On Altruism

The thing about altruism is that it doesn’t require recognition. I’ve come to believe that pure altruism requires a certain amount of – if not absolute – anonymity.

I was once in a position where I assembled newsletters and newspaper ads for a non-profit. I remember that a constant challenge was making room for the logos of all the businesses that had made donations – and sometimes even making sure the logo sizes were proportionally relative to those donations. And we dared not forget anyone. It wasn’t expressed in so many words, but they paid for their logo to be there. I also know a company that donates child car seats to the local police department around the holidays. First they pile them on the back of their truck, which has their logo on the side, and drive it in the parade. Good for them. I make no judgments; people give for different reasons, and it’s good for people to give. But this kind of giving is P.R., not altruism.

I’ve often wondered about some people I’ve observed in the military who supposedly joined out of a sense of purpose and duty to their country, yet when they get out of the military, they go around telling everyone and bringing it up at every conceivable opportunity, in order to receive the socially-required “thank you”. If a person joined out of a sense of duty, then why would they then feel the impulse to go around telling everyone? Again, I make no judgments – people have innumerable and complex motivations – and those who joined the military, police or fire department out of a sense of duty to us deserve our thanks. But if they feel entitled to that thank you, then it’s not altruism.

This is not a new idea; it’s a concept held dear in fairy tales and told through comic book heroes. “Who was that masked man!” they used to cry as the Lone Ranger galloped off into the sunset. Clark Kent was altruistic. Even Superman flew off before people had a chance to thank him.

These days, when I think of altruism, I think of how, every year around Christmas time, the Salvation Army discovers that someone dropped a very valuable gold coin into a kettle somewhere. Whoever it is that can afford to toss about solid gold coins every year apparently understands the true spirit of altruism.

Some people do good works or donate to charity with the knowledge that they’re developing a reputation as a philanthropist. They’re good people. Anyone can give to charity for the tax write-off. I’m not too sure about the merits of that one, but it’s not my place to judge. Some people volunteer, and then wear the T-shirt around town. It’s fun, it develops a sense of community and gets the word out about a cause; I’ve done it myself. Good people – hell, even bad people (people are complicated after all) – do good things, volunteer, give and demonstrate random acts of kindness.

But what if it’s done without receiving any sort of credit? Can it be done and kept a secret? And, if so, what does that mean?

Which has more value: a principle held perfectly and purely, or a thank you?

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2 Responses to “On Altruism”

  1. I guess you may want to put a twitter button to your website. I just marked down this article, but I had to make this by hand. Just my $.02 🙂

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