It wasn’t until the later part of my graduate school career that we started to talk seriously about altruism, it’s effects in society, and how little we actually understand the impulse to do good.
Most psychologists are of the mind that no act is purely altruistic. When we act altruistically, there is generally a hidden benefit to the giver; altruism acts as a strengthener of the social network, the common thread between us in society, ensuring that we get what we give – what goes around comes around. Some people act for religion; some, to offset (or continue to do) harm. Our biology can encourage us to perpetuate our genes, even at our own expense.
Perhaps it was serendipity that on the same day I read the story of Adel Termos, the father who threw himself onto a suicide bomber in Beruit, saving dozens of lives, that I was followed home by a very thin, very sweet puppy.
He met my puppy and seemed to be friendly, so I gave him a meal and a bath, took him to the humane society to check for a chip, and when we didn’t find one, commenced looking for a home for him. He is a pitbull mix of some kind, and my parents are firm in the “no pits in the house” camp (despite many advocates for “bully breeds” pointing out most dogs are as good as you train them to be). Since a good friend of mine has a pit of his own, he assisted in spreading the word online.
Three hours later, I got a call from southern Illinois. From the original owner, who had left Michigan six months ago and had no idea he was lost, as he was staying with her (ex) boyfriend. She cried, I cried, the dog cried. Good was done!
Was this pure altruism? Of course not. I don’t want to see any dog freeze and starve in Michigan winters, but I also have been wanting another dog, and here was one, appearing in my lap. I put his information online, where people could see him and find him a home, but also (possibly) form a positive opinion of me and my compassion.
I think what’s most important in acts of altruism is reciprocity not being a primary motivator.
The benefits that come from acting for the greater good are long lasting. We are paying it forward. When I give a homeless man a dollar, I would hope that someone would also give me a dollar should I lose my home. When I take a dog home, the back of my mind hopes that someone would do the same if my dog were lost.
Those of us who work toward social justice, who work trying to make the world a better place, can be easily dismissed, and easily discouraged. After all, the world is a hard, cruel place, with little fairness or justice to go around. But if we all do one small thing, anything, to make the world a better, kinder, warmer place, that counts.
No matter the motivation for the act, results, even small results, make the act worthwhile.