On Altruism

One of the more difficult philosophical paradoxes is the question: does true altruism exist?  It’s certainly an interesting question, and one that I’ve been thinking about for a week or so, ever since I came across this passage in Matthew.

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:1-4).

Altruism is easy to define: it is simply “unselfish regard for, or devotion to, the welfare of others” (MW). It is decidedly more difficult to identify. The key is the word “unselfish,” and the rub is in unravelling what unselfish behavior really means. I can’t think of a single act of truly altruistic behavior that I’ve performed in my entire life, because in retrospect, there was always some benefit to myself. Even if I gave of myself and told no one, I felt a sense of satisfaction. It can be an expensive way to buy satisfaction, and it is certainly one of the most selfless acts, but there is still a (barely) selfish motivation on the periphery.

In the above passage from Matthew, Christ tells us to be private about our charity and service of the needy. (The next few verses are also some of my favorite–they tell us to be private about our prayer, and not to pray for the benefit of others, but to keep our prayer to the Lord behind closed doors.) This privacy, He says, will please the Father, for it means that we are doing it for Him, and not to elevate ourselves in the eyes of our peers.

Charitable acts make us feel good. They make us feel connected. They make us feel righteous. Helping others, in short, makes us feel better about being ourselves. One thing that has always ruffled my feathers is vainglorious boasting. I hate braggarts. Even so, I have been guilty, in past moments of weakness, of crowing about a charity to which I’ve donated. In the future, I must be mindful to keep acts of service or charity between only myself and God.

In the end, I’m not sure that truly altruistic behavior exists. Even in the context of what Christ tells us in the above message, He mentions a reward. Even if that reward is simply that the Father is pleased with me, does that reward preclude selflessness? I think there’s certainly an argument to be made.

Ultimately, though, I think in the context of Christianity, I must shift my understanding of the definition of altruism. Perhaps instead of simply restricting altruism to unselfish behavior, I can redefine it as unboastful, humble, and modest regard for, or devotion to, the welfare of others in the service of God. In the end, only he can know my true heart, and whether I am doing something for Him, or for myself.

On a related note–after having re-read those passages–I’m not certain whether I should offer my written prayer in this space. I’m not really certain that anyone is reading it besides myself and God, but it still feels as though it borders on boastfulness. On the other hand, typing a prayer often helps me put words to what my heart is trying to say. A difficult choice, but for now, in the unlikely event that someone reads this and it might help them to articulate their own, similar thoughts, I will continue to write them.

Prayer:

Father, help me see my own heart, so that I know that my actions are in your service and in the service of others, and help me to be as selfless as is humanly possible. Thank you for today, and for this lesson in humility.

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