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The Samaritan’s Dilemma, Part 2

Is there such a thing as altruism?  True altruism?

I’m a little farther along in The Samaritan’s Dilemma: Should Government Help Your Neighbor? by Deborah Stone.  The chapter I’m reading now is about altruism–does it really exist?  Thomas Hobbes (1651) felt that every act of kindness is really just a form of caring for one’s self.

Anecdote: “One day, a story goes, Hobbes was strolling with a friend, when they came upon a beggar.  Hobbes gave the fellow some money.  The friend, thinking he’d caught Hobbes in an act of charity, gleefully pointed out the contradiction between Hobbes’s behavior and his philosophy.  Hobbes, however, had a ready explanation: it made him feel terrible to see the man so wretched and miserable.  He had given money not to relieve the beggar’s suffering, but his own.  Even in charity, Hobbes thought, every man is out for himself.”

Another story.  A personal one.  Once upon a time, I went on a missions trip (and I’ll keep this vague, because I don’t want to hurt feelings, but I do want to tell the truth).  At the end of this said trip, while we were still in the other country, we sat around in a circle, and the team leader asked us to make a list–a very specific list–one that included the exact number of people we had “touched,” the exact number of donation items we gave out–all the things we could tangibly write on a piece of paper.

This disturbed me to no end.  I wasn’t there for a simple tabulation of what I’d done.  As The Samaritan’s Dilemma puts it: “Those are the kinds of things you don’t talk about.  It’s almost embarrassing for me to tell you the kinds of things I’ve done, because I haven’t done them to get recognition.”  One step further: how can anyone possibly know who and how much you’ve really done?  Isn’t that the point?  We don’t know?  We keep giving, not knowing who we’re really helping?  When I asked the team leader in private later what the purpose of the activity was, he said, “Oh, I just wanted you to realize how much you’ve accomplished.”  And I replied, “So this isn’t going to be published in our church newsletter or elsewhere?”  “Of course not,” he replied.

Four weeks later it was printed in our church newsletter.  Have we really come down to tabulating our effect on people?  Have you ever done anything truly altruistic?  Not just because it makes you feel better?

[Painting: “The Good Samaritan” by Rembrandt]

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