Altruism Shrugged

Thomas McAdam

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Recently, we received an important communication from our Alma Mater:  a slick fundraising mailer, with photographs of handsome, smiling undergraduates on the cover.  Each was a living tribute to the efficacy of modern dentistry, and there was nary a zit to be found in the lot of them.  Back in our day, acne was evidently much more fashionable among college students.

Included in the colorful booklet was an informative pamphlet advising that free estate planning services could be had, by simply mailing in the attached postpaid card.  This, of course, assumed that there would be anything left of our accumulated plunder after satisfying the demands of children and the Internal Revenue Service.

Most edifying, in our view, was the listing of the many alums who had deigned to contribute funds to the support of our dear old school during the past year.  Instead of listing the names by year of graduation, the names were sorted into categorical sections, indicating one of several “circles” of rank.  One hundred bucks got you into the Silver Circle.  Two-fifty, and you were in the Gold Circle.  Greater largesse would land you into the Platinum or Diamond circles.  A million bucks, and they’ll name a chair after you.  Ten, and your name will be attached to a dorm.

We don’t have a million bucks, but the nice folks at Lazy-Boy have already eponymously distinguished us with our own chair.

On the back page of the booklet, printed in eight-point type, were the names in the Aluminum Circle; indicating the ne’er-do-wells who only coughed-up ten dollars or less.  Comment insultant!

Of course, we receive lots of similar requests in the daily post.  Our town is blessed with a large number of kind-hearted folks who love the symphony, the opera, and the ballet.  They love these things so much that they are willing to give them heavy subsidy, so that the rest of us philistines can buy our tickets at a reasonable (sic.) price.  Interestingly, though, when the organizations supporting the arts list their benefactors—also in “circles”—there are always multiple entries denominated simply “anonymous.” 

“How much can we put you down for, Mr. Scrooge?”  “Nothing!”  “You wish to be left anonymous?”  “I wish to be left alone!”  Old Ebenezer was a better characterization of most of us than we care to admit.  But these anonymous supporters of the arts are something of a puzzle.  Are there really that many truly altruistic people out there?

One doesn’t need to be a stone-hearted acolyte of Ayn Rand to understand that Pride, the deadliest of the Seven Deadly Sins, is a greater motivator of men than all of the Seven Deadly Virtues combined.  The folks who design fundraising literature certainly know this.  Sure, there is the occasional guy who folds up a twenty and unceremoniously slips it into the Salvation Army kettle at Christmastime.  And, we try to refrain from harsh judgment of kind souls like M0ther Teresa.  Sure, she seemed to get her picture in the papers a lot, while out hustling funds for the poor orphans she cared for, but we’ll give her the benefit of the doubt.

Alfie Doolittle, the dustman father of Eliza, in My Fair Lady, claimed to be one of the “underserving poor.”  Yet, there are any number of nameless, simple folks who spend an enormous amount of time and treasure, catering to and caring for the undeserving poor.  If the Beatitudes are accurate, their reward will be something even better than a listing in the Diamond Circle.

The thing about saints is, they’re much more virtuous than the rest of us.  At the risk of appearing tautological, one might even describe them as saintly.  The great mass of mankind, on the other hand, will opt for the ersatz-altruism of public—and publicized—charity.  We take pride in seeing our names listed in the circle of rank appropriate to our degree of success in accumulating wealth.  Our society is simply awash in awards, plaques, certificates of merit, and the little gold stars we got from our piano teachers when we played Fur Elise without any clinkers.  But pride ain’t altruism.

It just might be that true Christian charity is needs be anonymous.  (To pre-empt any politically correct commentary, we must confess that several Jews of our acquaintance are far more Christian in this respect than most of our Christian friends.)  Virtue, being its own reward, needs no recognition.  And, we all know what pride goeth before.

We look forward to the day when the schools will teach our children virtues like charity, abstinence, prudence, and, yes, humility.  Pride (known popularly nowadays as “self esteem”), which has never been considered anything but a sin and a vice (the Greeks considered hubris the worst of human faults), should never be encouraged.   We might miss the Academy Awards and those silly “who’s in the news” blurbs on the newspaper’s business page, but we’d all be better persons if the notion of pride were limited to  euphemistic reference to the love we have for our country, or the happy satisfaction we feel when hearing of our children’s accomplishments.

As for our Alma Mater’s request for funds, we must demur.  Perhaps another day, when their slick brochure shows some real adolescents--with real skin problems—and the listing of circles shows a plurality of anonymous givers, we just might fire off a small check.  But, large enough to get us listed in the Aluminum Circle.



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