I have an ongoing debate with my oldest son about pure altruism and whether it actually exists. He believes that nobody ever acts in a purely selfless way; part of the motivation for altruistic behavior, he argues, is to feel good about oneself as a person. If you get some reward from the supposedly altruistic act then it can’t be purely selfless.
I go back and forth on my position. “You haven’t had children yet,” I once told him. “If I had to choose between us, I’d die for you.” This was a cheap and sentimental argument, trying to use my supposedly self-sacrificial feelings as his father to win the debate. He would have none of it. “That’s just because you wouldn’t be able to live with yourself otherwise.” While that isn’t the only reason, of course not, it is definitely a large part of it. This question isn’t finally settled in my mind but I think my son is winning the debate. With the Christmas holiday approaching — “the season of giving” — I’ve been thinking about compassion and self-sacrifice, and what motivates people to engage in apparently altruistic behavior.
I live in a socially liberal community; I know many people who define themselves as “good liberals” and whose identity is tied up with advocating for the underprivileged — people who donate their time and money to what most of us would consider worthy causes. One woman, in particular, is generally regarded as a paragon of social virtue by everyone around her. She mobilizes community resources to benefit hundreds of people she has never met before, who will never know her name or what she does for them. In fact, I would go so far as to say that for her as well as for those who know her, this is her identity.
With people she knows well, she can be petty, vengeful and unforgiving. I’ve seen her break with friends and then try to mobilize their mutual acquaintance to take her side. She has forced people to choose — it’s him or me. In other words, in her public life she displays a kind saintly devotion to people she doesn’t know; in her private life, she’s no more empathic or generous than anyone else, perhaps even less so. Does the reward of self-esteem and public acclaim motivate her charitable actions? Is it easier to care about people you don’t know than those in your immediate circle who inspire all sorts of other feelings as well?
I know another good liberal who gives a great deal of money to charity each year. In every sense of the word, he is an upstanding citizen. Whenever there’s a new humanitarian crisis in the world, he’ll follow it closely and donate money to the cause. I have noticed, however, that each time he mentions one of these crises, he invariably starts off with, “When I saw those poor people suffering, it just made me cry.” Clearly his ability to feel and demonstrate compassion for the unfortunate victims in each crisis matters deeply to him. Not only does he care about others but he also feels good about himself for doing so.
In his book CONSPICUOUS COMPASSION (1974), Patrick West argues that an “emerging culture of ostentatious caring” has arisen in Western societies and that it is really “about feeling good, not doing good.” In other words, apparent altruism can in fact be a kind of selfishness. I tend to think it’s not either/or: the fact that you might get the reward of feeling good about yourself doesn’t invalidate the generous impulse. And yet in his
personal life, the man I described above is no more generous, no more forgiving than the average person. If he feels that his friends and family don’t appreciate what he does for them, he gets just as resentful as most of us would do.
In a way, it’s much easier to care about and feel generous toward people you don’t know. Those anonymous objects of our sympathy don’t have the opportunity to stir up other feelings that might challenge our generous spirit. I would argue that true generosity, the kind less tainted by self-regard, arises in the context of intimate relations. True generosity means you have to put most of your own feelings aside — resentment, exhaustion,
jealousy, envy — and do something that benefits somebody you care about. Sure you might also feel good about yourself for doing so, but this kind of generosity involves real emotional sacrifice on your part in relation to your friends and family.
Charity, as the saying goes, begins at home.
Finding Your Own Way:
As you approach the Christmas holidays, you’ll have plenty of opportunity to examine your own feelings of generosity, in regard to your family and friends as well as toward the usual objects of charity at this time of year, the poor and underprivileged. How much compassion do you feel? Is it for anonymous strangers? People you know? How generous do you feel toward your sister, in spite of that grudge you bear her? Do you feel like giving
to your brother despite that slight last year? Try to find places where the spirit of generosity intersects with resentment. If you have a good example, please let me know about it.
I confess I have a hard time feeling genuine compassion for people I don’t know. If I see a scene of mass suffering on television, starving people in war-torn countries, of course I feel for them. It’s not a strong feeling, however; it doesn’t compare to the way I empathize with my clients and loved ones in their pain. Is it the same for you? How much of your caring about anonymous strangers stems from the way it makes you feel about yourself? What does it really mean to say you “care” about someone you’ve never met?
More than ever, I welcome your comments and contributions on this subject.