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22 Rising above altruism
On one level, the word
altruism is the empty set. It has a definition but contains
no elements. Why no substance? Psychological hedonism
teaches that selfless concern for others gives satisfaction,
which is a selfish reward. (Nothing is completely
selfless.) To avoid circular reasoning, let us rephrase the
question. We ask merely whether an action is
beneficial. There is no need to isolate a beneficiary or to
define “selfish” by distinguishing self from others.
Self-oriented passages of
the Old Testament are isolationist and genocidal, separating “us”
from “them” (the group level of “self” and “non-self”). On
the other hand, some passages require us to be fair to “others”
whether they are called strangers, foreigners, gentiles, or
aliens—especially when such people are already “among you.”
The gentler passages acknowledge some level of universal kinship
that hints at equality. Modern enlightenment goes even
farther to establish human equality; we collaborate, and our
progress does not separate self from others.
Self is not
meaningless. Of course there is still self-control!
Respecting others as equal to self requires a great deal of
discipline. I must distinguish between self that I control
and others that I do not. However, the same distinction is
not used in dispensing benefits. We are enriched
together (all receive vicarious joy) when any one of us
If I do not place my
identity, my personhood, ahead of yours, it follows that lesser,
material assets are distributed easily. There is no motive
to be more important by possessing more. Equality prevails
and jealousy is gone.
This means functional
equality. As illustration, consider that I am satisfied
with single room occupancy or a tiny bungalow, while the
President requires an extensive mansion because of the function
it plays in his schedule. When he no longer utilizes all
the space, he is ready to return to the bungalow. In
another context, my profession requires that I have a good
computer set up precisely for the work I do. Nobody defaces
the equipment or changes my settings. However, my function
does not require that I own the computer. It can be common
property assigned to my stewardship during my waking hours.
After my functional use, it is available as needed for the common
good. It is easy to have this disconnection from material
things because I am disconnected from selfish
possessiveness. Control of my self enables the joy in our
The word altruism implies
a certain distinction between self and others—a distinction that
is not present in the higher orders of life. While
retaining individual integrity, we share joy that does not
rank discrete silos. Benefits rest on and accrue to
us in common when we rise above altruism.
Being For Others Blog copyright © 2020 Kent Busse
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