The Random Comic Strip

The Random Comic Strip

Words to live by...

"How beautiful it is to do nothing, and to rest afterward."

[Spanish Proverb]

Ius luxuriae publice datum est

(The right to looseness has been officially given)

"Everyone carries a part of society on his shoulders," wrote Ludwig von Mises, "no one is relieved of his share of responsibility by others. And no one can find a safe way for himself if society is sweeping towards destruction. Therefore everyone, in his own interest, must thrust himself vigorously into the intellectual battle."

Apparently, the crossword puzzle that disappeared from the blog, came back.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

What's In It For Me?

I have a cynical nature. I blame that on heredity and upbringing. My father was a cynic. Some might say he was a pessimist. He certainly never viewed the world through rose colored glasses... the rose colored glasses belonged to my mother. My father assumed that the odds were stacked against him, that he'd never get a break (was amazed when he did), and that the best he could hope for was to not end up in the poor house. He didn't. But he also didn't die rich.

That didn't mean he gave up. It only meant that he saw life as hard. And that he had to work hard to get by. He wasn't born with a leg up on life.

My mother, on the other hand, was a dreamer. Someone who always had hopes for riches and the good life. No matter what happened, she thought things would improve. They were polar opposites, personality-wise.

My two older siblings inherited my mother's nature, I got stuck with my father's. But I also developed a curiosity about why we perceive things the way we do. And why we do things.

One of the things that both my parents shared was generosity. My mother would give you her last dollar if you needed it. My father wouldn't but he would help you earn one. Or he'd hire you to do some job so you would earn it. Or he'd help you fix what's broken, or help paint your house (or paint it for you if you weren't up to it physically), things like that. He'd give you his labor more often than his money.

This led me to wonder about why we give to charities, or help those in need, or take a chance on someone. Basically, I wanted to understand what is called altruism.

The dictionary defines it this way:

1 : unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others

2 : behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species.

Which says nothing about why people behave that way. As a cynic, I am suspicious of altruistic behavior. This is because I assume people always seek a reward for good behavior. We are trained that way from early childhood.

Our parents buy us toys or candy if we're good. The whole concept of Santa Claus perpetuates that. If you're good, you get nice presents. If you're bad, you get a lump of coal. I don't actually know any kid who ever got a lump of coal, of course, but still...

Oh, there are some physical rewards for altruism. Dinners in your honor, plaques and other tokens of esteem, well wishes from others and the best of all; the "debt of gratitude." You get favors in return. You gain a little power over others. You get elevated above the "little people". You get praise and people look up to you.

But that doesn't explain the anonymous do gooder. Why, with no dinners, awards, or future favors likely to follow, does he do it?

Well, I think he does get rewarded. I think he gets a rush of endorphins, perhaps. We certainly feel good about being kind or generous, especially if we had to make some kind of sacrifice to do so. Even if no one else ever sees it or hears about it. Even if we expect to die in the process. And I think there is conditioning by society involved in creating the anonymous do gooder.

But, I hear you asking in your mind, what about the guy who reasonably expects to die in the process? The guy who falls on a grenade to save his squad, the 180 or so at the Alamo?

We award medals posthumously. We regale children with tales of self-sacrifice. We extol the virtues of those who perform such sacrifices. This builds within us a belief that it is something wonderful. Some research suggests it may have a biological basis.

The above is just something to consider. It came to mind when I was asked if there was anything I wasn't cynical about.

I answered honestly.

Footnote: If you read the research link above, you might also consider searching for images of "altruism" and clicking on a few of the ones that catch your eye. I found that there have been a lot of blogs and opinion columns about altruism and that altruism is a very complex subject. Much more complex and ingrained in our lives than my simple blog reveals.


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