This week, Brandon and I were talking about the idea of making sure our mission is focussed on the Kingdom rather than some selfish motivation. As seems to be the case more and more often for me, that conversation left me with some things I want to flesh out. I often find myself wondering about the idea of altruism. Is it possible to be totally detached from gain and pleasure in what we do? Does it matter at all if we achieve an altruistic approach to life? The more I’ve thought about it, the more I feel like those questions both have the same, short answer. No. No, it isn’t possible. If it were possible, I don’t think it makes any significant difference at all.
Let’s take the question of its possibility first. Is it possible for our actions to be free of any and all selfish motivation? I would say no. It’s a fairly obvious answer when we look at our lower, more animal instincts. We desire food, water, shelter, and even companionship because it improves and lengthens our lives. What about the higher things, though? Surely we can acknowledge that humans make sacrifices, giving up their own, selfish tendencies to pursue a greater good, or to do an act of service. Sure, I’m not arguing against that. My question, though, is whether that’s any less selfish than when I decide to go out to eat because I want to buy a new car and need to save money. Even the phrase, “greater good,” tells us that we are still choosing based on our own idea of what is good. The fact that we are going without a lesser for a greater good according to our own standard barely even rises to the level of a discipline, let alone an actual altruistic sacrifice.
Safe to say, I’m at least skeptical of the possibility. Honestly, though, even if I’m wrong about that, and it is possible, I feel like my main reaction would be a shoulder shrug. I’m not saying that our motivation doesn’t matter at all, but the gap between being selfish and altruistic is massive. Yes, it is a bad thing to be self-centered, but that doesn’t mean that it’s wrong for us to benefit from doing the right thing. If I were to donate $3 million to the poor because I’m planning to run for office and need some good publicity, then yeah, I’ve dehumanized the people, and that is undoubtedly wrong. However, if I donated because I desired to help those in need, and it just so happens that I get a large dose of the warm and fuzzies from doing so, that is unlikely to be a problem.