The Fundamental Goodness of Humankind

It didn’t take long yesterday for the friendship and generosity within the
“tribe” to which I attach myself to spill over into the wider world. I wrote that I had promised someone I would give him a ride to and from a medical procedure but that, as it happens, my surgery is to take place at the same time. I reached out to fellow writers to see if one of them might be able and willing to help. Almost immediately, I got a positive response. Millie will help by providing two-way transportation to the man I promised I would help. Millie’s response provides incontrovertible evidence that decency and goodness and kindness do, in fact, exist in humankind. She was immediately willing to help someone outside her own immediate sphere. I will repay her with a hug and the assurance that I will do the same for someone else who needs help when I can provide it.

This situation takes my mind down a path to explore what prompts us to either come to the aid of others in need or allow our circumstances to excuse us from that obligation. At what point is it “okay” (that is, permissible or excusable or understandable) to abandon the principle of altruism in favor of egoism? My decision, opting to move ahead with my scheduled surgery instead of fulfilling my promise to provide transportation for medical appointments for someone else, seems reasonable. But would it have been reasonable break my promise for another reason, say, that I had scheduled a breakfast with a friend during the same time frame? My response is that it may have been reasonable, but not excusable or decent. Context is important, I think. And the degree to which need versus want figures into the matter plays an important part. I might want to have breakfast with my friend, but that want is not as important as someone’s need to get to a medical appointment. As I’m thinking of it, need probably outweighs want in most cases. But, again, context matters.

Ultimately, coming to the aid of people who need help isn’t a mathematical problem in which the relative value of want and need are measured and incorporated into an equation that provides a factual answer. Altruism is not compatible with a discussion of cost-benefit ratios. Compassion and empathy matter as much as, and perhaps more than, context and the relative weight of need versus want. Any attempt at attaching pure logic to what is, at its heart, an emotional issue is evidence of the incompatibility between evidence and empathy. I suspect I could make valid arguments against attaching greater value to the needs of other people than to my own needs, again depending on context. But I suspect, as well, that those arguments would seem cold and heartless and inhuman.

Long ago, in sociology and psychology classes and subsequently in readings on the subjects, I learned that altruism may be a selfish behavior. That is, acts of altruism may be undertaken as much for the way they make the actor feel as for the way they make the recipient of the acts feel. I think that’s a cynical way of looking at the world, though I don’t doubt there’s some truth in it. Maybe I see truth in it because I’m cynical. But I think altruism in general springs from compassion and caring and human decency. If acts of altruism make the person engaged in those acts feel better, who am I to judge? And, more importantly, why would I care? Must good deeds be undertaken only if they do not make the doer feel better? I think my mind is going through another rabbit warren from which there is no escape. I better turn around.

I want, desperately, to believe in the fundamental goodness of humankind. Little acts, like Millie agreeing to interrupt her day by getting up at an ungodly hour to take someone she knows, but only in passing, to a medical appointment, helps me believe it.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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