Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Altruism & Cynicism

I've heard it said that no one does anything unless it benefits them in some way. I've also heard this used to justify embittered views regarding the alleged vanity of human kindness. It's the purpose of this short post to expose the mistaken direction such thinking takes.

The argument typically begins with an instance of alleged altruism, let's say the act of giving money to a homeless person. Ordinarily we might assume that giving money to a homeless person is a selfless act, as you are surrendering your own money to somebody and expecting nothing in return. Or are you? The proponents of what we'll call the "selfishness argument" argue that we do expect something in return. We would not, after all, have given them the money if we did not ourselves feel good about doing so. In effect, they believe that there is actually a kind of transaction taking place - money for a smug feeling of self-gratitude. And we will not disagree insofar as some people do exactly this, trying to appear selfless either to fool themselves or others into thinking that they are a nice person.

But what if our giving money to the homeless person did not emerge from out of a yearning to feel good about ourselves ("aren't I generous!") but rather from out of our feeling genuinely terrible for the person, and beside ourselves at their situation? We expect nothing from our act of generosity other than making the homeless feel that someone cares about them. What then? A keener proponent of the selfishness argument will nevertheless claim that we have given money to alleviate our own guilt/grief, and therefore we are still acting with selfish motives in mind.

In fact, particularly sophisticated cynics will even push the argument further. It is impossible to be altruistic, they say, because everything you do must be motivated by your own feelings and is therefore down to satisfying one's own self. And how could we possibly argue against such a strong claim?

What proponents of this argument fail to see is the soil from which such feelings grow. They take as their starting assumption (and never let it be questioned) that we are from the ground up individuals isolated from one another. But is this really true? That someone else's situation has the power to move you in the first place before any such feelings take hold of you is the true source of altruism, and a symptom of the existential condition we find ourselves in. By focusing on the particular feeling itself and not rather the ground from which the feeling emerges, the cynic finds their justification - "all people are selfish!" But is it not rather touching, astonishing perhaps, that the toil of others has the power to ellicit those feelings in us in the first place?

That we are always already moved by others (unless we suffer from certain neurological/behavioural difficulties) before we take note of ourselves and declare "I am" is the most original fact of morality, and one mercilessly concealed by our Western (and more specifically, Cartesian) mode of thinking. All we need ask is why we can feel that way in the first place. It's not up to us to choose what we feel, nor is it up to us to choose that things can ellicit such feelings in us. In this respect we are most certainly not isolated individuals.

(For more on the source of passions/reasons I invite you to take a look at my dissertation - particularly the third section).