Altruism vs. egoism was a much-debated topic among ethicists, philosophers and social scientists some 40-plus years ago when I first began seriously studying ethics. The issue was whether ordinary people performing loving acts were motivated by love of others or by self-interest.
In more recent times the sociobiology of W. O. Wilson seems to have gained wide acceptance. He argued that people do loving acts of kindness to others because of a genetic predisposition.
It has seemed for some time that the egoists and the genetic determinists had won the day. However, it appears to me, at least, that the very unselfish responses of ordinary people to the plight of those who suffered great lost from hurricanes Katrina and Rita should open up this debate again.
As I have witnessed the sacrificial work of many people in the past few weeks, I have concluded that the case for altruism is still strong.
For example, when a 48-foot-long transport trailer was parked on the lot of our west central Alabama Baptist association office, I worried that the response to our requests to fill it with food, health and clean-up supplies would prove to be an embarrassment. But in about one week it was filled with more than 45,000 pounds of supplies.
I keep hearing reports of other unselfish, altruistic responses from individuals, churches and other groups. It seems that God is using this event to rekindle the Christian value of altruism among His people.
Just this morning James Wright, pastor of Mt. Hebron Missionary Baptist Church in our community, asked me what I heard God saying to us through these disasters. This was his gracious way of inviting a theological reflection and discussion across cultural and racial boundaries.
As we shared our thoughts, he told how his congregation has been caring for several persons who have been displaced by the storms. In one case the church has purchased a used mobile home for a widowed woman from New Orleans. They have set it up and will be preparing the septic tank and field lines this weekend. No selfish benefits drive this; rather, this is a wonderful expression of Christian altruism.
After agreeing about the evidences of altruism which we had seen, we noted that he and I had served more as facilitators of altruistic impulses than as instigators and promoters. As ones whose ministry is usually characterized by trying to motivate folk to do good things, it has been a joy to be pushed by others who are asking for our cooperation in helping them give expression to altruistic actions.
Further, we had both been amazed by how persons of “good will” had successfully formed networks and coalitions to provide altruistic ministry in many different places over the past weeks. We have witnessed folk seeing a need and responding quickly and effectively.
James and I had both heard the remarks of Franklin Graham concerning the fact that the destruction provided opportunity for New Orleans and the Gulf Coast of Mississippi to escape the heritage of gambling, prostitution, drunkenness and greed which seems to have characterized the area. We expressed hope that this would indeed be the case. But we noted that the state legislature of Mississippi, a predominately Baptist group, had voted to let the casinos rebuild on inland sites. Apparently, one opportunity to begin again in a more wholesome way has already been lost.
Our discussion continued by lamenting the deepness of sin, greed and selfishness, as well as the failure of many people to reflect theologically about the events of everyday life.
I noted that humankind has still to learn the lesson of the Tower of Babel. We still cannot “engineer” the world of nature to suit our goals and ambitions. It is evident that God created the world in such a way that humankind cannot repeal the laws of nature. When these laws are violated, in time, there will be a price to pay.
Finally, James declared the great joy he had experienced from the acts of altruism he had been involved in since Katrina. I agreed.
Then, as is often the case with me, as I drove away I thought to compare the joy James and I had experienced with the egoistic joy the casinos of Mississippi and the saloons of New Orleans offer, as one sees advertised in the media.
While I am not able to speak authoritatively about the joy of “the sporting life,” I think that I can say that the joy of altruistic ministry to others is wonderful and certainly does not have the “hurtful” consequences which seem to attend activities of sin.
Gary Farley is partner in the Center for Rural Church leadership, Carrollton, Ala.
Note: for an excellent refutation of sociobiology read Wendell Berry’s Life is a Miracle.