The perils of altruism

14/06/2013 § 5 Comments

I once spoke to someone who ran a mentoring scheme for young aspiring entrepreneurs. Part of his task was to screen prospective mentors. He explained that he would always consider it a warning sign if a prospective mentor spoke of wanting to “give something back“. He sought instead mentors who viewed the relationship as one of mutual benefit to both sides.

Conventional thinking might find this surprising. What’s wrong with wanting to give something back? I believe it reveals a truth I’ve been pondering some time: altruism is bad for our health. Let me try to explain.

Altruism, defined in the concise Oxford dictionary as “regard for others as a principle of action”, is responsible for some really harmful and wasteful activities. This is because it is founded on a fundamental mistake. Ancient philosophywater drop and modern science point out that there is in fact no “other”. There is only one, and we are all part of that one. That is not to say we have no individuality, but we are all drops in one ocean.

The more we are able to see this oneness, the more we understand that the only thing to do is pay attention to ourselves and to act in the moment, where we are. I don’t want the cells in my liver to worry about what is going wrong in my skin or my lungs – let them simply look to being the best liver cell they can be.

Gandhi did not set out to kick the British out of India, he simply set out to help some individuals who, as it happened, were suffering as a result of the system the British established. In a similar vein, Mother Teresa is reported to have said: “You cannot do great things, you can only do small things with great love”. They saw the whole and served the part in front of them. If you want to serve the world and the planet, start with serving yourself and those around you and you will find that you cannot help but serve the whole. George Monbiot, the journalist, went overseas to developing countries to help them, and came to realise that the best way to help was to go home and seek to change things there.

When we start paying regard to others, we stop paying attention to our own actions. We end up like the mother of someone I met, who for years poured energy into caring for a gang of motorcyclists while wholly neglecting the needs of her own child. Too often altruism is a way of distracting ourselves, of ignoring what is right in front of our noses but is too painful to face. It is a way of ignoring the awkward truth that there is no-one to rescue us from our human predicament except ourselves.

When we see the poor in Africa as “other”, all we do is help, in some subtle way, to maintain their state of poverty. This is where so much of Western aid to Africa goes wrong. We think we know best, we think they need our help, whereas they just need our love.  We want to “give something back” but our motivation sours the gift.

The same fundamental error underlies so much of “corporate social responsibility”. If it is not genuine, or authentic, it is better not to do it at all. These businesses need to look to improve the way they do business, rather than continuing exploitative business practices and then handing back a tiny percentage of profits so they feel better.

I don’t buy fairtrade goods out of altruism. I buy them because I believe it is in my interests that tea and chocolate growers in Africa are able to eat properly and can afford to educate their children.

Rather than seeking to be virtuous in giving, we need instead to develop the practice of seeing ourselves in others, and thus glimpsing our place in the grand landscape of life. If we can expand our sense of self to include all others, rich or poor, black or white, human or nonhuman, we cannot fail to serve the entire community of life.


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§ 5 Responses to The perils of altruism

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  • Hi Patrick, long time no see – I hope you are well. What you’ve written is superb and I’d like to compare notes with you on enlightened self-interest in CSR. If you’re interested, could you possibly email me at rabw at me dot com and I’ll send you a paper I’ve just finished, which is about to be published in the AMED Journal. Warm regards, Rob Barnard-Weston

  • donsalmon says:

    “ancient philosophy and modern science point out that there is in fact no “other”. There is only one, and we are all part of that one. That is not to say we have no individuality, but we are all drops in one ocean.”

    Hmmm. Did I miss something? I’ve only been subscribed to this blog for a fairly brief time. I had thought I just happened onto the blog of an unusually poetic and thoughtful intellectual.

    But a mystic?!!? (though I imagine you would most likely eschew that label).

    Not that I’m not delighted, just surprised. I figured at least (being a lawyer??) you’d keep such things under your hat.

    The only tricky part about this is that of course, “altruism” as superficially conceived could even be thought of as an offense against the obvious fact of our Oneness (which is not the same as oneness!).

    But for the Donald Trumps of the world, well, they will hear this and think, “yes, of course, “I” am the only one.”

    Well, I didn’t quite say it right, but it’s sort of like in the Bhagavad Gita, in chapter 3, where Krishna keeps twisting Arjuna’s mind around – “work hard” – don’t work at all – you’re not the worker – but work hard to hold the world together – you have no goals – but be sure you work hard to kill the warriors on the opposing side” and back and forth till Arjuna’s mind is spinning so fast he just gives up and then gets what Krishna is saying.

    this is getting worse and more confusing. sorry. Just saying I love the theme but it can be misunderstood by those who are so far from “Oneness” that they’ll simply take it as confirming their obsession with their own uniqueness.

    Welcoming the mystic Andrews!

    • Thanks Don 🙂 A mystic – I don’t know. I have no objection to the moniker but don’t feel ready to own it yet. I just started writing about altruism and then this stuff came out.
      I like what you wrote about the Bhagavad Gita – every chapter does say something different. That’s the point I suppose – that acknowledging the mystical means recognising that life is paradoxical and if you think you have understood it you really haven’t.
      Who knows what I might write next…

      • donsalmon says:

        I like that – don’t know what you might write next. My favorite days (weeks, years?) are when I can say, “I have absolutely no idea how life led me here”.

        who knows what’s next? (particularly helpful in this time of near-total world meltdown!)

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