If we agree that an altruistic act is characterized as the unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others. Is it really possible to be altruistic?
On the surface one might suggest that it is possible. When I go shovel my neighbour's driveway when he is terminally ill with cancer – that could be considered truly selfless. Right? I mean he has does not have the ability to repay me for it in kind and if I refuse to accept any other sort of payment for the work then I have indeed met the obligation of a truly altruistic action. Right?
Could it be that there is more to it than that? Is it possible to think about every human action in the same way that Newton thought about physical objects in motion? If this is true than we should be able to construct something akin to a relational action equation with a zero SUM. What happens on one side of the relationship must be balanced with an equally significant action on the other part.
So I mow your lawn when you are out of town and you mow mine when I am out of town. This then in mathematical terms is a reciprocal relationship. You can easily see how we can put an equal sign between these two actions. But what about the snow shoveling scenario? It would seem that the two sides of the relationship are not equal since I will not be getting anything in return for my action. But is that really true?
If I do something for my neighbour, I still actually get some things coming back to me across that equation even if they do not come directly from the person I am serving. The first thing I get back is a good feeling. Add to that the idea that by doing this action I am meeting my obligations to my religious beliefs which add to my sense of accomplishment (in some religious systems these acts of kindness might qualify me for greater eternal rewards as well). Not only that this action gives me a better standing in society. When my neighbour’s kids come over and he mentions that I did this nice thing for him well they are impressed and feel they owe me something. Even if I refuse to accept anything – they will talk to their friends and family and in the end my personal rating go up. I have more money in the relationship bank. Now in fairness if I did it completely anonymously no one would know that I did it so that social capital would not increase for me.
But even in the case of the anonymous giver – the gift itself can be enough payment. Think of the anonymous donor of a million dollars to a hospital. Does she get increased status? Well it would seem not except that when it comes to being sick this person will ultimately benefit from the increased capacity of the organization to which they have given money. So we can’t say that the action is disinterested or that there is no return on investment.
If I do something out of a sense of duty – it means that I accept that there is already a deficit in my relational account. I accept that I owe society a debt of selflessness for what I have already received. Duty works like a mortgage in this case and it forces us to accept that we are inherently in a deficit position toward others. Duty constructs the self as a perpetually deficient entity that necessarily needs to repay the debt which the self has accrued – naturally.
So maybe there is no such a thing as a truly altruistic action. Maybe real selflessness is a fiction that works conveniently to reinforce our sense of duty toward each other which in turns us into depreciated goods in constant need to redeem our deficit…