Thursday, August 13, 2009

Egoism v. Altruism

Can people ever be truly altruistic in their actions or is it all based in egoism? This is a question that receives much attention in the field of social psychology, but I hadn't really formed any particular opinion about it when we discussed the topic in my social psychology class last year. I have one friend in my program who is utterly convinced that everyone is egoistic, that nobody is truly altruistic.

This question became more personal to me as I started thinking about different friendships and relationships that I have had and my motivations behind my actions. There have been a few times, and more in the last few years, when the distinct thought entered into my mind that with a particular person, a few of them, where I wanted to be serviceable/other-person oriented, and not self-absorbed. Consequently, much of how I would associate with these people would center around doing things that I thought served their needs, e.g. provide a listening ear, make meals, paint houses, etc.

As I talked with a friend about one person in particular, she began saying that my actions weren't entirely selfless because much of my motivation rested in trying to win her over and be a source of her happiness (which is probably another blogpost for another day). But this got me thinking about this question: even if my motivation was a little bit different, doesn't it always end up that somehow whatever service I provide ends up serving some kind of egoistic purpose? I know that it might appear to be a little cynical to look at it that way, but is it necessarily a bad thing?

Let's take the example of serving a mission. What are the various reasons that a person serves?
  • Maybe parents will hold some kind of financial motivation for the child, like buying them a car or pay for college when the missionary returns
  • To not disappoint parents or friends
  • At the behest of a girlfriend
  • Because the prophet says so
  • Because of a testimony of the gospel
  • Because the missionary has true Christ-like love for other people and desires their salvation as much as his/her own
Of course the list is not exhaustive, but each one has an underlying motivation for serving. There are material considerations, a sense of responsibility, obligation to loved ones, and then obligation to self and to God. Although some of the motivations are more virtuous than others, do they not all have some element of self-serving as well? Even in the instances where a person is purely motivated by love for God or for others, that someone derives some measure of pleasure in doing so is still somewhat self-serving, is it not?

What matters then is not so much the question of whether service rendered is truly egoistic or altruistic, but how pure are the motives and intents of the person serving. It is an interesting paradox to think that someone can be selfless in providing service to others, while also being selfishly motivated.

I started writing that last paragraph, that last sentence in particular, but I'm not sure that you can separate the root cause from any of those motivations, which is egoism. This question matters because it helps to delineate what is good, better, and best. I think in the end there is a good kind of selfishness and a bad kind, and knowing the difference helps us identify what ends up being either kind or malicious, or somewhere in between.

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