Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Is it altruism or simple decency?

Tibor R. Machan

Changing planes at Heathrow is a bit of a hassle since Terminal I (I think) where flights from the USA disembark is a very long walk to Terminal II, where you catch flights to all parts of Europe. On my way to a conference in Florence in May, I landed there and, in error, went to wait for my luggage which, however, had been checked through to Milan. I have a malady with my left thigh and so I sat watching the conveyor belt until I figured out my bag wasn’t going to come. I then got up and walked the tunnels to Terminal II.

When I got there to check in I realized I was missing my wallet. I had my passport but no wallet, no money, no credit cards, no driver’s license, nada. I checked with Virgin Airlines to make sure I hadn’t left it on the plane but to no avail—folks there weren’t too helpful, saying the plane had been cleaned already for its next flight and nothing turned up. I schlepped back to Terminal I to—well, I wasn’t sure to do what but I thought it might be thereabouts, somewhere. I went to every stop I made once I got off the plane and finally ended up at lost and found. They hadn’t seen hide or hair of my wallet.

Next to lost and found stood a currency exchange booth and I went there to see if I could finagle some kind of advance of money, based on my passport alone, but, of course, there was no deal. But just as I was about to walk away, a man, about 6 feet tall, black, in some kind of ordinary uniform I cannot now recall more about, walked by and turned to me with a huge grin, handed me my wallet and asked, “Is this what you are looking for?” Boy, was I! I couldn’t believe it. I thanked him profusely, reeling from the shock that I could be so lucky. When he left me standing there agape I finally collected myself and looked inside the wallet—everything I had there was still intact, nothing was missing. And I had about four hundred Euros and three hundred dollars! Nothing was missing!

Actually, I am still quite incredulous about this. I only wish I had my wits about me and asked the man if he would accept some sum as a token of my gratitude but he disappeared too fast and I was too stunned to think of it while he was still there. But later, of course, I thought about what happened here.

Now there is a prominent ethical theory, the opposite of what many economists hold, to the effect that there are a great many decent people who are altruists. What is that, you may ask? Well, my favorite source for identifying altruism is the philosopher W. G. Maclagan, who is his paper “Self and Others: A Defense of Altruism” (Philosophical Quarterly, 4 [1954]) tells us that “‘Altruism’ [is] assuming a duty to relieve the distress and promote the happiness of our fellows....Altruism is to ... maintain quite simply that a man may and should discount altogether his own pleasure or happiness as such when he is deciding what course of action to pursue (pp. 109-110).” And that is quite right. Altruism is a system of ethics, one of the several candidates for a general answer to the question, “How should one conduct oneself in life?” And it bodes ill for any conduct that aims to make oneself happy, fulfilled, or satisfied—none of that qualifies as ethical if altruism is right.

My benefactor, of course, didn’t tell me the ethics he practiced but I doubt he was an altruist. My take is that he was a decent person, period, who, probably in line with his other duties as an Heathrow air terminal personnel, picked up my wallet at the baggage area, where I had been sitting and where it evidently slipped out of my shallow jacket pocket, and did the right thing, acted generously, properly. He probably never even thought of digging into the thing to see how much money and how many credit cards it contained. He just did the right thing as a matter of his character, from second nature. An altruist isn’t like that. Such a person is totally, relentlessly devoted to serving others, not to doing what his professional ethics requires of him or her.

But what of the economist’s idea that nothing we do is benevolent, everything amounts to serving our interests?

Well, that too is off base. My benefactor clearly did something that mainly served my interest, although if it was his job, very likely his own, as well. Quite often folks do benevolent things, help others, even strangers, simply because that the sort of people they are, that is their moral character. Sure, over all it is to their interest—or, rather, of benefit to them as human beings—to act kindly, considerately. But they don’t do it by engaging in some kind of cost-benefit analysis, a calculus of sorts. It is, rather, second nature for them, for most of us, to be helpful when we can be.

At any rate, I have silently thanked the man at Heathrow Airport for really, really, saving me from a heap of trouble. Thanks again!

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