In the past few years, I have found myself involved in a couple projects that I call "altruistic". Probably the best example is having visited the Embera Indians in Panama, met a Peace Corp worker, and thereafter provided a mini Computer Lab to a village that has no running water or electricity. I have some mixed feelings about the whole situation, but the involvement was reticent of decades past when I was involved with troubled youth in America and medical missions in Mexico while in my 20s. I spent probably a total of 5 years of this short life with the motivation of helping others or "saving souls". I still have no idea what the lasting "results" are of those years and dollars spent.
On the other hand...the lessons I learned during those altruistic years...all the people and cultures I experience even while making no money...helped me learn things about life and people you would never learn at Harvard. My understanding of the human condition by both reading and experiencing so many different facets of humanity tremendously affect the person I am today.
After all my reading and youthful conditioning...I still can`t relate totally to Gandhi, Mother Teresa...or even Jesus. While they all in their own ways confronted many realities of humanity and the "meaning of life"...I´m not sure any of them would know what to do with the world we live in today.
Gandhi for me was a replication of Jesus but for the Hindu and Indian races who were so subjugated during his times by white British rule in both India and in South Africa. Like in most religious movements...these movements were born out of reaction to subjugation, suffering and tyranny of one race or nation over another. While some would say "God" is to blame for creating this inhumane nonsense, others seem to think "God" is the answer. Interesting, huh? I have come to think we humans only have OURSELVES to blame for accepting social injustices, wherever and for whoever they are experienced.
To be true to her own cause, Mother Theresa had to practically leave the Catholic church. It is interesting to note that Mother Teresa, the ultimate altruist of our age, had long bouts of doubt regarding her faith and original intents of her "mission". She is quoted as writing...
Where is my faith? Even deep down ... there is nothing but emptiness and darkness ... If there be God—please forgive me. When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul ... How painful is this unknown pain—I have no Faith. Repulsed, empty, no faith, no love, no zeal, ... What do I labor for? If there be no God, there can be no soul. If there be no soul then, Jesus, You also are not true.
Some of Jesus own reported final words when dying on the cross were "My God my God...why have you forsaken me?" I can`t help but wonder if in that final moment of dying, Jesus himself seriously doubted the meaning of all the good deeds he had done "for his Father".
When a person performs altruistic acts, it is almost impossible to know the true intent or motivation behind those actions. Is it purely out of "love" or caring, or is the action based on guilt for having more than the person you are helping? Do we help others in order to "be a good person" which makes US feel better...or do we do it "under orders from God" in order to have a "reward in heaven"? How many altruistic persons are truly able to look deep inside to REALLY know the purpose of their altruistic act?
Many people view "selfishness" as the opposite of altruism. Most religions preach that selfishness is immoral or evil. While I grew up on that religious track, I was very challenged by Ayn Rand`s book "The Virtue of Selfishness" which defined selfishness and her reaction to the word`s wrong meaning with the following...
(I define Selfishness as)..."concern with one's own interests. The equation of selfishness with evil, Rand said, has caused "the arrested moral development of mankind" and needs to be rejected.
I have seen much generosity in my life...both towards myself and towards others. I have at times been altruistic...and at other times selfish. Having studied communications and "words" to a significant extent, I always find it interesting to hear people discuss their altruistic activities or actions. I have often heard people say "I am happiest when I am giving to others", or "It made me feel so good to give or help "so and so"...". Doesn`t sound very "sacrificial" to me.
In addition, I have seen extravagant boasting about "giving". You only have to spend 5 minutes on most Evangelical TV programs in America to hear the rantings of extreme "givers" who boast how much money they sent to such and such mission...or how they received "ten fold" in return for whatever they had given to that program or church. Whenever I have observed this, I have been reminded of the words of Jesus when he was quoted as saying
Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:1-4)
I think I have evolved to a realistic viewpoint on giving and altruism...at least for me. It is probably a unique blend of my religious upbringing tied to some original views on what it means to be a "Humanitarian". I tend not to give money to institutions or third parties to distribute to someone else. I have grown to be very distrusting of most such institutions...from NGO types like the "Red Cross", "March of Dimes", UNICEF and others...to religious organizations such as "World Vision" and the various TV "ministries". Most that I have seen...some from way too up close...have involved a high percentage of administration and overhead to where the actual "mission" receives a small percentage of the money given. Many of these organizations also put demands or qualifiers in order for the poor or victims to get help. They have to attend certain meetings, certain churches or perhaps sign up to back certain political movements in order to receive the handout. I`m just not seeing the results from this form of "altruism".
Now lets think a couple minutes about familial "altruism". After all, this is probably where the most "charity" is exchanged within humanity. Fortunes tend to be built and based on multi-generational exchanges within certain cultures and families. By "luck" or destiny, some of us were born into families of wealth and education. Most upper-class families I have observed tend to be substantially about preserving or making more of their estate for future generations. An interesting footnote along this line might be that some of the greatest fortunes ever made were by individuals who came from poverty or underprivileged backgrounds. I think it is rare that this happens, but when it does, it comes from motivations where the individual has nothing to lose and everything to gain to take great risks...that sometimes turn into great rewards. On the other hand, some of the greatest fortunes LOST have been at the hands of those who never made a dime of their own. The game of life seems to often be played in the arena of who will make the fortune and how many family members will it take to spend or waste it all. This seems to be a never ending cycle in history that speaks to character differences between the acheivers and the "users".
There is no doubt in my mind that it is better to teach a person to fish than to give them fish. Same with money...it is better to help someone "make their own" than to give them unlimited amounts to spend or more likely "waste". It has been my observation that we humans don`t respect money we have not made ourselves. Human nature I guess. Herein lies my fundamental difference with traditional "socialism" or communism. Redistribution of wealth is rarely respected by those on the receiving end. While there are obvious cases of societal members who deserve or need our altruism and support...that number is not nearly as high as today's hoards clamoring for those handouts.
For me the best model for both giving and receiving of altruistic acts is a mixture of my Judeo Christian roots and the more humanist manifestos I have been undoubtedly influenced by. I think "to whom much is given, much is required". I believe this goes for the "receiver" as well as the source. I think "sharing" is meant to be passed on. Any rational person knows we can`t take material wealth with us after we die. Therefore, money and "things" are only meaningful as a form of combustible life-force while we are living. It primarily serves as a "measure" of our productivity and influence in our short lives. Our legacy beyond this life often hinges on what we did with what we had and what we left behind or built with it. Some "star" producers can blow millions on cocaine and fast toys like planes, boats and cars. Other producers are like the "millionaire next door" who hardly ever spends a dime and never flaunts what they possess. I think both extremes can be quite unhealthy in this life. People shouldn`t feel guilty about spending and enjoying what they have earned...but some should obviously feel guilty about what they have wasted in self destructive ways while leaving in their wakes millions of people who would have better used their luck and fortune.
So, in summary, I think there is virtue in Selfishness...and there is virtue in Altruism. It all comes down to motivations and purpose. For me there is no great pride in inherited wealth. Sure, it is okay to be proud of your family and previous generations who HOPEFULLY gained their wealth honestly and with integrity. Unfortunately history has shown that many great fortunes are built via dishonesty, stealing, slavery or other terrible human habits. There is no great pride in stealing...unless I guess that is your only profession or talent.
The most interesting and respectable individuals of wealth I have known were those who "made their own". These people tend to be of great character, hard workers, disciplined and self sacrificing. The luckiest people I have known are the hardest working ones. These people also tend to be the most responsible "givers" in that they expect the receiver to respect what it took to make the money or goods being charitably given. To that extent they might be called "selfish" givers because of their expectations...but I think that is a healthy form of "selfishness".
So...is there virtue in selfishness? Probably. Is there virtue in Altruism? Sometimes. Depends on your motivation...in both cases.