There was a time, a time in which dreams were possible; in which to breathe was to breathe the sweet smelling kismet air of destiny. I believed, in my youthful innocence, in fate, in Karma, in a tangible universal force that kept score of what you were owed and what you had coming to you.
Fate seemed as real to me then as the henna on my hands and the flowers in my hair, I accepted help knowing that I was, in the eyes of Karma, indebted and would help others knowing that I would receive help when I most needed it. The beautiful thing about Karma is that a good deed is like a baton that’s passed on from one thankful hand to another. Some cow herder in Mongolia passes the baton onto a thankful school boy, who passes it onto an old blind man who helps his son; the son gets on a plane and passes the baton onto a New York graffiti artist who then helps build a hospital for orphaned Palestinians….so forth and so on.
Now I’m old and cynical about the world and everyone in it I no longer believe in fairy tales and think everyone’s out to fuck me over. I don’t believe in the benevolence of strangers and I’m wary of favours, why? Why are you offering to help me, what motive do you have and what do you expect to get out of it? No one does something for nothing, or do they?
Altruism is best summed up this way; altruism decreases the fitness of one party and increases the fitness of another party. The beneficiary profits to the detriment of the benefactor. The benefactor must not only give up something but he mustn’t profit in any way, and here lies the skulking beast of doubt. Do we not, as is suggested in the theory of Psychological egotism, receive some sort of intrinsic reward when we give up something for the benefit of others? Are we humans only motivated by self interest at the end of the day?
In evolutionary terms charity does benefit the family unit and the community as a whole, this is best described by Richard Dawkins as the ‘selfish gene’. The evolution and survival of, not only your genes, but of those close to you, those in your ‘village’ may depend on helping others out. Helping others can offer survival, security, defence and a good crop or enough food for all. If someone in that community is seen to only take and never give, to only profit from the kindness or charity, of others, with no intention of ever giving something up in return, a ‘piss taker’, then they will be a detriment to the community and a burden you can’t afford to keep. Eventually the scrounger will end up begging for alms in some back street wondering why the world hates him so much.
Of course evolution also talks about the survival of the fittest; ‘red in tooth and claw’ is how Darwin himself put it, which does suggest a dominance of the strong over the weak, but society wouldn’t exist at all if we hadn’t agreed to pull resources. All species struggle for ascendancy but we achieve this through team work and as we all know there is no “I” in team. Now in human terms the strong of mind are ruling the world not the strong of arm.
So it makes sense to help others, because in return you receive something, be it security, the furtherance of your genes, or the assurance that when you’re old and knackered someone will look after you. You give them the benefit of your wisdom and they give you shelter and food.
Skating on thin ice
So, as nice as it is, kin selection doesn’t fit into altruism because with kin selection you are getting something back. What about charity, we all, most of us I’m sure, give to charity in some way, big or small. Why hand over your hard earned cash to some starving African child you have never met? Wouldn’t that money be better served to protect the welfare of your own crew? Personally I give money to cancer research, but truth be told, as a smoker it’s more of a health insurance thing. I bet (I could be wrong but seldom am) that we give money to charity to do one of two things, firsts it makes us feel better about ourselves – intrinsic reward – and/or secondly it relieves feelings of guilt. There you are settling down in your comfy sofa with a bottle of wine and a selection of hand crafted Belgian chocolates when up pops a malnourished baby, held in the arms of some emotional comedian. If I want the silly stuff (and I do) and I want to enjoy the evening’s entertainment then how can I sit here without picking up the phone?
If you really cared about those starving children you would make it your mission in life to get political, to not stop at the Tenner you just phoned through but to change the way the world works, to abolish religious dogma, to wage war on a greedy western culture and to educate those children to build a better world, but no, tomorrow you will wake up with a hangover and be ten quid worse off and never stop once to think about that starving child until they wheel another one out next year.
A bit harsh I know, but it’s the truth, none of us do anything for nothing, there is always an intrinsic reward. If for example you are out walking alone on a freezing cold day and you happen upon a child skating on the thin ice of a pond, a deep pond, and as you watch the child falls though the ice into freezing water, what do you do? Most people will tell you that they wouldn’t think twice about jumping in to save that child. Many would say that this is a true act of altruism, without thinking you rip off your heavy coat and leap onto the thin ice knowing that you may not come back alive; a truly heroic act. Bollocks I say; everyone may well find the courage to risk their own lives to save a child when faced with the alternative, to turn your back and pretend that you were never there, to live with yourself for the rest of your life knowing that you were a coward. The guilt would get you in the end, the act of doing nothing would effectively ruin your life, and you might as well be dead. We might all have a different motive for risking our lives to save another, but deep down they’re all selfish reasons, ‘I couldn’t live with myself’ or ‘at last I can be a hero’, or ‘this will make up for the child I aborted, lost, never had’ or ‘Dad would be proud of me’, or ‘that barmaid will want to have sex with me now’. Whatever the reason, the bottom line is you will do it for some reward or another. If you die trying so be it, but if you save the child then come on, who wouldn’t use it as currency for a long time after?
Let’s hope none of us are ever in a position to put the theory to the test, or rely on the courage of a stranger to save our own child if, he or she, happens to be skating on thin ice.
‘You cynical, bitter old fool’ I hear you shout, ‘if you lose faith in mankind, in charity, in the benevolence of strangers, then you are deluded and ugly, you have the heart of a jelly fish and a soul blacker than a coal miner’s crack’. You may well be right (you seldom are), it’s a possibility I suppose, all I ask is that you take a good long look at your good deeds and ask yourself why? Why am I doing this? Is it for some sort of reward, is it because the priest said I’d go to hell if I don’t do it? Am I a giving addict? Do I believe in Karma?
Then again If you want to prove me wrong just give your most prized procession to Oxfam first thing, be it a TV, guitar or a car, give it away to help those in need. See how you feel then? If you feel no pleasant intrinsic reward then you win, if you are jumping about with happiness at losing your most prized procession then good for you, I win.