Charity Programs


(From the book of Manfred Kets De Vries "Sex, Money, Happiness and Death")   

      What is altruism? It is derived from the Latin word “alter” (the other), literally translated as “otherism.” According to the French philosopher Auguste Comte, who coined the term about 150 years ago, altruism is devotion to the welfare of others, based on complete selfiessness. Altruism can be viewed as a motivational state with the ultimate goal of improving another person’s welfare. Altruists are happy when others thrive, sad when they suffer. A truly altruistic act must be free of self-interest, a sort of transcendent self-sacrifice.

      Why do we engage in altruistic behavior? Why do we help others? There’s a very utilitarian answer to this question, which is that we help others because we have no choice, because it’s expected of us, because it is in our own best interest. Perhaps we do someone a favor because we want to ensure that the relationship continues or because we expect to see the favor reciprocated. The bond of reciprocity is a universal human pattern that plays an important role in all forms of human society.

      An interesting question arises when we speculate about whether our helping is always and exclusively motivated by the prospect of some benefit for ourselves, however subtly this plays out. For example, kinship is probably the most basic and widespread bond that exists between human beings. Most of us show kindness to our parents, spouse, children, and friends. In general, we tend to be most kind, most altruistic, to the people closest to us. A bias toward the interests of our own family, rather than those of the community in general, is a persistent tendency in human behavior, for good evolutionary and biological reasons.

      But can people transcend the bounds of kinship and self-interest and help out of genuine concern for the welfare of others, no strings attached? Can altruistic behavior be part of the human condition? Is it possible to engage in altruistic acts that we genuinely hope will go unnoticed? Or do we always do whatever we do for selfish, egotistical reasons?

      The question whether true altruism exists has been heavily debated. The majority view among biologists and psychologists is that we are, at heart, purely egotistical, that we care for others only to the extent that their welfare affects our own. Everything we do, no matter how noble and beneficial to others, is really directed toward the ultimate goal of self-benefit. As a person’s actions can only be called altruistic if all selfish motives are entirely absent, as soon as people start to consider their own benefits, they are no longer acting altruistically. And since we’ll always have—in whatever we do—somewhat egotistical motives, true altruism doesn’t exist.

      Of course, some forms of egotism are obvious, as when we receive money or recognition for something we have done. Even if the rewards aren’t so obvious, we may still gain some benefits. For example, seeing a person in trouble may distress us. In spite of what seems to be a purely altruistic act, helping that person also can be seen as an instrumental way to relieve our own unhappiness. In addition—as an extra “selfish” motivator—it may even make us feel good and virtuous, as we compare ourselves to those who do nothing. From this strict interpretation of what constitutes an altruistic act, even the Mother Teresas of this world may have a selfish component woven into their behavior.

     This kind of nit-picking about what is selfish and what is selfiess may be an admirable exercise for social scientists, but do we really care? For most of us our motivations are not so clearly defined. Much of what we do may have an underlying component of self-interest, but it doesn’t mean that doing something with the ultimate goal of benefiting someone else is not within the repertoire of the human animal. Most of us show a mixture of selfish and selfiess motives in our behavior.

      Resorting once more to a personal example, during World War II my grandparents and my mother took care of many “onderduikers” (people who went into hiding for long periods of time to avoid being sent to concentration camps by the Nazis). When they took these people in, were my relatives thinking, “If I help these people now, they may do something for us later, when the war is over”? Were they showing off their bravery to other people in the village? Did the thought cross their mind that—because of their deeds—there was the possibility that they would later be honored by the state of Israel? I cannot ask them now what went through their minds when they decided to take a stand—but to the best of my knowledge, given the stories they told me when I was a child, I doubt that they were motivated by any of those thoughts. From what they told me, they saved these people because they felt it was the right thing to do. They were compassionate enough to give them shelter and to find them food, even at the risk to their own lives. They did what they did because helping others, under the circumstances, was important to them. In fact, the members of my family were  eventually honored as “Righteous Gentiles” by the state of Israel, but by that time my mother was the only one still alive.

      Obviously, human beings sometimes help others because they get something in return; whether it’s positive self-esteem, recognition from their peers, relief from the stress of seeing others in pain, or even avoidance of the guilt that they would experience later if they didn’t help. But the truth still remains that sometimes human beings help other people at the expense of their own well-being. Sometimes they help when there is no possible apparent reward for their behavior. Sometimes they help because it makes them feel better. Sometimes they help because it makes them happy to see other people happy. Sometimes they help because it gives meaning to their lives.

      The financier George Soros is a good example of an individual who has gone a long way toward finding meaning through altruistic behavior. Soros was born in Budapest to a prosperous Jewish family, but his childhood was disrupted by the Nazis’ invasion of Hungary. The family fied the country to escape the concentration camps. The uprooting of his family marked Soros for the rest of his life. They moved to London, where Soros chose to study philosophy. For practical reasons, he abandoned his plans to become a philosopher and joined a merchant bank. Over time, he established his own investment fund, which became extremely successful and remained so for many years. Instead of retaining all his earnings for himself, Soros used a generous share of his profits to create a network of philanthropic organizations. Much of the work of the Soros Foundations has been directed at Eastern Europe—starting with Hungary—where he has awarded scholarships, provided technical assistance, and helped modernize schools and businesses. His way of finding meaning in life has been through building stable democracies in these countries.

      I believe very strongly that our feeling of well-being increases when we give happiness away through active altruism. All the people I interviewed who were involved in volunteer activities reported an increased feeling of well-being when undertaking their particular volunteer project; they felt energized and alive. They reported that their activities filled a sense of inner emptiness—the price many pay for rampant individualism. We are happiest when we reachout and help others, moving from individualistic behavior to good citizenship.

      The Stoic philosopher Epictetus said, “All human beings seek the happy life, but many confuse the means—for example, wealth and status—with that life itself. This misguided focus on the means to a good life makes people get further from the happy life. The really worthwhile things are the virtuous activities that make up the happy life, not the external means that may seem to produce it.”

     Finding meaning through altruistic actions that go beyond rampant individualism brings people together, helping them to feel part of the human community and allowing them to feel good about themselves. Leo Tolstoy maintained that “The sole meaning of life is to serve humanity.” The people who work for the Red Cross, the World Economic Forum, or Medecins sans frontieres have a commitment to their work that’s hard to match. They radiate a sense of responsibility, nurturance, and civility, believing that their contribution makes for a better world. Their work gives them a deep sense of satisfaction and happiness. It is not what we get but who we become and what we contribute that gives real meaning to our lives.

      We must not forget that egotism is the anesthetic that dulls the pain of stupidity. It may be an effective tranquilizer, but it doesn’t diminish the foolishness of hanging on to such a life strategy. Narcissists and egotists end up lonely and unhappy. The self-focused, those who have difficulty reaching out to others, are among the unhappiest people in the world.



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