We can all agree that helping others is great, a deed worth doing. But devoting too much to helping others – too much time, too many resources – may get you labelled an oddity, a freak.
Altruists are people willing to do good things for others at a cost to their own happiness and well-being. Some people think that humans are by nature completely self-interested. Self-interest is the very opposite of altruism. But in fact most of us have at least a touch of altruism in us.
Think of the parent who sacrifices her own well being for the sake of her child. Think of the soldier who gives up the comforts of home and hearth to fight in some distant dessert. They're driven by altruism, not by naked self-interest. Some evolutionary psychologists and biologists even argue that a tendency toward at least a modest degree of altruism – especially what’s called “in-group” altruism – altruism toward kith and kin -- is built into humans by natural selection. And it’s not just psychology and biology that call us to some degree of altruism. Morality and religion clearly do so as well.
Altruism is clearly a good thing, if not always for individuals who practice it, at least for the groups to which they belong. But is it possible to take altruism too far? Take somebody who adopts as many needy children as they possibly can and is filled with regret that they can’t do more. People like that seem kind of saintly, and we generally admire saints. They inspire us and help us honor the better angels of our nature.
But imagine what it would be like to be the biological child of a couple who felt an insatiable saintly need to save every distressed child they possibly could. At some point, you might be tempted to say. “Mom, Dad, can we stop and be a normal family now so that we can have more things and do more things?”
So where do we draw the line between self-indulgence and duty? I grant that it’s not okay to let your own children just starve so that you can feed more hungry children around the world. But isn’t it just as wrong to overindulge your children while entirely ignoring the needs of less fortunate strangers?
Depends what we mean by overindulgence. How could I justify buying my kids the latest hot toy, which they don’t really need, when I could use the same money to buy food and clothes for dozens of needy kids in some rural third world village? I think of all the money I spent on helping my son master baseball – all the good times he and I had together, traveling to tournaments and showcases. Should I have given that up to so that I could have helped more struggling strangers?
I gotta admit that I wouldn’t trade those experience for the world. So what does that make me – a selfish schmuck? Or a father who loves and cherishes his own son? I think I admire extreme altruists. But I don’t really have what it takes to be one. But our guest, Larissa MacFarquhar has written a whole book about people who live in extreme devotion to the well-being of strangers, and she's learned some surprising things about them. Tune in to hear all the gory details.