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Programming Altruism -- Writer's Poke #332

Some people call it “paying it forward.” The idea is simple: just be nice to others. This sounds suspiciously like the Golden Rule, but how many of us actually like rules, golden or otherwise? Rules are, after all, so limiting, and nobody enjoys being told what to do, even if it’s for our own benefit.

Next time you’re at the McDonald’s drive-thru, consider telling the cashier that you’d like to pay for the person’s order behind you. Have you ever done this? It’s a small act of anonymous giving. You will never see the person’s reaction to this unexpected gift, and you’ll never even know if the person “deserved” the gift or not, but isn’t it silly to consider whether or not a person “deserves” a gift?

Santa Claus might ponder whether a person’s been naughty or nice, but that’s not our role. True gift-giving requires us to provide the gift without attaching any sort of judgment. Otherwise, it is not a gift freely given, and a gift with strings attached is no gift at all, really.

Most people, I imagine, would have a hard time convincing themselves to pay the $5 or $10 McDonalds bill for a complete stranger. Why? Are most of us so poor that we cannot afford it? Or, if poverty isn’t the explanation, would it be fair to say we’re simply too greedy? We would never expect others to pay for our meal, so why should we pay for someone else?

Even friends don’t always offer to pick up the tab when eating together. And isn’t that an awkward moment? Will he pick up the tab? Should I? Is it okay if we just split the ticket? If we split the ticket, nobody’s feelings will be hurt, right? And after all, if I pick up the tab, it could lead to resentment (e.g. I always pick up the tab, and that cheapskate never even pretends to offer).

Human nature. Perhaps there’s something faulty in our programming.

How can we develop a truly altruistic nature – one that avoids judgment, resentment, or expectations?

“Let us try to teach generosity and altruism because we are born selfish.” – Richard Dawkins

“If civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject.” – Ayn Rand


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