Monday, November 9, 2015

Why altruism is overrated

"Few of the current phrases of the day are more frequently in the
mouths of excellent people than that which stands at the head of this
essay. It is not uncommon to hear people ranked as good or bad by
reference to it. If a man is described as ill-tempered, narrow-minded,
and one-sided, the answer often is that he is most unselfish, that he
lives for others, and that he passes his life in " doing good;" and
the praise awarded to the energetic and successful prosecution of any
of the common pursuits of life is often largely modified by the
disparaging comment that the person who is entitled to it lives for
himself—is intent on his own advantage, and is indifferent to doing
good to his neighbours. The constant use of this phrase is a subject
of real regret; for few expressions are used more loosely and
thoughtlessly, or work more injustice in that secret court in which
every man sits in his own mind as judge of the conduct and characters
of his neighbours.

The words " doing good " may be used either in a popular or in an
accurate sense. Strictly speaking, to " do good " must mean to act
right. Hooker says, " Tho ways of well-doing are in number even as
many as the kinds of voluntary actions;" and, of course, every one
would maintain that a man cannot do better than conform the whole
course of his life to the rule of duty, whatever that may be. But the
popular and technical sense of the phrase is much narrower. It means
the expenditure of time and trouble in the direct relief of specific
misfortune, or the direct production of specific benefits to
individuals or to classes. In this, which is the common application of
the word, people would hardly say that the time passed in conducting a
series of scientific experiments, however important, was passed in
doing good; but they would say so of an evening employed in giving a
gratuitous lecture at Exeter Hall to the Christian Young Men's
Association. A medical student would not be described as " doing good"
whilst he was walking the hospitals, but if he gratuitously advised a
poor sick person he would. The whole apparatus of charitable and
philanthropic undertakings, which are so abundant in the present day —
missionary societies, bible societies, education societies, lecturing
societies, and the thousand other institutions of the same kind which
are spread over the face of the world,—are all recognized as organs
for doing good; but the ordinary pursuits of life— trades,
professions, and occupations of every kind— with one or two
exceptions, are not.

This mode of speaking docs great injustice in more ways than one. It
tends to establish an unfounded distinction, to give to the most
important part of society an entirely wrong notion of their position
and of their duties, and to invest one particular class with a degree
of credit to which, in fact, it has little or no claim. It is the
common ground of almost all those who profess to think upon these
subjects, that duty is coextensive with life itself, and that the most
rational view which can be taken of human society is that it is a sort
of body corporate, made up of different members, each of which has its
own special function. Thus, one class of men tills the ground, another
combines and distributes its produce; a third makes, and a fourth
executes laws; and so it would be possible to go through every class
of human society. If all these functions are properly discharged, the
whole body corporate is in a healthy condition; and thence it follows
that whoever contributes to the full and proper discharge of any one
of these functions is contributing to the general good of the whole
body; so that a person occupied in them is doing good in the strictest
sense of the words.

The proof that any given occupation is one of the functions which are
essential to the well-being of the whole, lies in the fact of its
existence and general recognition as a lawful calling. People have
neither the power nor, in most cases, the right to look further. To do
so is to assume the character of a judge of the constitution of the
world. If a given occupation is openly and avowedly exercised without
reproach, that fact is sufficient warrant to any person to engage in
it who considers himself to be called upon to do so, either by
circumstances or by personal fitness for its duties; and in so far as
he discharges those duties he is, in the strictest and in the only
proper sense of the word, doing good—that is, he is forwarding and
preserving the happiness of the society of which he is a member. A
stockbroker who passes the whole day in buying and selling shares, or
a publican who is constantly occupied in serving his customers, passes
his time in doing good just as much as the most zealous clergyman or
sister of mercy. To deny this is to say that a commissariat or
transport corps has nothing to do with carrying on a war, and that
this business is discharged entirely by those who stand in the line of
battle or mount the breach. Human society is a vast and intricate
machine, composed of innumerable wheels and pulleys. Every one has his
special handle to grind at—some with great and obvious effects, others
with little or no assignable result; but if the object ultimately
produced by the combined efforts of all is in itself a good one, it
cannot be denied that whatever is essential to its production is good

This doctrine on the subject of doing good is not so much contested as
ignored by the common use of the phrase. Few people probably would say
that any habitual recognized mode of passing time is neither good nor
bad'; and to assert that any lawful calling is bad, is a contradiction
in terms. The phrase " doing good" is used rather rhetorically than
logically. It is employed for the purpose of asserting indirectly that
the conscious effort to relieve the sufferings or to increase the
comforts of others, not only without any motive for so doing in which
personal interest can have a share, but without any direct and
commonly recognized personal obligation to do so, is in itself a
nobler and more elevating employment than any of the common
occupations of life which people are paid for carrying on in money, in
rank, in reputation, and in other ways, The assertion or insinuation
of such a view is injurious, and the view itself is false.

The insinuation is injurious principally because it has a strong
practical tendency to discredit the common occupations of life, and it
does this in two ways. In the first place, it assumes that the motives
which urge people to the diligent and successful prosecutions of their
various callings are, generally speaking, mean and petty. It
insinuates that the mainspring of professional zeal is personal
ambition; that commerce and agriculture are mere embodiments of
avarice; and that, in a word, selfishness is the vital principle of
almost every part of society. If this assumption were true,
philanthropy in all its forms would be an absurdity. To "do good" to
such a society would be like trying to do good to a corpse. The effort
to increase the prosperity and to relieve the sufferings of the
miserable part of the world would, upon this supposition, be efforts
to enable those who had been providentially weaned from a corrupt and
detestable system to be as selfish and grasping as the rest. If common
life is so corrupt, surely it is no evil to be cut off by poverty or
sickness from its pursuits; yet the philanthropists whose habitual
language is based on the hypothesis of the corruption and selfishness
of ordinary pursuits, strain every nerve to do away with poverty and

The theory of the baseness of ordinary pursuits not only involves
those who maintain it in this inextricable contradiction, but is
false. It is totally untrue that selfishness is the life of anything
at all— least of all is it the life of any lawful pursuit. No one, of
course, would contend that lawyers are actuated in their profession
only or chiefly by a disinterested zeal for the administration of
justice ; physicians by a. desire to promote health; or merchants by a
wish that men should enjoy the produce of foreign countries; but it is
perfectly true that in every pursuit there is an esprit de corps which
has reference to such objects as these, and exercises a marked
influence on those who adopt it. And it is also a truth, the
importance of which can hardly be overestimated, that nearly every
successful member of any profession whatever owes his success largely
to the fact that he has pursued it, not from a slavish hunger after
its emoluments, but from a genuine love for it, and satisfaction in
discharging its duties efficiently and well. A ploughman, if he is
worth his wages, likes to see the furrows run evenly and
symmetrically; the mason likes to see his work justified by the
plumb-line and spirit-level; and in the higher walks of life, every
man who deserves, and almost every man who earns distinction, seeks
and finds his reward far more in his work than in his pay.

The second way in which the common language about " doing good " does
injustice to ordinary life is that, besides bringing against it the
false accusation that it is radically corrupt, it does so on the false
ground that pursuits which benefit the person who follows them up are
selfish. Independently of the consideration that this, if true, would
destroy the beauty of philanthropy itself, it is hardly possible to
imagine a view which puts people in a more absurd position. It is
equivalent to tho theory that we ought to be too fine to take the
wages which our Maker offers us, and that the proper attitude for us
to assume is that of persons conferring a favour upon creation at
large. It is curious to see the doctrine of works of supererogation
reintroduced by this door into a Protestant community, amidst the
universal applause of those who are considered the picked
representatives of the Protestant belief, and the champions of faith
against works.

The falsehood of the opinion that conscious and direct efforts to
mitigate suffering and to increase comfort are in themselves more
beneficial, either to society at large or to the persons who engage in
them, than the prosecution of the common affairs of life, is at least
as well marked as the injurious effects of insisting upon it. That
such efforts are great benefits to the world there can be no doubt,
but they are benefits as medicine is a benefit, and they stand in the
same relation to common life as that in which medicine stands to food.
No one will deny the importance of doctors and surgeons, but we could
dispense with their services much more easily than with those of
butchers and bakers. We should not get on nearly so well as we do
without schools, and hospitals, and charitable institutions; but if
they were all swept away, England would still be, and would probably
long remain, a great nation; whereas, if the plough and the loom stood
still, if there were no government and no law, it would exist for a
short time as a den of robbers, and would soon cease to exist at all.

It is thus evident that philanthropy is not the most important clement
of human society; and though it may appear a more plausible, it is not
a better- founded assertion, that philanthropic pursuits arc more
healthy to those who follow them than the common employments of life.
The grand objection to them all is that people create them for
themselves ; so that they have far less power to educate and develop
the whole mind than pursuits which have received their shape from the
permanent standing necessities of human nature. In any calling of this
permanent kind there is, and always must be, endless instruction. It
has its traditions, its fixed objects, it abuses, its difficulties; it
presents a constant succession of problems, which its members must
solve for themselves; it pays little attention to their preconceived
ideas, but is constantly moulding and changing them in a thousand
ways, so that a long life may be passed in the diligent cultivation of
such a pursuit without exhausting the instruction which it is capable
of giving. This is far from being the case with the great majority of
philanthropic employments. A man who embarks in them is a volunteer,
and he generally is obliged to put himself forward as a teacher when
he ought to be a learner. He is more exposed than almost any other
person to the danger of becoming pedantic and petty, and of trying to
realize his own conceptions of what people ought to be and to do,
instead of learning how slight and narrow those conceptions are.
Benevolence is constantly cultivated by philanthropists at the expense
of modesty, truthfulness, and consideration for the rights and
feelings of others; for by the very fact that a man devotes himself to
conscious efforts to make people happier and better than they are, he
asserts that he knows better than they what are the necessary
constituent elements of happiness and goodness. In other words, he
sets himself up as their guide and superior. Of course, his claim to
do this may bo well founded; but the mere fact that it is made does
not prove its justice. On the contrary, it often arises from a
domineering self-sufficiency of disposition, associated with a taste
for interfering in other people's affairs. The habit of not only doing
this, but looking upon it as the one course of life which is worthy of
admiration—as the one laudable employment which redeems the vulgarity
and selfishness of the rest—can hardly be favourable to the mental
constitution of those who indulge in it.

The habit of doing acts of kindness, and of transacting the common
affairs of life in a kind and generous spirit, cannot be too much
practised, but nothing has less in common with this than the habit of
regarding oneself as the person officially charged with the
improvement of others. There is only a slight connection between the
maintenance of this general benevolence and any real individual warmth
of feeling. The habit of looking upon our neighbours from a position
of conscious and avowed superiority has a direct tendency to make
sympathy impossible. A man who thinks that no portion of his time is
so well employed as that which is devoted to checking and tutoring
unruly wills and affections, is fortunate if he continues to be kind
and amiable; and one whose cherished object in life is to realize
amongst his poorer neighbours some ideal of his own as to character
and conduct, is still more fortunate if that ideal does not rapidly
become narrow and petty. Philanthropic pursuits have many indisputable
advantages, but it is doubtful whether they can be truly said to
humanize .and soften the minds of those who are most addicted to them.
It is true that they are often cultivated from motives of humanity,
but they have far less tendency than might have been expected to
develop the principles from which they spring.

These remarks must not be understood to apply to the case of
professions like that of a clergyman or physician, in which direct
efforts to benefit others form a conspicuous and important element.
They are levelled against a contempt for those pursuits which are not
so distinguished. In deciding the great question of the choice of a
profession, it is, no doubt, a most weighty consideration that some
callings make greater demands upon and afford greater play to the
kindly and gentle parts of our nature than others; but whether this is
a recommendation or otherwise in any particular case, turns upon the
natural character of the person by whom the choice is to be made. A
man of stern, cold disposition has no right to place himself in a
position in which great demands will be made upon his sympathies; but
life is large and various, and he may do service in other quarters, in
which his services are quite as important. It is hard on such a man to
assert, as the current phraseology about doing good virtually does,
that unless he forces his nature and enters upon philanthropic
pursuits for which he has neither inclination nor fitness, he is of
necessity leading a selfish, godless, graceless life. It is apparently
part of the providential plan of life that men should differ
endlessly, and this difference is nowhere more clearly marked than in
matters of feeling. It is impossible to say that it is a duty to have
warm feelings, though it may be a misfortune not to have them, and
there is a large class of persons on whom the attempt to warm up their
own feelings to the level which might be considered right by others
would have no other effect than that of producing either cruel
mortification or a self-righteous hypocrisy of the most odious kind.
To this class— and few know how large and important a class it is—
popular language does gross injustice. Such men may be good
Christians, good citizens, useful members of society in honourable
callings ; yet because their natural temperament disqualifies them
from joining in certain amiable enterprises which are invested with a
monopoly of the attribute of doing good, they are stigmatized by
implication as selfish, harsh, and indifferent to everything but their
personal advancement. Few imputations are so unjust. The injustice,
however, is one which does little harm to those who suffer under it,
for they are usually a thick-skinned and long-enduring generation,
whose comfort is not much affected one way or the other by the opinion
of others."

("Doing Good", James Fitzjames Stephen, December 17, 1859)