It’s been a long time, but I remember high school discussions about whether altruism is possible. We wrestled with the question of “Is it really possible to do anything without being motivated by self-interest?” There is an episode of Friendsthat deals with it as well. Phoebe wants to believe it with all her might, and she spends the episode trying to discover a way to make it work. She finally stumbles on donating money to PBS, which she hates, and simultaneously gets Joey on TV by doing so. She thinks she has finally done something that does not benefit her in any way and is quite pleased about it. Joey points out that she is gaining pleasure from doing a totally selfless act, and therefore, is gaining something by it.
So the question is “Can we ever do something good and/or loving for someone else without ANY self-interest, without gaining anything at all by it?”
I can take care of my pregnant wife, doing things like rubbing her feet, bringing her drinks of water, doing chores, staying with her when she is sick. None of those things are directly beneficial to me, so is that altruism? No, probably not, for each of those things reinforces her love, strengthens our relationship, and if nothing else, allows me to spend time with her. I definitely gain from anything good I do for my wife.
What if I do something for a stranger?
I can give money to someone who asks for it, or buy a meal from the grocery store for the guy sitting outside, or donate to a charitable cause. I can volunteer to serve food at the Rescue Mission. I am now sacrificing time and money to help a person I don’t even know. Surely that must be altruistic, completely selfless. Alas, I gain recognition for doing selfless acts. I may even gain social benefits by talking with them and interacting with them and finding a little of who they are. I benefit.
What if I help someone anonymously?
What if I send cash to someone who needs it anonymously, or I drop money in a donation box, or do any number of things that would help someone else, but no one would know I did anything? I still find satisfaction in knowing I did something good. I gain.
We can up the ante a little bit and concede, ‘ok, I can’t do anything selflessly, but what about Jesus?’ What of his crucifixion? Surely, Jesus, the perfect god-man, must have been capable of completely selfless action.
Picture the garden at Gethsemane. Jesus is there, desperately wanting the support of his disciples (which he doesn’t get because they keep falling asleep) and falling to his knees, pleading to the Father to take away the wrath he is about to receive. He asked that if there were ANY other way, God would show it to him, but since there was no other, he would do God’s will. Luke describes him as being in agony over what was about to come. His mental anguish was so great he needed an angel to comfort him and he began to sweat drops of blood. Surely, he got no pleasure from his sacrifice, no gain by his death.
But really, there are two problems with this example. The first is this: “Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:2). Notice the phrase “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross.” Jesus allowed himself to be killed because it would bring him joy! I don’t think the suffering itself was high on his list of favorite things, but he knew the results would bring him joy. His motivation was not altruistic at all!
The second problem is that his saving work allowed his children access to him; it allowed millions of people to know and love him, establishing relationships with him. Again, he experiences good because of the good he did for us.
So, really, is completely selfless good, pure altruism, something we would even want? If the only perfect human who ever lived couldn’t pull it off, is it really a good thing to be entirely disinterested in the good you do?
Ask your loved ones.
I think a simple question to my wife would reveal very quickly what she would think about it. What if I only told my wife I love her because it would make her feel good. What if I only give her gifts because she wants them. If I find no happiness in her presence, no genuine joy at her touch, but I only spend time with her because she wants it, would she appreciate it? I think not. She would be hurt that I did it mechanically, not out of my own love for her, my own emotional desire to be with her and please her. True love rejoices at others’ joy. True love finds pleasure in pleasing others. True love finds no cost too great in order to bring good to the objects of its affection. True love, while not merely self-interested, finds great gain in providing benefit to others.
Remember, when Jesus commands us to love one another as the second part of the greatest commandment, he does not say “Love your neighbor and deny yourself.” He says “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The two are not mutually exclusive. They are necessary pairs in the endeavor to spread love.
Going back to the original question, “Can we ever do something good and/or loving for someone else without ANY self-interest, without gaining anything at all by it?” I would have to say the answer is “no.” But that isn’t something to mourn, as if humanity has failed, and no real love can be known. We can rejoice that true love is beneficial for everyone involved, even when we sacrifice, and especially when it is grounded in the only pure source of love, God himself.