Questions of Value – Revisted – July 5, 2015

While Fr. Mike is away,

Wayne Harper will lead the

Adult Forum on June 21 and July 5. 

Wayne will be the facilitator

as we examine

fundamental questions of value,

and how they impact our lives:


  *How well do you ‘know thyself’?

  *What is happiness?

  *How does one justify a moral claim?

  *What happens when values conflict?


This morning, Wayne led some lively discussions about the following topic of altruism.


> What is it?  Where does it come from?

> What should I do?  The good and right thing of course.

> Popular definition:  “Unselfish regard for the welfare of others.”

> Unselfish implies that one expects no reward for their deeds.

> However, it is often accompanied by the “warm glow” feeling of having done something good for others.

> Ethics implies doing what is right for the right thing at the right time.

> Example:  When you make out your will are you being altruistic by giving to various charities?



Here’s a listing of some of Wayne’s notes…


‘The really fundamental questions of our lives are not questions of fact or finance but questions of value.’  Patrick Grim, Ph.D.


Ethics can be difficult.  Philosophy and ethics often frustrate us to no end.  Just when you think you have a handle on something, up pops a contradiction. 


What ought one to do is often a vexing question to answer.  Clearly, one ought to do the ethical or moral thing; the right and good thing, without regard to self-interest.  There you have it.  Not so fast. 


So what makes and action ethical, right or good, and who decides?  Well, a good action is one that brings about a good consequence.  A right action is one that results from the ‘good will’ of the actor.  Of course, there are cases in which people bring about good for the wrong reasons, and cases in which people do the wrong thing despite pure motives.  These cases may fail ethically.


To explore these concepts further, let’s consider Altruism.


Question:  What is altruism?  Where does it come from?


Altruism: Unselfish regard for the welfare of others.  What could be more ethical then an act of altruism? 


Altruism is born of one’s willingness (‘good will’) to act for the benefit of another.  Pure altruism is selfless.  In this sense, it is a virtue worthy of praise.  Moreover, it impels us to act, and is often ‘unplanned’.  Think of the hero who enters a burning building to save a life, and then disappears into the crowd.  For us mere mortals, lesser opportunities abound; all those potential ‘random acts of kindness’.   Of course, altruism can be deliberate.  Charitable giving, for example, is often structured.  Although we all vary in our capacity for altruism, we universally share the following hope: We hope our altruism succeeds and leads to desirable or at least positive results.  And it’s this hope that often complicates matters.  How so? 


Well, all interactions have consequences.  And one such consequence is reaction, feedback if you will.  It happens all the time.  Even ‘random acts of kindness’ typically come with feedback.  You open a door for another; you receive a ‘thank you’.  You give blood; you receive a T-shirt.  You send money to PBS; you receive a coffee mug.  You tithe to your church; you’re eligible for a tax deduction.  Are these actions altruistic?  After all, you received something in return, a reward.  If reward is important to you or welcomed, then your actions are self-interested, at least in part.  And self-interested action cannot be genuinely altruistic. 


Well, many will say they support truly selfless altruism, and require no feedback of any kind.  It is better to give than to receive they say.  And yet, afterwards, most report feeling ‘good’ inside.  There’s a term for this feeling: ‘warm glow’.


We come to realize  pure altruism is ethical, but rare.  ‘Practical’ or ‘conditional’ altruism is more typical.  Altruism with ‘strings attached’ may appear right and produce good, yet fail ethically.  But so what!  Purity is not the goal!  Leave purity to the philosophers.  Better to offer your gift in the spirit of altruism, and move on to the next opportunity. 


Question:  You’re preparing your last will and testament.  Does it matter who gets what?


Your estate is not all that substantial, yet runs over six figures.  It took years to build and constitutes your life savings.  If it somehow vanished, you’d be devastated.  This fear of loss is problematic from an ethical perspective.  You’re willing to give your life savings away, but you don’t want to see it squandered.  You want to do the right thing and do the most good, so you impose ‘reasonable’ stipulations.  Where will the money do the most good?  Who is more deserving, worthy, responsible?  You end up picking winners and losers.  Is there a problem here?


Perhaps not.  Creating and executing a last will & testament is not an act of altruism, no matter how generous.  A will is simply a set of instructions. 


Question:  Where does altruism come from? 


Let’s go way back.  Natural Selection is the process whereby organisms better adapted to their environment tend to survive and produce more offspring.  The theory of its action was first fully expounded by Charles Darwin and is now believed to be the main process that brings about evolution.  Evolution is all about ‘survival of the fittest’.  And you cannot be any more self-interested than when dealing with survival.  So, it would appear   altruism – sacrificing oneself for another – is incompatible with evolutionary biology.  However, the fact that it exists and even thrives today suggests otherwise.  Support has come from Game Theory, the study of the dynamics of cooperation and competition.


Question:  Is altruism of moral worth, or simply a successful survival strategy?  



* The bulk of materials offered were borrowed and adapted by Wayne Harper for our use from: ‘Questions of Value’ taught by Patrick Grim, produced by The Teaching Company.