Altruism? Bah!

I went to a party last month, and the hostess and I were kvetching about the pain of home ownership. She will be getting her bathroom redone and would be without bath or shower for some unclear period of time. Meanwhile, her next-door neighbor, who is a friend, has TWO bathrooms. “How,” she mused, “can I get my neighbor to invite me over to shower?” She thought that maybe she should be particularly nice.

I joked that she had to appeal to the neighbor’s enlightened self-interest. To wit, remind him that he REALLY didn’t want some smelly neighbor with stringy, matted hair bringing down property values and scaring off visitors. I riffed on that for quite a while.

At some level, many of us operate, not out of altruism, but rather a sense of what’s best for us. People often contribute money to fighting diseases from which we, or someone we care about, has suffered, because we selfishly don’t want to hear about other people suffering the same fate.

I contribute to my church because it believes in making a better, more tolerant world, which of course, is better for ME. Stating the Golden Rule negatively: You don’t do to others the crap you don’t want people to do to you. Selfish motivation.

Too often, people try to convince others to “do the right thing”. But they mess up because they want them to do it for the “right reasons.” “Can you find it in your heart to contribute?”

Nah, many people are motivated by more base instincts. “Contribute to my environmental group because you don’t want to cough your lungs out from all the pollutants that are spewing out.”

Yes, this was a cheeky exercise. But there is also a grain of truth to it.
***
Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “It is held as a truth that man serves himself in serving his fellow-creatures, and that his private interest is to do good.”

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3 thoughts on “Altruism? Bah!

  1. I once decided that I would do at least one person a good deed every day, but with the proviso that they mustn’t know I’d done it. This proved hard. I realised that overt good deeds are one of the ways we build up social credit!

    But I heard someone on the radio the other day talking about a scheme they have at their church. Every month, they put £10 notes in envelopes and then post them through random letter boxes.

    They include a note that tells the recipient to pass the money on if they don’y need it.

    I suppose they benefit from the public knowledge that this is what they do, but it’s close to helping people with a problem, even if you don’t know it exists.

    • Oh, I’ve done good deeds in secret, a number of times. but even that might have been because of the good-deed rush, with the secrecy adding to the adrenaline.

  2. Great topic! I happen to have coincidentally used it for a recent discussion group at my house … our conclusion, based on some pretty impressive examples, was that altruism does exist. It seems there is even a genetic explanation of how it can get passed on via natural selection (but I’m no scientist and could not explain that myself). Is selfishness the opposite of altruism? Altogether, a very tricky subject.

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