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Life Arts    H4'ed 5/1/10

Altruism or Enlightened Egoism?

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The very fact that the word "altruism" exists indicates that there are sufficient theories, and consequently, a wide audience, who legitimize the presence of this phenomenon., the online dictionary, described altruism as, "the principle or practice of unselfish concern for or devotion to the welfare of others (opposed to egoism)". This source also describes altruism as "Unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness."

The same source describes egoism as the opposite of altruism, and explains it as, "the habit of valuing everything only in reference to one's personal interest; selfishness (opposed to altruism)," and, within the perspective of ethics, as "the view that morality ultimately rests on self-interest".

Here's thus where the interesting discrepancy between these two phenomena emerges. Selflessness is increasingly being promoted as the most enlightened state of being in new age teachings about spiritual behavior. Yet, one can wonder how it would be possible to actually get rid of the self? After all, you take your self with you wherever you go, whether you like it or not. So, if selflessness is more of a metaphor than a realistic phenomenon, one can also wonder about the actual existence of altruism. Particularly when it is seen as the immediate opposite of egoism.

Dwelling at the idea of egoism, I wonder if the majority of actions we undertake are not fundamentally driven by this emotion? After all, there are very few acts we undertake with solely the well being of another party in mind. Most of what we do or undertake in our daily activities, and even more in the greater execution of our lives, is to make us feel better about ourselves. And sometimes these acts may seem very noble in the eyes of others, but they are still ultimately executed for our own sense of dignity, pride, gratification, or contentment.

Real altruistic acts are extremely rare, and may never occur in the lives of the majority of people. Yet, we are quick to describe a number of our acts as altruistic, as soon as we can attach a label of nobility to them. But if you think about it, only in exceptional instances where a person risks his or her own well-being for another -- such as when someone runs into a burning house to save the life of a trapped child, or jumps into an ice-cold sea to save the life of a drowning soul -- can we really speak of an altruistic act. And even then, the real skeptics among us may assert that ultimately it's all done for our enlightened self-interest, because, once confronted with the disaster and the need, any decent human being knows how much and long their conscience would bother them if they wouldn't do anything about it.

So, once we get to this point of understanding, isn't most of what we consider altruism actually enlightened egoism? And if that is the case, are we not just taking about various degrees of the same phenomenon here? Egotism, the unbridled epitome of self-centeredness, could then be seen as "dark egoism," while a more compassionate, yet not extremely self-neglecting behavior could be referred to as "enlightened egoism."

Here is where two other definitions, also adopted from, fit well. The dark side of egoism, egotism, could be described as "Excessive preoccupation with one's own well-being and interests, usually accompanied by an inflated sense of self-importance," while the more enlightened version of egoism could be alluded to as, "The ethical doctrine that morality has its foundations in self-interest," or "The ethical belief that self-interest is the just and proper motive for all human conduct."

Responsible contemporary leaders, particularly those in the corporate sector who engage in the teachings of servant leadership, authentic leadership, transformational leadership, and spirituality in the workplace, attempt to practice enlightened egoism: they serve the progress of the organization, while they also focus on the quality of life of the stakeholders --employees, suppliers, customers, stockholders, and the society in which the organization operates--and then, at the same time, they serve their own purpose, whether this is making a difference, leaving a legacy, establishing good connections with their people, or anything else.

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Joan Marques is the author of "Joy at Work, Work at Joy: Living and Working Mindfully Every Day" (Personhood Press, 2010), and co-editor of "The Workplace and Spirituality: New Perspectives in Research and Practice" (Skylight Paths, 2009), an (more...)
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