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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