Unbelief in altruism

Often I hear people say they hold the opinion that eventually everybody does everything out of egoism. Even when you help someone else, you only do it because it makes you happy or because you’d feel awful if you didn’t help, so they say. Yet, after years of hearing the same argument, I still cannot grasp why it is supported by such an amount of people.

Of course purely altruistic actions are not always easily found. Even grand projects that were supposedly set up to help the poor and the needy, often turn out to be more of a search for self-aggrandisement instead of true self-giving. For underneath the will to help a lot of people carry a deep need for attention, approval and status.

I thus understand that people sometimes wonder about the genuineness of certain supposedly altruistic actions and I admit that we indeed should not gush about some sort of sweetened ethics. Altruism isn’t obvious at all. It is naive to think that self-giving of lot’s of people wouldn’t ask for some nuance.

But even though I do not disagree with some healthy nuancing of altruism, some nuancing of the unbelief in altruism is also in order.

What strikes me first and foremost is the way in which unbelief in altruism becomes some sort of legitimisation of the contemporary lifestyle. It seems an easy way of condoning the present day individualism and hedonism. I can readily accept a nuance of altruism but when the message becomes “It is impossible anyway, so you shouldn’t strive for it.” I must express my doubts, for then it is nothing but a justification for not even trying to be altruistic.

It is not because ‘pure altruism’ sometimes seems a bit difficult to attain, that one should deny every possible form of self-giving.

A few weeks ago I helped a blind man cross the street. I often see the man in a shopping street close to my home, where he plays some tunes on his melodica. Once in a while he changes the place where he plays. Also that night. Reaching the dense traffic of a main road he asked whether somebody could help him cross. Some people passed but ignored him. So he shouted somewhat louder: “Can somebody help me cross the road, please?!” I quickly stepped towards him and introduced myself. He thanked me, hooked his arm into mine and a nice conversation later we were on the opposite site.

Did I do it to feel good myself? Did I do it because I would’ve felt guilty if I hadn’t? If that is so, why then didn’t the other passers-by help the man? Is my behavior truly reducible to egoism? Or did I just try to help that man for a second? Both my head and my heart seem to intuitively accept the latter.

A different example. These days where in the middle of the winter, so the flue is back in the country and lots of people tend to get sick for a few days. Luckily a whole lot of adults are gently kissed by their caring partners and a whole lot of children that got the flue are by their loving parents.

Is this egoism? Does anybody only help his coughing partner or his feverish child because he feels better himself? Even though it is only a small winter flue, do people really only take care of them because they’d feel bad if they didn’t? Of course they probably would feel bad if they didn’t, but that doesn’t make it the reason why they help. To me it doesn’t seem that inconceivable to just accept that people take care of their partners and parents of their children because they simply love them, want to protect them from unnecessary suffering and thus put in a little bit of extra effort.

Why should we go and look for subconscious motives in all of this? Perhaps it often goes together with a couple of subconscious motives – because every person has some problems hidden in his or her own soul – but that certainly doesn’t mean the initial and most determining motive can’t be very simple and real compassion.

A last example perhaps, that transcends the daily. A few days ago I heard a lecture of Jo Berry. This British lady lost her father, the politician Sir Anthony Berry, in a bomb attack of the IRA, some 25 years ago. Together with him four other people died in this quite famous ‘Brighton hotel bombing’. It needs no explanation that this event changed her life from one day to the next. Mourning and suffering were hers as well. Yet she refused to let herself be taken over by the grief. Inspired by Gandhian spirituality she decided to get into contact with Irish people (and ex-IRA members) in order to understand them better and give her own suffering a place. Eventually she even met Patrick Magee, the one who planted the bomb.

This meeting was the start of the unthinkable: a friendship. Without forgetting or concealing that Magee and his IRA-ideology were the cause of the murder of her father, they grew towards each other and she learned to see the human behind the perpetrator.

Perhaps some think this last example doesn’t have anything to do with altruism because it talks about forgiveness. But forgiving is of course the greatest – for often the hardest – form of (self)giving. Forgiveness is about offering someone an existence within your own existence again. It’s about accepting someone back into a previously closed-up heart.

So contrary to what people often think, examples of altruism actually can be found all over. At least for those that want to find them. Those that don’t believe that a human can attain true self-giving actually deny a real dimension of existence, for altruism surrounds us just as much as the egoism that so often blinds us.

So no, there’s no reason to act is if it doesn’t exist, and yes, it is worth striving for greater altruism within ourselves.