Social Altruism vs. Empathy and Compassion [McGehee]
You have undoubtedly seen the TV ad campaign — though now it seems to have run its course.
Some corporation (a financial institution?) shows little random acts of kindness involving an actor — the person doing the kindness — a beneficiary, and a witness. Next we see the witness from Scene 1 doing a random act of kindness, which is itself witnessed, and so on around the park until the witness of the penultimate act turns out to be the actor in the first scene, as the witness from that scene (and actor from Scene 2) looks on.
A lot of things always bothered me about that campaign, not least of which was the apparent amnesia that afflicted the beneficiary and witness of Scene 1 when the exact same thing happened in Scene Last.
The beneficiaries of the kindness had no role in any scene but to be helped. They weren’t people, they were props. And the theme of the ad was that when you help somebody you’re also setting a good example and therefore, indirectly, helping somebody else.
You weren’t supposed to simply help somebody, you had to be seen helping somebody.
This came to mind tonight because I had just performed an act of kindness for a stranger — but I did it because it was something I would have wanted someone to do for me if I were in the other guy’s spot. In a line of traffic slowing behind somebody waiting to make a left turn, the driver behind me suddenly began signaling for a right turn. A deceleration lane was just ahead of me that, if I had held to my usual practice (especially in a 3-ton Bronco with Bronco brakes) of closing the distance ahead of me very slowly, would have left the other guy stranded while we all waited for the guy making his left turn. So I eased off the brake, coasted ahead a little faster than I’d normally prefer, and the other guy got to make his turn a few seconds sooner.
I’ve been caught in that situation a lot. I’ve been caught in a lot of stupid situations in traffic where I knew exactly what somebody could have done, at no trouble at all, to help me. To be fair, I’ve also had other drivers do exactly what I needed them to do, and believe me, I notice.
Now, what I’m doing is what I would have others do for me, which is in one sense kind of selfish because I’m pretending, for the moment, that I’m the guy back there that could use a hand. <shrug> The TV ad I described above shows people doing things without offering any examination of why they thought they were good things to do; in fact the primary motivator brought to bear in the ad isn’t the benefit to the person being helped or even any good feeling the doer might gain from helping them — it’s that you want to be seen doing good things by other people. Yes, the intent is that they’ll be inspired to do good things too, but it’s still social pressure. The act of kindness is a plot device; the beneficiary, a prop. At least in my little drama I imagined the person I helped as a person, even if only as a carbon copy of the author.
I’ve been seeing all kinds of articles over the years where behavioralists are unraveling the function of altruism in animals more primitive than (most of) us, and finding that cooperation for mutual benefit improves survival of individuals in a species and that benefits the species as a whole. I can’t help thinking that the farther down the evolutionary ladder they chase the altruism missing link, the more selfish and less virtuous all acts of kindness ultimately become. You help in order to instill gratitude in the beneficiary and approval in onlookers, who conclude you’re worth helping if you ever need it. In a tribal setting you would always know whom you helped and they would know who helped them. In our crowded societies it only makes sense to use social pressure to ramp that impulse up to the benefit of complete strangers.
But it’s still a social impulse and the beneficiaries are still strangers whom you have no particular reason to see as anything but a faceless passing figure who could use a casual kindness to smooth out his or her day.
And this comes around to something else I deal with in traffic around here that drives me up a wall: the unwanted, unhelpful random act of kindness. The straggling driver who is the last obstacle between me and the left turn I’ve been waiting to make, whose passing and departure I am trying to time so I can get out of the way of all those make-believe me’s behind me who just want to get where they’re going, as quickly as possible. The straggling driver who slowly decelerates as he approaches, because he wants to let me make my left turn ahead of him — a left turn I could have made sooner if he had just gone on about his business at the highway speed he was already doing.
He didn’t stop to think whether this was really what I (or any of the people behind me) wanted him to do. He didn’t ask himself whether he, in my position, would rather turn in front of him or behind him or whether it would make any difference to me at all. No, he saw some stupid TV ad for some financial institution and decided he liked that idea.
It is not virtuous to do something for somebody else just to make you feel better, or to be seen as a nice person. If you are not in a position to ask the person you want to help what would actually help, at least try putting yourself in that person’s position and ask yourself.
Seems to me there’s a fairly popular book — been out for more than 100 years, even — that has a few things to say about that.
The other kind of helping, the kind that renders the recipient a prop with no say in the matter? That’s not really helping.
Update: I confess I’m a little disappointed that no one’s made the connection between this post and ObamaCare. Anyway, a clarification from a comment I made last night:
…if you don’t find a way to care — in a real way — about what happens to that other person, then you’re just effin’ things up for them.
I only hinted at the Golden Rule in my post, but that really is the key — and I do it by imagining myself in that position and asking, “What would I want?”
What I would want is a little less casual inconvenience, a little more freedom and dignity, and a whole lot less trying to turn me into livestock.
Anyone see the connection yet?