The Case for Altruism

My wife passed me this topic knowing my fascination with how the brain works as she relayed a conversation she had with A’s neurologist.  It seems scientists and medical researchers don’t know from which part of the brain altruism originates.  They have some idea the frontal lobes control impulse control, but altruism?  What makes people help others when they seem to have nothing to gain from their efforts?

The first step to understanding altruism is to note acts of altruism occur in nature all the time.  When parents die, the young are often adopted by other families or packs.  As humans, we think it’s cute when animals nurture the young of other species, even species who would normally be right above or below them on the food chain.  Why do we assume the family gains nothing for taking in another?

I have shared many times how much strength I get from my kids.  My MS is nothing compared to what they have been through, and it was my daughter covering my eye to show me how to get through double vision which gave me the confidence I could deal with whatever MS had in store for me.  Taking in another “sick” person gave me another vantage to see myself, and every day they give me a reason to get out of bed no matter how I feel. 

Even if the monetary reward for time spent is paltry, I would argue there is also another way society rewards those who forgo money to do something thought to be good and needed.  I can’t tell you the number of people who have helped us through the years whether it’s friends visiting our kids in the hospital to give us a break or Hopkins delivering Christmas presents.  The help is and has been incredibly important, and I’m not sure all parents get it.  Still, this is just altruism in the form of foster care.  It goes beyond this.

It goes for feeding the homeless and countless other acts.  I have come to realize the biggest reason for altruism is a sense of worthwhile self, and society reinforces this view constantly.  We all want to be able to like the person we see in the mirror.  For me altruism is the only way I can justify all I have been given when I look in the mirror.  As I read about people with various chronic conditions, those who find a way to help others are the ones who seem to live happiest.  So many chronic diseases are cruel shots at our ego, like when I pissed myself in my driveway walking the kids back from the lake.  There is nothing like being told by a 4 year old trying to be potty trained, “It’s OK.  We all do that sometimes.”  I’ve thought it a cruel irony how many discover this value of helping the sick by being sick and needing some help themselves.  It’s similar to youth being wasted on the young.

 A while ago, I wrote about Michael, and his simplistic view of the world, and his is one I have thought about many times.  He reminds me all for which I have to be thankful.  At first I thought his story was sad as he seemed to have no idea what to hope would be in his future.  Michael

Still, as time has passed, I have come to recognize a certain comforting vision from him.  His world was good because he believed it so.

Altruism allows the world I live in to seem good to me because I know I offer it something of value.  In a way, altruism gives me back a sense of me as I want to be.  Since I benefit, perhaps there is some logic behind the argument there is no truly pure altruism.  There is always personal gain/loss from all we chose to do. 


2 thoughts on “The Case for Altruism”

  1. I just lost my long, rambling comment about altruism and the common good. Not meant to be posted here, I guess. I’ll rewrite it elsewhere, and turn it into a post at my wordpress site.

    Meantime, know that I read your writing and always find elucidation and/or comfort within.


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