Column on Egoistic Benevolence, Anyone?

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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One Response to Column on Egoistic Benevolence, Anyone?

  1. Brian says:

    Thanks Tibor..It reminds me that in 15 years of working with individuals who are survivors of trauma, I have been most often thanked by clients for the unexpected help I have provided (not necessarily for the deeds having to do with actual "job duties"). I admire your honesty in concluding that your efforts to help couples capture a precious moment of time (which truly fall under the category of "acts of kindness") were not necessarily of an unselfish or altruistic nature. When my clients reach the goals they set for themselves I experience a vicarious thrill as I witness their accomplishments.I am often inspired by the courage and tenacity of individuals who have experienced much pain and misery in their lives. Their efforts to persevere in the face of many obstacles strengthens my faith in the individual to accomplish the greatest of feats in the face of overwhelming odds. Yes, I received much from my connection to these wonderful people. There were clearly benefits for both parties. As you (Tibor) have so eloquently emphasized on so many occasions, the great quality of these kinds of interactions is that they were completely voluntary on both ends! Thanks for the great commentary..Brian

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