I have an ongoing debate with my oldest son about pure altruism and whether it actually exists.Â 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.Â 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.Â “You haven’t had children yet,” I once told him.Â “If I had to choose between us, I’d die for you.”Â This was a cheap and sentimental argument, trying to use my supposedly self-sacrificial feelings as his father to win the debate.Â He would have none of it. “That’s just because you wouldn’t be able to live with yourself otherwise.”Â While that isn’t the only reason, of course not, it is definitely a large part of it.Â 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.Â One woman, in particular, is generally regarded as a paragon of social virtue by everyone around her.Â 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.Â 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.Â I’ve seen her break with friends and then try to mobilize their mutual acquaintance to take her side.Â She has forced people to choose — it’s him or me.Â 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.Â Does the reward of self-esteem and public acclaim motivate her charitable actions?Â 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.Â In every sense of the word, he is an upstanding citizen.Â Whenever there’s a new humanitarian crisis in the world, he’ll follow it closely and donate money to the cause.Â 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.Â 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.”Â In other words, apparent altruism can in fact be a kind of selfishness. I tend to think it’s not either/or:Â the fact that you might get the reward of feeling good about yourself doesn’t invalidate the generous impulse.Â And yet in his
personal life, the man I described above is no more generous, no more forgiving than the average person.Â 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.Â Those anonymous objects of our sympathy don’t have the opportunity to stir up other feelings that might challenge our generous spirit.Â I would argue that true generosity, the kind less tainted by self-regard, arises in the context of intimate relations.Â 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.Â 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.Â How much compassion do you feel?Â Is it for anonymous strangers?Â People you know?Â How generous do you feel toward your sister, in spite of that grudge you bear her?Â Do you feel like giving
to your brother despite that slight last year?Â Try to find places where the spirit of generosity intersects with resentment.Â 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.Â If I see a scene of mass suffering on television, starving people in war-torn countries, of course I feel for them.Â 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.Â Is it the same for you?Â How much of your caring about anonymous strangers stems from the way it makes you feel about yourself?Â 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.
I wonder, why do we have to reagard our feelings in retrospect when we talk about altruism being real? As you pointed out, our feelings do not negate the things we do. It works both ways. Our feelings do not validate our work either. If we feel good when we give something to the one who is in need, it is not necessary a selfish deed. If we feel indifferent, that wont say we were altruistic in our action. In my point of view, we have to consider ourselves as a part of socio-cultural group where each and everyone are mirrored individuals, so that we see what our actions bring forth in other people, how they perceive us and what do they respond. We can not separate ourselves from the people we live with when our actions are directed outward. So, if I decide to give an apple or sandwich to a homeless who happens to be digging carbage in our back yard is, in my point of view, an altruistic act wether I feel good about it or don’t feel anything, but (and there is always a but) providing that I am not proclaiming it to others in my community and therefore seeking the validation from them. What does it matter if I feel grandeur after showing some kindness? Does it change my position in my community? Does it make the deed less valuable? But what happens if I tell people what was it that I did? What if I impose my distress of these helpless ones to others? There’s lots of twists and turns around this issue. It is a bit like the problem of a “free meal”.
You raise a lot of interesting points, Carl. First of all I want to say that it’s very difficult to use the word ‘selfish’ because our society so condemns selfishness; the idea of being selfish has highly negative connotation. I’m not sure what word to use in order to avoid that problem. What I mean by selfish in this context is — motivations that have to do with personal needs and wants (for the self); I don’t think that is in any way bad. It’s value neutral.
And of course you’re right to distinguish between actions and feelings. An action can be altruistic without any reference to the feelings or motivations of the person doing the deed. It is, as you say, an issue with lots of twists and turns.
I find the concept of altruism extremely interesting, especially at this time of year. It’s a concept that seems to offend evolutionary psychologists, (as, apparently do many of our finer points as a species) who are constantly trying to ‘explain it away’ or reduce it down in terms of other perspectives.
I’m really reminded of it when I watch the Live Aid music videos, and what seems to me to be almost cynical manipulation. The videos show almost unbearable images of children throughout the song, and then at the end, show us pictures of children smiling, as if to say, ‘this is what you can achieve if you only give.’ The truth of course is that the suffering continues, no matter what. At the same time, it is definitely the right thing to do, to give. These videos really delineate the difference between action and feeling – it is definitely right to act, by giving, but the feelings the videos engender leave quite a bitter taste. It’s as though we are being told it’s ok to sit and stuff ourselves, once we’ve given a comparatively small amount.
I’m not saying that there is anything trivial about such acts, whatever it is that motivates them. Although I’m not a behaviourist, I’m often tempted to say it’s easier (at least, to start with) to judge things and people as a result of the fairly obvious consequences of actions, rather than intentions, as the whole thing about what is intended or ‘what’s my motivation’ by any act of compassion or altruism is so mired in confusion, and argument over the inner workings of our psyches, that it pretty soon gets lost.
Very interesting. I also object to the emotional manipulation — and yes, it’s very cynical, no different from other kinds of advertising, even if it’s in the service of a worthy cause. I agree (and Carl made a similar point earlier) that it makes sense to distinguish between actions and intentions. They are undeniably praiseworthy actions. While the question of motivation may get “mired in confusion,” as you say, it’s nonetheless fascinating.
As for the evolutionary psychologists/biologists, I read an article recently where they were arguing that altruism did, in fact, make sense from a Darwinian perspective. I’ll see if I can track down a link. Thanks for your thoughtful comments.
The zen conception of ‘be here now’ ie. being aware of what we are doing in the present, and not worrying about past or future seems to be a great tool for restructuring our lives and finding peace of mind. Being specially mindful of feelings of love and compassion — as one would feel toward our nearest and dearests can surely be cultivated. When a gangly adolescent knocks on my door (every day for the past week so far) and asks for food, I think of my own son and how hungry he used to be at that age, so I give the boy what I would give to my son … who is now a successful business man with his own family, but he sure needed lots of food and love. We are all interconnected.
Thank you for your thought provoking articles, Dr Burgo!
Thanks, Li. I guess I wonder about the concept of “cultivating” particular feelings. It brings up the whole issue for me of having “correct” feelings, as if some feelings are better than others and you should work toward having them. That idea raises my hackles … but maybe that’s just me.
Wow Joe, this one really is a dichotomy..or is it ?? Why am I able to watch a piece on television about the Haitian people and their plight, however when the ad Sara McLaughlin does for The Humane Society comes on I have to turn it off !! I cannot watch, it’s too painful. I guess what it all boils down to for me is, whichever act of kindness one might bestow, no matter how lofty or humble, it must come from the heart. Is is still altruistic if I feel humbled by this act ? Is that a form of self gratification ? The giving of a gift from the heart need not be shared with anyone else.. it will remain between me and my God. I believe we are meant to “give back” as part of our journey, it’s part of our Karmic work. I cannot imagine doing a kindness for someone and feeling nothing ! I think the happiness I feel when I “give back” to society is a communication from my Divine Source..sort of an “attaboy”, if you will..
Hi Betty. It is truly fascinating, why the suffering of animals is more intolerable — and I’ve known other people who have felt the same way. I wonder if it’s because human beings, even if they are suffering, are less helpless than animals. Or possibly because we project certain feelings into animals that we don’t always project into anonymous strangers. Hmmm.
Someone who doesn’t believe in any kind of divine source, spiritual path or journey, wouldn’t feel the kind of happiness you describe, and yet there are altruistic atheists. If they’re not doing what are “meant” to be doing, what do you think motivates them?
This is an interesting topic because I do give my time and or resources to groups or organizations close to my heart and have had many discussions with my friends about giving. Some say they would not give $3 to the homeless person because they would buy booze with it. I say, give them what your heart feels at the moment and don’t worry about the outcome. Some people say don’t give to X and such organization because you can never tell what your money goes for. Do we ever really know? I say, does their mission and ideal come close to what I wish for at this time on the planet (and, yes, I do check what the money is used for). If so, then I am happy to share my abundance with them. Does it make me feel better about myself? Yes and no. I’m glad to help, but don’t find a need to tell anyone about it. There’s no need. Is it completely selfless? Probably not; I do write off some of the gifts on my taxes. I guess the real question is does it matter to you to share something of yourself with the world? Perhaps no judgment is needed in the answer.
What motivates an atheist to give back ? I think that just because someone doesn’t share my views , doesn’t make them less caring, compassionate or genuinely generous.. I believe in a “collective consciousness”, that we share basic values and a desire to make a difference…I think of it as our basic human-ness ! Our sense of responsibility compels us to do the right thing and make our contribution to society and the world in which we live….if not, then how are we different from a pride of lions roaming the savannas of Africa ??
What a great topic! I saw the link to this over at Irshad’s discussion about martyrdom. I thought of so many things while reading this, but have apparently lost my grasp on the English language today, because I can’t get a single thought into a well constructed sentence. So I’m just going to say I enjoyed reading this post and everyone’s comments.
Thanks for something to ponder.
What an interesting issue! About this atheism though. Have you noticed how psychopaths/sociopaths are labeled as incapable of having empathic feelings and that they therefore posses a mental disorder? How is it then? Should we not regard humans as entities with capacity for such behavior? Obviously we can choose wether we act upon the impulse or not but regardless of the action we seem to naturally think that everyone do have these urges to help and feel compassionate for others. So, do we have empathy, with altruism being its extreme manifestation in the other end of spectrum, encoded in our DNA? Is there then need for atheist to perceive life via smudged Darwinistic glasses as if only the strongest will (and should) survive? I actually would not be too much surprised if someday scientists would find some proof for animals having similar tendencies to altruism. Personally I do not know e.g. why elephants have other elephants as their baby sitters. Do they get better share of peanuts by doing that? I think those scientists are correct who claim that altruism makes sense in Darwinian perspective.
Me too, Carl. Thanks for all those interesting questions. I think empathy and compassion make sense in an evolutionary context as they promote the survival of the species. Altruism — true selflessness — is another issue entirely and I’m still not sure where I stand on that one.
So wait a minute, I thought that altruism is closely linked to empathy. Being unselfish is an action always directed outward as I pointed out before. That is why I think there must be this “DNA encoded” urge for helping others. Well, altruism can be directed towards animals as well. Have I misunderstood something?
I found the ongoing debate between you and your son about pure altruism to be very interesting. I think that both of your positions are very strong and I would have used them myself if I was debating either side of this. I can relate to both points of view, because I myself have flip-flopped on this over the years. At this point, I feel that I have settled pretty firmly to my present belief on this. Hereâ€™s the run-down –
I believe that ultimately, pure altruism must be considered an idealization. Its perfect, pure form, must be something for all of us to strive for, but in the end everyone falls short to some degree. With that said though, I believe that there are some people who donâ€™t fall short by much. You could say that their altruism is as pure as realistically possible. As for what percentage, I would say very small. However, I donâ€™t find this assumption on the difficulty of being selfless to be discouraging for two reasons.
First, to become virtually completely selfless must be incredibly difficult. There are many reasons for this. The drive for self-preservation most likely uses a component of an innate genetic imprinting that wants us to â€˜look out for # 1â€™ as a survival trait. Beyond that, in the psyche, there must be a certain foundation of the survival of self – through ego, fear, hope in the future, ect. Perhaps a low threshold of selfishness is required to hold our identities together. Also, environmentally we are surrounded by mostly selfish people that can make it hard to want to be selfless. Just to survive, it is usually helpful to set many boundaries, or else be taken advantage of. In many way most cultures encourage people to be selfish, by pushing ideas like materialism.
The Second reason that I feel that we should not be discouraged by the difficulty of striving for altruism is that although the â€˜nearly pureâ€™ goal is almost impossible for most people, there is a much larger percentage of people that are able to achieve a good level of healthy of it Best of all, it seems that even reaching a healthy level of selfishness is rewarded by a feeling of peace and serenity that cannot be found any other way. Nothing beats the joy from within.
Looking at this debate from your sonâ€˜s perspective, I can certainly see why he feels as he does. There are many people, I believe MOST, who behave altruistic and selfless, that truly are NOT. Many are aware that they are just â€˜putting on a showâ€™ (ironically for selfish reasons)! Even worse, there are many more who actually believe that they are being truly selfless, but just donâ€™t have enough self-awareness to know any better. All of the reasons that I mentioned above on the difficulty of being selfless are good causes to see why these people are trying to fool us, or themselves.
What your son needs to do is not look at all of the â€˜phoniesâ€™, but search and see that there are altruistic and selfless people out there. Perhaps it will take future life experiences to turn him around. The point you made about how having children made you feel differently is a good example. Like yourself, I would give my life for my kids without hesitation. And, he is wrong about the reason being the fear of guilt if you didnâ€™t. Even if I knew that my child would never know about my sacrifice for him, or even thought that my death was meaningless or apparently negative in some way – Iâ€™d still do it!
Very interesting, Steven. Here’s what my son would say: Why do you assume that selflessness is a good thing? Why is altruism something one should strive for? What’s wrong with selfishness? It’s hard to answer those questions in a pragmatic, rational way without reference to moral and spiritual values. It’s hard to say the word “selfish” without loading into it all the social values that we’ve learned.
As for the last point you make, what he means is, that if I DIDN’T act in a selfless way and give my life for him, then I wouldn’t be able to live with myself afterward if he died and I survived. Whether or not he knew about it wouldn’t be the issue; it would be fear of my own anticipated feelings about myself that would drive my actions. I don’t think I agree with him and I don’t think he can understand how I feel about him. Before I had children, I had friends who told me that nothing prepares you for the power of parental love and I had no idea what they meant until I did have them. Selfless parental love also makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint: it’s more important for the younger generation to survive and keep the species going.
I assume that selflessness is a good thing by what I can observe in people. People who I feel are living a life in a selfless way seem to have a level of peace and contentment that most others can’t reach. This is the only way that I can come close to a pragmatic rational explaination of why this should be strived for – through these observations.
The Dalai Lama says it well – “True happiness comes from having a sense of inner peace and contentment, which in turn must be achieved by cultivating altruism, love and compassion, and by eliminating anger, selfishness and greed.”
Very interesting and insightful, although I believe that (true) altruism is not everyone’s cup of tea and t to be an altruist, one must offer their service (or money) with no strings attached. This includes taking credit for the offering…very difficult by nature for humans to do because there is almost always some selfish pleasure in others knowing that we have done something good for those less fortunate.
I have the privilege (and pleasure) of working with over 100 Utopia Interns. They volunteer their time (even when time-poor) to reach Utopia’s goal of reducing mental illness. Watching each one of them strive to perfect their own sense of altruism is inspiring.
For me. true altruism does not equate to religious beliefs – it’s not about praise or recognition…it’s about one giving of one’s self without expectations.
I grew up in a household where my every motive for my every act was assumed to be the worst. At one point, as a young adult, I tried to put my motives under a microscope. Sure enough, a glint of pure selfishness lurked in my every thought and deed. That shameful truth was both mortifying and paralyzing.
Years later, I realized that — except for the most saintly among us (and perhaps not even for them?) — this is simply the human condition, and a few stray thoughts should not deter anyone from trying to do right by others. Learning how to provide effective and useful help is another book of harsh lessons, but I digress.
Anyway. In addition to recognition, feeling good or simply avoiding bad feelings, there is another pragmatic motivation to giving. The quality of life — very much including my own life — in this world is, in fact, diminished by human suffering. Not just in the realms of spirit and morals, but also in very mundane, concrete ways.
For example, suffering is a major motive for crime. Untreated illnesses can become major public health issues. And so on. It’s a long list.
First of all I’d like to say a huge thank you for the articles you post on your website. I find them interesting, insightful and they have really helped me to stay positive lately and remember that I’m not alone.
Regarding altruism: personally, I find I want to avoid watching the news etc because I am scared of feeling too much sympathy for what is happening in the world around me. I find the desperate want to do something to help but now knowing how and knowing that there always will be suffering in the world no matter what you do rather debilitating. I really want to help people and always have done, but there is also an extremely selfish part of me that wants to help ME first. The career I want to go into can help people but doesn’t directly, and I’ve found my love of that career path and my desire to help people generally quite difficult to reconcile.
Anouska, I think you have to take care of yourself before you can take care of others; there’s nothing wrong with being “selfish” in that sense.
I would ask this…why would you do something if you don’t feel good about it? We are moved to do things because we get a good feeling inside. If we didn’t then we wouldn’t be moved to do it…who wants to do something unpleasant that there is no emotional return on? Does that make it less altruistic? If we expect no material good or attention from the deed, then I think it is still altruistic. We are thinking, feeling human beings…and when that stops, we lose some of our humanity. Our first instinct is survival and protection of self…once that is met, I believe we turn to external thoughts of others… I do believe as long as you are not bragging about it or looking for external validation, then it is altruistic. Now I also believe there is a difference between an altruistic deed and being altruistic thru and thru…who in reality does not have personal relationship issues, is not always kind, never says a bad word…that rises to the level of sainthood…and we are fallible humans. I think the woman who does good for others in your blog and treats those around her poorly is probably doing it because she sees it as her calling and does not relate the two….it appears to me she does the good deeds for attention and she probably gets praise for it…true altruism is doing the deed and expecting nothing in return…including praise either publicly or privately.
I agree with your assessment of the altruistic woman who treats people poorly. You also raise an interesting question: if we get personal, internal gratification from an altruistic act, does that make it less altruistic? I think my son’s position is that ANY personal reward mitigates the altruistic nature of the act (altruism = selfless). I’d ask: what is the PRIMARY motivation for the deed? In many people that I’ve known, it’s about feeling good about oneself and/or winning the praise and admiration of others.
That is an interesting viewpoint. I guest blog for no reward and help students. I often ask if I have rewards other than self -esteem. I live in England and help students here but also in China. I thought I would never meet the students in China but by coincidence they are to come to study at my local university next year and look forward to seeing me. It made me question my motives even more. We can never be sure of anything but if we do our best to help others and acquire more self-esteem as a result; everyone benefits.
I agree that whether the intention is to do good for the sole selfless sake of helping someone else, or more for feeling good about oneself the end result is that we are helping each other and that is a positive. I think that in most cases though, it is not one extreme or the other that motivates but it’s more of some combination between the two for everyone. We are complex beings and its hard to get at our motivations because I think even our motivations that we think we understand are affected by subconscious factors.
I thought the aspect about finding it harder to do nice things for people we do know to be interesting. I’ve thought about this subject before but never that aspect of it. I find for myself that isn’t quite true though, I put it on myself to care about others that I don’t know, but others that I do know and come to love more because I can see all of the lovable things about them make me more compassionate towards them. I agree that it’s harder to truly have that same sense of care about people I don’t know even though I try to build that. Just looking at how we feel about what happened in Japan is a great tester of this. If I knew everyone in Japan I would be just emotionally devastated, but instead I don’t have the same emotional connection with them so I think wow it’s a really terrible thing but I don’t feel the same amount of grief I would if I knew them all personally.
Part of being human is that emotional attachment and connection that happens when you bond and get to know and love people, and I don’t know if that same emotional connection can be built without knowing a person. It’s something I find interesting to explore and think about though, and your blog provides good food for thought.
Thanks, Kevin. An interesting development that occurred after I wrote this post was the discovery of the Three Cups of Tea fraud. Even if a lot of what Greg Mortenson wrote in that book is untrue, even if he has exploited his charity for personal gain, he has nonetheless done a great deal of good and must feel some genuine compassion for and generosity toward young uneducated women in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, I think his narcissism got in the way.
I am tired of how facebook is being used to brag about charitable work… One thing is doing something good for others, another is bragging about it to hundreds of people online. Seems like a form of narcissism to me…
To me, too.
Totally agree with you Laura.
And wouldn’t like to think that I would not feel good about helping someone else. After all I can hardly feel “nothing” can I?
Strange thing is that sometimes it seems easier to help unknown people rather than those in one’s immediate family or relationship circle. I read recently that in the U.K. alone around 6 million people are engaged in volunteer work. I realise that many are retired people who, quite wisely, find something useful to do with their time and it keeps them in contact with the world outside.
IMO it is about empathy, putting yourself in the other’s shoes. Do I like someone to do something for me. Of course I do! So it is normal to want to do likewise.
Everything we do is selfish because of our existencial aloneness but there are two kinds of selfishness: The one that causes happiness in other people as a byproduct and the one that doesnt. That’s what distinguishes good and bad, right and wrong.
True altruism would be like having sex while rejecting your pleasure. It makes no sense. You can both have pleasure!
If people around you are happy then you are happy (or at least it makes it easier to be so). That is why it makes sense to be a “good person” and follow moral rules. It’s like performing roof maintenance on your house. You don’t care about the house, you care about the rain not coming in and making your life miserable but before the rain comes it might seem as if you are being altruistic to your house.
Making people happy when they won’t make you happy makes no sense unless you get a sense of moral superiority and pride, but that’s narcissism and it will ultimatelly make you unhappy. “Bad” selfishness is unwanted because it makes our enviroment a place where it’s harder to feel happiness because everyone is screwing over everyone else and that includes you. We know what is “bad” selfishness by thinking. “I won’t do this because I don’t want others to do it to me”. But what happens if others can’t inflict on you the pain you inflict on them?
Luckily most of us have empathy, which is doing something for someone to stop their pain so you don’t feel it. Without it we would all behave like psychopaths and would probably be extinct by now.
We are all selfish people who need other selfish people because they have a selfish motivation to make us happy and viceversa. At the end of the day you can look at it as I take an apple from you and you take an apple from me or I give you an apple and you give me an apple. The end result is the same but realise you can never share an apple because you are alone in your experience.
Interesting points all around, although I’m not sure why you conclude with “depressing”. I know what you mean about being alone in your experience, but via the empathy you talk about, I find I don’t feel alone. Empathy allows me to enter into someone’s experience and they into mine.
I say it’s depressing because I basically killed for myself the idea of love.
When I have empathy for someone else I feel pain and I don’t like that pain so I try to cure it. One way to do this is to help the other person so their pain goes away and thus yours. However, while the other person might think you acted out of love, you are really just doing it to cure your own empathic pain.
It’s as if I’ve reduced love to just a form of narcissistic supply-seeking behaviour where instead of pride and recognition we seek happiness and pleasure from other people while being careful of not destroying our sources by giving them happiness and pleasure. Love is just a healthy addiction to how someone makes YOU feel.
I think this makes us (or just me) truly alone. Nobody will ever really care for your well being unless it impacts them in a positive way. Love in all it’s forms is an appearence. It’s just drugaddicts who are also drug dealers and in this kind of relationship trust is the only thing that is needed.
However, I might be biased. I’ve been raised by narcissistic parents so there is a chance I’m narcissitic too and have no idea what love really means (please don’t troll me with Haddaway :D).
I entirely understand your reasoning, and I mostly agree, but it doesn’t lead me to the same despairing place. For me, the fact that I get something out of caring for another person doesn’t negate the caring. Pure altruism is just some idealistic fantasy that makes it hard to appreciate what real love means.
Without altruism people will not care for you unless they get something in return so if you want the relationship to continue you need to give them something they need. To give them something they need they must to be honest with their needs and you need to trust their honesty. This is why I see it as a depressing thought: I’m biased. Due to past experiences I don’t trust people are being honest. However, if I did see people as honest with their needs then the lack of altruism wouldn’t be a depressing thought because I’d have some control over them not abandoning me by feeling that I really know what they need.
Now I think I understand why you don’t see it as a depressing thought.
Thank you for taking the time to understand what I was trying to say and giving me your point of view. Now I know myself a little better and have hope that one day I’ll be in one of those lichen type of symbiotic relationships we call true love.
I had my bag stolen from behind a desk when a member of the public walked in off the street and took it. I managed to find the thief, going through my bag in a small shop around the corner. I was ready to physically fight her to get it back (having never had a physical fight in my life). When I picked her up by the collar (she was bending down going through my bag on the ground) I looked at her face. She was bruised, beaten and obviously a drug addict – she was also extremely frightened (I was pretty annoyed). After getting all my stuff back from her, getting her phone number, I gave her the only cash I had on me ($5) and told her not to do it again and to leave the area. She was very contrite, but I felt that she would do it again anyway, but she looked so ‘vulnerable and beaten by life’. I didn’t call the police, because the system doesn’t help these people, and my instant thought was of compassion. This all happened in about 10 minutes.
After the event, I told people what had happened in getting my bag back and that I’d given her money, knowing that I would be told I was a ‘sucker’ and ‘she’d played me’ – and that is the reaction I got. Who cares. BUT my instant natural reaction was compassion for her. My expectation was that people would tell me I was an idiot. I just had an immediate thought (directly after I was ready to physically fight her and my adrenaline was pumping) that compassion might make a positive difference in her life, or it might not. I still don’t regret it.
Altruism, generosity, or stupidity? You decide. I have no idea. It was an instant reaction.
It’s because you saw her face and nobody else did. You read the fear and suffering there, which aroused your compassion, but the others didn’t.
Thank you for your reply, and thank you so much for sharing yourself and insight! I’m still catching up on all your posts.
That was probably the only time I could truly think of that I did something close to altruistic (but no doubt underneath it all there was some selfish motive), but it was an instant reaction. I was actually ready to ‘fight’ and had considered she may have had a knife etc. I even got her phone number from her and rang her later that afternoon and she said she’d been to the doctor to get some help. She thanked me for caring… I did think it could have been a lie, but who knows. Obviously had an affect on me though.
I still tend to agree with your son, although I think some things we do ‘innately’, as it’s good for ‘the pack’.
Have you thought much about ‘memes’, as in the Richard Dawkins ‘meme’ (not the corrupted use of meme on the Internet?
I’m intrigued by your final question. What did you have in mind?
I feel there a three grades of selfishness:
– One is the obvious narcissistic point, solely done for ourselves and nevermind what it takes costs or takes.
– Two is the survival-mode, one we need to build our lives on. Yes, we do need food and we will kill if we have to for it.
– Three is the altruistic one. Though done out of selfless perspective (no material gains or praise from others), it does give the altruist a sense of being alive, needed, purpose. There’s just no hiding it always delivers a benefit, if only for the pleasure derived of helping someone.
I often feel misunderstood. I hide my good intentions because I don’t seek the acknowledgement of others, just myself knowing I did right an can myself look in the eyes.
I haven’t had friends for near two decades, living with only my child but of course I couldn’t hide my nature for them for very long. My ‘friends’ and remaining family left after I broke heavily down and “I wasn’t the strong one they looked up to” “If she can fall, we can all fall”. I don’t seek out friends, I don’t want to live a fantasy or up to their expectations. I just want to be me. My child has pretty much the same attitude as me.
I’m a loner, I try to help out drifters whom many look down to. Many of my suitors said I shouldn’t engage with them…they had to go never knowing why. I can’t be with someone who judges people by what use they can be to them.
Often, I get burned too. I e.g. helped out fallen children only to find the parents making them look like neglecting ones (I was there faster, them often too busy chattering around), stuck animal are more than not grateful.
I’m the surprising bystander who doesn’t stand still when someone needs and wants help (and I can help).
But I find many distrustful, more now than ever.
That worries me. Fear rules the world.
Luckily some are grateful and make me feel beautiful and needed.
If you’re wondering, I had a childhood of abuse but helped out others without expecting anything in return. And I didn’t got anything in return, not even gratitude.
I sometimes met ones who was more sympathetic and listening than the people I knew. I considered to them to be ‘angels’ and they were the ones that brought a glimmer of hope that not all were abusive, neglecting or aggressive. I felt I had to return what I’ve been given in some desperate times of need.