True Altruism; For Real?

Thisanjali Gangoda

When is the last time you consciously committed an act of random kindness? Perhaps it was elementary or middle school where you were most aware of the altruistic notion of doing something nice for someone for no particular reason. Back then our teachers would tell us that random acts of kindness are a way of bettering our world and ourselves. But how often do we consider this now? It almost seems naïve to think that by writing an anonymous thank you note to a neighbor or remembering to open doors for other people, we could become more engaged with our community and thus, become more caring as a society.

Darryl George would have to disagree. This semester Darryl and his fellow Applied Conflict Management classmate Terry Mortensen founded the A.R.K. Society at Kent State. The two of them created the student organization out of a project for their Nonviolence Theory and Practice class. Darryl promoted the organization several times in class and spoke at length about his belief in altruistic behavior as being the foundation of a peaceful society.

When asked if altruism is really possible without ulterior motives attached, Darryl laughed. “I think that true altruism is possible. People define themselves through what they do with their lives, and there is a difference between being selfish and being selfless. You feel more like yourself when you are doing things for other people.”

The basic definition of altruism is people sacrificing themselves for the good of others without any interest in personal gain. Philosophers have exhausted the possibility of altruism existing outside ego and self-satisfaction and have theories that range from societal impacts to biological factors as being at the core of altruistic behavior. Societal impacts of altruistic acts have been debated since the dawn of time and can range anywhere from making an individual feel valued to empowering them to conquer challenging obstacles in their life. This relates closely to the psychology of human behavior and our need to feel connected with one another.

Contemporary thoughts on altruism include biological observation and theory as explanations for altruistic behavior. Reciprocal altruism is an evolutionary device that favors species that act altruistically in order for returned favors, which can also be viewed as symbiosis. Kin selection, known as the “selfish gene” theory indicates that species that act altruistically will most likely pass on specific genes that enabled them their spawn to act selfless.

Looking past all the “hard” facts of altruism and its existence, there is a question to be asked. Why is it that we have this perpetual need to doubt the validity of altruistic acts? In the end, no matter the intent behind it is, isn’t altruism, like acts of random kindness, beneficial to the society as a whole?

This is why Darryl and Terry started their organization. “We are designed by nature to be altruistic”, Darryl says. “We must help each other because we are all interconnected. It doesn’t take a lot, and it can be small, tangible acts that change you.” If altruistic behaviors like acts of random kindness change you, they certainly make outward impressions as well. In this day and age where we continue to broaden the gaps between the self and others through technologies that falsify relationships, build on ego and distract from real communication, altruism does exist. It exists in a simple hello, a smile, an opening of a door and in being kind.

“We are all interconnected, and we need to take care of each other. When we lose sight of our common humanity, this is what’s wrong with the world.”

Thisanjali Gangoda is a senior political science and applied conflict management major and columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact her at [email protected].