The Altruism Trap

About a year ago I was in a melancholy mood and I went downtown.  I think I was supposed to be on a first date, and I got stood up; for whatever reason, I was very nicely dressed and I was sad.  I saw a traveling street person busking outside of a drug store, and I stopped: his sign made me laugh, perhaps.  I think it said, “Smile with me!” or something like that.  He had the same first name as me, but in the masculine form, it turned out; and his hometown had the same name as my hometown, except a few hundred miles away in New England.  We started talking, and eventually I bought him dinner; a few of his friends came over and I spent the evening talking with them.

Alexander – the first man I met – told me a story that’s stuck with me ever since: he was talking with a Christian missionary one day, and she offered him twenty dollars.  He reached to take the money, and she snatched the money away and proffered a Bible instead.  She said he could have the money if he took Jesus into his heart as Lord and Savior.  She tried to use cash in order to buy love.  Missionaries are always doing this: building schools in order to rebuild communities in their own image; giving away food and Bible verses to captive audiences.  I am surprised that anyone can think of this as altruism, but then, for a certain species of Evangelical, the good work of aiding the poor or helping the afflicted pales in comparison to the good work of saving souls from damnation.  How anyone can believe in a torturer God is beyond me, but there it is.

This form of altruism is not uncommon among secular donors, volunteers, activists, and aid workers, however.  Just as the missionary believes their good work – helping the needy and saving souls – will buy them a place in heaven, the secular volunteer believes that their good work should buy them the gratitude of the recipients of their generosity.  I saw this at animal shelters, where there were always dozens of volunteers eager to walk the puppies, and no one interested in washing the cat pans, and I see a more pernicious version among those who try to help their fellow humans.

There is a personality type common among the altruistic.  Altruistic people want to help others, both because they want those they help to be better off, and because the altruistic person wants to feel better about themself.  Many altruistic people need the emotional payoff that comes from doing good deeds, and many cannot that their work had meaning unless their good work is loudly acknowledged, preferably by the recipient of their aid.

This is toxic.  I occasionally make announcements for a free clinic during the lunch hour at a soup kitchen where the food is prepared and served by a rotating group of local churches.  Each day, a different set of people from a different church come in to cook lunch and serve hundreds of people.   Many of the volunteers are there hungry for acknowledgement of their staggering generosity; and the people hungry for a meal are under pressure to sate those altruistic volunteers with a display of gratitude.  Yet gratitude, when compelled, becomes a poison in the soul; it wears at a person to constantly be reminded of their dependency.
There is a beautiful scene in one of my favorite novels, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which illustrates this phenomenon.  Francie Nolan, the child protagonist, has gone to a Christmas party organized for the poor children of her neighborhood.  A lady in the Protestant organization hosting the party introduces a rich girl, named Mary, to the other children.  Mary is dressed beautifully, and she is carrying a beautiful doll.

“ ‘Now,’ said the lady.  ‘This little doll is named Mary after the kind little girl who is living her away.’  Again the little girl smiled graciously.  ‘Mary wants to give the doll to some poor little girl in the audience who is named Mary.’  Like wind on growing corn, a rippling murmur came from all the little girls in the audience.  ‘Is there any poor little girl in the audience named Mary?’
“There was a great hush.  There were at least a hundred Marys in that audience.  It was the adjective ‘poor’ that struck them dumb.  No Mary would stand up, no matter how much she wanted the doll, and be a symbol of all the poor little girls in the audience.  They began whispering to each other that they weren’t poor and had better dolls at home and better clothes than that girl, too, only they didn’t feel like wearing them.  Francie sat numb, longing for that doll with all her soul.
“‘What?’ said the lady.  ‘No Marys?’  She waited and made her announcement again.  No response.  She spoke regretfully.  ‘Too bad there are no Marys.  Little Mary will have to take the doll home again.’  The little girl smiled and bowed and turned to leave the stage with the doll.
“Francie couldn’t stand it, she couldn’t stand it.  It was like when the teacher was going to throw the pumpkin pie in the wastebasket.  She stood up and held her hand high in the air.  The lady saw it and stopped the little girl from leaving the stage.
“‘Ah!  We do have a Mary, a very bashful Mary but a Mary just the same.  Come right up on the stage, Mary.’
“Feverish with embarrassment, Francie walked up the long aisle and onto the stage.  She stumbled on the steps and all the girls snickered and the boys guffawed.
“‘What is your name?’ asked the lady.
“‘Mary Francis Nolan,’ whispered Francie.
“‘Louder.  And look at the audience.’
“Miserably, Francie faced the audience and said loudly, ‘Mary Frances Nolan.’  All the faces looked like bloated balloons on thick strings.  She thought that if she kept on looking, the faces would float away up to the ceiling.
“The beautiful girl came forward and put the doll in Francie’s arms.  Francie’s arms took a natural curve around it….
“The lady talked as Francie backed awkwardly to her seat.  She said: ‘You have all seen an example of the true Christmas spirit.  Little Mary is a very rich little girl and received many beautiful dolls for Christmas.  But she was not selfish: she wanted to make some poor little Mary, who is not as fortunate as herself, happy.  So she gave the doll to that poor little girl who is named Mary, too.’
“Francie’s eyes smarted with hot tears.  ‘Why can’t they,’ she thought bitterly, ‘just give the doll away without saying I am poor and she is rich?  Why couldn’t they just give it away without all the talking about it?’
”That was not all of Francie’s shame.  As she walked down the aisle, the girls leaned toward her and whispered hissingly, ‘Beggar, beggar, beggar.’
“It was beggar, beggar, beggar, all the way down the aisle.  Those girls felt richer than Francie.  They were as poor as she but they had something she lacked – pride.  And Francie knew it.  She had no compunctions about the lie and getting the doll under false pretenses.  She was paying for the lie and the doll by giving up her pride.”

This passage is instructive.  The apparently altruistic Mary (and the lady, and the whole Protestant organization throwing the charity Christmas party) need an audience for their generosity.  Their audience is made up of the recipients of their charity.  These recipients must either choose not to accept charity, or else pay for the charity they receive by giving up their pride.
Thus, the apparent altruism of charity and generosity becomes a kind of emotional exploitation.  What solution can there be for this?  People still need to eat, still need warm beds and clean clothes; children still need toys at Christmas and the means to celebrate other holidays.

Part of the reason I, like many others on the left, support an increased role for the government in social welfare is that it will cut down on charity.  I do not see charity as a positive good; I think it is good for the souls neither of recipients nor of the apparently altruistic.  True generosity and true gratitude, when freely given and received, are beautiful.  But the theater of altruism, where the recipients of poverty must make a spectacle of their gratitude for a succession of volunteers and donors and aid workers, impoverishes the soul.

I encourage those who would like to be involved in charity work to think about their motives, and to consider supporting social justice efforts aimed at political reform to the problems of poverty, homelessness, universal health care access, and others.  It’s not that I don’t believe that true generosity and gratitude are possible – it’s that I have no faith in a system built on an exchange of goods for gratitude.  I don’t want more people to fall into the trap of altruism, and I don’t want to see more people harmed by those who think they’re helping.

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3 Responses to The Altruism Trap

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful take on the many pitfalls of charity.
    It is a real danger that arises in depending on the kindness of individuals with the power to help, to assist those who suffer misfortunes. I think we as a society need to be careful about the kinds of strings attached to community help that offers resources to those in trouble.
    Power of any kind can be corrupted, and fail to be actually truly helpful.
    And it can work both ways. So the religious person who thinks they ought to be able to hold a person hostage for needed help, by forcing them to listening to what may indeed be a good sermon or even a glad example of a religious ideal… would do well to remember that if the person in power who can do this, has some not so good intent, would be equally able to hold sway over the needy individual.
    And anyway, that kind of thing can easily backfire. If someone in a position of need is abused for it, they may very well learn to resent those who are helping, and in some cases could lead to them being so jaded, they would not see the harm in turnabout being fairplay, and just doing whatever to get what they need.
    I always imagine that a lot of people who take help from religious organizations that put heavy burdens of “signing up” with a particular notion, probably just “go through the motions” to get what they need, and then simply cynically dismiss ALL of what that organization was pushing, even if it wasn’t all bad. And well, who can blame them? People in desperate situations take desperate measures, and it’s not hard to make someone jaded when all they get to see is hypocrisy & unfairness, and lack of liberty.

    • iaphilosophy says:

      Hi WatermelonPunch! Thanks so much for your comment and for reading.

      I’ve always thought there was something peculiar, and ugly, about the quid pro quo inherent in a lot of religious charity, where faith in a religious organization’s particular God – or at least the lip service of faith – may be expected in return for material charity. It cheapens both any expression of faith and any real generosity.

      • You’re right, it does cheapen faith to make it a commodity to be traded for goods & services.
        It’s also rather controlling, or dare I say, “playing god” to try and parent grown fellow humans who have simply experienced some type of misfortune, as if they are 3 year olds being potty trained. To rob someone of dignity that way is anything but generous.

        Means testing is one thing. Demeaning people is quite another.

        It does seem to be a disturbing trend among so-called spiritual people to disparage the poor. But I don’t think this is a religious trend all over the world.

        And there are religious charities, and those within religious charities, that do not discriminate or make strings attached to their giving of help.
        I suspect a good example of this would be Catholic medical missionary, American doctor, Tom Catena, who works in the Nuba Mountains in the Sudan. The organization’s mission makes clear that they value making medical treatments available without discrimination. And if you look at the demographics of that area, there are plenty of non-Catholic Christians, Muslims, and people practicing ritual magic traditions, in the Nuba Mountains. And one lone doctor attempts to take care of them all.
        I imagine he receives a fair share of reverence and gratitude, just by being so uniquely able to help people who would otherwise likely die for lack of any basic medical care. But from the articles I’ve read about him, I don’t think the luxuriates in it. He seems like a no-nonsense doctor working & living in conditions no fellow American would envy.

        But even this is a perfect example of charity, not as the default best solution, but as a stop gap measure of last resort.
        Obviously it would be much preferable if Sudan wasn’t torn by civil war, with a government attacking its own people, causing many of them to die or be in serious need of missionary medical services. It would be much preferable if the Sudan had a government willing and capable of taking care of its own society, by will of the people taking care of themselves.

        In an advanced country like the U.S., there should be no need of such last resort charity.
        The idea that we should prefer such last resort charity as the default, is to admit that the way that Sudan operates a 3rd world country, is the ideal, not the sad failure of human civilization that it has unfortunately been.

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