Sunday, December 25, 2005

Being Helpful isn’t Always Best

Tibor R. Machan

Now and then when one shops or patronizes some establishment, one receives favors from clerks or servers and this is usually quite welcome. Indeed, it is often believed that what makes people decent is how willing they are to be benevolent toward others. The late W. D. Falk, a philosophers at the University of North Carolina, wrote about this phenomenon, explaining how it distorts our understanding of what it is to be ethical. Focusing only on the nice things people do for others gives the impression that altruism is the true morality, but this is quite misguided.

Many people who are helpful to others, say, in a store or restaurant, actually are neglecting what they should be doing, namely, work for those who hired them. That is why they were employed, that is the promise they made when they were hired, so to renege on it amounts to breaking one’s word, failing to live up to a promise. Employees are not supposed to be doing kind things for customers over and above acting civilly and being personable, which facilitates business. Professionally they are committed to such conduct for purposes of enhancing the economic well being of those who hired them.

Imagine if when you went to a doctor whose services you pay for (sometimes through insurance but often also up front) he or she didn’t pay attention to you but kept getting on the phone and helping some friend or relative. This would be a serious lapse in the doctor’s professional ethics. Anyone who extends an invitation to people to become his or her clients is, if the invitation is accepted, committed to work for those clients. Being nice to others at these clients’ expense is the farthest thing from being decent and kind. Whatever the motivation, the actual conduct is ethically objectionable.

Also, if one is always being nice to other people while neglecting one’s projects—including attending to the needs of one’s family and friends—this may seem a good thing but it isn’t. Indeed, it may well be done so as to gain brownie points, to “win friends.” But that can take one away from more important but less public tasks. The altruist is doing something nice for someone but often fails to do something nice to those, including himself, he should take care of first. Just like that clerk who gives a customer a special break while failing to work for those who have employed him, the altruist can seem like he is doing such fine things while, when it is all computed, turns out to be hurting those who deserve it least.

Altruism is widely hailed as such a noble ethical stance but this is doubtful. As the poet W. H. Auden once quipped, “We are here on earth to do good for others. What the others are here for, I don't know.” The ethical altruist is in fact part of a daisy chain of self-denial the ultimate goal of which is difficult to fathom—if we all must renounce, what of those whom we serve instead? Do they, too, have to renounce? Who is justified in collecting all the goods given away?

But even more seriously, altruism rests on the dubious idea that by nature we are all cruel and self-indulgent and are naturally self-regarding, so we need to be taught that others matter more than we do. It’s kind of an antidote to natural egotism. Yet, in fact, most folks are very far from self-regarding and quite often botch up their lives which could use a lot more care than they give it. Especially since they tend to know a lot more about their own needs and wants, it would be best if all who can would attend to their own interests first.

But because most of us tend to pay attention to other people to the extent that they are benefiting us, we tend to praise this other-directed conduct on their part and forget that there is an entire life for them to attend to which they may not be doing so well. Instead of bending over backwards to be nice to others, we could probably do much better in life by paying more attention to what we need and should want first.

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