I have long held the theory that altruism does not exist. I believe all acts are selfish, or possibly better phrased, self serving.
I was recently talking to a friend and I modified my theory. I believe altruism does exist, but is so rare that what we often think of as altruism is not even close. I struggle to think of one person I think is truly altruistic. Maybe Carl Rogers (I saw the man do therapy on tape, and it was grueling, but totally client centered. But then again, I don’t know how he was in his personal life.) Some say Mother Teresa was a Saint, and, thereby very likely, altruistic. Now, my lack of fan-hood for Christianity not withstanding, I think she was relatively tough, and thereby, not really altruistic. Although I can not provide a concrete example, I believe I read she was often short with others and, in a general sense, like many other nuns I’ve heard about. Sorry, but my general impression of nuns is not one of altruism. Besides, aren’t some (or most) of their actions for rewards in heaven?
So let me further explain my theory. First, I should probably give credit to other therapists / theorists before me. Fritz Perls believed humans are selfish, and that realizing this and acting accordingly is actually healthy. I concur. I believe humans, by nature, are selfish. Freud believed in the Id as a driving force of the unconscious. The Id consists of the basic human instincts. It is often materialized as sexual desire and aggression. A two year old is predominately Id (as are those younger, but without the power to do anything for themselves). When they want something they try to get it, regardless of the other’s feelings. My daughter, who is a very sweet person today, used to kick the ass of those in her daycare who got in her way (I know what you are thinking, and yes, she gets it from her mother). Now she is one of the most considerate people I know.
So what happens to this selfish ID? We are taught morals, values, manners and the like. We learn to repress our Id desires and we form a Superego, a term which represents what we aspire to be following our indoctrination into our cultural norms and beliefs. In other words, we learn to be nice.
What this amounts to in my opinion is the subjugation of our selfishness into acceptable behavior. Now I am certainly not advocating going around acting out all of your Id impulses. What I am advocating is an acceptance that by being nice, you are still behaving in a self serving manner. In actuality we behave in a fashion that appears altruistic for the reward of our improved self image.
Basically, by being nice, being giving, being selfless, people are gaining the reward of feeling better about themselves as they act in accordance with values they have adopted. I raise this for several reasons. First, I am still inundated with work, but want to keep up with my site providing new material as often as I can muster. Second, it irks me when people act as if they are so selfless and only thinking of others. As an existentialist, it takes away their responsibility in their behavior and makes it seem as though they act for others, which I believe is inherently untrue. Third, I sincerely believe that the acceptance of one’s self serving nature is beneficial to healthy psychological well being.