How Much Should a Sense of Purpose Be About Ourselves—and How Much About Others?

Jean Vanier is the founder of L’Arche (The Ark), an international network of communities for people with intellectual disabilities. Here, Vanier (left) is shown with Gwenda, a resident of L’Arche Greater Vancouver.Jean Vanier is the founder of L’Arche (The Ark), an international network of communities for people with intellectual disabilities. Here, Vanier (left) is shown with Gwenda, a resident of L’Arche Greater Vancouver.

At first blush the answer to this question is easy.  A sense of purpose should be oriented toward others.  Right?  Of course right.  The social norm of reciprocity—that we should help those who help us—demands it.  So does the norm of social responsibility—that we should help those who need help.  The ethical principle of beneficence—that engaging in acts of kindness, mercy, and charity are a moral obligation—is typically considered a universal good.  Arguably most people, when asked to describe “the good life” and “the good society,” envision themselves surrounded by supportive, caring people who they both help and are helped by, in a community in which people are generous to each other and do their part to support the common good.  And despite all their differences, the major world religions (and for that matter, the new atheists) tend to agree on the importance of the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Developing and pursuing an other-oriented sense of purpose is simply the right thing to do.

But isn’t it also good for us?  Better for us than pursuing self-focused goals?  Psychologists are well-equipped to answer such questions, by applying the methods of science to assess self- and other-oriented goals, motives, attitudes and behaviors, and examining how they relate to various outcomes. They have done so rather vigorously.

For example, psychologists have examined the role that materialistic goals play on people’s attitudes, behavior, and well-being.  Materialistic goals are as self-focused as it gets; they focus on accruing power, status, pleasure, and wealth. This research demonstrates that people with materialistic goals tend to place a lot of value on financial security and not so much on relationships. Highly materialistic people have been shown to donate less money to charity and churches, give less to family, and spend more on themselves, compared to less materialistic people.  People with materialistic goals also tend to have lower self-esteem and life satisfaction, and greater sense of envy, compare to less materialistic people.

Or consider a study by my colleague Michael Steger and two of his collaborators. They followed a group of 65 college students over three weeks, each day requiring them to report on their activity and rate their happiness and general mood.  After they had collected the data, the researchers split the reported activities into two groups.  The first group consisted of self-focused actions that were tied to immediate feelings of pleasure—things like getting drunk, getting high on drugs, or having sex purely for immediate gratification.  The second group consisted of actions that were tied to other-oriented goals, such as volunteering, giving money to someone in need, or listening carefully to another person.  Which types of activities made people feel happiest?  Results revealed that students who engaged in other-oriented activities on a particular day were more likely to be happy and in a good mood–not just on the day they engaged in the activity, but on the next day, too.

Pursuing other-oriented purposes within particular life domains also reaps benefits.  For example, studies that have investigated this question within the work context show that service employees who sense that their work benefits others seem relatively protected from burnout and dissatisfaction, and that having contact with people who benefit from one’s work increases motivation and performance among telephone solicitors.  Wanting one’s work to help others has been linked to a greater sense of career optimism and ability to successfully navigate work-related challenges. Furthermore, the desire for one’s work to help others is related to higher levels of cooperation, job performance, and satisfaction with work tasks regardless of available rewards.  And when people shape their job in ways that enhance a sense of contribution to other’s well-being, a greater sense of meaningfulness typically results.  The causal arrows seem to point in both directions—happy people are more likely to help others, just as helping others brings us happiness.

So pursuing an other-oriented sense of purpose is the right thing to do, plus it’s good for us.  Presumably it’s good for the people who benefit from our altruistic efforts, too.  Still, the question is not as straightforward as it seems.  There is reason to question whether it’s even possible to pursue truly other-oriented goals.  Anthropologists report that ancient communities that maximized their ability to help one another tended to survive and prosper, whereas those that didn’t inevitably failed.  Did our ancestors help each other out of a spirit of selfless giving?  Or did they figure out that serving each other leads to the community’s survival and, as a result, to individual survival?  To love one’s neighbor is, in this way, a means of ensuring self-protection.

Perhaps more concretely (and cynically), some argue that we never really are selfless when we engage in helping behavior.  Instead, we help others with the self-centered intent of making ourselves feel good–or least less bad.  Let’s say you see a little boy fall off his bike and scrape up his knee.  He’s crying and is in obvious pain, so you rush out with disinfectant and a bandage, soothing him and patching him up.  Are you really doing this out of selfless compassion?  Or, are you helping him because his suffering makes you feel really uncomfortable, and helping is what you need to do to reduce your discomfort?  On a broader scale, perhaps you are motivated by a sense of purpose to use science to make the world better, to help other people reach their potential in the classroom, or to add beauty to the world through art.  To what extent are you pursuing this purpose to relieve a sense of guilt, or to sublimate neurotic anxiety, or to experience a sense of pride, or to garner praise or reciprocation?

There are logical problems with this argument. Most significantly, as David Myers and others have pointed out, it suffers from an explaining-by-naming circularity. If someone pursues an other-oriented purpose to, say, run a disaster relief organization and then experiences joy as a result, the temptation is to explain her prosocial behavior by naming the reward it brings.  (Therein lies the circularity: Why does someone pursue an other-oriented purpose? To satisfy selfish desires. How do you know she does so to satisfy selfish desires?  Because she wouldn’t pursue such a purpose otherwise.) Furthermore, social psychologists have found that when feelings of empathy are aroused, people usually are willing to go out of their way to help, even when escaping the situation offers an easier way to reduce distress. When feeling empathy, we focus less on our own distress and more on the needs of the one suffering.  Empathy has been found to spur helping behavior even when people believe no one will else know about their helping, but only when people think the sufferer will actually receive the needed help. Such evidence suggests that perhaps sometimes people do genuinely focus on others’ welfare rather than their own.

Nevertheless, let’s assume that there is always some amount of personal pleasure, or relief of inner distress, when giving of ourselves to others.  Does this make other-oriented goals less virtuous? Mother Teresa was once asked if her seemingly genuine happiness working among the untouchables in Calcutta was a put-on: “Oh no, not at all. Nothing makes you happier when you really reach out in mercy to someone who is badly hurt.” Does the fact that she experienced such immense pleasure in her caregiving make her sense of purpose less admirable? To the contrary—I believe it is a credit to humans (or more accurately, if your worldview permits, to their Creator) that we find personal joy in helping others.  Indeed, a strong case can be made that people only find true satisfaction, joy, and purpose when they give of themselves. This possibility is suggested by Richard Rohr and Joseph Martos, who wrote that “paradoxically, personal fulfillment means abandoning ourselves and putting others first…ultimate satisfaction is promised to those who give up their desire for self-satisfaction.” Writing within the Christian tradition, they point to the person of Jesus Christ as the ultimate example of this, one who taught that to find life we must be willing to lose our lives—before demonstrating this himself (“…with the joy set before him,” the writer of Hebrews notes) by willingly enduring crucifixion. Recognizing this paradox, Christians describe Christ as most glorified in his sacrifice.

There are practical matters to consider (e.g., does using self-promotion to “build a platform” serve as a worthy strategy to increase one’s prosocial impact?).  But to my students, my children, and to myself, I ask these questions: In what ways are you using your gifts to make a meaningful difference in the world?  How can you strive to do so more effectively? The more a sense of purpose is oriented toward others, the more we discover of ourselves, and the more our lives are infused with joy.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is it possible to satisfy self- and other-oriented purposes simultaneously? How?
  2. To what extent is it countercultural to pursue an other-oriented purpose?
  3. Is anything we do ever really selfless?

Discussion Summary

In my response to the question “How much should a sense of purpose be about ourselves—and how much about others?,” I suggested that pursuing an other-oriented sense of purpose is the right thing to do, plus it’s good for us.  Then I brought to the fore the classic debate about whether it is possible to do anything in a truly selfless way.  The essay’s take-home point was that it is a credit to humans that we feel good when we serve others, and that we discover more of our selves when we do so, and therefore we should serve others all the more.  The discussion that followed was engaging and nuanced, and pointed to several thought-provoking themes.

The question of whether anything we do is ever really selfless has garnered much debate over the years, but seemed more or less settled to many commenters in the thread.  Several pointed to how evolution has left humans with a biologically-rooted impulse to experienced empathy and serve others, leaving us, in the words of one commenter, with a “very profound physical connection to one another and more broadly to nature.” As Professor Roy Baumeister pointed out, we can count it a blessing that we feel good even when we engage in sacrificial acts that help others at our own expense, in no small part because doing so has allowed groups to flourish over the millennia, just as it does today.  It is hard to argue with Baumeister’s assertion that we ought to admire people who help others the most “even if—indeed, especially if—they get the most pleasure from their good works.”  Of course, it is still the case that many people balk at opportunities to help others if doing so seems inconvenient or likely to cause discomfort. Similarly, as another commenter noted, modern society tends to rewards rich and powerful materialists, and lift them up as role models for us to admire.  All this raises another important question for discussion: Especially given how good it feels to do good, how can we encourage ourselves and others to pursue other-oriented purposes more often?

A second theme took a theological direction, and questioned the interpretation of Christ’s death as an act of self-abandonment. Instead, as Véronique Delocroix noted, “the Christian scriptures do not primarily depict Jesus as dying because of his own concern for others but out of obedience to and faith in God the Father.” This is an important point that, I agree, is often overlooked or misunderstood, even by many practicing Christians. I expressed that it reminds me of the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s teaching that people are not called principally to self-abandonment, but rather “to glorify God and enjoy him forever”—altruism being a key way of pursuing this.  Véronique’s suggestion of replacing self-sacrifice as the paradigm for altruism with lovemaking, an action that at its best involves experiencing self-satisfaction in an order of magnitude proportional to one’s focus on and love for the other, is provocative.  Once one gets past the Freudian irony of this point of comparison, it may well “open a space for deeper consideration of how the excellence essential to actions themselves mediates and (re)defines the motives of actors and their relationships to beneficiaries.” Hence this question for discussion: In what tangible ways might an other-oriented sense of purpose offer the best path to self-realization?

Finally, a third theme shifted the question from the individual level of analysis to the societal level.  One of the first commenters suggested that it may not be so obvious that people should focus on other-oriented purposes, because self-oriented purposes have had many societal benefits, such as lowering purchase cost and improving the quality of products and services.  This aptly points out the value of social and economic structures like capitalism, which despite its flaws and collateral damage (e.g., alienation, materialism) has clearly had a positive economic impact on societies in a “rising tide lifts all boats” way. However, as another commenter expressed, given the earth’s finite resources, this system is unsustainable long-term without major corrections to it. Focusing less on economic growth as the end-all and more on policies that promote health and well-being is important, but what will actually work? At the heart of this theme is the question: What can societies do to ignite a shared focus on better addressing substantive (rather than superficial) human needs? These are challenging questions with undoubtedly complex answers, for which creative solutions are needed—solutions that begin by engaging these questions together.

24 Responses

  1. ISAS Forum says:

    Emmanuel Swedenborg has a fairly simple explanation for when our actions are good and when they are not, based on an understanding of our true intentions.  This video from Curtis Childs provides a very nice explanation of the ultimate drivers of our choices:  Love of Self, Love of the World, Love of being Useful:

    Quite simply, if the internal motivations for what we do are driven by love of the Self or the World, we are never going to be truly happy.  Being useful, in contrast, is what leads to true happiness.  From a sociological standpoint, this makes sense as we are ultimately social creatures, and the mutual relationship that comes from being useful fulfills our social needs more fully, and is more gratifying, than simple self-gratification.   Moreover, in the social environment, humans are often very good at seeing through one’s actions to one’s internal motivations, and the consequences for insincerity can be quite negative.

    The primacy of being useful to others may also make sense from a Darwinian standpoint – empathy is built into our physiology through evolutionary processes that rewarded cooperative and caring behaviors.   As Martin Nowak and others report, evolution is not simply the survival of the fittest but more importanlty the hriving of the most cooperative social communities.

    • Bryan Dik says:

      Thanks for the comment, ISAS Forum.  I know very little about Swedenborg but on this point, as it is communicated in the video (which is extremely well-done), I totally agree with the take-home point.  It was interesting to see a distinction made between Love of Self and Love of the World, which was framed mostly as love of looking cool or important to others (self) and love of wealth and pleasure (world).  I would be inclined to argue that it’s not clear where the boundary is between these things, and that both seem fundamentally about looking out for number 1 (e.g., isn’t my drive for wealth and pleasure fundamentally about my love of self?).  But this is just me being picky, and it doesn’t change the lesson being communicated, so never mind.  I do wonder whether Love of being Useful is always so straightforwardly other-oriented, though.  After watching the film, maybe I feel guilty about using my Craftsman mower, with its exhaust-spewing 2-cycle engine, so I go to the hardware store and pick up an old-school model like what Curtis is using in the film.  I am not doing this to be cool or because it’s prestigious, and I’m not doing it to make or save money or to feel pleasure either.  I do genuinely want to be a good caretaker of creation—but I also don’t want to feel guilty, and the gas-free mower helps me accomplish that.  Yeah, I think I’m being useful, but a cynic would say it’s not really about that when we get right down to it.  Of course, a point I tried to make in the essay is that ultimately I don’t think it really matters much.  Guilt feelings aren’t always maladaptive, and if the new mower helps the environment, makes me feel useful, and less guilty to boot—isn’t that a great outcome?  So I guess I’m with you—let’s not make it too difficult.

  2. siti says:

    I also agree that we need not overcomplicate the issue although the underlying realities may be very complex and interconnected. For example, in the essay you pose the question:

    Did our ancestors help each other out of a spirit of selfless giving?  Or did they figure out that serving each other leads to the community’s survival and, as a result, to individual survival?

    Of course the answer is neither, what they did was what came naturally to them as a result of their physiological feedback systems that reward altruism with feelings of happiness and fulfilment whilst internally chastising themselves with feelings of guilt and “emptiness” when they acted selfishly. These physicological processes have been naturally selected and are not unique to humans. They are also directly involved in the processes that lead to successful reproduction – it seems that the same hormone feedback systems are involved in sex, child care and altrusitic behaviour toward others so I think it is definitely and evolutionary trait that probably traces its roots much further back than the emergence of our first human ancestors, or is more widely dispersed throughout the animal creation if you prefer.

    Either way, what it emphasizes in my mind is that we have a very profound physical connection to one another and more broadly to nature which in a sense provides us with the physiological (psychological) reward of feeling good about ourselves when we do good to others. And this is a key aspect of spirituality in my view – the extent to which we feel our connection to, and show our care and concern for, other people and the rest of creation (other creatures, our environment, “nature” as a “whole” perhaps?).

    There are, in one (simplistic perhaps) way of looking at the world only two things in existence: me and not-me. When our loving, caring and giving are focussed mainly on not-me, the happiness of me will often take care of itself, when they are focussed on me, not-me might well reject us. And that may have serious implications at many levels, from our immediate personal happiness to our long-term survival as a species.

    • Bryan Dik says:

      Siti, thanks for your thoughtful and articulate comment.  You and the first commenter both point to the evolutionary underpinnings of altruism.  You are of course correct; in my comments about the anthropological interpretation, I did not mean to imply that our ancestors *consciously* chose to help others selflessly or to promote their own survival.  Rather, those who helped in communities where helping was common were more likely to survive and pass their genes to the next generation. As this played out over the millennia, it means that the impulse to help became rooted in our biology, undoubtedly through the mechanisms that you hint at. 

      I love your last two paragraphs, so beautifully written, and agree with you completely.  In fact, we could add a religious perspective in there as well, as love not only for people and nature but God, too (another aspect of the “not-me” you mention), seems biologically rooted—which to me only adds to the profound nature of our relationally-oriented personhood.  A very thought-provoking and well-stated post, thank you!

  3. wondering14 says:

    The professor’s first question, “A sense of purpose should be oriented toward others.  Right?” stopped me.  It is not obvious that a sense of purpose should be other-oriented.  The work of many self-oriented people also help others by virtue of their work by for example, lowering purchase cost, improving quality etc, without helping others being their direct intention.  And I’d think many of those “self-oriented” people are happy, which seems to be the standard of measure in the article. 

    Assumed is that giving less to charity is bad, even though there are other ways, perhaps more efficient ways, that help the needy rather than giving directly to charity.

    When I read of the college student study, I thought, “Uh-oh, another small-sample college student study.” And the conclusion was that the winning group was “more likely to be happy and in a good mood”, even “the next day, too.” Is that what we look for, being “happy and in a good mood” for two days?

    What other factors could have influenced the service employees’ satisfaction and motivation besides sensing “that their work benefits others”? Pay? Time off? Good boss? Good working conditions? Good team members?

    A short article. If longer, perhaps some of my questions would not have arisen.

    • Bryan Dik says:

      Wondering14, thanks for your comment.  I approached the question with a focus on what is best for the person with the sense of purpose, rather than whether or not people with self-centered purposes have a positive impact in the world.  I would not argue against your point that people pursuing self-focused purposes can have a positive impact in terms of the examples that you state.  I’m no economist but I know this is an argument for capitalism, in a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats sort of way.

       The giving to charity criterion is a commonly used proxy for generosity; what I was trying to highlight was simply that the more materialistic people are, the less generous they are, at least in terms of the ways that generosity is usually quantified.  I appreciate your point that giving directly is perhaps a more efficient way to give, but it’s probably safe to predict based on the weight of the evidence that people with materialistic values probably give less, period.

       Your criticism of Steger et al’s study is fair.  The number of participants is small, although the number of observations was actually quite large due to the use of the daily diary method.  However, of course, the world doesn’t run on college sophomore norms—point taken.  I simply chose one representative study to illustrate how psychologists have investigated the question of whether doing good is good for us. No, I definitely don’t think that being happy and in a good mood are best criterion for answering this question.  But they are not the only criterion, and whatever variables are investigated—happiness, positive mood, meaning in life, life satisfaction, etc., the results are fairly consistent that yes, doing good is generally good for our psychological well-being.  Your questions about employees’ satisfaction and well-being are addressed in the original studies by Adam Grant and colleagues; they statistically controlled for most of the variables you mentioned and/or treated them as control variables (via random assignment).  That is not to say that pay and good working conditions and so forth aren’t important factors in terms of employee satisfaction and motivation, just that they don’t explain away the impact of prosocial attitudes.  Thanks for recognizing that my 1500-word limit didn’t permit sufficient nuance and detail!

       Regardless of whether doing good is good for us or not, the original question actually includes the word “should,” and that is where the answer—to me, anyway—is more straightforward.  The extent to which a sense of purpose “should” be oriented toward others or toward the self is not only, or even mostly, about what is good for us, but ethically and morally, what is the right thing to do?  Most perspectives on that question gravitate toward promoting an other-oriented purpose.  But, your point that self-oriented purposes can have benefits is a valid one—thanks for raising it.

      • siti says:

        Wondering14’s comment really speaks to the second discussion question regarding the extent to which other-oriented purpose might be countercultural. For me this is a very important question but one which I was reticent about at first for fear of leading the discussion into the usual bipolar political socialist/capitalist division of “opinion”. However, since it has been raised already, I would like to make some observations.

        My personal feeling is that our current cultural “norm” in terms of division of labour and sharing of resources (both of which are powerful evolutionary influences) makes genuine other-oriented altrusitic behaviour countercultural. Our predominantly capitalist/consumerist societies reward self-orientation with material benefits and we are inclined (even encouraged) to assuage our natural feelings of guilt by giving to charity or helping our friends and neighbours. In a sense, it is the same battle within that the Apostle Paul referred to at Romans 7:23 and maybe that is always the real motivation behind most of our giving after all. I have to hope not.

        In any case, perhaps this really is the best way for humanity to achieve evolutionary dominion over the earth – after all, our populations have multiplied 7-fold in the 200+ years since Adam Smith wrote the rule book for the free-market economic system. From a purely Darwinian “survival of the fittest” point of view, this probably represents the most astounding naturally-selective success story in the whole 4.5bn years of earth’s history (unless you include the bacteria that ruled the living world unchallenged for a billion years – and possibly still do from that perspective). But in the end, all that success must come at a price – a price that the earth will have to pay in terms of depleted resources. We may not have hit the buffers yet, but if this way of conducting the business of being human continues indefinitely, we certainly will hit the buffers at some point because the earth’s resources are finite. So the pertinent question for self-oriented capitalism is not whether or not such a cultural system brings benefits to others (it obviously does), but whether it is genuinely long-term sustainable. Will our species ultimately measure its success in terms of numerical supremacy at its zenith, or its longevity as a viable “custodian” of the environment from which it sprang? That question may be more pressing than most of us are immediately aware. But even if it is not, I believe it is certainly worthy of reflection. Invdividual other-orientation probably will not change the culture of the whole world of humanity (not in one go at any rate), so if we live that way, we are (right now) going against the grain somewhat – but I have to hope that doing so will not ultimately be in vain.

        Genuine other-oriented altruists (like Mother Teresa for example) may be on the periphery of culture right now, but when catastrophe strikes, it seems that it is often the case that some of the evolutionary “countercultural” outliers survive to form the nucleus of the mainstream culture that emerges from the carnage. I have to hope that it will not come to that, but to be on the safe side, I am trying my best to teach my children and grandchildren that giving and caring for others and for their envrionment is more important than the acquisition of personal wealth and material comforts. Either way, you’ll work hard – but the rewards for a life of giving are felt rather than counted. I have to hope I’m right!

        • Bryan Dik says:

          Jordanfel—thanks for your comment.  I am not familiar with the book but I’ll check it out per your recommendation—the title is certainly provocative.  Abed.Peerally—thanks for your interesting and thoughtful response.  In referencing thermodynamics and entropy you venture further afield than my background permits me to intelligently comment on, but I appreciate your integration and application of such diverse areas, and your ability and willingness to tie it to spirituality and purpose.  Your comment inspires me to read much more broadly than is my current practice.  George—after your thoughtful and nuanced post about mixed motives I feel I must confess that I am holding on to my Craftsman mower.   It’s hard for me to mow often enough such that the mulching function isn’t a necessity, so the pragmatist in me is, for now, ruling the idealist in me.  That probably reflects my selfish desire not to mow more often, but also my concern that my lawn won’t be the one to disrupt the aesthetics of the neighborhood by sporting grass clumps.  Of course, I may well be overthinking it at this point. J  Siti, your last post advances the discussion to the question of whether it is countercultural to pursue other-oriented purposes, and I found it very interesting.  Your tying the matter to the earth’s rapidly depleting resources is insightful.  With you, I hope that we are not headed unabated to ruin—and it raises the question for me, assuming you are correct that our current cultural system is indeed not sustainable long-term: At what point do you think our other-oriented behavior will kick in on a grander, cultural scale, and do you hold out hope that it will happen in time to prevent catastrophe, rather than emerging in response to it?

          • George Gantz says:

            Siti and Brian – a fascinating thread, thank you.

            Capitalism (market economics, generally) arose, as Adam Smith points out, from individual exchanges that were based on personal trust and very local social norms.  As the process has evolved (and been rewarded by virtue of its magnificent success), institutions of commerce have developed that are able to enforce the required norms and justify the continued trust of the participants.  This trust, however, is abstract.  We are no longer dealing with another human being in a social context, but with a complex institutional system. 

            So – is it the case that abstracting trust in this way causes us to lose the intimate connection with others, and with the related socialization process that reinforces our other-centeredness?  This would seem to be consistent with then theme of alienation, a common refrain of modernity.  It may also be the case that this institutionalization results in a system that can be manipulated or “gamed” by certain individuals – and they are insulated from the social approbation that would apply in human-to-human interaction.  Perhaps, also, material success has encouraged materialism and led to a deemphasizing of personal relationships and emotional, aesthetic, or spiritual/religious values and the deeper appreciation of others that those values provide?  Or, perhaps, the culprit is not market economies, per se, but the empirical science and technology that fuel it, and the secularized and mechanistic worldview it has fostered.

            More than reinventing or replacing capitalism, or science, perhaps we need a broader revolution, one that brings back to the center of our lives that which truly makes us human – the love of others.  (I invite you to read my recent essay on this topic in FQXi: 

          • Bryan Dik says:

            George, interesting take on this; I think you’re on to something by tying the abstraction of trust to a reduced emphasis on other-centeredness.  I’m curious–do you think this in part accounts for the recent resurgence of farmer’s markets and the increased emphasis on buying local?   It seems to me that the need for genuineness and authenticity–and maybe the de-abstraction (is that a word?) of trust–at least in part drives the backlash against the alienating corporatization of everything.

          • George Gantz says:

            Bryan – Excellent observation.  As pointed out in Putnam’s work, the institutions that provided one-one human contact in the 20th century, at least in the US, including bowling leagues, social and civic clubs and religion, went into a huge decline.  But we have since seen (perhaps) a resurgence in farmer’s markets and CSAs, fitness / yoga / meditation centers, book groups and Meet-Up circles.  The search for relevance in a materialist age leading back to small group interactions?   The human impulse to connect with others in personal ways reflecting shared commitment to larger goals continues to flourish.  There is much to hope for in this trend.   Of course, there is also the “connecting” being done through the web 2.0 – and the question of whether that virtual world truly satisifes that human impulse or only provides an illusion of connection.  

          • Bryan Dik says:

            Siti, George, I love your respective visions for a different kind of future.  While I agree with you, Siti, that the social policies you describe seem pie-in-the-sky and are undoubtedly an uphill battle (although we need dreamers!), the shift in metrics that you mention is eminently doable.  I’m sure you are aware there are already various well-being and social progress indices—but they sure don’t seem to be driving policy or dominating economic reporting the way simple GDP does.  You two should run for office.

            George, excellent point about what social connectedness looks like in the virtual, Web 2.0 world.  It reminded me of Stephen Marche’s fantastic article from a couple of years ago in the Atlantic:

  4. George Gantz says:

    Bryan and siti  – Thanks for the reply (I was having difficulty with my log-in and logged in previously as ISAS Forum).

    I agree that Siti has captured something quite subtle in the last two paragraphs.  Having spent some time talking about epistemology (e.g. see:, there is indeed something special about “me” and “not-me” – one cannot exist without the other.  The foundations of being (awareness), logic and language all rest on that first distinction – the separation of “one” from “other”.  One can postulate that creation itself rests on God’s choosing to separate the finite from his infinite being (see Swedenborg’s “The Infinte and Final Cause of Creation”) – without that distinction there would be no world and no life.

    The me and not-me distinction also highlights the key role of socialization in helping to shape our feelings of empathy and our choices.  As you point out, guilt is quite influential in shaping our choices, and guilt arises from negative feedback from others about the impact of one’s actions.  This, but the way, hearkens back to the last BQO discussion led by Bennett Helm on Love.  As we are pointing out, Love is the motivation on which caring and helping others is based.

    I agree with you, Bryan, that parsing out one’s motivation in order to determine when, exactly, we are doing something useful to others.  Avoiding guilt by scrapping the Craftsman may actually be a mixed motive.  Yes, we want to be a good steward (reducing pollution and noise), but we also want to avoid the approbation of others.  The first response to guilt reflects love of others and the world, whle the second is based on wanting to look good to others.  Swedenborg has a lot to say about mixed motives in his explication of the story of Elijah (see a synopsis –  Mixed motives are fine and they are the usual state of things in our lives – but the question is which love dominates.  If you trading in the Craftsman because of the approbation and then rationalizing the choice by your reasoning about good stewardship – not good.  If you are trading in the Craftsman because the guilt has caused you to re-think your priorities and make a choice based on the love of the world and others.  Yes, this gets quite subtle.

    So what about the sense of meaning and purpose – the joy we experience?  Yes, we can feel joy when we gratify our physical wants and desires (self-gratification) – and we can feel joy when we gain prestige or influence (gratifying our love of dominion – love of the world).  But these feelings of joy carry with them no sense of sharing or participation – there is no “not-me”, only “me”.  Hence they are hollow and short-lived.  In the Buddhist sense, such attachments can only lead to suffering.  Joy that derives from our love of being useful to others, to the world, or to God, in contrast, is one of participation – a joining of “me” with “not-me”.  

  5. abed.peerally says:

    The author of the article and the commentators have brought  up issues which seem to have expertly covered  most of the important points related to the topic of positive approaches amongst individuals of a community: sense of purpose and of reciprocity. This as insinuated appears to be a natural instinct of biological beings and certainly plays a crucial role in biological evolution. The topic also makes thermodynamic sense in terms of the eternal trend of entropy which follows from Einstein’s SR concept (see Peerally viXra 1309: 0152). The universe is bound to enable entropy to pursue its compelling trend towards increasingly  lowest energy entropy. In the biological world it implies ever larger communities of more and more evolved species. Species would disappear if we do not have better interactive means of sharing life realities for self and global improvement described by Darwin as the Survival of the Fittest in the struggle for Existence. As I have been arguing in relation to the origin of the universe there was a creative ingenuity by the Creator for theists and by an impersonal  mind for atheists to produce a universe which started as pure and homogeneous very low but highest energy entropy as possible but meant to be eventually totally heterogeneous with finally total entropy, long after the disappearance of all forms of life. We happen to be living in that short span in the life of the universe when spiritual humans, the main purpose for having a universe in my opinion, hold sway over every other material objects.  The human species possesses the ability to intellectually and spiritually integrate the realities of existence with what lies beyond our material existence. Hence a sense of purpose and reciprocity.

  6. jordanfel says:

    Have you already read, Barbara Oakley’s, “Pathological Altruism”? I find altruism a wonderfully complex dynamic and not exclusively what Dr. Oakley posits. And yet, it is something which each of us must be actively noticing in ourselves. Then contrasting our pathological styles of altruism with those who do not show all the dynamics. 

  7. George Gantz says:

    I completed my prior post and then read this entry in the Templeton newsletter about reframing the debate on poverty, using market economics as a more sustainable and effective tool for alleviating poverty than humanitarian aid.

    • siti says:

      Going backwards because it somehow seems more natural!? George I was interested in, but not convinced by the Templeton Report on reframing the debate on poverty – which really implies reframing the debate on wealth distribution. I certainly agree that the debate needs to be reframed (more in a minute), but the ideas expressed in the report and related materials seemed a bit like a “hair of the dog” type cure to me – but perhaps I was just too steeped in radical socialism in my formative years?

      However, I think your own essay was far more insightful (if I may say so) and in particular where you refer to the need to “design the fitness landscape” of our social institutions (including or especially the large economic entities that are responsible for most of our wealth generation) with empathic qualities and humility – arming “the tip of the spear with love” as you put it. This reminded me of a discussion I had some time ago in another forum in which I proposed (for the sake of discussion – not sure that it could really be achieved in practice but who knows) that we might (as a species) consider reversing the roles of the free-market and the democratic process so that the brightest and the best among us are rewarded materially not for commercial success but for designing policies that promote genuine happiness among our populations. The resultant policies, which would necessarily be determined democratically, would in turn determine the appropriate distribution of wealth. It seems to me that doing it that way round (assuming that everyone was honest) would provide an economic feedback system that was more other-oriented and therefore more in line with our natural instincts reflected, for example, in the religious maxims of Golden Rule reciprocity and “there is more happiness in giving…” I called my hypothetical system of government “empathic democracy”.

      Apart from what might seem like pie in the sky ideas like that, I think more immediately and realistically we need to shift our economic focus from growth to development and promote metrics that are more holistically meaningful to human beings and human societies than simple GDP and which do not make nations (and therefore governments) that genuinely invest in the welfare of their citizens look unsuccessful just because their economies grow more slowly than others, or even fail to grow at all for while now and again in preference for dealing with less superficial human needs.

      Do I think we will manage to make sufficient adjustment of these parameters of  the “fitness landscape” of our cultural evolution in time to ward off calamity in our biological evolution? I hope so. I believe we can. I fear we might not. And I fear that whilst I might be spared witnessing our species untimely demise (I am in my 50s already), my grandchildren, whom I love dearly, may very well be forced to live through it. I hope not.

  8. ianful says:

    Bryan, I like this essay as it really picks at the fundamentals of humanity and its purpose, and my answers to your questions are below.

    1              Yes, it is possible to satisfy self and other oriented purposes simultaneously through providing for the other. The human is such a fragile creature and its creation, the self, is even more fragile. We were created to work in cooperation with others, and this means some co-dependency which may be good or bad depending on how it is viewed. The so-called other oriented person is in fact self-oriented, and provides for others in an effort to attract attention for example and thus achieve personal satisfaction. This would even apply to the altruist. If we can achieve a balance between self or other orientation, then we will be happy. Of course the balance is going to differ between people.

    I am not sure that Rohr and Martos have got it right about abandoning ourselves and putting others first. This might sound good, but we need the self to live in this world with others, serve them, socialise, reproduce, work, and live. Otherwise we would live like a bunch of solitary wildcats. I also interpret the saying of Jesus a little differently: To find (everlasting) life we have to lose our attachment for this (temporary) life; so replacing our desire for reincarnation to that of resurrection in the next world.

    2              Modern society favours the rich and powerful materialists, status seekers etc. and we are supposed to look up to them and view them as ideal role models. Such extreme self-orientation is where we are heading in this world and other-oriented purposes are being dropped by the wayside. I see learning to serve others is a key to happiness. For example, marriage does not work without being able to serve others.

    3              No, if we operate from the self. However, if we allow our soul to be master of the self, then it is possible

    • Bryan Dik says:

      Ianful, thanks for your thoughtful comments.  As a psychologist who constantly is encouraging our counseling psych students to engage in adequate self-care or risk caregiver burnout, I can appreciate your point about needing to achieve a health balance between self- and other-orientation.  And of course you are right in that Jesus’ saying, in its context, is targeting the afterlife (Mark 8:35 “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” Note the next verse: “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”)  I’m not sure I align completely with your interpretation of “losing life” referring to replacing a desire for reincarnation, but in any case the broader point seems very similar—focusing principally on Christ and the gospel instead of our own ambitions. And I *love* your example of marriage as one in which a purely self-focused purpose will just plain not work.  Anyone who is married can immediately relate to that sentiment.  You close with “if we allow our soul to be master of the self, then it is possible [to do something purely self-less].  I’m curious about this.  What ideas do you have for encouraging our soul to be master of the self?

  9. reflecting says:

      I think that whatever the outcome of verbal contemplation, humans will follow their intuitive sense of the moment in making decisions about helping self vs. helping others.  The question then becomes, how are these intuitions shaped?  It’s a matter of individual life-history and experience.  So it’s up to those who shape the life-histories of developing humans; it is an ideological question of how human character should be shaped so as to enhance the “common good”; and which leaders have the best judgment about structuring the predominant thinking of a society in this regard.

       So, a contemplation of which decisions in the past were good and which were bad is in order; but this is an issue of understanding history.  Was the U.S. war in Vietnam a good idea or bad idea? Whose decisions were involved, and, if bad, do the supporters of bad decisions still influence public policy?  To me it’s a question of understanding history and perceiving why big mistakes are made, not of whether people act “for  self” or “for others”. 

  10. Véronique Delacroix says:

    Thank you all for the stimulating essay and insightful discussion; I am sorry to be coming so late to the party (and apologies for the length of this eleventh hour post.) Like ianful, I am also disconcerted by the discourse of “self-abandonment” that one sees in many strains of Christian thought and that is expressed here in the quotation from Rohr and Martos. It is difficult to get away from this issue because Christianity has exerted so much influence on the development of moral philosophy (at least in the West), even for those who are not Christian.

    One hears this sort of line: “you must stop desiring what is good for you, sacrifice your own good, and undergo the abnegation of your very self in order to procure good for another; this will be your happiness, so long as you don’t take too much pleasure from it and thus dilute the self-abnegating nature of the act.” Paradoxically, this ends in removing God from the central event of Christianity and encourages people to pursue a programme of self-annihilation – which is, as I take  it, what the Christian gospel claims humanity is already doing and from which it needs to be saved. The New Testament itself gives a different picture altogether: Christ’s action amounts to an “abandonment of self,” but he abandons himself in the first instance not to those who are killing him but to the God whom he trusts to take him up to the same degree to which he lay himself down. On the level of the narrative, the Christian scriptures do not primarily depict Jesus as dying because of his own concern for others but out of obedience to and faith in God the Father (who is the locus of more typically “altruistic” motives.) This gives Jesus’ sacrifice the character of a “passion of trust” more than that of an “act of altruism.” When various New Testament authors then enjoin followers of Jesus to give preference to and lay down their lives in love for others, such actions are always already founded upon the agent’s sense of him- or herself as beloved of a God who has assumed responsibility for the needs (or “interests”) of the human person. A dyadic altruism that seeks to balance self and other is not what Christianity depicts or recommends, but we often speak as if it does and as if the self-other dichotomy is ultimate and ineluctable.

    It seems to me too hasty to take self-sacrifice (and a particular reading of Jesus’ death) as the paradigmatic type of altruism. A better model might be something like what is sought in the first discussion question – an action of the sort that satisfies self- and other-oriented purposes simultaneously. This is certainly possible; the paradigmatic example might be making love. One may attempt to make love with purely selfish motives or self-abnegating ones. But then one doesn’t make love well and, where I come from, that type of act is no longer called “making love.” What is to my mind useful in this model is the presence of a tertium quid to disrupt and reorder the self-other dichotomy. In the act of making love, one loses the sense of being a “self” and loses all sense of the other’s being “other” – these categories and any intentions to satisfy the interests of self or other are subsumed into and subordinated to a third thing: the lovemaking itself, the love that is being made. One’s action here is passion; the person making love goes through the motions not as an agent but as one who is being moved inexorably towards consummation of the act. To frame one’s “sense of purpose” or “life’s work” on the model of lovemaking instead of sacrificial death could open a space for deeper consideration of how the excellence essential to actions themselves mediates and (re)defines the motives of actors and their relationships to beneficiaries.

    • Bryan Dik says:

      Veronique, thank you for your superb post.  Your point about Christ’s sacrifice being an abandonment of self not to others but to God reminds me of the first question and answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Q: What is the chief end of man? A: To glorify God and enjoy him forever.  This is a lot different than to abandon oneself for others in a self-annihilation way, like you suggest, and it’s not even only to glorify God, but to enjoy him forever, too.  This kind of enjoyment is the “Christian hedonism” that John Piper talks about when he says things like “if you abandon the pursuit of your own joy you cannot love man or please God.”

       Your suggestion of using lovemaking instead of sacrificial death as the paradigm for altruism is provocative, indeed an excellent response to the first question, and probably also points to why other-oriented purposes may be counter-cultural.  (Sex the way it is typically portrayed in American media, anyway, is not usually like what you describe—but it should be.)  Maybe it’s the perfect example—it not only illustrates the point, but it demands attention.  (I guess there is a way to lecture on this topic  and have “sex” in the title after all!)  In all seriousness, I appreciate and agree with your theological correction of what I seem to have implied in the essay. 

  11. Roy Baumeister says:

    Great column! Let me offer another perspective. A key dispute is whether enjoying one’s good works disqualifies them as altruism. I have argued (see references) that this is a misleading way of posing the issue. Indeed, when arguments go round and round for decades, it’s often a sign that the question is wrongly put.

    The crucial fact is that humans evolved so as to get pleasure from doing good works. That’s what all this tells us about human nature. It’s a huge blessing to be able to get enjoyment and satisfaction from doing good deeds. Yes, there is altruism, in the sense that people do behaviors that provide material benefits to others even at cost to themselves. The fact that it makes us feel good to do these things is a bonus that nature (or some other power) installed so as to increase these actions, because groups that do them flourish.

    Schiller parodied Kant on this, I believe. He described a fellow asking a friend for a favor. The friend replied, sorry, I can’t do it, because doing that favor for you would bring me pleasure, and so it would not be a morally good action. If I didn’t like doing you the favor I would readily do it, because it would be morally right. But because it makes me glad to help you, its moral quality is ruined.

    We should not reduce our respect for people who do good things because they get pleasure from doing them. Instead we should rejoice that we belong to a species that is able to get pleasure from helping others. We should admire the ones who do it the most, even if – indeed, especially if – they get the most pleasure from their good works.

    • Bryan Dik says:

      Prof. Baumeister, thanks for diving right into the heart of the issue.   In retrospect I wish I had done the same in my essay, rather than exploring the peripherals (e.g., Is an other-oriented purpose good for us?  Is anything purely other-oriented?) before landing on your point: that it is a credit to humans (or to their Creator) that we find personal joy when helping others, and that in the end, the more a sense of purpose is oriented toward others, the more our lives are infused with joy.  Having reflected on it further these last two weeks, I concede that my lead-in to that last point probably belabored a debate that perhaps has already been more or less settled, or as you state, was not the best frame for this question in the first place. (That being whether finding pleasure in one’s good works makes them somehow less altruistic.)  I confess I was somewhat surprised, and I guess rather pleased, that the dominant response from the commenters to the essay’s take-home point—that we experience joy when we serve others, so let’s appreciate and celebrate that, and serve others all the more–could best be summarized as “of course” (or less charitably, “well duh!”).  If the commenters to this essay are representative of the broader population of thoughtful people, we’re further along than I thought.  Thanks again for your comment, a very good way to wrap up the discussion.