Boomer Gone Bad Archives Altruism ain’t all it’s cracked up to be

Altruism ain’t all it’s cracked up to be


If there’s one subject I was fairly certain I couldn’t find any way to ridicule, it’s the great virtue of altruism, of volunteering to do good in the community for no apparent reason other than that it’s unarguably the right thing to do. Or as an unknown author cited in H.L. Mencken’s New Dictionary of Quotations (probably Mencken quoting himself) put it, altruism is “The art of doing unselfish things for selfish reasons.”

Which, like much of Mencken, comes uncomfortably close to ridicule.

So let’s move on to sample the opinion of somebody little given to satire of any sort, namely Tea Party guru Ayn (“Chuckles”) Rand, whose views on altruism aren’t the least bit ridiculous. What she offers is more like vitriol.

“Do not confuse altruism with kindness, good will or respect for the rights of others,” Rand wrote. “These are not primaries, but consequences, which, in fact, altruism makes impossible. The irreducible primary of altruism, the basic absolute, is self-sacrifice – which means: self-immolation, self-abnegation, self-denial, self-destruction – which means: the self as a standard of evil, the selfless as a standard of the good.”

Who knew volunteering at the local soup kitchen could cause so much psychiatric discombobulation.

On the off chance Rand is right, it’s probably best to direct any latent altruistic tendencies toward activities that have limited and controllable consequences. But that could be easier said than done. As P.J. O’Rourke put it, “Everybody wants to save the Earth; nobody wants to help Mom do the dishes.”

This may explain why, when it comes to volunteering, I’m a less than enthusiastic exponent. Another factor in my reluctance to empty bedpans or clean out litter boxes is that those sorts of activities don’t mix well with cocktails. If only there were some way to meld the rush one gets from helping an old lady cross a busy street with the similar exhilaration of the day’s first Manhattan.

Oh wait, as W. Somerset Maugham pointed out in “Of Human Bondage,” there is: “It is pleasure that lurks in the practice of every one of your virtues. Man performs actions because they are good for him, and when they are good for other people as well they are thought virtuous: if he finds pleasure in helping others he is benevolent; if he finds pleasure in working for society he is public-spirited; but it is for your private pleasure that you give twopence to a beggar as much as it is for my private pleasure that I drink another whiskey and soda. I, less of a humbug than you, neither applaud myself for my pleasure nor demand your admiration.”

Well, not until the third or fourth round, anyway, by which time I’m usually convinced I’m a hell of a great guy, a monument to empathy and a titan of humanitarianism. Or as noted aphorist Mason Cooley once pointed out, “Altruism is for those who cannot endure their desires.” Which goes a long way toward explaining not only libertines such as myself, but the entire religious right.

Nevertheless, I occasionally get lured into some sort of charitable enterprise, whether it’s writing a check to a philanthropic institution, selling raffle tickets for a worthy cause or picking up roadside litter. And like Maugham’s humbugs, I admit to deriving considerable pleasure from my alleged public spiritedness. But unlike his drinker of whiskey and soda, I suffer no hangover, and my illusions about winning a Nobel Prize and having my statue placed in the town square and pooped on by birds and squirrels are short-lived and no more harmful than my fantasies involving velvet-lined handcuffs, bourbon-laced whipped cream and a provocatively attired Condoleezza Rice.

Therefore, I hasten to assure you that none of the above should be interpreted as an attempt to discourage you from volunteering to help those you have deemed in need of your invaluable aid and advice. By all means, you should go forth and inflict good works on the poor unfortunates who can’t escape you. Just be aware that the beneficial results may accrue more heavily on your side of the scale than on that of those you’re supposedly assisting. Or as science fiction writer Dean McLaughlin so wisely put it, “Welcome thy neighbor into thy fallout shelter. He’ll come in handy if you run out of food.”

Al Diamon writes the weekly political column Politics & Other Mistakes for several Maine newspapers and websites. He’s also the media critics for The Bollard magazine and the beer and booze columnist for Food Etc. magazine. He can be emailed at


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