I am convinced that altruism in part, or in full, exists as a competition. In a society that champions empathy (except for when it doesn’t), there is a large incentive to show oneself as more empathic or society-driven than another individual. Who can help the most old ladies across the street and hold the most doors open for the disabled are counted in wins and losses for individuals. People take note of the self-centered and the apathetic. I believe this goes in an orthogonal direction, however. Instead of consciously helping others (without gain) as a means to advance in society, I suspect that we also keep track of who sheds the most tears. Consider your own social media feeds. What percentage of posts on your feed are by others sharing injustices? Hell, I know mine is full of them and I am not exactly following highly empathic individuals. It’s a needless cycle that everyone seems to be contributing to.
Many readers are probably aware of the “Ice Bucket Challenge” that is making the rounds across the world. A person dumps a bucket of ice on themselves, challenges someone else to do the same, and (hopefully) donates to a foundation researching ALS as a means of helping “educate” others on ALS and as a means of eradicating the crippling and lethal syndrome.
Sounds absurd, right? Maybe it’s just me, but this sounds like a social experiment in which many feign altruism in exchange for publicity. In a way, the altruism (just assume quotation marks around the word for the rest of this post) is societally mandated. By calling out another to perform the challenge, the message is made clear: participate or be stigmatized by having been publicly called out on a task that may or may not be important to you. Let me repeat that: the dynamics of the “challenge” require that another be tasked with doing the same. It is viral. In addition, the one initiating the challenge is – in most cases – posting to social media (or other media for those who are celebrities) as a means of “Look at this great thing I’m doing” and then is effectively forcing another to do the same thing regardless of how this other person feels about charity or whether they even have the means to afford it.
I’ve been reading a lot lately. Most of the books have been on psychopathy (and the neuroscience of psychopathy, in particular), but I’ve also been reading books on how to be a better blogger and social media user. While these latter books are focused on businesses and corporations, their teachings extend to the up and coming blogger and writer as well. An interesting trend with these books is that they champion the use of altruism as a means for outreach. The authors of these books – such as The Tao of Twitter – argue that being selfless is the key to the hearts of others. The implication is clear, however. Do for others so that others will do for you. However, does not this violate the core definition of altruism? That actions are to be made solely for their own sake and without an expectation of personal gain as a result?
As I’ve written before regarding altruism, I believe the concept is inherently flawed. Short of throwing oneself on a grenade to save one’s comrades at the expense of their own life, I fail to see how the overwhelming majority of actions that are considered “altruistic” are truly such. Whether altruistic actions are born from hopes of quid pro quo behavior or even as a means of inflating one’s own sense of self, nearly all actions have a benefit to the one performing them – unless one is just self-destructive and performs only actions that harm themselves. So how can one be purely selfless with discourse? I don’t believe that it is possible.
One of the questions I often get by those that know I am sociopathic is whether I perform altruistic actions. I would rather turn the question back on those asking. Are they altruistic for anything but the most minor of actions? Would their altruism extend to actions that actually took effort? Or is their “altruism” really a result of societal expectation and self-aggrandizement?
I think that I am more honest with what is “altruistic” and what is not. Like most everyone, I hold doors open and tip nicely and a slew of other “thoughtless” actions. I don’t consider whether my actions are zero-sum or negative-sum for me in these situations; they are simply too trivial and are demanded by society. Yet so many others will chalk up such as examples of altruism. No, altruism needs to rise to a higher level. Not just a higher-level, but to a degree above and beyond what society has engrained into group expectations. The alternative is a circle jerk of self-aggrandizement that was gained without effort.