Is it possible to do things with absolutely no expectation of a return? Is there such a thing as a completely selfless act? The hills resound with a definite “yes” and murmurings of “Mother Theresa and Gandhi…”, but is this really true? And after deep introspection, as my lips form the word “no,” I feel the gathering clouds of reproach from volunteers, read the disclaimers “the opinions stated by the author…” and hear the beating on my door of humanitarians carrying stakes and torches. I imagine you grabbing your iPads and laptops to either throw them at something or start hitting the keyboards, but bear with me a moment, OK?
A while ago, I posited my take on there being no such thing as pure altruism to a close friend who responded, horrified, “How can you say something like that? Look at all the things you do for others. You don’t do it to get anything back, you just do it. That is extremely unfair to all the other people who volunteer their time and effort and money…” and bla-bla-bla. And nothing I said could calm the distress of ears that cannot hear, and a mind that will not see.
Ayn Rand postulated that whatever one did in self-interest, was automatically in the interest of others. You do what you do for you, and you cannot help but benefit others. Her “morality of selfishness.” And, if all people were good and all were kind and gentle, and all followed a code of ethics that considered their fellow man, this would be true. However, Ms. Rand, wasn’t taking into account that there exists on this planet those who delight in walking all over others and destroying them to get what they want. They glory in clambering for position at the top while stepping on the necks of those at the bottom—do what you do for yourself, and the others be damned—the immorality of selfishness.
And then there are those considered saints and humanitarians who do things for others without apparent self-consideration. All for the other, regardless of self. But, again, is this strictly true? I have looked deeply into myself for the answers of why I do what I do and, if all who live similar lives are absolutely honest with themselves, why they do what they do too.
There’s a philosophy in ethics called “enlightened self-interest” which states that those who act to further the interests of others ultimately serve their own self-interest, i.e. whatever one does to serve the good of all, ultimately is for the good of themselves—doing well by doing good. This philosophy is picked up with glee by the business community to encourage profits out of their employees.
But let us remove any monetary reward and relook at the wording of Ayn Rand’s objectivism and the ethics expressed by the “enlightened self-interested”—whatever one does in self-interest automatically benefits others versus whatever one does to serve others automatically benefits the self. I’m struggling to find a difference in the thought processing and, no, I’m definitely NOT a Randian.
When we remove the power and money motive, and replace them with happiness and joy, both schools of thought are valid. It’s the place we do things from that makes the difference. From a place of love, we do things in self-interest, making ourselves happy—helping others—automatically benefiting others (Rand rolls over in her grave) or, in the spirit of enlightened self-interest, we help others which gives us great joy.
So, am I being completely selfless in my constant journey to help others? Absolutely not. I thrive on what I get back. I wallow in the joy of making someone smile. I giggle at making another happy, and I delight in giving. In order to get, I give. Selfishly selfless. And bang goes pure altruism.