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Question 01:

Mulvihill,

I am in my sociology class and we have been debating whether there is any authentic or true altruism in the world. Ya know, because humans seem to be wired to enjoy helping/aiding others, some kids and our prof thinks that this fact makes altruism a fiction. He even brought up missionaries and how their motivation is for God and heaven, so missions is not really a pure altruistic motivation. I know that something is wrong with this argument but I have had a hard time rebutting or refuting it in class. So maybe there is no true/authentic altruism in this world. Any ideas?

Thanks,
Brett E.

Answer 01:

Brett,

Great to hear from you, though I have much respect for your academic and cognitive acumen I have to strongly disagree with your diagnosis of human motivation. Believe it or not this is a rather popular conundrum in contemporary psychology; that is, the question of the true altruism/are there really any true selfless acts? It is only in contemporary times that this benevolent human character trait and activity has been called into question. A couple of qualifiers…

one, everybody has a *bit* of contempt for the hero that saves a woman from a burning building only later to find out that she had money on her and in her account that she owed him – and that’s the first crucial question, DOES ANY BENEFIT TO THE SACRIFICER OR INDIVIDUAL MAKING A ‘SELFLESS’ DECISION NULLIFY THE GOODNESS IN THE ACT IN QUESTION? I think a bit of reflection show this is clearly not the case, there is still a good sacrifice being made, the act still stands even if the motivation is mixed. To be sure we, don’t congratulate the kid who trips the grandma out of spite if her falling helped her avoid being hit by an errant car swerving off the road – she still survives and retains her life (this is one of the most extreme case of motivation inversion) but even in lighter cases like the one above with the hero and the house fire – there is still a sacrifice and an undeniably good result that is both intentional and beneficent. Again, benefit to the one acting does not nullify the moral quality of the act though motivation is a component.

The second qualifier is that self-preservation and benefit to ourselves in a limited sense, reflects at least an admission that this life is good and worth preserving to the best of our ability, in a Christian worldview this is a way of honoring our Creator (the opposite being suicide).

The third qualifier is motivation is important but not a complete defeater for any moral act, even if there is inadvertent benefit to the recipient. Reverse it…there is a guy in Iraq with our army and while aiming at an enemy that is attempting to stab a friend servicemen he inadvertently hits and kills his friend, though he is not completely morally culpable, a negative outcome is still a reality.

Now, here is the key with altruism/selflessness; there has to be a way to justify it (a couple of reasons, the Bible demands it, and so does language and logic, to turn altruism on its head is to say Jesus, Mother Theresa were two of the most selfish people who ever walked the earth!! Missionaries & people involved in social outreach would be the most self-centered people in our society! Suicide would necessarily be the most moral act possible!!). This is the way I see it and it comports to reality well this way.

When one is called “selfless,” it is when they trade a more sure and obvious benefit (maybe a benefit that is immediately apprehend able by the five senses) for an unsure, less obvious and possible future benefit. Here, I think, is the key, it is trusting that there is at least the possibility of something better LATER for those who lose themselves in some way for the sake of the other RIGHT NOW. In my own life, I sacrifice daily for my wife and kids on multiple levels, I hope to receive a possible later earthly benefit in a positive and ongoing relationship with my immediate family, I also actually feel good in the more short-term days after I have sacrificed BUT THAT DOESN’T NULLIFY MY SACRIFICE because one, there is still moral goods (physical and spiritual) produced in these acts and I’M NOT ABSOLUTELY SURE/CERTAIN THERE WILL BE A SHORT OR LONG TERM BENEFIT (physical or spiritual) FOR MY TOIL.

Let’s take your missionary example…if God says it is good to help others, then it is indeed good. But again, here is the key, we can’t be absolutely certain that this God exists (we can have great reasons/evidence, but never absolute or apodictic certainty) and if you were truly motivated by COMPLETELY self-centered ideas you wouldn’t be on the mission field long, especially when the sacrifice gets more intense and demanding. In other words, one is generally trading an assured, generally quantifiable, already possessed good for one that lacks those features and might benefit them. Remember, if our reasoning is solid in regard to this subject of altruism then having a minor, footnote, POSSIBLE benefit to the sacrifice(er) does not nullify the “selfless” aspect though it is true it is not “selfless” in a consummate or complete sense. The same goes for servicemen, police and firefighters, we don’t tend to qualify our effusive thanksgiving for their life-preserving acts with “well, you were paid to do this…” because we see that the tradeoff in what is offered versus what is gained for them is non-symmetrical (their very lives versus 30-50K a year).

Authentic altruism is certainly possible and we saw it on the cross (even though Christ was satisfying God’s/his own justice – future possible benefit – and knew he would resurrect – future possible benefit – and redeem humanity – future possible benefit – that didn’t nullify the immediate and assured pain and separation he experienced) and even in the struggle of Christ at Gethsemane.

Regards,
Mulvihill

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