Saturday September 5, 2009
A couple of weeks ago, there was an article in the New Scientist that touched on the topic of altruism. In the article it was suggested that there is a correlation between levels of altruism and the presence of a particular variant of one particular gene (see here) which gives a nice hormonal buzz when its bearer performs some altruistic act.
Now, all of that may be so, but what I wondered about was the throwaway line at the end of the article, where the author Kate Douglas suggested that “some might argue that if random acts of kindness give us a mental buzz, then this is not pure altruism after all.”
This, it seems, is a common claim. We are, alas, terribly suspicious when it comes to acts of apparent altruism – not just suspicious of each other, but also suspicious of ourselves. “Was that a good act?” we find ourselves asking. “Really? But I’m feeling better now I have done it. So perhaps I’m just self-interested after all…” This kind of suspicion can run rampant, so that we can come to the conclusion that there really is nothing in altruism at all, that all is self-interest. And if this is the case, why bother going through the pantomime of altruism at all? Why no go all-out for self-interest?
It seems to me, however, that such a conclusion is not warranted. It is born out of the idea that, for altruism to mean anything, it must be somehow “pure”, that there must be one single motive, and no others. Not only that, but the view is often that there must only be benefit to the object of our altruistic attentions, and any benefit that we thereby accrue somehow diminishes the act (a kind of crude “if it don’t hurt, it ain’t moral” view). But the idea that altruism – or any other virtue – must be pure to be counted a virtue at all is something of a non-starter if we are interested in thinking about how we act in the world. If we reverse the picture, this becomes more apparent. Imagine that I am the recipient of an altruistic act. I fall off my bike, and a stranger stops and helps me back to my feet. From my point of view, this seems very like an act of altruism, and it hardly matters that – for example – they are pleased to stop so that they can be late for that boring meeting to which that they were hurrying. Although they may have accrued a little benefit in terms of shaving five minutes off the dreaded meeting, this does not, as the recipient of the kind act, diminish the act for me. Not only this, but I would really much rather that the person helping me actually derived some residual benefit by helping me. At the very least, I would rather that, in our brief encounter, we exchanged a few friendly words and they went away with a smile on their face, feeling a bit better about life, than I would that they helped me out of grim duty and gained not a single drop of pleasure or of any other benefit from so doing. The kinds of altruism worth having, in other words, are not the kinds that are ‘pure’ according to these exacting standards by virtue of which only one party benefits; and if we look for pure altruism, then we end up failing to see any altruism at all. This does us a disservice. The world that we inhabit is not a world of pure abstractions, but is irredeemably mixed, and any account of ethics worth its salt needs to start from this point, rather than from the position of some abstract idea of purity.
But here’s another thought. If all of the above is true, and if there is no such thing as a purely altruistic act, then it may be that there is no such thing as a purely selfish act, because this idea of pure selfishness makes as little sense – and is based upon the same premises – as the idea of pure altruism. This, however, may be rather harder to swallow. Nevertheless, if we do give up on the idea of pure altruism, and if we also give up the idea of pure selfishness, then perhaps we might be able to see things in a rather more subtle fashion, to see the virtues and the vices not as absolutes that stand outside the ebb and flow of our lives, but as tendencies and currents with this ebb and flow. And with this subtlety may come a rather more generous attitude by virtue of which we might be able to appreciate what altruism there is in the world, and thereby give this goodness a little more space to breathe and flourish.
Image: Thanks to himalayanart.org
Comments are turned off for this article.
Today's Most Popular
The Madhyamaka Bus?: Friday February 6, 2009
Let’s hit the road on the Buddhist bus.
What is This Thing?: Thursday September 21, 2006
The myth of authenticity.
Gautama Buddha: Interview with Vishvapani Blomfield: Wednesday December 7, 2011
Myth and history in the biography of the Buddha…
On the Move: Wednesday June 23, 2010
I’m off to China!
A Strange Cocktail: Sunday May 23, 2010
A recipe for concocting Western Buddhism.
Kindness and Philosophy: Monday March 10, 2008
Where are our philosophies of kindness?
The Trouble With Ethics: Thursday October 6, 2005
Is the trouble with ethics that there is simply too much of it?
The Invisibility of Goodness: Tuesday July 7, 2009
Maybe we’re not doing that badly after all…
A Shortcut to Nirvana?: Monday July 24, 2006
Research from the frontline of the discipline that is becoming known as neurotheology…
Emotional Weather Report: Friday February 9, 2007
Caught up in bad weather?
Zen, Brains and Making Friends With Your Own Head: 10 Nov, 2008
It’s a complicated business having a brain.
Lies in Which not Everything is False: 10 Sep, 2008
Stories – they are nothing but a pack of lies.
The Sutras of Abu Ghraib: 30 Oct, 2007
Aidan Delgado on Buddhism, ethics and the war in Iraq.
Baboon: 06 Jun, 2006
Feeling like a grumpy old baboon?
Meditation as Unphenomenology: 07 Feb, 2008
Meditation, cartography and the territory of the mind.