The problem with altruism (with soundtrack)

Altruism (n): the principle or practice of unselfish concern for or devotion to the welfare of others

I hear lots of people talking about altruism like it’s this elusive behavior or characteristic that people should constantly strive to embody or employ. People feel guilty for not being altruistic, like it’s something we’re supposed to naturally know how to do or be. You hear people saying things like this all the time: “I know I should be practicing altruism and everything, but I’m just really mad at her,” or “it’s so hard to be altruistic when he’s being such an ass.”

Are we supposed to just come out of the womb knowing how to battle all of the animosity, selfishness, competition, and jealousy we feel? Are we supposed to understand how to feel happy for someone when it goes against every instinct we have?

There are, like, a billion different types of altruism. They all have varying degrees of difficulty, in my opinion. It’s like playing a computer game.

The first type of altruism that I had to learn was a simple open-heartedness to the rest of the world. In theory, this is the easiest thing to envision, because it’s relatively natural to want the best for humanity. You want to know WHY it’s natural? Because WE ARE ALL PART OF HUMANITY. We don’t have to separate ourselves from the entity for which we’re doing all this well-wishing.

Ok, so it makes sense to narrow that down and wish the best for our family and friends. These people we know and care about, sure, categorically we are devoted to their welfare, right? Right. Okay, simple enough, even when we remove ourselves from the equation.

Cool, you’re feeling pretty good about yourself, aren’t you? Want to make things a little more difficult?

You and a friend both enter a competition for which there is a substantial monetary prize. You help one another enter it (you train together at the track, or you do vocal coaching together or something) and you both feel good about your entry. Finally the winners are announced… and your friend gets the prize. Even assuming this is a fair contest, and assuming you don’t need that monetary prize to, I dunno, survive, how are you supposed to feel?

Yep, you’re supposed to ignore all the training and work you put into your entry, put aside the anticipation you had that the prize might have been yours, and just be fucking happy for the friend.

Ouch, right?

Alright, but it’s easy enough. The verdict isn’t something you can fight, and you can’t go back in time. We encounter so many situations that teach us that, well, the past is the past and ‘what can ya do?’ that eventually this contest situation will just become that. And eventually, as long as your friend is tasteful and doesn’t wave a wad of cash in front of your nose or something, you will feel some degree of happiness for him/her.

Are you brainwashed yet? Did I trick you?
That’s not altruism!

Nope. Altruism would have been to wish and hope from the very beginning that your friend would win. And not just your friend– all who entered the contest! So tell me, how does that make any sense at all? That just renders the entire point of contests moot. What, you enter a contest and the whole time you’re in it you’re hoping that others will win?

I don’t get it. But I’m going to move on, because I’m not done with my altruism problems report.

Obviously it’s extremely difficult to be altruistic when you’re jealous of someone, or when someone has hurt you, or when you’re encountering the potential to get ahead in life. I assume that, especially if you adhere to any doctrines of Buddhism, this all becomes much easier with time. Needless to say, I haven’t gotten there yet.

Here I reach the original purpose of this post, my main issue with altruism, and a question that is potentially rhetorical:

How is one supposed to want the best for others or be devoted to their welfare when they don’t seem to know what is best for their own welfare?!

Buddha, please help me. I’m surrounded by people (including myself) who put themselves in negative situations, pursue people romantically who are emotionally destructive, or simply don’t do things that will help them grow or learn or be healthy, emotionally or physically. Why do we do this to ourselves, and furthermore, why do we then expect people to still be happy for us or supportive? Sometimes we don’t even know we’re making terrible decisions for ourselves– why don’t we have presence of mind to realize when our actions and choices don’t benefit anyone, least of all ourselves?

[And, unrelated to my point: why is there such a toxic flip-side? When we try to do what’s best for ourselves, we feel guilty or unworthy or selfish, even when no one is being harmed.]

It’s difficult to have unselfish concern for others’ welfare when they seem to have no concern for their own welfare or when they are making decisions we find to be wrong or destructive. Why should we bother to want the best for others when we don’t see them wanting what’s best for themselves?

I’m resigned to believing (as I’m sure the Buddha would teach) that the answer to this is that it is not our responsibility to make judgements about the choices of others. We shouldn’t be concerning ourselves with the definition of “welfare” or what is “best,” because otherwise we will fall into a trap of only wanting what we think is ‘best’ for others.

That leads me to some more rhetorical questions, and then I will be done:

What happens when we really do know what is best for someone? Isn’t it important to share our insight with others?
[Pause while my mom bursts into tears and exclaims, “yeah! yeah! what then!”]
Doesn’t that fall under the category of “wanting the best for others”? Or is it categorically more important for people to learn their own lessons and create their own learning experiences?

And finally– if we can’t make judgements about what is “best” for others, how in the world are we supposed to confront our own beliefs about what is best for ourselves? How are we supposed to confront our ideas about what is “best” in general– for humanity, for the earth…

Morally and ethically speaking, how do we develop opinions about Right and Wrong if we can’t judge Right and Wrong in our own lives? Are we really supposed to completely and solely subscribe to the commandments and definitions of Right and Wrong that are laid down by law and religious doctrines?

The problem with altruism (with soundtrack)

2 thoughts on “The problem with altruism (with soundtrack)

  1. youknowho says:

    so, even if every mom doesn’t burst into tears, it’s still one of the best Mother’s Day gifts that could be given to so many of us who wear that hat (especially on Derby Day)! and the mirror does show Both Sides Now….and if that doesn’t bring a tear, there must be something truly WRONG—but no judgement here, really! <3 ^^^

  2. imnothere says:

    So if you’re veering between moral determinism and moral relativism, you’re going to end up despairing of ever making sense of that which you insist must make sense. You could start from the assertion that altruism is, in fact, genetically determined (nature), and then you remove it from the realm of social learning (nurture). But if after doing so you then impose on altruism some sort of privilege in the realm of “getting along with everybody” you’ve (1) burdened the “natural” with “conditioning”; and (2) risked trivializing the privilege by making it accessible only by the “noble savage.” In other words, if all we’re able to do with the blessed state of altruism into which we’re born is screw it up by preaching its necessity and mandating the particulars of its practice, we’ve lost it before it’s been exercised. It may be that altruism is actually exercised by guilt over the absence of it, guilt being a mode of self-discovery (and self-discovery being the uncovering of one’s nature). To put it another way: maybe altruism is just as much about not doing good as about doing good, the harm really being in “really” knowing good from evil.There’s a reason for guilt, in case you need one.

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