Alisa is pictured with the young Thai students at Yaowawit, a school built following the 2004 tsunami in southern Thailand. One of the philosophical questions that service such as this raises is to what degree student motivations can be said to be altruistic, for students frequently say they “received more than they gave.”
“The central question—central for the survival and well-being of our world—is
how we can make the wonderful developments of science into something that
offers altruistic and compassionate service for the needs of humanity and the
other sentient beings with whom we share this earth.”
– Dalai Lama
Service learning provides a real-life laboratory for students to explore not only the world outside the classroom, but to reflect personally on their own inner lives. Engagement in a service experience, especially one that affects students on an emotional level, provides much self-introspection. For examples, students frequently question their own motives when they participate in service activities. Can something that makes one so happy be inconsistent with the message to give of yourself to others? Are mixed motives to be morally condemned or should they be accepted as part of the human condition? Does altruism exist?
The 2009 Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology contains a useful and insightful chapter entitled “Empathy and Altruism.” The authors define altruism as “a specific form of motivation for benefiting another. To the degree that one’s ultimate goal in benefiting another is to increase the other’s welfare, the motivation is altruistic. To the degree that the ultimate goal is to increase one’s own welfare, the motivation is egoistic” (p. 417).
I asked students in my service learning classes whether they felt that their service experiences exhibited the trait of altruism or should all of their service be considered egoistic. Students, especially those who had recently gone on a trip to an orphanage in southern China, had much to say about this topic. In fact, approximately 80% of students believed that altruism does exist within them or their peers. The articulate minority, usually introspective male students, argued that even our finest actions are nothing but a cloak hiding self-interest.
The primary value of this exercise is for student to peer deeply into their motivations for the service work that they are engaged in. This introspection helps them to simultaneously understand their own identity better while exploring deeper and more universal questions about the essential goodness or depravity of the human condition. These reflections help determine a philosophy of life that can undergird future community engagement.
Batson, C.D., Ahmad, N., & Lishner, D.A. (2009). Handbook of Positive Psychology. “Empathy and Altruism,” 417-426. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Other useful resources:
“Altruism: Towards a psychobiosocial conceptualization,” Zygon, 42, 1, 25-47.Kristof, N.D.
“A basic human pleasure.” NY Times, January 18, 2010.
March, J. “The Limits of David Brooks’ ‘Limits of Empathy.” Greater Good blog, October 4, 2011.
Mattieu Ricard has published an 800-page book on Altruism. Here is a short blog reflection on this theme.