Monday, 20 August 2012

Altruism ...

Some time ago I was present when the statement was made that "there is no such thing as altruism." Everybody, according to the speaker was only moved to do anything for 'reward.' It will probably come as no surprise that the speaker was a politician. The view is one that does seem to permeate our society at present, volunteers are derided, castigated or discouraged by the oft repeated view from the Union side that, 'you're depriving someone of a job' or the scoffing, 'you must be crazy. What will that do for your bank balance.'

As I was reminded this morning by a post in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Anne Wolfe, altruism is driven by many motives, not all of them for straighforward motives. Some may undertake a task at way below the financial return to fulfil some private inner need for recognition, others because they truly believe that going to live in poverty in some African backwater to teach, will make the world a better place. Often the motive can be described as 'self-interest' but not always. What it most certainly will never be is selfish. This is the point Anne Wolfe makes in her article on the extremely influential Russian writer, Ayn Rand, the mother of the 'greed is good' version of Capitalism in spirit if not in fact. Her writing was, and is still, hugely influential among the current generation of super capitalists. No doubt the chap who uttered the remark I heard at a reception, was of the same mindset as Ms Rand.

In her world-view, selfishness was the highest 'moral' value, and the 'Masses' were simply resentful of success; parasites who live off the hard work of the entrepeneur and deserving only of contempt.

I find myself unable to agree with that thinking, and I'm pretty confident I'm not alone. As Ms. Wolfe points out, 'enlightened self-interest' is what makes altruism possible, not selfishness. I know I am far more likely to undertake some unpaid and possibly under valued task if I may at some future date, benefit from having done so. Of course that is not 'true' altruism which, in the dictionary definition is the undertaking of some task, duty or obligation without any prospect of reward.

That probably describes the soldier, sailor or airman who puts his life on the line to save his colleagues, or the fire fighter who makes the attempt to save a victim from a fire when all the indicators are that life is possibly extinct and the attempt is extremely dangerous. Of course my politician would most likely argue that such acts are driven by the craving for attention or the desire to 'be a hero.'

Sadly, this is a view promoted by many of the 'Union' representatives I have met as well. In this world-view everything is a 'job' done only for reward and to be refused if it doesn't fit the ideology or the attitude adopted by the individual. Hopefully the view will change in the near future as more and more people realise that "Greed is NOT good" and a lot more enlightened self-interest fed altruism might just produce that better society we all hope for.

It might, of course, mean weeding out those who think "there is no such thing as altruism." That may take a little time and effort.


  1. Slim Jim sprays:

    An interesting post. I thought you may have looked at it from the Christian perspective. From a personal point of view, if I carry out an altruistic act, whether it's helping someone in need, or giving to charity, I do it because I deem it to be the 'right thing to do'. And if I think it's right, then I will feel good about that. I consider that to be reward enough.

  2. I think most of us would agree with you, Jim. We do a lot of things because they are "teh right thing" and don't expect any "reward" except maybe an acknowledgement at some point. Of course, the ultimate act of "altruism" is Christ's example.

  3. I like your post! I wish my kids were old enough to truly understand it.