Our Suspicions about Altruism

The existence of true altruism has become popular subject for debate in recent years: does anyone do good things out of purely selfless motives?  Even in the absence of material rewards, don't "altruists" get a rush of satisfaction or virtuous good feeling (in other words, an emotional reward) from their benevolent deeds?

There is a corollary, and a sad one, to this interesting debate: a widespread distrust of good deeds.  When someone we don't know tries to do something nice for us, our minds automatically skip to the catch.  What is in it for them?

Now of course, this skepticism is healthy when we apply it to, for instance, to promises of politicians and salesman.  But as the Secret Society for Creative Philanthropy found out, it makes it awfully hard to do a nice thing. 

The premise of the society is this: give micro-grants of $100 to a group of people, asking them only to do something nice for total strangers with it. 

The idea, says the founder, is to spark new thinking and dialogue about philanthropy and altruism:

"One hundred dollars is not going to change anyone's life," Martin said. "It's a small thing. The money is just a framework for people to use their imagination. It's like a kick in the ass."
What did people do with the money?  Many gave away umbrellas or dollar bills on the street.  Their attempts met with almost universal reluctance and rejection.  I think we can blame this on the cynical way "free gifts" are used in sales and proselytizing: we, like the Trojans after the horse, don't believe a gift is ever "free."

One of my favorite ideas was this:
Clark Kellogg deposited his $100 in a bank account and left written instructions for his great-granddaughter to withdraw the accumulated total in 100 years and give it away. With compound interest, he said, the total will be $2.1 million, which is enough for a lot of free umbrellas in the rainstorms of 2110. "I don't think I'll be around then," he said.
Perhaps I like it so much because it reminds me (utterly unreligious soul that I am) of the parable of the talents.

But of course this gets me thinking - what would I do?  How could I do the most good with $100?   

7 Responses so far.

  1. The heroine of Mary Burchell's Loving is Giving is in a situation like this, because she's left a very small legacy with the stipulation that she give small amounts of money away to people/causes for whom it'll make a real difference.

  2. Wendy says:

    Now that is a really cool idea! Thanks for sharing, Ariel :)

  3. Vasilly says:

    That's a great question! I would probably give the money to a charity that feeds the homeless or use the money to feed the homeless myself.

  4. I only just happened to chance upon your blog through fyrefly's sign-up page of blogs, but I wanted to say, no. 1 - there's too many things for me to say about how wonderful your blog is in a comment; no. 2 - i cannot find a place to "follow" you unless it's just so late and i'm not scrolling down far enough to look; no. 3 - the book of shadows was one of my favorites; no. 4 - that lighthouse picture is absolutely divine!!! and i'd best stop here for tonight/this 1:45 a.m.

  5. nicole says:

    Clark Kellogg's idea is good not only because he would end up with so much more capital to donate at the end, but because the entire time he would be earning all that interest because he was facilitating investments that would improve the lives of business owners, their employees, communities, etc.

    Though personally I would prefer to cycle the money through a service like Kiva indefinitely. You wouldn't end up with the capital accumulation, but you could choose specifically who to help and not depend on your bank to make the most beneficial investments with your money.

  6. It's so great to hear from all of you!

    Laura: That sounds really intriguing. I don't know Mary Burchell's work. Would you recommend it?

    Wendy: You're welcome, Wendy! It caught my eye, I must admit, in part because of its claim to be a "secret society" - which it clearly isn't! But it just became more and more fascinating the more I read.

    Vasilly: I agree, I am always filled with admiration for people who undertake projects like that on Christmas and Thanksgiving - holidays we associate with both rampant consumption and hospitality/kindness to strangers.

    Stacy: You are so kind! I have to admit to a certain amount of ignorance when it comes to the "follower" feature. I have heard others refer to it, but since I do most of my "following" on google reader, I don't know how to make it available. What is it, exactly, and what do I need to do? Re: Book of Shadows - I have Paterson's more recent book of poems ("Landing Light") on my bedside table right now, but I confess that I found the first poem so opaque that I haven't yet ventured back. I need to gird my loins and make another sally.

    Nicole: I also like about his idea that it connects him with future generations, instilling good works as a value that is inherited through family lines. This is fascinating to me. What would I do if I got a message from a hundred years ago from my great-grandfather (who was a doctor in Egypt) to do something charitable with a cache of investments? It would be like having a dialogue with someone I never knew, but who shaped who I am. A windfall of good works. It definitely does have the ring of a 19th century novel's plot to it. I am also intrigued that he specified that it be his great-granddaughter...

  7. "I don't know Mary Burchell's work. Would you recommend it?"

    Well, yes, if you like really vintage Harlequins. Loving is Giving was written in the 1950s. I like her sensible heroines and the insight into the social mores of a different era. Some of her books are among my favourite Harlequin Mills & Boons, but your tastes may be rather different.

    As far as the issue of money, and how to spend it so as to change other people's lives for the better, is concerned, that's something that was very important to Mary Burchell. Her real name was Ida Cook and

    By the late 1930s, Ida Cook was earning close to $1500 per year as a novelist, more than five times her salary as a typist. In her book, she wrote that she became "intoxicated" by the sight of her money and "the terrible, moving, and overwhelming thought—I could save life with it."

    She and her sister, "during the 1930s, rescued approximately 50 Jews from Nazi Germany."

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