While sifting through books for a garage sale, I ran across an essay by Mark Twain about altruism.
Twain’s premise in “What Is Man?” is we never perform a truly altruistic act. Even our kindest and most heroic deeds are ultimately for ourselves.
“From his cradle to his grave a man never does a single thing which has any first and foremost object but one — to secure peace of mind, spiritual comfort, for himself,” Twain wrote.
“Man’s sole impulse is the securing of his own approval.”
Twain said altruistic acts are performed because their neglect would make a person uncomfortable. People’s primary duty is to content their spirit by making themselves agreeable to themselves.
“Men pretend to self-sacrifices, but this is a thing which, in the ordinary value of the phrase, does not exist and has not existed. His bottom impulse is to … acquire peace for his soul.”
Twain says consciences take no notice of pain inflicted upon others until it reaches a point where it gives pain to us.
“In all cases without exception we are absolutely indifferent to another person’s pain until his suffering makes us uncomfortable.”
Twain said even people who commit such heroic deeds as saving a child from drowning or in a fire do it because they cannot bear not to help.
Twain is probably right about what drives our altruism. But having consciences does not diminish the nobility of our acts — especially those we do not crow about.
At any rate, you might say nature has figured out that what is good for the goose is good for the gander.
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