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The health benefits of altruism are many, but mostly giving can mean a happier and healthier life.

Can Compassion, Altruism, and Selflessness Really Exist?

Sometimes altruism is in the service of narcissism. Is that OK?

I remember sitting at a college convocation speech in 1980 while a student at Brown University when the distinquished speaker focused his talk on the transition from the 1970s to the 1980s. He said that the 1970s was the "Me generation" full of selfishness and predicted that the 1980s would be become known as the "We generation" and one of selflessness. Wow! Was he wrong!

We all know that we need a lot more compassion, altruism, and selflessness in the world, don't we? After all, sometimes it seems so disheartening to witness the narcissism, entitlement, and selfishness all around us. Our American culture seems to really embrace and reinforce narcissism more and more. Facebook, YouTube, selfies, and the proliferation of reality shows seem to just add steroids to our already self-centered culture. Witnessing the celebrity culture that gets so much daily press just adds much fuel to this fire. So often, our culture seems to be screaming “Look at me” and asking “What’s in it for me?”

How often do you mingle in social and work situations where others seem to be able to talk endlessly about themselves and rarely ask you a question? And if they do (often to be polite) they get that glazed deer in the headlight look in their eyes when you respond. Have you noticed this phenomenon? It seems to be more common in our "selfie" culture.

Are we losing our ability to be more compassionate, altruistic, and selfless? Are we too focused on ourselves? 

In my Ethics in Psychology course here at Santa Clara University we begin each class session examining the ethical challenges students experience since our previous class session. We then discuss ethical principles that were used to try and make decisions when confronted with these ethical dilemmas. These often include pretty standard approaches to ethical decision making using principles from moral philosophy (e.g., justice, utilitarianism, absolute moral rules, virtues, common good) but as we unpack and deconstruct their thinking processes behind ethical decisions, egoism is always…and I really do mean always, a factor. So, inevitably the question, “What’s in it for me?” emerges when reflecting on ethical decisions.

Even when people decide to act in compassionate, altruistic, and selfless ways they often do so to achieve some personal benefit. This might include reducing the feelings of guilt from their privilege and good fortune. Major donors to charitable causes may want to see their name on a building or have the larger community see them in a highly positive and important light. Maybe they want a tax advantage by making a big donation. Maybe they want their efforts to make a lasting difference in order to achieve some kind of immortality.

I believe that Freud was spot-on when he discussed the ongoing tensions that we all experience regarding our id, ego, and superego. We want to be selfish, self-centered, and get our impulses met immediately but we also recognize that we need to manage these impulses in order to survive in a larger community and we need to manage our long list of shoulds and oughts. These tensions are part of the human condition. We want to satisfy our superego (i.e., the moral part of us) but also want to satisfy our id (i.e., our primitive and selflish impulses) too and often at the same time.  

So, it is possible that true compassion, altruism, and selflessness really can’t exit in a pure form but is often part of a more complex and nuanced way of living and struggling with being both selfish and selfless at the same time. Sometimes altruism is embraced but is so in the service of narcissism. And maybe if people do compassionate, altruistic, and selfless behaviors for their own personal benefit then they can still make the world a better place: A win-win perhaps. Since we really need a more compassionate, altruistic, and selfless world as a foil to our current selfish and narcissistic culture perhaps we need to take it however we can get it. So in my book, altruism in the service of narcissism is good enough for me. How about you? 

What do you think?

Check out my web page at www. and follow me on Twitter @ThomasPlante

Copyright 2014 Thomas G. Plante, PhD, ABPP


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