Thursday, October 06, 2005

What's In It For Me?

Good starting article for the discussion of charity giving, and just what the f*ck is in it for me?:

WE must be really good people. By the end of last week, American charities had raised more than $1.4 billion to help survivors of Hurricane Katrina, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy. The Red Cross said that it alone had received more than $1 billion in pledges and donations.

But are we really as selfless as all that? Is our willingness to deprive ourselves to give money to an anonymous refugee simply driven by a disinterested desire to do good? Biologists, psychologists and economists who have studied such acts of goodness say there is more to altruistic behavior than meets the eye.

I've run across more than one person who has used the 'they're only doing it because they want to feel good' line of defense when it came to defending their own selfishness/greed. There is, I think, obviously some truth in this statement - that is, I often donate money so that I'll feel good, and I often feel good after I donate money. So, what does that mean? That I'm selfish? That I'm vain? That I should not donate money or help in some other way, if I want to not be selfish and/or vain?

The article continues:

In most altruistic acts, there is something in it for the giver. "At one level, altruism has a selfish component to it," said the economist Gary Becker, a pioneer in the analysis of altruistic giving.

People get several things from acting altruistically. There's the enlightened self-interest: the needy may feel they are more likely to receive help when they themselves are in trouble. Then there's the inner glow that comes from acting according to one's ideals: be it giving to needy children or to church on Sunday. Having a good deed made known also has its glory, as well as avoiding the stigma of not contributing when everyone else in the congregation, alumni association or social club has.

These factors help explain why typically fewer than 1 percent of contributors to a given cause are anonymous, researchers say, or why people love to lug their stuff around in tote bags with the logo of their public radio station. Corporations virtually never give without trumpeting the act in a news release.

But a lot of the things I do in life - be it eating, showering, jogging, giving money, volunteering, etc. - I do because 'it makes me feel good', but it's not the only reason I do those things. In addition to feeling good after all of these tasks, I get additional benefits. I eat to live. I shower to stay disease-free. I jog to keep the beer-belly from getting out of control (vain!), for pure enjoyment (selfishness!), and so I'm a generally happier person (partly vain!). I give money/volunteer to make other people's lives better, and to hopefully have some indirect positive effect on my own life (vain!).

So, should we not do something if it makes us feel good? I feel good - altruistic - when I vote. Should I stop voting? Obviously not. I feel good when I go to work. I feel good when I do well on an exam. I feel good when I drink beer. Should I quit my job, fail my exams, and swear off alcohol? Not likely, friends.

Is there a commonsense answer to this jaded view of altruism - where someone like Mahatma Ghandi was not the most generous person the world has ever known, but was actually the most selfish person the world has ever known? Jesus Christ, the most selfish man the world has ever known?

Maybe we can turn the argument around? Suppose you don't give money to Katrina victims because you want to use it for your new flat screen tv instead. Are you not being selfish because you'll be able to enjoy your new flat screen tv? Of course. You could argue that you really want it so your kids can watch their favorite cartoons in high def, but then you'd still be selfish, right, because you want to 'feel good' by giving your children a flat screen for their cartoon-watching activies?

Seems like a very obvious answer. Isn't it obvious that Mother Theresa was more altruistic than Ronald Reagan? Yes, but I still can't put into words why it wasn't more selfish/vain for Mother Theresa to do what she did, than for Ronald Reagan to do what he did.

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

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