Do the Right Thing

Spirit, science, and health

Altruism in the Service of Narcissism

Is it still ethical to do good for the wrong reasons?

If people do the right thing for the wrong reason is it still right? Egoism is one of the hardest ethical principles to get one's mind around.

For example, some wealthy people donate a large sum of money to hospitals, universities, the arts, and so forth. Why do they do so? Are they merely wishing to generously support causes and institutions they think highly of or do they want to influence these organizations in some selfish way or perhaps just see their names on the front of big buildings?

Perhaps closer to home and easier to relate to, many young people now participate in service learning experiences while in school. Perhaps they spend a spring or winter break or part of a summer vacation working with the poor and marginalized either here in the United States or overseas. Maybe they participate in a service immersion trip to build homes or schools or help out at a homeless shelter or orphanage. Are they doing this because they wish to help those who suffer and struggle or because it looks good on a resume perhaps helping their chances of getting into a top college?

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At Santa Clara University where I teach in the psychology department, our new university wide core curriculum requires that all students participate in an academic class that involves community based learning perhaps working at a homeless shelter, health care institution for low income people, tutoring in a school where children may speak little English and are poor, and so forth. We call it "experiential learning for social justice" or ELSJ. Student must take at least one of these courses prior to graduating. How many student participate in order to fulfill the requirement versus how many would still participate even if not required is unknown. Does it matter?

I for one think that whatever we can do to make the world a better place, a more humane and just place, a more ethical place is a good thing. If students are required to work with those who are poor, marginalized, and suffering for whatever reason in order to graduate from college, improve their resumes, or fulfill some obligation then that's ok with me. Why? Because I think they get transformed from the experience regardless of their motivations.

For example, Bill Gates seemed to get into the philanthropy area later in life after he got married. In fact, I remember reading news reports stating that Microsoft and Bill Gates did little philanthropy given his and his company's remarkable success and wealth. That all changed with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation now giving enormous amounts of money to various causes but most notably with the poor and marginalized focused on health and education. What made him change? I don't know but whatever it was he appeared transformed by the experience (again, according to news reports). I've seen similar transformations in college students. They do something good, ethical, altruistic perhaps for selfish or narcissistic reasons or to just fulfill a requirement. Yet, the experience changes them for the better often making them more thoughtful, humble, and in solidarity with those who struggle.

So, I say bring on the altruism in the service of narcissism or in the service of any reason. We seem to live in a hopelessly broken world with so much need. We also seem to live in a mean spirited world too (just watch any cable news reports). Whatever altruism, kindness, and solidarity we can get, the better....for whatever reasons.

What do you think?

Thomas Plante, PhD, ABPP, is the Augustin Cardinal Bea, SJ University Professor at Santa Clara University and Adjunct Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University.

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