Selfless Service, Part I: Is Selfless Service Possible?
When we help others without thought of personal gain we can actually gain a lot.
Posted May 08, 2013
"It is more blessed to give than to receive." – Acts 20:35
"Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country." – John F. Kennedy
I have been wanting to blog about selfless service for some time now, and I found that as I collected my thoughts on this subject, I had so much to say that I decided to write about service in two installments. In this first post on selfless service, I examine whether or not such a thing exists. Is it really possible to give to others without expecting anything in return? In the next installment I will write about kinds of selfless service beyond the obvious forms such as feeding the hungry and tending to the sick.
So, is it really possible for an ordinary person to serve others without expecting reward or recognition, or does one have to be a saint to engage in such service? According to wellness expert Daniel Scott, the answer is that we all have the capacity for selfless service. He writes: "[former psychology professor-turned-spiritual teacher, and a founder of the Seva Foundation] Ram Dass explains this beautifully: 'Helping out is not some special skill. It is not the domain of rare individuals. It is not confined to a single part of our lives. We simply heed the call of that natural impulse within and follow it where it leads us.'"
I agree that nearly every person has a natural impulse to help another human being who is in need. Yet I also believe that there are substantial individual differences in the strength of this impulse to help others and the likelihood of acting on this impulse consistently. It is one thing to drop a dollar into the hat of a homeless person I happen upon; it is quite another to devote my entire life to assisting the homeless or volunteering for similar selfless service.
I am skeptical about whether most of us can help others consistently without expecting some kind of reward. I'm not saying that we necessarily need a return favor from the person we help or recognition from society. All I am saying is that, at the very least, we expect to feel good about ourselves after helping someone. I think that expecting to feel good (or to avoid feeling bad) is the anticipated reward that that motivates most charitable acts. Consider the following example.
I question the notion of pure altruism—of doing something to benefit another person without expecting anything in return. As I said, at the very least, when we do good deeds we expect to feel good about ourselves, or to avoid negative feelings like guilt or shame. Often, we actually expect more. We usually expect in return at least a smile, a “thank you,” or other token of appreciation. Think about it: How long would you keep giving to a friend if he or she never showed appreciation? How long would that friendship last?
Evolutionary psychologists have long puzzled over how to explain altruism because it is not obvious why a set of genes could encourage self-sacrificial behavior without going extinct. The only way in which it is mathematically possible for any kind of selflessness to evolve is for selfless individuals to associate more frequently with other selfless individuals than with non-selfless individuals. A group of selfless individuals who interact primarily with each other will receive, on average, enough benefits from each other to facilitate the survival of selfless tendencies over generations—even if some members make the ultimate sacrifice of their lives. But, once again, note: even though "selfless" individuals might give out of the goodness of their hearts without consciously expecting anything in return, they must in fact receive enough help from others to support their giving lifestyle. Mother Theresa could not have done what she did without others supporting her causes. Someone who only gives and never receives from others will soon be used up and die.
It might surprise you to learn that the recipients of charity are not always happy to receive something for nothing. People actually prefer gifts when they are able to give something in return as opposed to gifts with no strings attached (Walster, Berscheid, & Walster, 1976). Just as people do not really want to give without receiving, people generally do not want to receive without giving. Both violate the desire for equity.
Given that society encourages equitable relationships, that most people do not really want to give more than they receive, and that many recipients feel guilty about receiving more than they can give back, who is promoting selfless service as an admirable virtue, and why?
One way of answering that question is to ask another question, namely, the title of this blog: Cui bono? Who benefits from the idea that we ought to serve without expectation of reward?
Well, the recipients of charity clearly benefit, even if they might feel some guilt and discomfort from receiving without giving back. Maybe getting something for free is worth the discomfort—particularly if you need the handout to stay alive.