why i'm uncomfortable with altruism

thrice over the last few months have i had deep conversations about altruism. most often i talk about this with ross, once i went to a dinner salon (sup, big talk!), and last night with my friend kate (founder of department of play).

i always found myself resisting the term. slowly, i’ve come to realize why.

but first, the definition:

al·tru·ism, /ˈaltro͞oˌizəm/ (noun): the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.

it sounds good on its surface so why do i resist the idea? i’m coming to see that altruism relies on a strong distinction between ‘self’ and ‘other.’ in order to be altruistic, you have to genuinely believe that someone else is so disconnected/different from you that it’s possible to do something that benefits them completely and you none. such a strong notion of other i think actually undermines deep empathy and collective action.

western societies rely heavily on the process of othering for survival (there’s a whole journal on this phenomenon and how to reverse it). few of them would actually exist in their current forms did they not. we would act differently towards people and the planet if we realized more deeply that we’re all intimately connected AND that our survival is linked to the survival of others. 

so being altruistic requires a disbelief in the idea that doing what’s good for someone you don’t know or are not like is inherently good for you.

now that i’m writing, i realize there are more points to make before i can logically arrive at my conclusion, but the conclusion is this: whether or not altruism has ever legitimately existed in the past, we can no longer afford it today. we have to start (and fast) living and making decisions like what’s good for others is good for me. i think this is the evolution (or true nature?!) of self-interest. gotta write more… but not now.

and now, some quotes:

“In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly… This is the inter-related structure of reality.”
— dr. martin luther king, jr., letter from a birmingham jail

“… we set ourselves against ourselves and become like Ouroboros, the misguided snake, who tries to eat his own tail. Ouroboros is the perennial symbol of all vicious circles, of every attempt to split our being asunder and make one part conquer the other.”
— alan watts, the wisdom of insecurity

ps - one question i can’t seem to answer is: is it a privilege to be able to believe in altruism?

pps - from wiki: “Much debate exists as to whether “true”altruism is possible in human psychology.”