.
Spurning altruism is easy if you're one of the winners through capitalism, where people are given the freedom and wherewithal to achieve personal material satisfaction by whatever means are within the law.
Those means are usually associated with highly paid jobs, the benefits of which include social stature from conspicuous signs of wealth and consumption. In the most jaded minds, success equates to a gluttony of stuff and affectation of Donald Trump-like traits.
From a polar-opposite view, altruism mandates that we base our achievements not on self-aggrandizement but on serving the larger community of man. Altruism is defined by Webster as "selflessness," based on "the principle or practice of concern for the welfare of others. Altruism is the opposite of selfishness."
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The practice of selflessness has deep roots in religious traditions and secular worldviews because it reflects a high good based on a personal moral obligation to others. That's not just targeting those you select, such as family and friends or narrow ethno-cultural identities. Selflessness extends to everyone and, in the broadest application, to the natural world.
Most humans don't have this capacity as a routine way of life, which seems to me to be an evolutionary failing. Being self-centered is widely accepted as appropriate behavior, and so it goes for us acquisitive primates.
Altruism is seen as an aberration commonly heralded as philanthropic. Givers are gracious, generous and caring. If those were commonly expressed impulses, philanthropy wouldn't draw attention. It would be the status quo.
But it's not. To most people, including my conservative Republican friend, human achievement is inspired by benefiting self. Whether cynical or realistic, such egoistic behavior condemns man to primitive motives as opposed to a more enlightened view such as that expressed by Martin Luther King Jr.: "Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness."
Good character consists of recognizing the selfishness inherent in each of us and trying to balance it against the altruism to which we should all aspire. This is a difficult balance to strike, but no definition of goodness can be complete without it.
Charles Darwin wrote that charity toward others stems from our innate animal nature. He based this on his observances of animals that care for wounded members of their herds, flocks, packs, etc. This caring instinct, Darwin said, is the basis for ethics and morality.
"I slept and I dreamed that life is all joy. I woke and I saw that life is all service. I served and I saw that service is joy," Kahlil Gibran wrote. Service becomes a seed of goodwill planted deep within the human psyche.
If altruism is not something we feel through nature, then it must be taught, as Richard Dawkins described in "The Selfish Gene": "Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do."
Altruism is contagious. Receive some of it from a caring person, and you may want to return it in kind and with kindness. It's not hard to do, even for conservative Republicans who want to deny it in themselves.
Paul Andersen's column appears on Mondays when he's not acting on an altruistic impulse to spare readers his philosophical musings. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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