RRecently, my psychologist asked me to consider her assertion that “there is no true altruism” – in other words, no one is truly selfless. All of us are acting in our own interest no matter whether one has dedicated themselves to causes of equality, social justice and solidarity.
My psychologist suggests, as many have, that a sense of living for something greater than oneself has significant mental health benefits and the recognition, respect and influence that comes from peers and society from serving others is – in fact – self-serving.
It’s a paradox that the cost of utilizing your power and privilege in support or standing with those with less – both against attacks from the ideological police on your own side and those who profit from the systems and structures you’re fighting to bring down – buys significant benefits for your own wellbeing and status.
The story of Jesus that is central to the Christian celebration of Easter is interesting to consider in light of this concept. One with ultimate power and privilege – Jesus, called the Christ, spends his adult life serving the excluded, oppressed and marginalized people of his society, challenging the corrupt political and religious hierarchies that entrench inequality, poverty and exploitation, and then sacrifices his life through crucifixion at the hands of those authorities, only to rise from the dead to be worshiped as the glorified son of God and savior of the world.
Does the “no true altruism” analysis mean that this is then the ultimate act of self-interest?
All the lateral and oppositional violence is worth it if you end up with your name in lights, crowned in eternal glory? Some iterations of the Christian religion – like the “prosperity doctrine” that teaches adherents that giving both financially and in “selfless” service to the church and community will lead to wealth on Earth followed by riches in heaven – suggest so.
There is, perhaps, a deeper reading.
Wellbeing is found in a sense of purpose; in being truly seen by others and validated as having worth to others and a community of people. It’s found in having the opportunity to be fully welcomed and accepted for who you are.
Our society and the messages it communicates about what is celebrated and rejected impacts on our understanding of our self-worth; our families, religious institutions and the communities likewise communicate validation or rejection based on whether our lives meet their various expectations and standards.
If we learn that power, wealth, status, body image or living according to social or religious norms are the measures of success as a human then the absence of those assaults our sense of self. If our agency to achieve those things is reduced due to systemic social and economic exclusion – patriarchy, racism, structurally maintained poverty, homophobia, transphobia and ableism – is exacerbated.
Granted, we are pursuing all our own wellbeing. It is more important, then, to ask ourselves and others – those who have the ability to make choices about the communities and societies they live in – how their pursuit of wellbeing will impact others.
If their path to self-worth is paved by the accumulation of wealth while exploiting workers and environment; if their sense of importance is built on denigrating and excluding those who they see as different or “less than” themselves, or if they are willing to sacrifice the collective good of humanity or the communities that comprise it then we should reject their vision of the future and their leadership outright.
To put it more plainly – if your strategy for political victory is turning voters against their neighbour, if you see spending on universal quality child care, public education, mental health or raising the rate of income support for people without jobs as a burden rather than an investment, or if low wages and growing inequality are built in to your policy design and intrinsic to your political ideology then your driving purpose is not the wellbeing of the human collective. Your leadership will not make the well-being of most people better most of the time – because, simply, that is not what you are about.
At the center of every major world religion is a concept similar to the example of Jesus – that is, true life is found in living for others, or, “love others as yourself”.
This is not a denial of the concept that we all have an intrinsic need to find security, wellbeing and acceptance for our individual selves – but rather that we’re all better off when anyone finds this through solidarity, generosity, inclusion and the pursuit of equality than through individualism, greed, exclusion and the use of coercive power.
This concept should be at the heart of religious communities that follow the example of Jesus – that true “prosperity” is an end to economic, social, political and religious structures that enable one group of people to exploit others for their own power and profit; an end to the idea that one group of people are more worthy of inclusion in faith communities or society that gives them an advantage for personal, social and economic advancement – and at the heart of our decision making about who controls the levers of power that impact on all of us.
“True altruism” may be impossible to find. But leaders whose driving purpose and individual wellbeing is focused on the pursuit of solidarity, inclusion, equity and the common good are those we should celebrate, support – and vote for when we have the chance.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism