Selfless Good Deeds?

There’s an episode in the American TV series “Friends” that deals with the nature of moral acts. Phoebe thinks that acts are only truly good if they are unselfish. Joey is convinced that no act is ever totally unselfish because it is always preceded by reasoning and calculation. And ultimately the person doing the good deed wants to feel good or just be liked by others.

The episode ends with the ditzy Phoebe letting a bee sting her. She explains to her friends that it was good for the bee because its friends got to admire its courage, but she didn’t benefit from her selfless act at all — in fact, it was painful for her. Joey’s reply: “Uh, Pheebs, you know the bee probably died after it stung you?”

No one acts selflessly or totally out of pure altruism: Instrumentally rational people are completely convinced of that. And it surfaced again when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced he was giving 99 percent of his stock portfolio — around $45 billion — to a foundation. The term “philanthro-capitalism” immediately began making the rounds and others referred to “the world’s biggest marketing budget.”

But Zuckerberg’s opponents, as well as his defenders, agreed that the donation wasn’t made for totally altruistic reasons. And that was reason enough for some to find the whole thing objectionable, while others generously overlooked that flaw because it was outweighed by the benefits it would bring.

As part of a mechanistic worldview, there is no room for selflessness. The Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith observed, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.”

This view is reinforced by evolutionary theory (Charles Darwin) and psychological theory (Sigmund Freud). Thus, altruistic behavior — in as far as it doesn’t increase reproductive success — should disappear via natural selection. If it increased reproductive success, however, it would no longer be strictly altruistic.

The most powerful alternative to a mechanistic worldview comes from Immanuel Kant (The Metaphysics of Morals). The only good deed is one that happens for its own sake. The value of doing a moral deed doesn’t lie in its effects or in the motive for doing it, but solely in the compliance with obligations.

Is it true that people always consider their own advantage when they help others? Janusz Korczak was a Polish physician, teacher and author. In August 1942, he accompanied a group of children being transported from his orphanage to a Nazi extermination camp, although he knew that meant his death as well.

There are thousands of other examples of people risking their lives to save others — often complete strangers. At the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, those who fought against the Nazis are honored in The Righteous Among The Nations area. Non-Jews who opposed [the Nazis] are memorialized in the Garden of the Righteous, as well. It never occurs to anyone who reads their histories that any of them may have had selfish motives when they acted. They sensed what was right and just and then performed their deeds.

But how could that be? Perhaps in the dichotomy between egoism and altruism, there exist two primal experiences. Both are at home there because they complement one another. In the egoists logic, every action is preceded by an “I want” and, therefore, an “I” that wants to achieve an end and realize himself. Will and self-realization are inseparable. The focus of the altruist, on the other hand, is on the intrinsic value of the deed. The altruist helps the needy because they need help. He is faithful in order to be faithful. Whether he gets anything in return or not is immaterial to him. He readily accepts tautologies.

Only Mark Zuckerberg himself knows whether he is an altruist or not. But the world is made a little poorer if that possibility is removed right from the start.

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