Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Continuum of Altruism

The concept of “Paying it forward” has always intrigued me. There are times where a debt cannot be “paid back”, but should be “paid forward”.

Although it was popularized in the 2000 movie, it was around well before that. The actual term “pay it forward” may have originated in the 1916 book by Lily Hardy Hammond where she wrote “You don't pay love back; you pay it forward.”

But the concept has many mentions in even older literature, including a letter from Benjamin Franklin:
I do not pretend to give such a deed; I only lend it to you. When you [...] meet with another honest Man in similar Distress, you must pay me by lending this Sum to him; enjoining him to discharge the Debt by a like operation, when he shall be able, and shall meet with another opportunity. I hope it may thus go thro' many hands, before it meets with a Knave that will stop its Progress. This is a trick of mine for doing a deal of good with a little money.
Franklin and others were concerned with: “Here is a debt. How shall it be repaid?”

I’ll take it a step further: “How can I pay a debt that doesn’t even yet exist?”

In other words, can I be both the originator and payer of the debt, but never the recipient?

Such is the concept of altruism. It’s defined by the dictionary as “behavior that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to oneself but that benefits others”.

The debt can be trivial. I work on the top floor of a four story building. You must enter the building from the parking lot through the first floor. Most people ride the elevator. I’m usually one of the first people at work.

When I get to the top floor, before getting off the elevator, I press the “first floor” button. Why? I know that at that time of the day, the heaviest use of the elevator would be by people starting on the first floor. The elevator isn’t smart enough to wait for them on the first floor. By my altruistic act of pushing that button, I’m making the ride for the next person a little shorter, because the elevator will already be on the first floor waiting for them.

I would expect that person to pay the debt forward and send the elevator back to the first floor for the next in line.

Why would I do that? What is my benefit? After all, I always have to wait for the elevator, because the last person probably didn’t return the elevator for me. What do I benefit by being kind to the next anonymous person in line? Especially when they just think they’re lucky that the elevator was already there.

Do I get a warm fuzzy feeling in my heart? Well, yeah. Is that my motivation? Kinda. It feels good knowing that I have helped a stranger.

Taken to an extreme, that can be dangerous. What if the only reason I do good for others is because I actually feel good about myself? Does that defeat the purpose? Can it get to a point that I feel so good about doing good for others that the only benefit is that, in fact, I benefit?

In other words, maybe the relationship between altruism and selfishness isn’t a continuum. Maybe it’s a circle that actually loops back around on itself?

Wrap the duct tape around my forehead. Mind. Blown.

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