Wood Bench

Altruism: Doing the right thing

Did you ever think about giving up your current life to do something completely different? Helping others? Helping the world to survive? Saving little children in Africa or rescuing young, single mothers from the streets of our developed countries dark city corners? Did that feel like it would be simply doing the right thing? That dedicating your life to others would be anything but egoistic? That a radical and altruistic change would allow you to turn away from the egoistic scheme that seems to steer all our lives? Altruism seems to be the key for a future driven by dedication to a higher cause, to meaning, to a better society, a better world. And as pleasing as that might sound, it is wrong.

Let us assume, that you have some sort of education. That you are trained in an area that is not within the field of social work in slums and nothing out of the medical area. Let us further assume, that you are considerable better in your job than somebody, that has never every doing, what you are doing day to day.  Given those two, fairly simple assumptions: why would you want to give up your current job – your current contribution to society, in exchange for something, that is most likely  something you have no real clue about how to do it right? You are most likely doing a worse job when going into a slum, trying to help rescuing babies than somebody who got at least a basic training. But maybe this is too far stretched, lets consider the following scenario, situated in a small town somewhere in the middle of any free country:

The small town example

You are living in that small town. You are doing well, you provide the community with delicious bagels from your little bakery. You are far from being rich, but you pay your taxes and you have one or two loyal employes. You are a well accepted, active and honoured member of the local community. At one  occasion, the mayor of your town is asking you, to participate in a make a better town day. The idea behind that day is, that respected members of the community gather together and clean the parks and nearby forrest areas from dirt and waste and are building several little benches for the seniors to sit on when the sun is out. You have never build anything from wood with your own hands, but you volunteer for the bench building project. It takes you and three other members of your group the whole day to get the needed materials and tools together and to build something that one could consider a bench. At the evening, the parks and forests are a bit cleaner and the seniors of the community can rest on several benches.

What have you done? 

Most likely, you feel good about the result of your hard work. And most likely, the seniors do feel pretty well too, sitting on new benches. But wait, something is wrong: You spend the whole day working on one bench and the result is nice but not of any guaranteed quality level. Furthermore, you had to close your bagel shop for that day, not generating any revenues, not to mention taxes. And on top, you robbed somebody else of the opportunity of making revenues, by executing work, for which you have not been qualified. Most likely, a professional carpenter would have been much more efficient and most likely faster in building benches than you and your group of three. Looking at the whole picture, what you’ve done did only one good thing: pleasing your ego and giving you a good conscience. The latter one totally for nothing. The seniors have to sit on benches where no quality level is assured, they can brake and cause them injuries. The town community is loosing on your taxes due to your loss of revenues. The loss is even doubled, considering the carpenter who had no or at least less revenue too.

What should you have done?

The simple way out of that altruism trap is: take a look at the big picture. Whenever somebody asks you to participate in a cause for which you are not qualified and/or that could be done better by someone else, offer to donate money. How much money? In our little case above, around the amount that you would loose when closing your shop for a day. Less is fine too – all in all you are going to pay taxes for a days worth of work that would have not taken place otherwise. Make sure that money goes into getting a professional to do the task at hand. Probability is high, that he will do the work not only faster than you would have done it but also quality assured and tax generating.

Doing the right thing does not mean, doing it yourself. Doing the right thing means to enable those who can do it best. And if you insist on doing something like that yourself, make sure you look at the big picture and try hard to avoid causing more damage than help.

Image source: Werner Weisser, Augsburg, DE via Pixabay (User: avantrend)

What do you think?