Why should we help others?
Yesterday evening at a poetry recital I heard a question which made me think a bit. The context isn’t really important and the answer that was given was one I couldn’t relate to since it involved a religious faith that I don’t subscribe to, but the question was a very simple and very good one: In your opinion,
why should we help others?
Of course there can’t be any right or wrong answer to this, we are all different and have different reasons and justifications for every action that we take, whether that action it is a positive or a negative one, and maybe sometimes we don’t even know why we do some of the things that we do. It led me to thinking about a couple of slightly different questions though…
The question is why is it that we give, volunteer and help, or to put the same question another way…
Are we working in development for the right reasons?
I know why I do the things that I do, but of course I can’t speak for anyone else. Instead I decided to turn to behavioural science to look for an answer and also to ask some friends for their answers.
Starting with the science I found that research suggests we give money to charities or volunteer our time for one of three main reasons:
Purely altruistic – “I give to charity because I value the social good that they do”
Impurely altruistic – “I give to charity because I get value from knowing that I contribute to the social good”
Not at all altruistic – “I give to charity because I want to show off to others how rich and/or how good I am”
Altruistic can be defined as showing a disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others, or to put it much more simply, as unselfish.
The science is not saying that any one of these reasons is more valid than the others and as I said before there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ reasons, but of course we will all make our own judgements, I know I have made mine.
I really only want to talk about one of those three reasons.
Of course all of the people who give their time, money or skills for purely altruistic reasons are great. They are just genuinely good people and the kind who really do make the world a better place.
Then there are the people who give money, and it is almost always exclusively money, for not at all altruistic reasons. They are pretty common but they are also pretty negative and not the kind of people that I want to spend a lot of time thinking or writing about.
Which leaves us with the most interesting group, which I think is probably also the largest, the impurely altruistic…
I like to call them the ‘f*^k the poor’ people or the ‘take away my guilt’ people. Sadly they are not my phrases, but ones that I have shamelessly plagiarised from the brilliant Tim Minchin, who wrote a song for a charity fundraising telethon which explains very neatly and eloquently this kind of impure altruism, and that he will happily give money for someone to “take away the guilt he feels about his perfect life”. I’m not going to link to it here, but if you aren’t offended by swearing and have a sense of humor then you will find it easily enough online.
The reality is that we should all care, in fact very often we don’t have a choice not to. Human beings are emotional creatures and only sociopaths and psychopaths lack the ability to empathize and feel, but often we are conditioned to think that we have to put others first and that we are only good people if we are selfless, and I don’t believe that is true.There is really nothing wrong with caring about ourselves as well as about other people or worthy causes.
We should help for all of the ‘good’ reasons, even if they often sound quite cliché; because we can, because it is the right thing to do, because there is always someone in a worse position than ourselves, because it will make the world a better place and because we never know when some tragedy might strike that leaves us needing help ourselves.
But we should also help because it makes us feel better about ourselves, because it gives us a sense of satisfaction, because it makes us feel that we have contributed something worthwhile and most of all because it makes us happy and Happier people make a brighter world.
I said that as well as checking the science I had asked some friends for their thoughts on why THEY wanted to help, give or work in development, and the very first answer I got back echoed these thoughts:
“[…]t the same time I think is some kind of “positive selfishnees”. I mean, we help others to have something back which is feeling good with ourselves”
I like this term ‘positive selfishness’ so much that I am going to add it to the list of things I am plagiarising today. It would be amazing if we could all be completely selfless and purely altruistic, but the vast majority of us just are not made that way, and that is ok,
So, here is to the positively selfish people and all of the good they do in the world.
Keep helping and keep feeling good about it!