November 13, 2009

Is Obama Inspiring Black Adults To Step Up? The Nature Of Altruism, Part 1

atlas.JPG
no, I got this

This isn't about race.  So take a breath, let's go.

CNN article, "Is Obama inspiring black men to step up?"-- in this case, to become a Big Brother/Big Sister volunteer.

[Obama] was giving a televised speech challenging men to get involved in their communities.  The men [gathered in a barbershop] had heard the message before, but this time they could relate to the messenger. Obama had shared their struggles...but had never used his struggles as an excuse. Nor could they anymore, some of the men decided. Seven joined Big Brothers Big Sisters of America that morning,
It took Obama to make this happen-- no prior figures of inspiration?  Is the resolve of someone who impulsively joins the Big Brothers because the President was making a speech worth betting on?  etc.  But, in fact:

At the Atlanta chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters, Rita Owens, the vice president of development, says she hasn't seen any more black men volunteer since Obama was elected.

"We can't see any influx of black men volunteers," she said. "We do not have enough black men stepping up. We have more Caucasian men stepping up."


Before you start talking race, my first thought reading this was about 9/11.

I was working a hospital that day, and many people, especially nurses, wanted to go to NY to help out.  But they wanted to take off work to go do it.   In other words, they wanted to volunteer instead of doing their job.  "But they need volunteers!" they'd argue to the refusing nurse manager. "We all need to make some sacrifices."  Of course, in doing so, they were volunteering the people left behind for double shifts.  That's the part they didn't seem to get.   

So here, "seven joined Big Brothers Big Sisters of America that morning."  Great, they want to help a young boy in need of a role model.  But do these men have kids of their own?  It's one thing if they're living with their kids and want to give something extra to others.  But if they're living apart from their own kids, why not just spend extra time with them?

Because doing "your job" isn't as rewarding as "sacrificing." 

Here's what happened on 9/12 at my hospital, and what happens in so many cases of high-emotion altruism: they take the day off in order to go to NYC, but then don't actually go (car wouldn't start; heard on the radio they were blocking volunteers, etc).  They win: they get the reward of the sacrifice, perform no actual sacrifice, and get the day off.  Meanwhile, someone else had to sacrifice to cover their responsibilities.

I think Rita Owens meant the statement "more Caucasian men stepping up" as a jab at  blacks to get them movitated, but if it is factually accurate then these Caucasians are idiots.  Really?  Big Brothers?  That's the call you heard?  Whites seem particularly prone to manic devotions to faddish volunteerism inspired by celebrity that are transparently self-aggrandizing.  And temporary-- they inevitably quit when the next fashion comes along.     Keep in mind that the Caucasians she is talking about joined Big Brothers not because they just learned it existed, but because they were inspired by Obama.  How long is that going to last?

"How can you even question the integrity of someone who joins Big Brothers?"  I'm not. I'm questioning the integrity of someone who is going to soon quit Big Brothers.  I'm questioning what message that delivers to a) their real kid; b) the kid they will be soon abandoning.

It's going to take way more than Obama to generate any kind legitimate social consciousness in us.  No, I don't mean a Prius/vegan sort of consciousness, just the basic kind where we are aware that all of our actions have a blast radius, and other human beings are in it.

II.

What is not intuitively obvious is the psychological motivation of the people left behind: why do they do double duty and let these fakers get away with it?  Why, when the man says he's going to spend resources on someone else's kid, does the biological mom of his kid not hit him with a sack of batteries?  More importantly, why has this complementary behavior (guy volunteers, other guy forced to pick up the slack) been allowed to exist in human society?  We don't pee on each other anymore, so why do we allow this?

There are two ways to look at it:

By definition, altruism means sacrifice; if there's an emotional "I want to help!" benefit, then it's not purely altruistic (doesn't make it bad, just not altruistic). 

Or you can take a strictly biological view of altruism: it results in a decrease in reproductive fitness, i.e. progeny.  Biological altruism doesn't care about intent; only that the action benefits others at reproductive cost to itself.    Worker bees, who give up their ability to procreate, behave altruistically. The above volunteers, also under this definition, are not behaving altruistically.

If you want to stick to evolutionary psychology, then the behavior of the above volunteers can be understood as the opposite of altruistic, it is self-promoting in the interest of reproduction.  In other words,  these temporary displays of volunteerism are chick magnets.

But under almost any definition of altruism, the real altruists are the ones left behind.  The worker bees who gave up sex for hex.

Think, for a moment, why you think worker honeybees are worker honeybees.  You probably figure it's "genetic" i.e fixed, but honeybees are totipotent-- the females, as larvae, can become either queen or worker.  Furthermore, as adults, they can choose to change again, by activating or deactivating their ovaries.  It's up to the individual, not decided by God.  Despite this, 99% of  females decide to become sterile workers.

The reason they do is twofold.  First, the amount/kind of food given to larvae is restricted so that there isn't enough to become a queen.   Next, if a female chooses to have some babies, those babies are promptly killed by the other adults, with amazing efficiency.  This process discourages the workers from laying any eggs in the first place.  This isn't some slow evolutionary process; they're actually killing babies in there, on purpose.  This is a guaranteed way of getting the civilization you want, and fast.

When there is no queen in the hive, the killing of babies is reduced or stopped, until a new queen is made.

The altruism of worker bees is socially coerced.


Part 2 coming.

----

http://twitter.com/thelastpsych





Comments

This obviously goes beyond ... (Below threshold)

November 13, 2009 2:20 PM | Posted by James Bressi: | Reply

This obviously goes beyond volunteerism and makes you reflect on your every day engagement with others.

I question if altruism exists with humans, and any example I can think of does not make the individual altruistic (like the biological example and bees), rather the act altruistic. And even in this case, I question whether the acts are genuinely altruistic. You can find reward in most any gesture or act.

It seems you can find

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Altruism has became a brand... (Below threshold)

November 13, 2009 2:23 PM | Posted by J: | Reply

Altruism has became a brand. As such, it is part of a larger, socially respected brand: the brand of a "good person". In as chaotic and needy society as ours is, where you're targeted every second with societal wants and needs, where about 80 % of the populations personality is constructed via commercial choices, altruism stand out as something commonly accepted, a sure-choice way of justifying your other choices that are more ambivalent. Altruism looks good on you. Whether or not you're just filling up your Hummer at Shell.

The ones left overworked by altruism? Now, what sort of a monster would deny someone to go and help other people voluntarily? Surely, the fact that your colleague is so keen on going has already labeled you as not_that_good a person. If you step up and say that your colleagues choice means more work for you, you are automatically a bad person. First on not going yourself, and secondly on the act of opposing the altruistic help offered to people in distress. So they, either from their own altruistic nature, or for the fear of losing their face, do the work of two or more people, silently, without aplodes and headlines.

Is this a problem then? Isn't it good to have people doing good things, whatever their motivation may be? If people eat fair trade bananas just because they like to show off their humane side, they still endorse good values, right? If we subtract the people who do altruistic things for their own (narcissistic) needs from the population of overall altruistically behaving people, there wouldn't be that many humanitarian or ecological projects.

On evolution and altruism, might I suggest Petr Kropotkins "Mutual Aid: a Factor of Evolution. A wonderful book, free on Gutenberg and such places.

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Jesus man, half the time I ... (Below threshold)

November 13, 2009 4:22 PM | Posted by Jack: | Reply

Jesus man, half the time I read your posts I need to lie down in a dark quiet place afterwards until I figure out how my world view needs to change.

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J - I agree that altruism h... (Below threshold)

November 13, 2009 4:30 PM | Posted, in reply to J's comment, by Anonymous: | Reply

J - I agree that altruism has become a brand for some people and in some circles. And like all brands, it's about the surface appearance and how the product defines the consumer. But that's always been true. Christian charity, while less fashionable now, was the previous brand of altruism that was equally all about surface appearance and not actual compassion. Compassion requires empathy, something narcissists are lacking in. Compassion means we actually relate to and care about the other person as an individual - we feel their suffering via empathy and can imagine ourselves in their situation - and we don't use them simply as a replaceable object we use to make ourselves look good. Compassion always requires a certain amount of vulnerability on our part, a willingness to experience the suffering of others and acknowledgment that we're social animals and all connected.

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I'm questioning what mes... (Below threshold) If emotional reward makes a... (Below threshold)

November 13, 2009 5:35 PM | Posted by R. Nebblesworth: | Reply

If emotional reward makes an act and/or the individual performing the act not altruistic, then there's very little "real altruism" out there. Even Mother Theresa probably got some satisfaction in fulfilling God's commands to help the poor, or whatever. But if that's the case then the word 'altruism' doesn't mean anything, and that's obviously not right - don't most people use it to mean an act that is unrewarded in a pecuniary sense?

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In good postmodernist tradi... (Below threshold)

November 13, 2009 6:06 PM | Posted by theskepticalshrink: | Reply

In good postmodernist tradition, TLP offers us a view on altruism, but it is neither the most compelling view nor is it mutually exclusive of other perspectives. It is certainly the most cynical view. I think TLP may be the most cynical individual I have ever encountered.

I would argue that any act performed for the benefit of others that is not accompanied by intrinsic or extrinsic reward to the actor is neither altruism nor narcissism; it is automatism. As such, it is probably not within reach of human beings performing conscious acts. Most people who engage in helpful acts probably do so for both intrinsic and extrinsic reasons. I agree with the previous poster that the reasons may be irrelevant provided that there is a net benefit to society.

I see no benefit in discouraging people from trying to help others because their actions might be viewed as narcissistic. If you're making the world a better place so that you can see yourself as a better person, then you're my kind of narcissist.

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Wow. Wow wow wow.... (Below threshold)

November 13, 2009 6:43 PM | Posted by R. Kevin Hill: | Reply

Wow. Wow wow wow.

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"If you're making the world... (Below threshold)

November 13, 2009 7:52 PM | Posted, in reply to theskepticalshrink's comment, by Anonymous: | Reply

"If you're making the world a better place so that you can see yourself as a better person, then you're my kind of narcissist."

TLP has endorsed this type of narcissim in earlier posts. If you must be a fraud, be a "helper" fraud.

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Finally! Someone says it! ... (Below threshold)

November 13, 2009 9:03 PM | Posted by Anony-Mouse: | Reply

Finally! Someone says it! Most altruists are narcissists.

I remember being in high school when the Iraq war was being proposed. A girl put together an anti-war "walkout protest." She was shocked when she was suspended for two days for "disruption." She protested that she was "doing something good -- for peace!" Her mindset was the her internal moral rules overruled the actual rules. Not only was she going to be disobedient, but she was going to get away with it! Who were these little people with their attendance rules?

The biggest narcissists I know are the ones who are heavy into politics (right wingers) or "social justice" (left wingers). The guys who don't have jobs but bitch and whine about taxes or The War. The ones who are so busy helping others that they don't care for themselves or their families. Margaret Sanger basically abandoned her family, for example. Or any of the Republican congressmen who cheated on their wives while performing "public service."

People have forgotten how to be responsible for themselves. Social responsibility is the new fad because society will never hold you accountable for being a failure.

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Most Big Brothers/Big Siste... (Below threshold)

November 13, 2009 9:03 PM | Posted by Duplessis3: | Reply

Most Big Brothers/Big Sisters have no children of a young age at home.

And a drone bee is male. Getting these two things wrong (which are readily available facts) makes me question some of the premise of the article.

I suspect the people that wanted to volunteer in NYC thought that the needs of those effected by 9/11 were greater than those that had to work a single double shift, as you describe. And that is perfectly possible - some people DO have greater needs than others. This does not connote someone who is fooling his or herself about the nature of the action to be taken. And some of those pulling the double shift (and getting paid for it, tyvm) may have felt it was a worthy sacrifice.

The observation that there is no such thing as a truly charitable act was observed by David Hume. And even should that be true...so what?

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Drone bees are female. Gett... (Below threshold)

November 13, 2009 9:15 PM | Posted, in reply to Duplessis3's comment, by spriteless: | Reply

Drone bees are female. Getting such an easily available fact wrong doesn't invalidate an entire argument, though. If they actually though about that when they volunteered it was cool. Someone whose car breaks on the way to volunteer doesn't deserve an 'A' for effort, especially if they could have come in to work after that.

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Ok, I've been primed for a ... (Below threshold)

November 13, 2009 10:09 PM | Posted by Snarx: | Reply

Ok, I've been primed for a discussion on suicide bombing, or throwing oneself on a grenade. Blast radius, please.

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You are right about dron... (Below threshold)

November 13, 2009 10:48 PM | Posted, in reply to Duplessis3's comment, by Alone: | Reply

You are right about drone bees, they are male, I was writing about worker bees, which are female and somehow I conflated the two. Post fixed. I have no idea the stats on who becomes a Big Brother or whether they have kids, that's not the point. The point is about the kind of person who volunteers for something when they have other responsibilities they should attend to.

So it's your second paragraph that's important: "the needs of those effected by 9/11 were greater than those that had to work a single double shift"-- a true statement, when they are weighed against each other. The question, however, is whether someone other than those two parties only-- the 9/11 victims or the double shift guy-- can make that call. Can someone else choose to give me more work that I don't want to do, because he has taken a moral accounting and decided I need to pull more weight? My question doesn't imply answer, I'm actually asking. And it's generalized to other things, of course (e.g. taxes.)

Of course the double shift guy might want to do it to pitch in. But why has this behavior "evolved" anyway?

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It was Kant's position, AFA... (Below threshold)

November 13, 2009 11:32 PM | Posted by Aaron Davies: | Reply

It was Kant's position, AFAIK, that altruism didn't count unless you weren't even getting satisfaction out of it. Of course, since I'm an Objectivist, Kant is the Enemy anyway, so this article is very old news to me.

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You can't put fulfillment o... (Below threshold)

November 14, 2009 1:15 AM | Posted by Common Reader: | Reply

You can't put fulfillment of personal responsibilities on your resume. That's what it's all about.

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Once again, you raise a str... (Below threshold)

November 14, 2009 6:13 AM | Posted by Dave Johnson : | Reply

Once again, you raise a straw dog. You spew a series of unsupported allegations and grossly caricaturize entire groups of people who volunteer. When challenged, you perform a fall back of sorts:

I have no idea the stats on who becomes a Big Brother or whether they have kids, that's not the point. The point is about the kind of person who volunteers for something when they have other responsibilities they should attend to.

What are you basing your point on? This cherry-picking anecdotal evidence you are increasingly resorting to in order to support some preconceived notion is tiresome.

Actually, the point seems to be whatever it takes to set up your rant du jour. You regularly take research studies to task for their unexamined or unreported biases/assumptions. You, on the other hand, just pull assumptions out of the ether. You don't even bother to support your "observations" with facts. Thus, you just "know" what all those darn 9-12 volunteers did. You just "know" what the motives of those darn do-gooders happens to be.

Whites seem particularly prone to manic devotions to faddish volunteerism inspired by celebrity that are transparently self-aggrandizing. And temporary-- they inevitably quit when the next fashion comes along.

Could you at least pretend to have some sort of factual basis for statements such as this? Seriously.

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This is why I don't volunte... (Below threshold)

November 14, 2009 12:02 PM | Posted by Mike : | Reply

This is why I don't volunteer any more. I'm a mature white male, college educated and all that, and I used to volunteer a lot. Then I realized how much of my life I was missing -- I got complaints from my wife and children -- and how little my family was getting from my time spent at church "outreach" and "local lay missionary" projects and teaching English as a second language. It became apparent also that the persons for whom I was volunteering weren't doing anything beyond basking in the glow of getting attention -- they weren't changing or learning from getting my help! What really made upo my mind was the discovery that the incompetent were offered houses at half the price I'd be charged and at a quarter of the mortgage interest rate. Why should I give to those who get what I cannot get, and who get it because they have failed?

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Mike, Failure and... (Below threshold)

November 14, 2009 1:24 PM | Posted, in reply to Mike 's comment, by Jack Coupal: | Reply

Mike,

Failure and "Help Me!" are the new SUCCESS !

You're late to the party in catching on to the scam.

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Here's the problem as I see... (Below threshold)

November 14, 2009 2:06 PM | Posted by Stephen: | Reply

Here's the problem as I see it.

People who volunteer are just people, i.e., they have many problems that need their attention. Forget the intentions behind their volunteerism, those are a secondary concern.

So volunteering is a question of opportunity cost. How many of your personal foibles do you miss out on correcting (and perhaps, imagine are atoned for) through your participation in volunteer work? Maybe society would be better served by you fixing your own issues?

So not only do we tend to overlook cost/benefit analyses when discussing volunteer projects--charity = good, right?--I think there may also be a sort of moral-hazard-of-the-soul effect happening, wherein we imagine doing good in the public sphere of our lives excuses our atrocious handling of personal issues.

On top of this, beneficiaries of volunteerism/charity fall into two categories: the deserving and the undeserving. And the "deserving" category is further ordered by degree of need. How disconnected are you from the final recipient of your charity? Do you really know which category s/he falls into? Could your dollars/time have gone further in another charity? (Witness inexperienced college sophomores "helping" with construction work in post-Katrina New Orleans).

I'm not trying to make a normative statement about charity, but I will say this: it is usually a far more complex equation than "I give, others benefit." And I seriously doubt that the typical volunteer feels at all compelled to look deep enough into his charitable cause to see that complexity and weigh the costs.

Ask beneficiaries of the World Bank.

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I'm not sure exactly where ... (Below threshold)

November 14, 2009 6:54 PM | Posted by caeia: | Reply

I'm not sure exactly where you're going here. You seem to be saying that a person has to have no other responsibilities if he wants to help others. I don't think anyone over the age of 5 can truely claim to have no responsibilites. We all have them, so the question seems to be only one of degree. If you're neglecting important things to volenteer, such as not going to work, that's obviously bad. But I don't think not cutting your grass to take an underprivelidged kid to the ballgame is a huge deal. The grass will still be there when you get back.

I do think that we've put so much in front of raising our families that I think any number of American kids are neglected. I was shocked by the revelation that in the Onsby kidnapping, there were dozens of kids getting off the school bus, yet not one parent had the time or inclination to meet the kids at the bus stop. No one really knew the poor kid had been kidnapped until 2-3 hours later. I'd class that as neglect -- especially since just about everybody has a phone within easy reach. Family FIRST, absolutely. But don't pretend that there are people in the world with no responsibilities.

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The Great White Whinge real... (Below threshold)

November 14, 2009 6:58 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

The Great White Whinge reality distortion field #71:

Why should I give to those who get what I cannot get, and who get it because they have failed?

Exactly! There certainly isn't a damn opportunity to volunteer ... let's say ... with a mentoring program, without encouraging those damn teenagers to embrace failure. How dare they not have fathers! How dare they experience problems in school. And to think they might profit by my white presence? Unbelievable.

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I'm curious why you thin... (Below threshold)

November 14, 2009 9:37 PM | Posted, in reply to Dave Johnson 's comment, by Alone: | Reply

I'm curious why you think this is a straw dog. No, this isn't a trap, I'm asking seriously. They way I mean it, here's a story about some guys who volunteer. I know nothing about them or their intentions, but it reminds me of something that happened to me (nurses)-- I have a better handle on their intentions, but they are irrelevant, because what I really want to know is why the people left behind let them go off to volunteer.

I'm not trying to get into an argument with you. I'm trying to determine if the reason you don't like the post is that you have misunderstood it/I didn't explain it well, or that the mere mention of Obama puts people into defensive or attack posture, or something else?

Again, not an argument, but is it your position that these people who volunteer are noble simply because they are helping others (and personal gain or other things are irrelevant) or are you arguing that the people who are left behind to do the extra work have a moral obligation to do so? (I'm assuming you concede that the people left behind are not happy about doing the double shift?)

I'm replying to you, but anyone who is angry about this post (which apparently is everyone) can certainly jump in. I'll say it a third time: I'm not trying to be defensive or attack anyone, I am genuinely trying to understand the other perspective.

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I'm gonna throw something i... (Below threshold)

November 15, 2009 1:21 AM | Posted by Honorius: | Reply

I'm gonna throw something in even though I'm not sure it applies.

I have a keen interest in American politic. I devot an fairly decent amount of time to it.

The thing is that I'm canadian.

I can't do jack shit to influence american politic. I can't vote, I can't write to any congressman or senator in a way that matter, can't really go to protest or public demonstration or anything of the sort, yet I'm only interested in America. It's not like there is no politic in Canada. Plenty of politic in Canada. We even have a lot more political party I could be a part of or a causes I could devote myself to.

But I do just like the nurse in your story. I use time and effort on something I'm actually never going to influence or even participate in.

I don't do canadian politic because, in my mind, it's boring. "Nothing happens in Canada". It's not where the real deal is. Maybe the nurses (male or female?) felt the same way. Boring job. The real deal is on "ground zero". I don't give a shit about Canada. Maybe they didn't give a shit about the other nurse doing double shift. They're not important because they're in a shithole.

And then there's a weird thing. I actually think that militating for a cause in the U.S. would actually be substantially different that militating for something in Canada. In Canada, I'd be wasting my time. But in the U.S., it would matter.

Oh wait. Scrap that. I was thinking about it and the right wording is this: it's not that it would matter, it's that I would matter more. My effort there would not be useless. This is, of course, objectivly bullshit. But god knows we don't need to be rational. So maybe I think I don't matter. Maybe the people accepting the doulbe shift actually know that they matter. They bitch about it, but they feel validated.

Maybe none of this apply. Maybe you know all of this already. Maybe more later.

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It's a straw dog, because y... (Below threshold)

November 15, 2009 4:31 AM | Posted, in reply to Alone's comment, by David Johnson: | Reply

It's a straw dog, because you raise the concept of volunteering, ascribe a series of motivations to that behavior without the slightest empirical evidence ... then extend it to jump feet first into what sounds like a pet theory. You write:

They way I mean it, here's a story about some guys who volunteer. I know nothing about them or their intentions ....
which is true ... leading to my calling into question your saying
Whites seem particularly prone to manic devotions to faddish volunteerism inspired by celebrity that are transparently self-aggrandizing. And temporary-- they inevitably quit when the next fashion comes along.

If you wanted to write about "why the people left behind let them go off to volunteer," it would have played out much better without the ranting about the motives of all these "kinds of people" who went off in the first place. You say you "have a better handle on their intentions, but they are irrelevant" rings particularly hollow, given the amount of vituperative judgment you mete out.

I've had a strange career- among the jobs I've had are manager of a resort and program manager for a mental health facility. In both those positions, I've had staff who wanted to take time off in order to "help" others. Both situations have required the person wanting to volunteer to secure a willing staff person in order to cover their vacated shift.

It is at this level where some of the questions you're intending on exploring begin to blossom. Does the person looking for a replacement get angry if they can't find one? Do they feel entitled by virtue of their decision to "help out?" Does the person who is being asked feel socially or culturally coerced into covering the shift(s)? Do they feel like they're not being very giving? Do they feel a part of the desire to "help" by virtue of their covering shifts? These are the kinds of questions, this is the kind of approach that would seem to be more appropriate for the issues you say you want to explore.

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I'm not angry, I think this... (Below threshold)

November 15, 2009 7:23 PM | Posted by Common Reader: | Reply

I'm not angry, I think this post was right on. I think you should develop it further and look into the many ways in which, in our society, fulfilling duties you already have is inferior to getting shiny new ones. It's always fine to neglect your own children to help others. It's never fine to tell your friends and neighbors, no, I can't help at the bake sale/go to that park clean up day/ support an AIDS marathon/ coldcall a bunch of people for money because I need to supervise my child's homework/ clean my mother's bathroom/ pick my spouse up from the airport/ send my Christmas cards. No one gets to work hard maintaining their own property and caring for their own family and be socially recognized for it. It's what you do in your private time. But do exactly the same things for people you're not related to and for property you don't own, and like I said, you can put it on your resume.

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Why should I care about the... (Below threshold)

November 16, 2009 11:13 AM | Posted, in reply to Anonymous's comment, by Mike : | Reply

Why should I care about their problems if they do nothing to change their lives? Wny am I responsible for their incompetence, or for giving to them -- hoping they learn by example -- that which I earned by learning and adapting?

You may not have ever met any of the undeserving poor. I have; indeed, I know several families of this sort, and I have known them for 15 year or more. They have created an environment of failure.

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Damn. Thanks for pointing ... (Below threshold)

November 16, 2009 11:19 AM | Posted, in reply to Jack Coupal's comment, by Mike : | Reply

Damn. Thanks for pointing that out, Jack. I should have seen that one. I've been entirely too optimistic.

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R.Nebblesworth wrote - "If ... (Below threshold)

November 16, 2009 3:31 PM | Posted, in reply to R. Nebblesworth's comment, by Anonymous: | Reply

R.Nebblesworth wrote - "If emotional reward makes an act and/or the individual performing the act not altruistic, then there's very little "real altruism" out there. Even Mother Theresa probably got some satisfaction in fulfilling God's commands to help the poor, or whatever. But if that's the case then the word 'altruism' doesn't mean anything, and that's obviously not right - don't most people use it to mean an act that is unrewarded in a pecuniary sense?"

When we talk about altruistic behavior in animals - and remember we're animals ourselves - we're talking about behavior that benefits the group over the individual engaging in the altruistic behavior. Being social animals, that applies to us too. Of course all altruistic behavior involves a reward - the healthy version involves being a useful part of the group and benefiting from being part of the group. I suspect that anyone who's involved in charity work with their extended social group at the expensive of their primary group (their family or partner) is in it mainly to create the illusion of being a good, kind or nurturing person at the expense of being actually being a good, kind or nurturing person. This is really just a more modern version of being a "good Christian" who beats their wife in private - it's hardly a purely contemporary thing.

Mother Teresa was notoriously cranky, one suspects joy was low on her list of priorities (or that suffering/martyrdom was the source of her satisfaction). Of course, Mother Teresa was busy making sure there were lots of suffering children to feed her cause since she was anti-birth control and abortion. Providing access to birth control would have done a lot more to reduce the suffering of unwanted pregnancies and babies.

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Mike - You sound like exact... (Below threshold)

November 16, 2009 3:40 PM | Posted, in reply to Mike 's comment, by brainchild: | Reply

Mike - You sound like exactly the kind of person that Alone is talking about. People who neglect their responsibilities to their family in favor of doing charity work so other people will think they're a "good person" (or "good Christian). You DO realize that not everyone has the same narcissistic intentions regarding helping others as you did? (And this is why they don't get angry at the people they help out when they don't perform in a way that feeds the "helper's" ego?) It's pretty typical for narcissists to turn on the person they've made into an object/source of narcissistic supply when they don't get what they want (because, after all, the "helping" was really all about what the narcissist gets from it and not the other person and their needs).

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Honorius - There are lots o... (Below threshold)

November 16, 2009 3:51 PM | Posted, in reply to Honorius's comment, by brainchild: | Reply

Honorius - There are lots of things that happen in Canadian politics, our media just doesn't sensationalize them in the same way (generally speaking). I also follow American politics but it's because American politics and policy have a huge impact on Canadian politics. Considering that PM Harper uses the same think tanks and strategists as American NeoCons and Ignatieff seems to be just an American NeoLiberal with a Canadian passport, the distance between Canadian and American politics isn't that far. Of course, lots of people (both Canadian and American) like the passive entertainment of US politics on TV and not the reality of actually being politically engaged and responsible for the effect of their actions and inaction.

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No one seems to have addres... (Below threshold)

November 17, 2009 6:14 AM | Posted by fraise: | Reply

No one seems to have addressed this yet, about those left behind: "why do they do double duty and let these fakers get away with it?"

Because when anyone speaks up about how self-serving their "volunteerism" is, the person speaking up gets a very thorough lashing. "How could you possibly be so [insert one or more of the following: selfish, shortsighted, egotistical, cranky, bitchy, ungenerous, jealous, mean, petty]?" and, furthermore, the person speaking up gains a reputation that will never leave them, especially if they're the honest sort who continues to say, for instance, "well, actually, I think it's a bit hypocritical to volunteer to help raise funds for children in Africa when they have learning-disabled kids they're leaving with an unqualified babysitter..." Response: "How could you! I'm sure their kids are PROUD to have such generous parents!" Watch while everyone in their social circle(s) titters about how cruel non-volunteers are and what true martyrs volunteers prove themselves to be in the face of such horrid, selfish detractors...

So it goes.

Also, volunteerism is quite literally given monetary reward in school, which helps train people early on, in addition to the social conditioning. At least at my high school, there were students who got good grades taking all the easy classes, participating in one or two sports, and whose parents took them to loads of volunteer opportunities, because volunteerism is favored in scholarship applications. (Kind of corrupts the meaning of the word "scholarship"...) Then there were students who worked their asses off to get straight or nearly-straight As in the most difficult classes, participated in sports, music, choral, theater, and whose parents were poor, worked long hours and/or lived too far away to take them to any volunteer opportunities or afford a car so their kids could drive themselves once old enough. (It was a rural area, no decent public transportation. For after-school activities run by the school, such as sports/music/choral/theater, there were public school system buses, see. But there were none for non-school activities.)

Guess who got all the scholarships? That's right. The students whose families had the resources to take them to volunteer, because they - the students - "had shown true initiative and generosity with their knowledge". I'm sure you get what that implies about the other students. The ace students, who participated in school activities, but whose families didn't have the resources for them to volunteer? Most got nothing, but a few did get $200-600 grants (not "scholarships"). Fifteen years later? Many, if not most, of the 'volunteer' kids who got scholarships, some of them full ride, dropped out of college after the first or second year, and have never gone back. All of the kids - without exception - who didn't volunteer, got no high school scholarships and yet still went to university, finished their degrees, even if it took them a while. Some did get scholarships while at university, thank goodness. Many of them became teachers. There are also lawyers, medical doctors, nurses, and even a nuclear physicist in the mix. No MBAs, as far as I know. (The only MBA I know was one of the rare 'volunteers' who finished school.)

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Volunteering as a way to ge... (Below threshold)

November 17, 2009 1:22 PM | Posted by brainchild: | Reply

Volunteering as a way to get ahead and into university (or to win scholarships) seems to be a particularly American thing. That kind of thing simply isn't an issue in Canada. You get into university via your grades and talents, and you win scholarships based upon the same criteria. While obviously the wealthy have an advantage and an easier go of it in many ways, anyone with good marks and the stamina to go to school and work can get a university education here. Sure those of us without rich parents have to pay back student loans - it's no free ride - but the class imbalance isn't nearly as pronounced. And neither, obviously, are the narcissistic displays of looking like a compassionate or "good" person for personal gain.

It's interesting to see that some posters seem to have a grudge against volunteering based purely on not getting their own narcissistic needs met. Maybe Alone is right, at least about how volunteering plays out in a country where the social contract doesn't include any sense of social interconnectedness or empathy (which is seen as weakness) and the narcissistic cultural fantasy is of the rugged, Randian individualist and denies the reality of class and the effect of unequal access to basic things like healthcare and education (and the pernicious influence of religion - be it Protestant megachurches, Scientology or new age cults - as a promoter of narcissistic, and unreality based, ideals of being a "good" person rather than just being a real person).

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Yeah, Canadian, the fact th... (Below threshold)

November 17, 2009 3:29 PM | Posted by Common Reader: | Reply

Yeah, Canadian, the fact that Americans volunteer more than *any other country* is evidence of our low individualist moral character. That makes all kinds of sense.

We're talking about the small number of volunteers who are acting out of their own internal psychodrama, not the huge body of good volunteers doing irreplaceable work.

Would you like it if I snarked about how Canadians just sit around and wait for the state to come fix their problems instead of doing it themselves? No, it would be rude and unfair. Canadian society is very different from American, and not because Americans are Randroids, and not because Canadians are lazy collectivists - it's because we have very different immigration patterns, very different population densities, very different governments, and a very different racial balance. We have a privately supported, *mostly liberal* religious sector that serves the needs of communities you Canadians just don't have in anywhere near the same kinds of numbers. We have extremely organized and wellfunded (through voluntary contributions) gay organizations providing relief to AIDS patients. I don't know where you got the idea that American community service is some kind of red state, conservative thing. Conservatives also volunteer and donate, massively, but this is an *American* thing. This is *how* we express our "sense of interconnectedness." We do it privately and voluntarily and you are in no position to say that your system would be better here in a very different country any more than we should tell you to scrap your system for ours.

We are complaining about the bad parts of volunteer culture because it's *ours.* We understand it. You have no clue. You're making stuff up. This is as obnoxious as someone who disses the entire Canadian health care system based on a few widely publicized problems - except it's worse, because at least those problems actually happened. You have NO experience with what you are rudely dismissing.

When I host international guests, there are two things I am so proud to show them: our accommodations for the disabled and our belief in community service. Neither of those things is perfect but they're good and they're especially American.

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Sorry, Canada. As a country... (Below threshold)

November 17, 2009 5:12 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Sorry, Canada. As a countrymen I'd like to be able to get behind you on this but your statement about volunteering merely to get into school being an "American thing" is pretty flippant.

Maybe you get into an undergrad or community college based soley on academic merit...but if you want to get into law school, med school or a PhD program, you had better have some volunteering credentials. This has less to do with "looking good" for personal gain as would would imply and more to do with proving that you can self-motivate and multi-task.

Also, I think we Canadians would do well to quit defining ourselves as "Not American" first and "Canadian" second.

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Please feel free to insult ... (Below threshold)

November 17, 2009 5:16 PM | Posted, in reply to Common Reader's comment, by brainchild: | Reply

Please feel free to insult or criticize Canada (or anywhere else I've lived) or Canada's social system as much as you want, I'm not a nationalist and don't mistake where I live (or some cultural fantasy) with who I am, much as I care about where I live and engage socially and politically. I'm merely pointing out that in countries with access to higher education and social safety nets that student volunteering doesn't impact whether you get into university or not (or get a scholarship, student loans, etc) so there's not that kind of motivation or pressure to do so or emphasis on the appearance of being a "good person". This doesn't mean that there aren't Canadians with purely narcissistic motivations in volunteering or that certain kinds of volunteering aren't mainly about social climbing here too. The rich and upwardly mobile the world over use charity events as a way to polish their image and present (often superficially) as "good people".

The point was that American social values are different than those of other wealthy countries with cultures that are also European in origin (and, of course, in America there's the added complexity that a history of slavery has on class, which is not to ignore colonial abuses or racism in other colonies, it's just recognizing some of the particular facts of American history). It's not just Canada that provides inbuilt opportunity via access to education and healthcare, America really is the odd duck out in this respect and this difference does create some very profound social and cultural differences and that was what I was commenting on.

It leads me to wonder whether nationalism is innately narcissistic in the way it conflates an idealized image of a nation (any nation, not just the US!) with one's own self worth and identity. It's slightly disturbing to me when people have internalized a patriotic myth to the extent that they mistake it for who they are, particularly when they take personal offense at critique of a system.

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Heh, I don't define myself ... (Below threshold)

November 17, 2009 5:32 PM | Posted, in reply to Anonymous's comment, by brainchild: | Reply

Heh, I don't define myself as Canadian (or "not American") or nationality in the first place. I think nationalism is pretty stupid and myopic at the best of times, dangerous as the worst. It can certainly be a form of cultural narcissism when it's all about image at the expense of substance/reality. My point wasn't about individual Americans - they're as varied as humans in any other country, humans being humans and America being a diverse country - it was about mainstream culture and social systems.

The discussion was about getting into University and getting scholarships - the claim being that these only go to people who volunteer in the US and only the relatively well off can afford to rack up volunteer points to be eligible for scholarships (not my claim, I was responding to that claim). While I may well live in some exceptional bubble, all the people I know who got into university in Canada, got scholarships and did PhDs did so based on academic performance (not whether they've proven themselves to be "good people" by doing volunteer work). Sure volunteering and thereby gaining experience in a field related to study can be a plus - as can any work experience in your chosen field - but it's hardly going to make the difference vis a vis school that it seems to in the US according to what some of the Americans here have reported.

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Common Reader - I've heard ... (Below threshold)

November 17, 2009 7:03 PM | Posted, in reply to Common Reader's comment, by brainchild: | Reply

Common Reader - I've heard the claim that Americans volunteer and give more to charity than the people of any other nation numerous times but never actually seen any evidence that this is true. (I'm certainly not saying it isn't but I've never seen any evidence it is true either and the, admittedly older, reports I've found that compare national statistics don't actually seem to back up this claim.)

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In my altruistic American f... (Below threshold)

November 18, 2009 2:56 AM | Posted by Common Reader: | Reply

In my altruistic American fashion, I did the hard googling for you, Canada.

This article discusses the findings of the 1990 European Values Study, which collected data on North American and European volunteering:
http://www.prospect.org/cs/articles?article=the_tocqueville_files_the_other_civic_america_5197

Here is an article discussing American charitable giving. It's oldish but it has nice chartsngraphs:
http://www.american.com/archive/2008/march-april-magazine-contents/a-nation-of-givers

You can get an even better picture when you look at money donated to specific causes, for example:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humanitarian_response_to_the_2004_Indian_Ocean_earthquake

Remember American charitable giving is on top of our foreign aid, which is a larger percentage of our GNP than that of any other country, and which is there is very little popular support for reducing.

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I'm not a scientist and mak... (Below threshold)

November 18, 2009 4:52 PM | Posted by Jake: | Reply

I'm not a scientist and make no claims of extensive knowledge of statistics and the such, but just from my everyday dealings, this article rings pretty true. I live in San Francisco and so there are no shortage of passionate volunteerism here, indeed, I'm friends with many people who put lots of time and energy into causes. But the causes they actually took part in, namely, well building in Ghana and condom education in Botswana, always smacked a little strange to me. Worthy causes, to be sure, but I always found it to be pretty presumptuous -- flying to Ghana, spending three weeks there, teaching them a little basic engineering, and then flying to home to much applause. It's just too heroic for me. Especially when there's so much work that can actually be done here in San Francisco to help local communities. But then you have to commit and make actual long term relationships.

This type of volunteerism is like the fun uncle. You see him twice a year and he give you candy and slips you twenties under the table, but he doesn't have to put in the hard and consistent work of parenting.

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I'd have to agree with you ... (Below threshold)

November 19, 2009 8:10 AM | Posted, in reply to Jake's comment, by caeia: | Reply

I'd have to agree with you there. We have a charity at our church that sends people to a Latin American farm over the summer. Now don't get me wrong, I'm sure that they do great work, but it seems odd that this type of volenteering always seems to involve jet-setting to odd locales in tropical climates. Besides which I think there might be a tinge of racialism in that they always seem to be helping the nonwhite peoples -- as though they can't possibly figure out how to help themselves. That is another side to the narcissism that I sense in so many of these projects. Not only do they get kudos back home, but while they're there, they get to be the superior ones. Not to mention the vacation to parts of the world that most people never see.

(This is my own personal bias, but I never see anything similar done in Eastern Europe or similar, where they might also need condom education or help starting farms. It seems like a kind of volenteer version of colonialism in which the superior white man teaches the stupid native how to be civilized like him.)

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There's a simpler explanati... (Below threshold)

November 20, 2009 6:42 PM | Posted by Common Reader: | Reply

There's a simpler explanation for why people prefer voluntourism in SE Asia, Africa, and Latin America to Eastern Europe.

I'll give you a hint: there isn't a whole lot of voluntourism in Mongolia or Kazakhstan either.

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Actually, worker bees aren'... (Below threshold)

November 22, 2009 1:23 AM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Actually, worker bees aren't being altruistic in forgoing reproduction. Because of the haplodiploid reproductive system, they pass their genes on more efficiently by helping raise their sisters than they would by having their own offspring.

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>>There's a simpler explana... (Below threshold)

November 22, 2009 7:42 AM | Posted, in reply to Common Reader's comment, by Anonymous: | Reply

>>There's a simpler explanation for why people prefer voluntourism in SE Asia, Africa, and Latin America to Eastern Europe.

I'll give you a hint: there isn't a whole lot of voluntourism in Mongolia or Kazakhstan either.

***

Why? (A curious Eastern European would like to know.)

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It's not a tropical locale ... (Below threshold)

November 22, 2009 5:55 PM | Posted, in reply to Anonymous's comment, by caeia: | Reply

It's not a tropical locale for one thing. No one I know wants to vacation in Khazakhstan. People like to volenteer to warm exotic places.

But I think the second part of the explanation answers part of that too. If you went to an E European country, you're kinda saying that these Europeans need help, that they can't pull themselves up on their own. That's too far when talking about Europeans (they tend to get investments and loans instead), but not too far when talking about Africans or SE Asians.

Yes partially it's the climate and surroundings, but I still see the colonial mentality.

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Why? (A curious Eastern ... (Below threshold)

November 22, 2009 7:50 PM | Posted by Common Reader: | Reply

Why? (A curious Eastern European would like to know.)

It's cold.

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"fun uncle" = Epic Simile W... (Below threshold)

November 26, 2009 5:07 AM | Posted, in reply to caeia's comment, by Meat Robot: | Reply

"fun uncle" = Epic Simile Win!!!

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i think we need a part 2. S... (Below threshold)

December 26, 2009 9:04 AM | Posted by me: | Reply

i think we need a part 2. Soon.

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I haven't read all of the c... (Below threshold)

January 6, 2010 7:18 PM | Posted by Dave: | Reply

I haven't read all of the comments, so aps if I'm repeating what someone else said more eloquently...

I do volunteer work alongside my day job, I've been doing it for five-six years, and I'd fully agree that it isn't about altruism, it's about feeding my own narcissism (amongst other things, such as mainly killing boredom). I don't see that as being any worse than working for money, or for influencing people or getting laid - if it's a fair deal. I give, I want to get.

Giving without getting something in return might be an automatism as someone else suggested, and if that means some kind of behavioral programming... okay, I'd write that down to human imperfection if it doesn't get out of hand.

What worries me is martyrs that claim to be giving without expecting anything in return, when actually they're taking emotional blank checks in payment - that's often those that give regardless of whether anyone else will appreciate their "gifts".

Anyone that gives in some life-defining way and doesn't ask what's in it for them personally is deeply troubled and potentially dangerous. IMHO etc.

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[Helping in Eastern Europe]... (Below threshold)

January 6, 2010 7:31 PM | Posted, in reply to caeia's comment, by Dave: | Reply

[Helping in Eastern Europe]

Funny you should mention volunteering in Eastern Europe - I know one or two people who've done that, I think mostly for the adventure. OTOH, I have been working with and still work with people from Eastern Europe (amongst other regions) here (in Central Europe). There might be a place for voluntary service (obviously, otherwise there'd be no organizations organizing it), but as you say, it's not needed nearly as much as investment or loan capital - anywhere in Europe.

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