Tag Archives: charity

The Self-Serving Root Behind Selflessness

In years past, I spent a significant portion of my free time volunteering at various hospitals and clinics.  My reason for doing this was always simply to offer a helping hand at venues that are in need of it.  However, deep down, I have to admit that my altruism also harbored a certain level of self-centeredness.  The volunteer work I did had no negative consequences on my life, and the moment it did there existed a decent chance that I would have abandoned it immediately.  (Yet, I still can’t be absolutely sure on this last part, since my observations inform me that we are very fond of the pleasures we derive from the self-flagellation of retelling, and re-imagining, personal hardships and sacrifices, and I have no reason to believe that I’m an exception to this mindset.)

Listen to any biography of any celebrity or public figure and you will instantly spot a narrative of personal triumph over great adversity (it doesn’t actually matter whether or not the adversity is of genuine helplessness, or the result of poor lifestyle decisions), the sentiment is always one of complete adoration for even the slightest of inconveniences a person may have faced.  And we love our inconveniences,  for if we didn’t have them what would we define our characters by?

It also makes us look stronger when we exaggerate our setbacks, especially if it’s to ourselves.  Not to mention it creates more interesting memories.  Neglectful mothers change into alcoholics, spiteful fathers become sadists, and that neighborhood boy that used to torture you after school turns into four thugs that you fought off with nothing but a broomstick.  There is satisfaction in knowing you’ve experienced something out of the ordinary.  Within that mindset even the most degrading past can make you feel good about yourself.  I can’t imagine anyone argue how that’s a bad thing?  It isn’t, as long as you make an effort not to forget what it is that you are doing here–how you are not reminiscing about the past, but creating and adapting it to your liking.

It is not a matter of lying to ourselves in order to function properly (that would imply a conscious effort).  No, in reality we function properly precisely because we lie to ourselves.  And we do it effortlessly.

This is best illustrated by the  average western-educated social activist, who feels the need to promote modernization efforts in the developing world, but refuses to acknowledge the fact that he is by extension claiming a level of superiority for his own cultural institutions.

To us living comfortably in the 21st century, to hear such talk is appalling to the highest degree.  How dare anyone dismiss a people’s culture, and in need of restructuring, simply because it lacks technological advancements, or the sociopolitical values we in the developed world might hold dear?!  But to me, this is a strange position to hold as it lies in contrast to every humanitarian effort ever organized.

When we speak of the need to spread literacy to impoverished tribal communities, are we not implying that the educational system we have designed is somehow better than that of these proud communities?  No?  Then why not allow them to carry on with their noble ways, undisturbed by the pesky trivialities of academics which obviously hold no merit to them?  When we insist on how important it is to promote democracy throughout the world, are we not also asserting that our system of governing is superior to that of civilizations which have seemingly gotten along for centuries without the ability to elect their figureheads?  Surely, by demanding all to conform to a matter we uphold as most virtues and important we are being condescending, refusing to acknowledge the self-serving interest that comes along from trying to impose values that are not indigenous to these regions.

Of course, we can make a respectable argument that we have good reasons for wanting to spread literacy, because an educated populace is more likely to persevere against the growing influence of a globalized economy.  Also, we can argue how we should champion the ideals of democracy, if we honestly do believe it to be the most rationally sound form of governance possible.  This is all well and good, but the fact still stands that we think that we possess a knowledge others simply do not.  A mentality of, “your way is fine, but mine’s better.”  Although we dare not say this aloud, because to do so would to most people imply a negation of the genuinely altruistic narrative that we have constructed around such much needed acts of charity.

Personally, I view such responses as absurdly redundant, because it is one thing for us to indulge in the clout of political correctness, but let us at least stop fooling ourselves with this absurd image of reluctant saviors that we have so readily concocted around activities we obviously have both an altruistic and self-serving, interest to perform (admitting the latter does not cheapen the former, at least not in my mind).

There is no need to lie to ourselves about the motivations we have for our actions, but to do otherwise is to me an impossible request.  To ask us as human beings to cease having a split-brained outlook, is to ask us to cease being human beings.  Even if we recognize and understand the irrationalities of our character quirks, we still can’t help but fall victim to them.  Nor would we know how not to want to.

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Limits to my Empathy

Whatever source or imperatives a person wishes to attribute to her/his personal ethics, I believe the one thing we can all readily agree on is that the ability to empathize with others–i.e. being able to see an issue from another person’s perspective–is an indispensable component of any practical moral framework (unless you want to be clever and claim that your moral framework is not to have any empathy towards others; to which I say, touché good sir/madam, but I hope you’ll still agree that it would be best for your continued existence if other people at least feel some level of empathy towards your person, especially when they decide not to callously kill you on sight).

Like most people, if asked I would rate myself as a very empathetic person.  I would even compile a list of all the empathetic things I do for others in my daily life, because, in some sense, being selflessly courteous is often accompanied with the selfish interest to be acknowledged for one’s good deeds (even if we go out of our way to deny and suppress this egocentric impulse to our conscious selves).  I also happen to be of the opinion that when it comes to people who are not afflicted with any sort of crippling mental disorder (referring to those who honestly lack the mental faculties to have any reasonable degree of responsibility for their actions), just about everyone is empathetic to a large extent (though the means by which this empathy is expressed often various from person to person).

No, I do not believe that people are inherently good and generous.  Nor do I believe that we’re inherently bad or apathetic.  I see human behavior as largely adaptive to its varied environments.  This means I see no necessary contradiction in a man being a loving husband and father in one instant, and a murderer in another; different situations (different environments) tend to yield different results and behaviors for many of us (albeit such overly dramatic dichotomies in behavior are rather rare for most of us).

When I see someone hurt on the street, I’ll offer my help.  When I see stray cats or dogs wondering around hungrily, I’ll leave food and drink on my patio for them to find.  I empathize with parents who wish to see their children come home safely at the end of each school day.  All of this is innate, instinctive, to my conscience.  However, it’s also all local to my existence.  Because when I see a TV ad urging me to make a small, financially negligible, donation for a starving child oversees, I do feel a deep concern for the bruised faces shown on the screen, but I never feel any great moral obligation to make a donation.  The fact that a large portion of the clothing and luxury items I enjoy are assembled by exploited workers, in ethically questionable conditions, makes me cynical of the economic system I’m contributing to with my purchases, but it ultimately doesn’t prevent me from enjoying the luxuries any less (and purchasing more when I need to; thereby directly sustaining the vicious cycle).  So, while I actively care about moral situations that lie in my immediate proximity, I only abstractly care about all the more numerous moral dilemmas that lie outside of my personal interactions.  Which is to say, I don’t really care at all, because to only empathize with something on principle–without being willing to engage the issue in question with real, tangible solutions–is the equivalent of doing nothing at all (other than to inflate my egocentric sense of personal impeccability).  I’m aware of this moral shortcoming on my part, and the ethically indefensible position of my “apathetic-empathy”, yet, I still don’t really care enough to bother changing my behavior.  In truth, I only care about the fact that I don’t care about not really caring on any meaningful level.  And, although it sounds self-serving to say, I’m convinced that this is a common sentiment among most people (in particular those of us residing in what is commonly referred to as the first world).

My point isn’t to encourage people to do more about the sufferings and injustices in the world.  In my honest opinion, quite a few people who care strongly about a humanitarian issue end up becoming so engrossed in the presumed righteousness of their position they let their empathy and passion cloud their objectivity and rationality (I offer the various sociopolitical movements of the 19th and 20th Century as an example of this problem).  I simply want to acknowledge a fact about my character that, while not admirable in any sense, appears to be impermeable to any sincere change.  And I haven’t figured out yet, whether or not I really care about this fact.