Truisms Concerning Altruism

“There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Benevolent Lunch”?

In the tenth grade, they introduced us to Hobbes and Rousseau. They introduced these men only inasmuch as was necessary to raise the question: are humans inherently good, or are they inherently evil? It is not difficult to answer this question, but it is difficult to answer it convincingly.

We all do things that might be called good, and we all do things that might be labeled evil. Defining one of these temperaments as our natural state involves a heavy burden of proof. The professor who taught me most of what I know about history and war said, in his opening lecture, that these things were both part of human nature—you could not explain war by appealing to an ultimately sinful human nature.

If good and evil were opposing political forces, I would grant that we behave in bipartisan ways. But I would like to question something. What could possibly motivate us to do things that do not benefit us enough to warrant the requisite effort? Furthermore, if we cannot answer this question, is there anything that we can legitimately call altruism?

In a moment of spite, I might tell someone that he does things only for his own gain. Upon reflection, I might find it difficult to escape this accusation myself. If an action were truly selfless, I’m not sure we could have motivation to do it. The help given to others may be no more than investment in good will; the money donated to charity may be borne out of guilt or self-righteousness. Even the most altruistic acts may be committed only to quell smouldering empathy. In committing any action, we can never demonstrate that we are clean from benefits, be they emotional, existential or material.

We cannot prove that our actions transcend an overarching quest for personal gain, and I consider it impossible to verify the existence of altruism at the highest level. What I do contend, however, is that some forms of altruism are higher than others. What I am certain of is that some are different than others. The Christian mandate for altruism resonates with me, and it demands different motivation than the kind of benevolence most often discussed in classrooms and lecture halls.

For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?

[Matthew 5:46, ESV]

There are many miles between good treatment of a friend, and true love for a friend. I could focus in on this distinction, but there are far greater leaps between the love for an enemy and the love for a friend—the love for a friend is as natural as the hate for an enemy.

Christians forget that Jesus did not disregard ambitious desire—he spoke of gaining spiritual rewards, and he gave reasons for acting certain ways. We cannot prove that an act is selfless, and a truly selfless state might even be considered pathological, motivated by nothing rational at all. I am impacted by this aspect of the Christian message: we are not to deny personal desire, we are only to desire differently. The motivation of desire is inescapable. Those who fancy themselves rid of it are deluded, and this shows plainly in their actions.

Thus, it is not my goal to attain altruism in an absolute sense. I cannot do this, but I can be altruistic in the purest sense possible. I believe that the altruism that comes with faith is greater than the altruism that comes with a birth certificate. Love for one’s enemies—for those who cannot even offer us the gratitude we seek—is totally contrary to our natural priorities. This quality, among others, is borne out of a mindset that cannot be feigned, and all attempts to emulate it result only in self-righteousness or displays of religiosity.

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