Our Suspicions about Altruism

The existence of true altruism has become popular subject for debate in recent years: does anyone do good things out of purely selfless motives?  Even in the absence of material rewards, don't "altruists" get a rush of satisfaction or virtuous good feeling (in other words, an emotional reward) from their benevolent deeds?

There is a corollary, and a sad one, to this interesting debate: a widespread distrust of good deeds.  When someone we don't know tries to do something nice for us, our minds automatically skip to the catch.  What is in it for them?

Now of course, this skepticism is healthy when we apply it to, for instance, to promises of politicians and salesman.  But as the Secret Society for Creative Philanthropy found out, it makes it awfully hard to do a nice thing. 

The premise of the society is this: give micro-grants of $100 to a group of people, asking them only to do something nice for total strangers with it. 

The idea, says the founder, is to spark new thinking and dialogue about philanthropy and altruism:
"One hundred dollars is not going to change anyone's life," Martin said. "It's a small thing. The money is just a framework for people to use their imagination. It's like a kick in the ass."
What did people do with the money?  Many gave away umbrellas or dollar bills on the street.  Their attempts met with almost universal reluctance and rejection.  I think we can blame this on the cynical way "free gifts" are used in sales and proselytizing: we, like the Trojans after the horse, don't believe a gift is ever "free."

One of my favorite ideas was this:
Clark Kellogg deposited his $100 in a bank account and left written instructions for his great-granddaughter to withdraw the accumulated total in 100 years and give it away. With compound interest, he said, the total will be $2.1 million, which is enough for a lot of free umbrellas in the rainstorms of 2110. "I don't think I'll be around then," he said.
Perhaps I like it so much because it reminds me (utterly unreligious soul that I am) of the parable of the talents.

But of course this gets me thinking - what would I do?  How could I do the most good with $100?