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The sad truth about altruism is that there aren’t enough altruists

The people who fill the truly essential roles in society are often in short supply

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From time to time, societies run low on the things — and the people — they really need. We wake up one day and realize that there are too few doctors. Or far, far, far too few nurses. Or it suddenly dawns on us that there aren’t enough teachers, engineers, or plumbers to go around. There are certainly never enough guys who work well with sheetrock.

Other professionals we have in spades. There are always more than enough landscapers, baristas, actors, masseurs, personal trainers, hairdressers, IT guys, and chefs. Nor are we ever in any real danger of running out of hedge fund managers, ballerinas, real estate agents, claims adjusters, standup comics, bartenders, aspiring singer-songwriters, or car salesmen. But the people who fill the truly essential roles in society are often in short supply.

Something like this may already be happening with Good Samaritans. From time to time, societies run desperately low on the kinds of devoted, implacable altruists who are always ready to pitch in and make the world a better place.

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Institutional altruism is rarely a problem. Plenty of churches, foundations, and government agencies are working night and day to help better society. These people do good for a living. But institutional philanthropy alone can’t handle a problem as large as the one created by the current pandemic. Societies always and everywhere rely on large numbers of those people sometimes derisively referred to as “do-gooders” to keep things running smoothly. And right now there aren’t enough do-gooders to go around. It doesn’t help that a lot of do-gooders are stuck indoors because of the pandemic.

The vexing problem of Good Samaritan Shortfall was driven home to me last February while I was visiting Washington, D.C. Strolling down M Street, I was approached by a young man in a red vest who was raising money for a worthy cause. I told him that I already contributed to the organization he represented, thanks to my wife, who regularly, reflexively, almost automatically sends checks to a large number of indisputably saintly enterprises. In other words, to use a reliable old phrase, I gave at the office. Well, she did.

The young man smiled amiably. He was not pushy. He was not judgmental. He did not try to embarrass me with that sneering “Have a nice day” that virtuous para-professionals so often employ when people start to drift away without opening their wallets. He thanked me for my generosity, or, to be perfectly accurate, for my wife’s generosity. He said that regular contributions by people like us were the very lifeblood of the organization. But in this case, he added, he was out raising money for a specific initiative.

I now tried to explain that asking me to give more to a cause I already supported seemed like philanthropic double dipping. It was like asking someone who was already writing checks to save endangered hippos to write a second check to save endangered rhinos. It was like asking someone who was already demonstrably a “good” person (or who at least had some sort of conjugal affiliation with one) to become an even better person. My question — a pretty obvious one, I thought — was: Why couldn’t somebody else carry the ball for a change?

The young man patiently listened, then waved away my protests. “We ask people who’ve already given to give again because we know that those people are generous,” he said. “Doesn’t it make more sense to target people who already think like us than to go after strangers?”

The deceptively cunning logic of his argument floored me. My feeling had always been that if we — as a family — had already given to the Fresh Air Fund and the Sierra Club, then we didn’t have to give to the Red Cross or the Salvation Army. In my mind, I had conflated all the organizations that were trying to make the world a better place into one monolith of merit. My wife, Francesca, didn’t look at things that way. In her view, just because you had already given to this didn’t mean you couldn’t give to that. The way she sees it, there is no ceiling for good works.

I disagreed. I even wisecracked that we should adopt a simple ethical cap-and-trade policy, stipulating that if we helped clean up the rivers, we didn’t have to help clean up the lakes. At least not both of us. She was having none of it. Who ever said that you were allowed to take a vacation from virtue? Bad people didn’t take sabbaticals from wrongdoing, so why should good people take a break from doing good? If you were altruistic, you were required to be uninterruptedly altruistic. In the parlance of her native England, if you were in for a penny, you were in for a pound.

There isn’t enough altruism to go around

This got me to thinking about the Good Samaritans I knew personally. At some point I realized that the high-profile do-gooders in my community almost never limited their good-doing to a single activity. If you saw them volunteering at the library book sale on Saturday, you would probably also see them at the Girl Scout bake sale on Sunday. If they were out brandishing petitions to save a historic building, you would probably also see them fighting to save a historic mural. At first I thought that people like this practiced virtue on such a large scale mainly because it made them feel better about themselves — which it indisputably does. But over the years I have come to realize that these neighbors do not necessarily engage in so many virtuous activities merely because they are good, caring people. It’s because they know that there aren’t enough good, caring people to go around.

It is often said that in the world of altruism, it’s the thought that counts. Incorrect. If you’re going to do the right thing, you have to do it the right way.

Baseball teams rely on a pipeline of minor league talent that eventually gets called up to the majors. I think that those who perform altruistic activities at the major league level could benefit from this kind of system. I’ve noticed that my wife, who runs a senior citizens center on a pro bono basis, ceaselessly cultivates civic-minded individuals who are roughly a generation younger than us. It’s not enough to be good. It really helps to also be young.

All of which suggests a rebuttal to the seemingly impregnable argument made by the young man in the red vest that I encountered on the streets of Washington. If you want to make the world a better place, you cannot keep raising money from the same people over and over, as he suggested, no matter how generous they are. Society cannot depend exclusively upon the pathologically altruistic or the congenitally compassionate to keep things going. There simply aren’t enough of them. Virtuous people need help. Virtuous people need to recruit new talent. All the time. This, in fact, is why Rotary clubs exist.

Good Samaritan versus the Intermittently Good Samaritan

At this point, it’s worth discussing the difference between the Good Samaritan and the Merely Adequate Samaritan. Like most people, I am not an inherently good person; goodness is learned behavior. Left to my own devices, I might eventually have morphed into a halfway decent human being. But I don’t think I would ever have gotten much further than that. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would ever flower into a paragon of virtue. The closest I could come to that was being married to a paragon of virtue. This is the opposite of guilt by association. It is guiltlessness by association.

When we first married, my wife and I developed a division-of-labor approach to civic-mindedness. She would handle all the volunteer work involving the schools, the community, the senior citizens, the underprivileged, the ozone layer, and the manatees, and I would buy the opera tickets. While she wrote checks to the Red Cross, Children’s Aid, Greenpeace, and Doctors Without Borders, I would buy tickets to the New York Philharmonic or the Tokyo String Quartet. I also purchased memberships to all the local museums. Thus, the good works practiced in our household were split right down the middle. She devoted herself to keeping society afloat; I devoted myself to keeping civilization afloat. Her job was a lot more time-consuming.

Since the coronavirus epidemic hit, as I have watched growing numbers of people who have never done anything civic-minded in their lives pitching in and helping, I have thought more and more about the essence of philanthropy. When all the good works are done by just a few people, which is almost always the case in small towns like the one where I live, it hurts the community, because people who do not regularly do good works either forget how to do them or never learn how in the first place. There’s an art to cleaning up polluted lakes or litter-strewn playgrounds. There’s an art to sitting patiently with people and helping them learn English as a second language. For that matter, there’s an art to going out into the street and asking complete strangers to fork over their money.

This is where the Good Samaritan and the Intermittently Good Samaritan part company. For a few years, my college-age son would help us deliver turkeys and groceries to needy members of our community at Christmastime. This was immensely satisfying work, because he could see how his efforts were brightening people’s lives, however fleetingly. Occasionally, other college students or retirees would offer to help. These individuals were fiercely well-meaning.

Virtuous people need help. Virtuous people need to recruit new talent. All the time. This, in fact, is why Rotary Clubs exist.

But when the chips are down and it’s time to drop off the Christmas baskets, well-meaningness isn’t enough. It is often said that in the world of altruism, it’s the thought that counts. Incorrect. If you’re going to do the right thing, you have to do it the right way. This is often impossible, because those who are only periodically virtuous are usually clueless. They give chickens to people who asked for turkeys and turkeys to people who asked for hams. They put too many Oreos in one bag and none in the other. At the end of those food runs, we invariably had to make a second trip to the supermarket because we always came up a couple of turkeys short. This was no way to run a railroad, much less a charity.

This gets to the crux of the matter: Good Samaritans are basically amateurs — but they shouldn’t be rank amateurs. Those who are going to get serious about altruism need to develop skills, to know where their talents are useful and where they are not. Virtue, like mastering the hammered dulcimer, requires practice. This is one of the few good things about the pandemic: It has given an awful lot of people who have never lifted a finger to help their fellow man a golden opportunity to learn the ropes, to go from bumbling amateurs to effective doers of good. People in my town who had never been especially altruistic now give big tips to those who work in the service industry, or they drop off food for those who cannot leave their homes, or they help clean up the garbage strewn along the riverfront. I never knew they had it in them.

In search of the next generation of do-gooders

But what of those who stubbornly refuse to lend a hand? I personally am not in favor of coercing people into doing good works, the way some progressive companies strong-arm their employees into doing community service in their free time. But I am not opposed to embarrassing people into doing good works. When I was growing up on the mean streets of Philadelphia — and yes, those streets were mean, and remain mean to this day — my parents were devout Catholics. They were also poor. The wolf was not always at the door, but it was usually somewhere in the vicinity. Yet no matter how bad things got, my parents always put something in the church collection basket on Sunday morning. They did not tithe, but they tried.

They did so by using envelopes sent by the church listing their name, address, and the amount donated each Sunday. Every month the church would publish a list of parishioner contributions. It was embarrassing when your name appeared next to a paltry $5. But it was better than not appearing at all.

I think society needs to try something like this. For years, I have watched the same do-gooders get older and older, waiting for the cavalry to arrive. And as they wait, the same people work at the polling stations, the same people visit the sick, and the same people staff the PTA. The simple as that. That’s why we might need public bulletin boards listing all the good works done only relief column these people are ever going to see is if every one of us voluntarily joins the cavalry. It’s as by local volunteers, with vast, blank spaces next to the names of those who have done nothing. Confrontational? Yes. Judgmental? Yes. But as the old saying goes: If you can’t beat ’em, browbeat ’em.

My daughter once dated a very smart young man whose specialty was economics. An implacable defender of the “rational actor” theory, he insisted that every human activity had some economic underpinning, that people who engaged in altruistic activities were secretly deriving some economic reward from doing so. This theory never made sense to me.

But now it does. Well, sort of. Helping your fellow man makes you feel better about yourself. It really does. And this helps cut down on expenses. In a society where all those Pilates classes, all those continuing education courses, all those self-help books and videos and boot camps are basically expensive, time-consuming, invariably unsuccessful ways to make you feel better about yourself, altruism is the obvious solution to your problem. No matter what the economists say, you can’t put a price on happiness. There aren’t any numbers that go that high.

• This story originally appeared in the December 2020 issue of Rotary magazine.

• Joe Queenan is a frequent contributor to Rotary magazine. Since March, he has written four one-act plays (all of which will be performed on Zoom), a screenplay, and a rock opera.

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