I wrote this for my freshamn composition class. I'm curious what people think.
Altruism is described as selfless giving on the part of an individual to benefit others but not itself. An altruistic person would be able to do something that would not bring advantage or pleasure to themselves in any way, solely in the interest of bringing advantage or pleasure to others. While the romantic in us would like to believe that selfless giving is possible, I believe that the idea of altruism is purely that, an idea. No one in this world gives without getting something in return, whether it is compensation in the future, the pleasure of pleasing another, or a good name for their generosity. Everyone gives in hoping to receive, despite what we as an optimistic society want to believe. Altruism is simply an idea, not a working way of life.
There are many different arenas in which the idea of altruism can try to hold it’s ground, including religion, sex, and martyrdom. In each one of these categories altruism is believed to be a working philosophy and is held up as an ideal to aspire to. But do any of them really stand up to scrutiny based upon research, I think not. In each one of these areas, anything that could be on the surface mistaken for altruism can be uncovered to be motivated by more selfish means. Under it all, it comes back to the person performing that action.
In the field of religion let’s use Saint Katherine Drexel as an example. St. Katherine was born to a very wealthy family in Philadelphia in 1858. Her father was an extremely wealthy investment banker and she had all she would have ever needed in her life. However, at the age of 30 she renounced all the luxuries that she had grown up with in favor of becoming a Nun and taking a vow of poverty. She used her money, which was an estimated $20 Million in inheritance from her father, to educate and help the poor. Not long after she started a missionary order, The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, with the encouragement of the current Pope, to help underprivileged African and Native Americans. St. Katherine’s order operated 40 grade schools, 12 high schools, Xavier University, and three houses of social service at the time of her death; she was canonized as a Saint in 2000. (MSN Encarta)
St. Katherine would seem like an excellent candidate for altruism, she gave up all of her worldly possessions to help people in need and actually helped a lot of underprivileged children. The problem with that is she gave them up for her religion. In the Bible it says "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Matthew 19:24). This shows that she gave up the money, the power, and the lifestyle; all in the hope of helping her soul get to heaven. The act, as generous as it was, was not entirely selfless as she assuredly thought she would be rewarded in heaven for helping her fellow man. It’s not as though what she did wasn’t for good reasons and that it didn’t accomplish good things, but in the subconscious of her mind she knew she was helping herself get into the Kingdom that she believed in so fervently.
Another aspect of human life that is deeply ingrained in the collective culture of our species is our attraction to other people in a romantic and sexual nature. It’s not uncommon for people to adopt a very humble nature when dealing with their significant other. People often will deny themselves things that they love or enjoy in hopes of making the other person happy. In a sexual connotation it is not uncommon for one partner to ignore their own desires in hoping to satisfy the other person’s needs and desires.
This would seem a very altruistic attribute: a person totally ignoring their wants and needs in the most intimate of settings in hopes of making their partner happy. On the surface this seems to be a solid argument for altruism, albeit a bit animal. The problem is just that though: animal. Scientist have long said that what really attracts people to their partners is scents excreted through the skin that alert a person to the presence of someone whose genes are a good match with their own.(Rhoads) Hence the whole purpose of romance is reproduction and the passing of one’s own genetic legacy. As for the “selflessness” during the act itself, that too is entirely selfish. Numerous studies have shown that people often derive more pleasure from pleasing others than from being pleased themselves. (Goldman) So in a roundabout way, making it all about the other person really is making it all about themselves.
And lastly is what many deem to be “the ultimate sacrifice”, martyrdom. When one person lays down their life for anther person or for a cause it is often looked upon as the most selfless act one can commit. It makes sense that this could be considered altruism in practice since the person will no longer be around to reap whatever rewards they will receive from their actions, so what benefit could it possible be to them? Well that depends on what they died for.
In this age of religious radicalism and violence we have heard all too often about how Muslim extremists believe that if they die for Islam they will be rewarded in heaven with gratuitous amounts of virgins to wait on their every call. This shows very clearly that although these men are dieing for something they truly believe in, it is under no circumstances selfless.
However that is just an extreme case of martyrdom. Not everyone who dies for something or someone is a religious extremist and believes they will be rewarded in the next life for their sacrifice, so what about just ordinary people? A good example would be the all too human portrait of martyrdom that Charles Dickens paints at the very end of his classic novel A Tale of Two Cities. At the very end Sydney Carton takes the place of his beloved Lucie’s husband, Charles Darnay, at the guillotine so that he may live on with her. This would seem to be a very generous and selfless move; he is dying for the husband of the woman he desperately loves. However, as he is being lead to the monstrous chopping blade that has claimed so many people throughout history and the novel; he begins to dream of what people will say of him when he is gone.
He begins to dream of how Lucie and Darnay will tell their children of the honorable Sydney Carton, who laid down his life to save their father. He envisions himself almost deified in their eyes for his “selfless” sacrifice. Although the closing line of the novel is one of the more beautiful passages in English literature, it is also entirely selfish. He says “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done before; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” (Dickens, 372) He, in a way, gives own eulogy and tells the world, or at least himself, that by doing this he is at peace with himself and all that he has done in his life. Noble? Yes. Selfless? No.
In no way do I mean to discredit what any of these people have done for themselves, other, people, or the world. All of them that have done good things are better people for it. St. Katherine in her giving, ordinary people in their passion, and Carton in his sacrifice, all have left a positive mark on the world and themselves. I do not mean to detract from the things they have done nor out words in their mouths or thoughts in their mind. All I have said in this piece is that total and complete selflessness, altruism, is nothing more than a beautiful idea. A goal for all of us to shoot for, but something none of us can ever reach. But that doesn’t mean we should stop doing things for the betterment of others, we should just know that somewhere in our action we are helping ourselves as well.