Archive for Sunday, December 5, 2004

Altruism alluring to do-gooders

December 5, 2004


I ran into this biologist the other day at the library. We've both worked at Kansas University for decades, and I've interviewed him several times about dragonflies, midges and that sort of thing.

This time was different. This time we actually talked.

He was excited about working as volunteer coordinator for the Lawrence Open Shelter, a hub for homeless people struggling against addiction. He wondered whether he'd missed his calling.

I heard him. I said that anybody who senses that human misery is on the rise should stop talking about it and do something. Few of us take that next step.

The next day, I hunted for information about what mobilizes people to do good.

I found an essay published a while back in the Journal of Social Issues by Dan Batson, a KU psychology professor, and a couple of KU doctoral students.

Its title was promising: "Four Motives for Community Involvement."

Batson says the obvious motive for doing good is selfish: It makes the doer feel good.

In fact some people think that ego isn't just the most obvious reason people do good works -- it's the only reason.

But Batson disagrees.

In the essay, he spells out three other motivations for doing good.

The first is altruism. It grows from sympathy, tenderness and compassion for another life or lives. The trouble with altruism, Batson says, is that its scope can be narrow. It may be reserved for those to whom you're emotionally attached or for whom you feel responsible.

The second motive for doing good is what Batson labels "collectivism." He writes, "One may, for example, act to increase the welfare of a racial or ethnic minority, of the homeless, of gays and lesbians, without being a member of these groups."

This may lead to a broader sense of service than altruism provides. But the giving may still leave many groups out, Batson says.

A third motive for doing good is principle. Acting from principle may lead to the widest generosity because it doesn't depend on feelings, or on self or group interests.

The trouble, Batson says, is that we can rationalize our principles away.

We can justify inequalities between school systems in rich and poor districts, for example, or make a case for why we should be able to listen to public radio without donating to it.

In the end, Batson thinks that some combination of altruism and principle may be the best kindling for virtuous behavior. Altruism contains the emotional fire of empathy. And principle may spur someone to be good to many people rather than few.

I have one final thought about doing good. I think it's more likely to happen when people let themselves get closer to the circumstances of unfamiliar lives and lifestyles.

KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway recently spent a day navigating the campus in a wheelchair. He told a reporter, "You don't realize until you're in a chair that a bump that's easy to step over, in a chair you have to maneuver around it."

Plenty of people face bumps that may seem easy, from a distance, to step over -- so we need to get closer.

This holiday season, walk through a neighborhood you've avoided. Serve a plate of food to a homeless person. Don't judge the experience. Just look, listen and be curious.

As Hemenway says, there's much to be learned from the wheelchair perspective.

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