Monday, January 31, 2011


Altruism is apparently not inherent, so says an economist named John List. Instead, one might suggest that altruism in its purest form is rare and that greed is inherent. I suppose that to answer this question we have to get to the root of why someone commits an act of service, or why someone gives (regardless of time, services or money). The suggestion by this economist is that people give (in this country primarily) in order to get something in return, regardless of the benefit, and not just to feel better.

The idea is that thanks to generous tax deductions and notoriety for having given something, people are attracted more to the idea of what you get when you give than what the receiver gets. Taken into proper context it would seem that anyone who gives sees greater value in the financial post benefit than the gift itself.

Explaining this shows us that we see little benefit to the recipient of any gift. When we give something away we seem to disregard the feelings and interests of who we give to almost as if they have no face or name. We don't give to unknown buildings and countries without citizens, we give to individuals. When we give there is a face and a name attached and at times there is a real need for that gift.

We cannot take the humanity out of giving and to that end, we can honestly say that the suggestion of greed being inherent as opposed to altruism is questionable, to say the least. It doesn't take much to see need and many people in many countries respond when there is a crisis. It may be true that here in America we see a back end benefit to our generosity but the first thought that enters your mind when you hear of or see a crisis is one of compassion and not of your tax deductible gift.

I have often wondered what our giving would look like if there were no tax benefits. Mr. List’s study shows us what regular people in real world situations would do, or so he claims. What does not enter in that study (the “Director” analysis) is any background information of any of the test subjects (who are mostly college students by the way). Another major problem is the study only uses a small microcosm of the population to study a vast array of humanity, across races, ethnicities, creeds, religious beliefs, socio-economic makeup and possibly the biggest contributing factor; how someone was raised in relation to giving.

It is easy to pick apart an analysis by anyone, but in this case I seek more to question the very concept of altruism and service to others, rather than the idea that we tend to give because of the financial benefit we receive.

Consider this; when you give anything to anyone, you are committing an act of service. Call it goodwill to men, call it civic duty; call it what you like but there is an action taking place and that action is called service. Interestingly, when you join the military you are often referred to as being in the service. In this case your service is to your country and your commander in chief, as well as to your family and friends. That is a mighty act of service and there are many others like it.
Regardless of the service there is always a sacrifice on the part of the person serving. Whether time or money or a lifetime, we make a choice to sacrifice something when we give; when we serve others. If greed was inherent, we would never serve unless there was a benefit for us and I promise you that nothing would be accomplished in this place. We would melt into beating each other senseless to gain our glory. There would be no concern for others if greed was indeed inherent.

This should be good news for anyone reading this. Service to others is possible on a daily basis, from small things to life changing events. Our very lives can be in constant service from sun up to sun down, making a difference in lives across all spectrums.

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