Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Altruism: A Lesson in Semantics

I tend to leave occasional sticky notes on the bathroom door and mirror. "Be kind to yourself. Mornings are hard." "Don't forget to be awesome." and "Stop worrying. You're lovely the way you are." I also like to leave treats in the front room. Right now I have some bowls full of Candy Corn (nope, not vegan) and a note encouraging those women to take some.

Why do I do it? Well, because it makes me feel good! It makes me feel good to know that I may have made someone else's day. That doesn't really make me special. We are pack animals. We crave companionship, even if some need it more than others. We all strive to a certain degree to make other people happy, and in turn we are fulfilling our own needs. Does that make what I do altruistic?

Those things are a small example. I go a little out of my way, but it only takes me a minute to write a note to my quad mates. What about people who not only go out of their way to do something kind, but put themselves at risk with absolutely no promised reward? Irena Sendler created an entire underground system that would eventually save the lives of 2500 children in German-occupied Warsaw. She underwent severe torture including the breaking of her legs. She revealed nothing
Irena Sendler

In the long run she has benefited greatly from her work. She has received awards, plays and movies honor her work, and if you follow the link on her name, you can be a part of the legacy she has left behind. She died happily at 98 years old. But there was no way that she could foresee all of that. There were better chances that she would die for the sake of her mission. Why did she do it? Most would say altruism. But was it altruism? When asked why she did it, she would say that she had to. She could not sit by and do nothing. To me this represents an incredible awareness of the compassion she possessed. Irena Sendler had an incredibly well-developed sense of compassion.

She could not live with herself if she did nothing. So, in a sense, she did what she did for herself. Which isn't altruism by certain standards. But it's nearly impossible to act upon your compassion and get nothing out of it.

So here's where it turns into semantics. Does altruism really have to mean one expects nothing from their acts of kindness? Or can altruism include abstract reward? Because I'm not sure altruism exists at all if a person can receive nothing from their compassion. I like to think of myself as altruistic in at least my happy notes and candy. I feel strongly that Irena Sendler was altruistic, and we can argue that all we want, but we'd really be arguing the definition of altruism.

But here's the better question: Why does it matter? Who cares if I get something out of doing something nice for someone else? If a thank you note makes me smile, does that discredit what I've done for someone? I don't think so. I think we need a greater spirit of altruism in our culture. My professor just talked about making charity work tax deductible as a cause for greed. I don't disagree with that. (Doesn't mean I won't claim my deductions for the crap load of community service hours I get in.) But I would do it if I didn't get a tax deduction. But I'm not so sure everyone would. We all have a great potential for compassion. For some people it's harder to find and develop than others. A lot of factors go into that. But compassion is in all of us.

Positive Statement:
When you do good things for the world, you are creating a better world in which you can live.

In the comments tell me about a random act of kindness you've experienced.


  1. Helllooo! Long time reader, first time commenter!

    I just want to give Maddie a shout out because this is a cool blog! I wish I blogged, but i tell myself i dont have the time to blog and besides who would read it...but then I find myself reading other blogs and spending my time commenting on other people's yeah.

    I am a rebel, so i am NOT going to tell you about any random acts of kindness, so there! I will say that I think you have some good points here, but when I was reading through your thoughts I was thinking about all those good ole' philosophers and I thought you might be interested to read this:

    What is the moral code of altruism? The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value.

    Do not confuse altruism with kindness, good will or respect for the rights of others. These are not primaries, but consequences, which, in fact, altruism makes impossible. The irreducible primary of altruism, the basic absolute, is self-sacrifice—which means; self-immolation, self-abnegation, self-denial, self-destruction—which means: the self as a standard of evil, the selfless as a standard of the good.

    Do not hide behind such superficialities as whether you should or should not give a dime to a beggar. That is not the issue. The issue is whether you do or do not have the right to exist without giving him that dime. The issue is whether you must keep buying your life, dime by dime, from any beggar who might choose to approach you. The issue is whether the need of others is the first mortgage on your life and the moral purpose of your existence. The issue is whether man is to be regarded as a sacrificial animal. Any man of self-esteem will answer: “No.” Altruism says: “Yes.”

    Thoughts???? I don't entirely agree with her...Ayn Rand is just too much i think. But she does make some good points. Altruism is really a strange thing, and i think you do a good job talking about it.

    In conclusion: Never stop offering candy corn

    1. James,

      I miss the heck outta you. I see that. That's another thing we discussed in class actually. I don't really think there's a predetermined purpose to life. We make purpose. For some people greed becomes their purpose. For others it's compassion. I still really do believe everyone has good in them. I almost have to. So I don't believe it's our purpose to serve others, but I think it's a badass purpose to choose.