Monday, August 31, 2009

Egoistic Benevolence Anyone?

Tibor R. Machan

A popular, indeed highly respectable, view of ethics is that it's all about serving others. Even if this were true of ethics, it is seriously doubtful that those who preach the idea actually practice it. As the famous poet W. H. Auden put the point so adroitly, "We are here on earth to do good for others. What the others are here for, I don't know." Which pretty much points up how impossible the notion is that altruism is the ethics by which all of us must be guided in our lives.

Anyway, I have a practice that many might regard as altruistic but I don't believe it is at all. Whenever I travel in places teeming with tourists, I offer to take pictures of couples when I see them taking pictures of each other and seem to be missing out having pictures taken of them both together. I started doing this as far back as the late 60s when I first visited Europe following my immigration from there to the USA many years earlier. I went back and took trains all over the place, partly for fun, partly because I needed to kill time between my arrival and departure on the cheap charter flight I managed to book for myself. I was then going back to meet my mother who for the first time was permitted by the communists to come West to meet her family in Germany. I got one of those cheap flights and met her after not having seen her for about 15 years.

But between when my flight arrived and when I could finally meet with her, I had to wander around a good deal, and on the cheap--I couldn't really afford to be a proper tourist but had to settle for being a bit of a vagrant. I bought one of those passes on Europe's trains and went wherever the trains took me for a couple of weeks before i could meet my mother in Hamburg.

And it is while bumming around this way that I noticed how many couples kept taking pictures of one another but no one took pictures of them both. And it occurred to me that they might welcome some help in this matter and began to offer it all over the place--Paris, Lisbon, Monaco, Munich, Vienna. Tbilisi, Hong Kong and so forth. I rarely ever got off the train other than to walk around or to catch a street car and take it from where I boarded it all the way back there, a round trip, as it were.

In all these travels not only did I take in the sights--although I am not one who uncritically admires the palaces and castles and churches one can visit on such trips, given that I could never get rid of my apprehensiveness about how those got built in the first place, by a lot of serfs and otherwise oppressed folks in feudal systems--but often, actually rather spontaneously, offered to take pictures of those couples that hadn't a way to capture their memories on film together. As time went by, and I made trips to places like South Africa, New Zealand, Armenia, Greece, and so on and so forth--by this time mostly to make various presentations, give lectures, attend conferences, and so on--the practice of providing this photographic service became a routine, even a habit. Not the least because it was so much appreciated by those to whom I extended it. And even this late in the day, on my recent trip to Scotland and France, I continued it and found that most folks were very surprised at the offer and also quite appreciative. (Once in a while I have found the need to assure them that I am not going to steal their camera!)

Anyway, none of this is any kind of grand generosity, more of a minor gesture of friendliness in a world that's all too much filled with suspicion and hostility among people. As I mentioned, often it comes up spontaneously, without much deliberation, nearly second nature. And why not? It doesn't take all that much to stop and do this little favor to total strangers.

Unfortunately, some will make of it much more than it is, as if it showed how nifty altruism really is. But there is no self-denial, self-sacrifice, unselfishness in any of it, none. What it involves is a certain measure of thoughtfulness and generosity, OK. But then why not? Most folks are pretty nice so extending a bit of help to them even if not expressly wanted can do no harm and can brighten things up for them a bit. I figure, carry on!

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