The Altruism Paradox

[Nearly every Thursday night for the last two years, a few of my friends and myself would go out to eat and talk.  It was a social experiment of sorts, but it became for me a place of refuge where I could talk, listen and learn.  The Thursday Night group was small, and has recently been on a break since a few of us have left the country.  I know those still back home are trying to keep it going in some fashion.  So in their honor, I will try to have something posted on Thursday nights.  I am hoping to discuss things outside of the main emphasis of this blog (ESL education).  This inaugural post will discuss Altruism and Empathy.]

During the first few weeks here in South Korea, while I was going through the very normal stages of culture shock, I would ride the metro as a way to get relief from my nerves, frustration and anger.  It sounds a little strange now, but sitting in an enclosed space with hundreds of other people was comforting.  It allowed me to engage with the “natives” without being asked to really be a part of a social exchange, I could just watch.

There was another reason it was comforting.  Riding the bus and metro gave me the opportunity to perform what I consider small acts of service by giving up my seat to someone else.  The first time I did it was simply my reaction to seeing a woman standing in front of me on the metro, so I gave her my seat.  But it was then that I realized that it felt really good.

I’m sure the internetz just did a collective facepalm.  Of course it felt good you moron! Doing nice things for other people is supposed to feel good!  I remember hearing from leaders growing up this little ditty all the time, “if your lot in life seems empty, build a service station!”  I would also like to note that I’m not exactly a stranger to service, I may not be the most volunteer-oriented person; but I’m ok.  That’s what made this feeling I had riding the metro a little… disconcerting.

You see, it was the first time that I realized I was deriving real pleasure from this act of service.  And that I wanted to do more of that kind of thing, not for the empathic, altruistic motives that I had always attached to service.  I wanted to give up my seat on the metro just as much as I wanted to down a 64 oz mountain dew and slam a couple of double pastrami burgers and play video games allll night.  I wanted to do it because it felt good for me.  I think the fact that I was clinging to any sort of happiness during that time made me hyper aware of my own feelings.

I suppose the fact that it did another person some good makes it better than the other types of pleasure I compared it to, but nonetheless, it was a thought that stuck with me; and it started to bother me.

I have a hard time with the cold, “survival of the fittest” evolution, where the strongest beat down the weak and that’s just how it is.  So I was really excited to hear about evolutionary research into altruism and empathy.  It makes me happy to know that humans seem to come hardwired for feeling empathy.  Babies will instinctively cry when they hear another baby crying.  And we react to movies and drama with real emotion because our brain seems to register what we are experiencing as happening to us in reality.  I like this empathic human.

But when I listened to the Radiolab episode, “The Good Show”, I was disconcerted all over again.  It goes through and talks about many of the altruistic aspects of evolution and eventually lands on the story of George Price.  The man who wrote the mathematical formula for altruism.  It’s a great and sad story and incredibly powerful.  What is so amazing about it is that, once we realize that evolution has built into us a desire to be altruistic, that it would be an evolutionary trait to save your family before you save yourself; we face an uncomfortable idea.  If it is in your species best interest that you self-sacrifice, then it is fundamentally selfish and there is no true altruism.  When we do acts of kindness or service, or when we do things that we call “self-less” we are covering up the darkside of those acts.  That at the heart of all our service, is a core of selfishness.

Confronting this idea for the first time is sad.  It is uncomfortable and I still don’t like it.  But I think that by acknowledging my own selfishness in my service, I can in a strange way make my service more selfless.

Recognizing your selfishness is important in other ways as well.  First, I believe it builds empathy.  I think we are all familiar with the “Golden Rule”.  Do unto others as you would have done unto you.  I am going to submit that this rule is service without acknowledging your selfishness.  Notice that the golden rule is all about you.  This makes the Golden Rule very easily applicable.  Most everyone can hear this rule and say, “why, yes, I wouldn’t like to be discriminated against because of my race/gender/sexuality”.  But the Golden Rule preserves an Us vs Them dichotomy that is not overcome.

Better, in my opinion (and also what I think the Golden Rule was meant to convey), is what is known as the Platinum rule: Do unto others as they would have done unto themselves. (not to be confused with the Platinum rule of How I Met Your Mother fame) Notice that the platinum rule is inherently other-oriented.  Implicit is the idea that what we may want for ourselves, may not be what other people want for themselves. The platinum rule shifts the perspective of “us vs them” towards a more “us” perspective.  The platinum rule is inherently empathic:  before you can even apply the platinum rule you have to know what the other person wants.  You have to listen to them, hear their side of things.

Another aspect of the Platinum rule that I’ve been thinking about recently is the selfish side.  Back to my bus/metro seat-giving anecdote.  The real problem with my “service” was actually that there are different expectations in Korea than there are in America.  Back home, I would give my seat to a woman without hesitation, age not really being a factor there.  The constraint in my cereberal make-up is against having a woman standing on the metro/bus.  Not so in Korea.  Often when I try to get women to take my seat they refuse to take it, even after multiple offers or insistences.  After awhile I started just getting up, effectively forcing them to take it.

I noticed an interesting effect of this.  The woman would then feel a great burden to find another person more deserving to have the seat.  This usually ended up being the first person to take advantage of the offer, often some teenage/ young adult.  The problem is, I approached my service from the perspective of what I thought people should want, not what they wanted themselves.

There is another perspective on this that I think is informative, though I’m not quite sure how to codify things. One way to help everyone “save face” and practice empathy and selfishness is to provide some way for the person you have given service, to serve you.  An example:  An old lady got on my bus the other day and there were no seats left.  I instinctively got up and she sat down without a fight (she was old).  What happened next is that she asked if she could hold my shoulder-bag for the rest of the ride.

Even though the old lady had other things with her, I let her hold my bag and when I got off the bus I said, “thank you” and she said “thank you” back.  We left the situation with both of our selfish and selfless needs fulfilled.

And it is there that I think the problem lies when you won’t allow yourself to be served.  By giving up your seat you have put the other person in a position in which they need to save face and by denying them a reciprocation,  you deny them their face.  The result is often an awkward feeling in the stomach of the person standing there not the person sitting.  That is my experience anyway.  The reason, I believe is that your service did not recognize its own selfishness.

This is essence of my problem with what I have labeled the “culture of deference” in Utah (and I’m sure many other places) is this phenomenon.  People refuse to be selfish and worse still, they think that is a virtue.  When in reality it is the cause of problems like the person refusing to let another person reciprocate kindness.  My sister taught me this through the idea of “accepting gifts”.  The basic idea, its just as important to let people serve you as it is to serve others.  I truly think this harmony is a requirement for anything like real altruism or empathy to be a reality.

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