Thursday, March 28, 2013

Does Altruism Exist?

Maundy Thursday is not a bad day to think about giving, or for the New York Times to publish an article titled, "Is giving the secret to getting ahead?"

Susan Dominus writes a profile of a 31-year-old dynamo, a Wharton School professor named Adam Grant who's so prolific he doesn't know how many articles he has published; he's the author of the book Give and Take.

He enjoys writing as many as 100 letters of recommendation for his students, doesn't mind opening 300 emails a day, and hates to relax because it makes him anxious. Is he compulsive? No, says the organizational psychologist. I wonder. I hope he doesn't collapse from overwork at 45.

His philosophy, as summed up by Dominus: being helpful to his colleagues and students spurs creativity and productivity. He is generous and preaches the gospel of service to others because it is motivational, more so, he says, than the salaries that motivate many people in corporations to endure jobs that provide little satisfaction. The old business model is turned upside down: think of others.

He tells corporate types: nice guys can finish first!  Every request, within reason, should be cheerfully accepted, every email responded to because each is an opportunity to help: but who is helped?

Others? Yes, but it comes back to the self. Grant feels important and happy, it seems, by being busy on behalf of others. He wants to be of value in the world and to be remembered; obviously, he has already made quite a name for himself.

So his generosity comes from a desire to be liked. He advocates the positive values of giving since givers are high in concern for others but also because he who gives receives in return. One can't be simply a giver or a taker; he must be both, says Grant.  Refreshing in a world of greed and selfishness.

But is this altruism? Grant says pure altruism does not exist. Perhaps he is right since those of us who are religious or spiritual have to work hard at turning our attention to others: it is called charity or compassion, or simply love.

I remember a study by Lyall Watson a few years ago in which the biologist demonstrated that genes are not selfish; they are naturally cooperative. Does this mean the creatures like us are altruistic by nature?  If so, how do we explain the inherent self-interest that drives so much human action?

At least, Grant appears to take Ayn Rand's philosophy of self-interest in a more positive new direction, and I am glad he is being heard in the corporate world.  It is essential to be reminded, in the secular sphere, of the importance of giving. But altruism for success, as a means of getting ahead, bothers me.

I am reminded of a line from T. S. Eliot about the greatest treason, which is "to do the right deed for the wrong reason."

I would like to think that people in the corporate world would treat one another with a kindness and generosity motivated by love rather than self-interest. One does not have to be religious to agree with this corrective to Grant's philosophy of giving.

No comments: