Is Charity Selfish Too?

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The Economist covers recent research that indicates charity may be just as selfish as self-indulgence. Why? Because both acts show the opposite sex that you have resources to burn.

Geoffrey Miller is a man with a theory that, if true, will change the way people think about themselves. His idea is that the human brain is the anthropoid equivalent of the peacock's tail. In other words, it is an organ designed to attract the opposite sex. Of course, brains have many other functions, and the human brain shares those with the brains of other animals. But Dr Miller, who works at the University of New Mexico, thinks that mental processes which are uniquely human, such as language and the ability to make complicated artifacts, evolved originally for sexual display.

The research is in the early stages, but some philosophers have argued for a long time that there really is no true self-less act. Devoutly religious people still do things for selfish reasons, they are just pursuing rewards in an afterlife instead of this one. I'm not aware of any philosophy or religion that has ever believed that you will be punished in this life and any afterlife for your good deeds, but you should do them anyway out of a sense of duty. If such a sect existed though, they could probably be considered totally self-less.

The interesting thing about this in a business context is that all the people who want to force environmentalism or charity or whatever down the throats of business owners are going about it the wrong way. Find a solution that benefits the bottom line, via energy savings (in the case of going green) or via more customers with a favorable view of the company (via forms of charity). Legislation, boycotts, and mandates are not as powerful as self-interest.

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Comments

  1. Jason Falls's Gravatar Comment by Jason Falls on August 3rd, 2007 at 11:27 am

    Ironic that the tone of the article would seem to glean surprise at the research conclusions, yet turn around and say in order for business to be charitable, there must be a cost benefit. Perhaps idealistic, but altruism can exist, even in business. Or at least I hope so.

  2. Andy Swan's Gravatar Comment by Andy Swan on August 3rd, 2007 at 11:35 am

    Corporations have NO BUSINESS giving money to charity unless 100% of the shareholders vote to do so. Pay the money in a dividend and let the shareholders decide what charitable causes to give to.

    Many atheists would jump in front of a bullet headed for their child or even a stranger, so I’m not convinced that everything is purely self-interest.

  3. Rob's Gravatar Comment by Rob on August 4th, 2007 at 5:41 am

    Andy,
    I agree. Give the money back to shareholders instead and let them give it to charity, re-invest, or whatever it is they want to do with it.

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