Shafik Dharamsi: Are kindness and compassion acts of self-interest?

shafik-dharamsiGeorge Saunders’ moving commencement speech at Syracuse University has gone viral. He focuses on the topic of Kindness. The New York Times released a full transcript of the speech. His take home message to students: “Err in the direction of kindness.

Reading Mr. Saunders’ speech reminded me of the Address by His Highness The Aga Khan at the Foundation Ceremony of The Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat (Ottawa, Canada) on 06 June 2005 in which he concludes that the Delegation will be: “An epitome of friendship to one and all, it will radiate Islam’s precepts of one humanity, the dignity of man, and the nobility of joint striving in deeds of goodness.”

As a teacher and researcher in the field of medical humanities my work focuses on the aptitudes that are required of physicians such as honesty, integrity, commitment, compassion, respect and altruism. Both, George Saunders’ speech and the words of the Aga Khan take me to some of the most basic questions in philosophy about human nature and the question: Who and what am I? How you answer this question will influence how you see yourself in relation to others, and how you live your life. Regarding kindness, do you view kindness as an act with the ultimate goal of benefitting someone else or is kindness ultimately a self-serving act, motivated by self-interest?

Philosophers and psychologists continue to study the question of whether humans are essentially self-interested or altruistic. Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) argued that humans are “by nature” selfish. Hence, individuals will act in their own self-interest and only in their own self-interest. This is evidenced perhaps by the fundamental tenet of our market driven world: “give nothing away without getting more in return.” Doing what is in your own interest therefore becomes an accepted and expected disposition. In the interest of self-interest, the act of kindness is important to the extent that it offers egocentric benefits. Helping someone in need is not seen as an end in itself but as a means to self-interested ends (personal happiness, promise of material or spiritual reward, social recognition, etc). To this effect, the message of egoism is clear: “Be generous, and you will be prosperous; help others, and you will be helped.”

Yet, others view kindness as an end in itself – a selfless act for the welfare of others. This view would take Nelson Henderson’s perspective: “The true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit.” Hence, kindness is seen as an inherent part of being human beyond egoistic impulses, and an end in itself. Empathy, compassion, and a deep commitment to the welfare of others through acts of kindness are not motivated by social, emotional, material or even spiritual rewards. There are no expectations of a return and one is even inclined and prepared to accept a personal loss for the sake of others. Professor Datcher Keltner, Director of the Berkeley Social Interaction Lab, in his book, Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, studies the biological basis of altruism and finds that “compassion is deeply rooted in our brains, our bodies, and in the most basic ways we communicate.” In his commencement address on May 14, 2012 at UC Berkeley…or_generation_we), Professor Keltner challenged the premise that humans are essentially “selfish gratification machines [and that] happiness is found in material pursuits.” His research suggests that kindness and caring are evolutionary traits and define what it means to be human: “the capacity to rise above the loud demands of the internal voice of self-interest.” He tells the graduates that they are the “Generation We” and that they will not to be fooled by false claims like, “Greed is Good” because they can “take comfort in the wisdom of the ages, now fortified by science that to care is good, to be thankful is good.”

Shafik Dharamsi, BEd, MSc, Ph.D.
Associate Professor | Family Practice | Medicine
Lead Faculty | Social Accountability & Community Engagement
Lead Faculty | Resident Research | St. Paul’s Site of the UBC Family Practice Residency Program
Lead Faculty | Global Health Network | Liu Institute for Global Issues
Lead Faculty | Student Engagement | College of Health Disciplines

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Author: ismailimail

Independent, civil society media featuring Ismaili Muslim community, inter and intra faith endeavors, achievements and humanitarian works.

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