The Trouble With Altruism

Reaping the Rewards of Our Gifts

This article comes to us from Will Ryan:

When I was in college, I got into a good-natured disagreement with another student. What he said has stuck with me these many years passed. I don’t remember his name. I don’t remember what started the disagreement. I don’t even remember where we were going when it happened (we were on some sort of class trip). 

The one thing I do remember is his basic argument: “There is no such thing as altruism.” Altruism is selflessly giving on behalf of others. He argued that humans can’t do this because we can only ever give because we think it benefits us in some way.

Whether it be giving money to someone on the street corner, signing up for the work trip to help communities recovering from the ravages of a hurricane, only buying fair trade (products produced by organizations who commit to paying their workers a living wage) or organic food, or the hours spent mentoring kids at the local community center — acts of charity somehow, someway, end up for our own good. 

It may be because we like the way it makes us feel or that we can write it off on our taxes, or that it makes us look good in front of others, or it might benefit our career in some way, or it’s what we’re supposed to do (as Christians, citizens, humans, etc). It might even be below the surface, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. 

I tried in vain to argue the other side, that we can be altruistic. I don’t think I ever conceded at the moment, but these years later I have to admit he was right. And more than that, he exposed me to a centuries-old Christian idea. 

Martin Luther, the German Reformer who sparked the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, wrote that the human heart is curved in on itself, that because of the Fall humans have an innate ability to turn anything toward the benefit of themselves. Here’s how he put it in his Lectures on Romans:

Our nature, by the corruption of the first sin being so deeply curved in on itself that it not only bends the best gifts of God towards itself and enjoys them, as is plain in the works-righteous and hypocrites, or rather even uses God himself in order to attain these gifts, but it also fails to realize that it so wickedly, curvedly, and viciously seeks all things, even God, for its own sake.

Now, this doesn’t mean that all charity is pointless (Mockingbird lives by the charity of others), nor is giving in to a sinful and self-centered nature somehow ok. The charity of Jesus knew no bounds. There should just be a realism about our motivations and what charity can and cannot do. No amount of money given, or hours volunteered, or justice established, will free us from the bondage of sin. We cannot help ourselves because any attempt just circles back in on itself. 

No, we need help from the outside. We need someone (Someone) who will free us from ourselves. We need someone who can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. We need someone who truly can act selflessly on behalf of others (on behalf of us). We need Jesus, but not because he is a good example, a wise sage, or an impressive teacher. If that was all he was, the world would have long forgotten him. No, we need Jesus because, in a true act of charity, Christ died for ungodly people (Rom. 5:6), people whose hearts are curved-in on themselves.

I may not have won that argument, but it at least pointed me to the only one who was able to act altruistically.