Altruism, the Offspring of Guilt. Part 1. The Problem

By Philosophical Musings of Chic Hollis

Have you ever taken a “guilt trip?” If you are a resident of the Bay Area in Northern California, you take one every time you drive into San Francisco. At least I feel that I am taking one when I see the cardboard signs held by shabbily dressed beggars standing alongside the thoroughfares at corners where stop lights frequently detain a conscientious, law-abiding driver.

Of course, that negative experience could be a delusion of my imagination. I automatically presume that the human I see is honestly seeking a hand-out as a destitute victim of adverse circumstances beyond his or her control. Being “better-off” as a consequence of a kinder fate, I have a strong urge to help my unknown neighbor in his extremity with a contribution of something. My guilty reaction is recognized by our society euphemistically as “charitableness.” If such acts as mine were motivated by the “uncalculated consideration of, or regard for…others’ interests,” they would be defined by Webster as expressing “altruism.” A lofty “ism” much respected by social theorists of this geographical area. A desirable attitude that all mankind should adopt, we’ve been taught.

But can you really conceive of any act that is “uncalculated?” Most spontaneous acts of heroism for example are responses to internal messages that call on us to perform our “duty.” We then react as we have been taught in some training program to aid victims of disasters. Duty may be the prime motivator for someone to assume uncalculated risks. In contrast, being charitable involves a very personal act responding to guilt feelings rather than a call to duty.

Our parents and religious leaders teach us that individual selfishness has to be tempered by some concern for others: our siblings, our neighbors, or our friends. An altruistic act requires us to share our abundance or our meager resources with those deserving people who are less fortunate than we are. It calls on us to trade some of our future, undetermined pleasures for the immediate gratification we will receive from helping someone in distress right now. For those who have nothing material to share, it would be difficult to be charitable or altruistic, I think.

Someone like Jesus had something to share that wasn’t exactly material, but the consequences of receiving what he offered was an improved material state of health. We, too, can be considered charitable by giving of our time and energy, if the consequences benefit the recipient. However, could we do this in an uncalculated way? I doubt it. Providing someone else with something they need requires that we understand a priori that they are in need of something and that giving it to them would indeed benefit them. That reasoning is a form of “calculating,” isn’t it?

The further question of why we should automatically give anything to strangers definitely needs a calculated response from our decision-making consciousness. We have learned by the time we are adults that there are many poor people in our town, our state, our country, and on our planet. Most of us cannot afford to assist many others outside a deserving member of our own families who needs help. Even if we wanted to be charitable in an uncalculated or calculated way!

It’s a different story if you are rich and can “generously” give away possessions or money that won’t be missed. A gift, contribution, or donation to a charitable organization presumes that there is someone of authority who dispenses the collected funds. This person is expected to determine that there is an urgent need for helping the benefitted recipients who cannot individually and personally handle the challenges they are facing. By giving to one of the large eleemosynary institutions, the rich or not-so-rich contributors feel that they have done something commendable which merits some psychological and spiritual reward. The most apparent of these is eliminating guilt feelings of having more wealth than they might truly deserve. Without having any guilt feelings in the first place, why would anyone lessen their assets in this dog-eat-dog world? We hardly do anything in life without expecting some benefit, even if that meager benefit is just reducing the amount of daily negative feelings that contribute to our hoard of anxieties.

Is there any argument to justify that we should provide for others who may not want to provide for themselves? Who are too lazy, too crazy, too manipulative, or merely too addicted to drugs, gambling, or alcohol? Theoretically, we have a government who provides a “safety net” for those incapable of caring for themselves. The more wealthy of us are expected to more than tithe themselves by paying significant tax dollars to support all those responsible governmental entities and agencies.

Yet, there is that soft voice whispering into our consciousness that if we don’t give something to that poor, suffering beggar waving his cardboard poster at us, we are shirking our responsibilities as a “good Samaritan” citizen. Shame on us! How can we arrogantly ignore any one of God’s neglected creatures? Aren’t we here to help the weak, the sick, the abandoned in return for all the beneficial assistance others have kindly given to us? Shouldn’t we be worried about the widows, the orphans, the unemployed, and the infirm elderly? And what about those unseen foreigners who live in poverty in “third world countries” without adequate food, water, medicine, shelter, clothes – many struggling to survive epidemics?

If you aren’t squirming now, need I remind you of the abused domesticated animals, poor things?! Is there no end of the need for our participation in taking care of our unfortunate “brothers and sisters?” (And their abandoned pets?) What a very heavy burden of guilt we carry! And how few are our resources to share!

Without these pangs of guilt, we would be on our way, and those beggars who expected our help would have to seek assistance from those who are supposedly organized to help them. Not the charities, the safety net behind their safety net – the entities of our government’s bureaucracy who receive a distribution of tax revenue to do so. If these funds are inadequate, then let’s find out why. It could be that dishonest beneficiaries who receive monthly stipends are not serious about helping themselves with their problems. Or they are serious, but don’t have enough training or job opportunities or rehabilitation guidance available to escape their circle of failed efforts. Most likely, though, the government has thrown a serious amount of money at certain programs in vogue which haven’t been properly evaluated for their efficacy in reinstating these drop-outs to their productive place in society.

Are there solutions? To be Continued…

Chic Hollis is a longtime drummer and motorcyclist, who served in the US Air Force in North Africa. Married 4 times with 5 children born in 5 different countries on four continents, Chic is a politically independent citizen of the world interested in helping Americans understand the reality that is life overseas where many intelligent, educated, and industrious people aren’t as privileged as we are in the US. He studied Latin, Greek, Russian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and German and ran several large companies. Sadly, Chic Has left this planet and we miss him very much, but we are very pleased to display his amazing writing works.