Confucius, the great Chinese philosopher and political scientist, once said, "He who wished to secure the good of others, has already secured his own."
Altruism, it would seem, is not immune to a healthy little bit of self-interest.
The latest issue of the British financial weekly The Economist reported on the findings of a study conducted by Dr. Geoffrey Miller of the University of New Mexico, who concluded much of our motivation toward charity may hearken back to one of our basic, primal instincts: a need to impress the opposite sex.
Perhaps this sounds a bit cynical. But, then again, maybe he’s on to something.
It’s much like the flashy, attention-grabbing feathers on a peacock, or more appropriately, the more affluent humans’ habit for conspicuous consumption.
In nature, altruism comes in two flavors, the kind of familial nepotism that ties the fates of those related to one another, and the more reciprocal, quid pro quo we use when interacting with most other people in their communities.
Humans, though, have a third. Good Samaritans give expecting nothing in return. We call it charity and it’s often tax-deductible.
So Bentleys and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have some psychological tie that binds them together? Dr. Miller believes so.
Among the wealthy, both involve the transfer of vast sums of one’s personal resources. Both say, as The Economist puts it, "an individual shows he (or she) has resources to burn – whether those are biochemical reserves, time or, in the human instance, money – by using them to make costly signals. That demonstrates underlying fitness of the sort favored by evolution."
It’s doubtful Darwin was ever looking to explain why the wealthy in society feel the need to donate to charity. What the researchers in the study coined "blatant benevolence," or conspicuous consumption’s more homely-looking cousin, seems to make sense, though.
In his study, Dr. Miller, divided subjects into two different groups. The first were shown images of attractive members of the opposite sex in order to put them into a "romantic mindset."
The second were simply shown pictures of buildings, and not terribly sexy buildings at that.
Then, subjects were told to write down what they would do if they had $5,000 in the bank to spend on anything. They were also asked how much of a 60-hour-per-month block of free time they would spend doing volunteer work.
Among those with the "romantic mindset," the men spent much of their money away on flashy luxury items. The women dove into volunteerism.
Among the group who stared at pictures of buildings, the results were pretty even. Both men and women split their resources between shopping sprees and good works.
It would seem, at least from the study, that men and women have different ways of showing off. The Economist took it a step further, saying "only when it counts sexually are men profligate and women helpful."
That’s a bit over the top. But it does lend some credit to the idea that showy giving and showy buying, deep down, have some primal link.
And it seems to be all a matter of "show," too. Later in the study, men and women were given the option of what they would buy, or how they would volunteer. Men opted for buying the flashy items such as cars, while women opted for working at a homeless shelter, rather than cleaning trash in a park alone.
Among the other, un-romanticized group, the object or manner of service made little difference.
What we get from the study is a rather un-progressive conclusion: "What women want in a partner is material support while men require self-sacrifice. Conspicuous consumption allows men to demonstrate the former. Blatant benevolence allows women to demonstrate the latter," the article said. But the report also said conspicuous consumption and the type of massive donations the wealthy tend to give out are linked.
People are more complex than this. But if that means that donating to charity is sexy, maybe its not all that bad.
According to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, last year 21 Americans donated at least $100 million to charitable causes, the highest amount ever recorded. The biggest by far was Warren Buffet’s $43.5 billion donation to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Even without Buffet’s gift, the Chronicle says that wealthy Americans committed $7 billion to charity, as compared to the $2.7 billion given the previous year.
If participating in charity is an exercise in vanity, it’s the most constructive, "selfish" thing one can do. If only working at a soup kitchen or bequeathing your personal wealth were as cool – or even sexy – as Italian handbags or, say, the $1.2 million, 1,001-horsepower symbol of excess that is the Bugatti Veyron, imagine who society would declare its most eligible men and women.
Wooten, opinion editor, can be reached at [email protected]