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Ask Dr. Helen: Doing Unto Others

Is everyone motivated by some sort of self-interest when they engage in an altruistic act? Does that mean no charity or volunteerism is truly noble? PJM advice columnist Dr. Helen Smith offers her opinion. (Hmmm, why is she offering it?)

by
Helen Smith

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July 31, 2007 - 12:43 am

Today the topic is self-interest, first as it relates to certain male/female relationships and then as it relates to altruism. David emails the first question:

Dr. Helen,

Can you explain to me how the guy in Ohio who is alleged to have killed his pregnant girlfriend has managed to impregnate at least 4 different women, none of who he appears to have been married to at the time? As a guy I just cannot imagine a woman wanting to sleep with a creep who is a serial sperm donor. Do they have no self-respect?

Some women who like these sorts of guys may have too little self-respect, too much or a combination of both. What do I mean by this? The common reason people come up with when women hook up with men who are trouble–such as prisoners–is that the woman herself has some type of low self-esteem. It’s possible, of course. She may not have gotten enough nurturing and admiration from a father figure and has been desperately seeking that acceptance ever since, yada yada yada. Or it actually could be that she has too much self-esteem, that is, she sees herself as the “special one” who will rescue this troubled guy and help him rise above his sorry ways and she can feel special and altruistic about the part she played in his redemption. She may actually crave the excitement of the chase in the same way that a man chases after the unavailable woman who ignores him.

Or perhaps it is some combination of low self-esteem on the part of the woman who feels she doesn’t quite measure up and yet, if she gets this man who has shown himself to be a serial breeder to want to be with just her, she will feel that she is the winner she thinks that she should be deep down.

Of course, it could be that the chase of the serial sperm donor is less about getting the man and more about beating the competition. It is in the woman’s self-interest to get the guy to commit to her, even if she does not really want him. Why? Because she can then feel that she has beaten out the other women vying for this guy’s attention and won the challenge. My guess is that if he did commit to her, she might not want him for long.

Speaking of self-interest, another reader emails:

Dr. Helen,

Do you think there is such a thing as altruism?


Let me answer this question with a couple of quotes by Robert Heinlein from %%AMAZON=074348844X The Notebooks of Lazarus Long:%%

Never appeal to a man’s “better nature.” He may not have one. Invoking his self-interest gives you more leverage.

If tempted by something that feels “altruistic,” examine your motives and root out that self-deception. Then if you still want to do it, wallow in it!

In my experience, most people are motivated by some sort of self-interest when they engage in an altruistic act. I used to have discussions with a psychoanalyst I knew who said, like Heinlein, that no one really does anything unless it is in their self-interest in some way.

People always point to Mother Teresa as a symbol of altruism but Christopher Hitchens points out that her underlying motives for helping the poor might include proselytization for religious fundamentalism and taking large amounts of money for her efforts. Neither reason seems terribly altruistic.

Some studies on altruism have found people to have darker natures than was ever imagined.

In Reason Magazine, Steven Landsburg points to a study in which university students were given envelopes with ten one-dollar bills and told to give whatever they wanted to a stranger in the next room. As an economist would predict, the participants gave little or no money to the stranger. If the students thought that the experimenter knew who they were, they gave more money as they thought they were being judged. However the students willingly gave the most money to strangers when the experimenter was matching their contributions three to one.

The conclusion?

In the words of University of Rochester economist Mark Bils, “That’s a pretty ugly instinct. It scares me to think I’m living in the same world with these people.” It’s not like they’re taking from the rich to give to the poor; they’re just randomly taking from some people so they can give to others. It’s hard to imagine their motive, unless they just plain enjoy the capricious exercise of power, bestowing good fortune on some and bad fortune on others without any need for a rhyme or reason. In a world where people get a kick out of being arbitrary, no property right is ever safe…

Taken at face value, the Cox experiments suggest that the reason we have a redistributive tax system is not because people want to help the poor or the unfortunate or the incapacitated; it’s because people enjoy moving other people’s money around just to make mischief.

Does all of this mean that I think no one is truly altruistic? I can’t say that. I do think most people are self-deceptive about their true motives when they are driven to do things to “help” people but I have seen too many cases that seem to be true altruism. For example, what about living organ donors who give to strangers or acquantances? What about the firefighters and police who gave their lives on 9/11? Was that altruism or was there underlying self-interest there that perhaps we don’t know about? I will leave that for you, the reader to ponder.

I do think that it is important as Heinlein says, to examine your motives and be honest with yourself when doing what you consider to be altruistic acts.

After all, maybe our serial sperm donor, above, thought that he was being altruistic, sharing his excellent sperm with many needy women. I suspect, though, that his true motives were different.

Drop a line in the comments and share your thoughts on any of the questions above. Or if you have a question you would like answered, please leave it below or email me at askdrhelen@hotmail.com. Your questions may be edited for length and clarity. Please note that your first name only or no name at all will be used to identify your question-if you want me to use your name, tell me, otherwise you will be referred to by your first name or as “a reader” etc.

This advice column is for educational and entertainment purposes only and does not purport to replace therapy or psychological treatment.

Helen Smith is a psychologist specializing in forensic issues in Knoxville, Tennessee, and blogs at Dr. Helen.
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