Embracing Altruism

A 300 year old tree provoked a national debate of altruism versus egoism.

Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness. – Martin Luther King Jr.

Altruism is devoting yourself to the welfare of others. Its opposite is egoism. Egoistic persons habitually value everything solely through self-interests. Egoists are selfish; Altruistic persons are not. Ethics embraces the principle and practice of Altruism.

In March 2015, a debate ended sourly inside the West Auckland suburb of Titirangi, New Zealand. A couple bought a piece of property to develop. They wanted to build their dream home. To fulfill their dream required local government consent to cut down a tree. The tree was a “young” Kauri about 300-400 years old. The Council consented. That is when the fireworks began.

A polarized society responded. On one hand were those who believe in individual property rights. They believed freedom was being attacked. On the other hand were those who believe that native fauna of that vintage belong to the people not individuals.

The couple abandoned their dream and the tree still stands. It is a testimony to ethical dilemmas.

If we replaced the word “tree” with “child” there is no debate. There are strong values shared on both sides that children are to be protected to preserve our future. So is it fair to replace “tree” with “child”? Only to highlight the ethical dilemma.

At the heart of the dilemma is altruism versus egoism.

  • If you believe in the protection of property rights to the fullest, you will express altruism differently. You will champion the individual as representative of Society.
  • If you believe in the protection of resources to the fullest, you will express altruism differently. You will champion the resource as belonging to Society and not individuals.

I will leave the “rightness” of the outcome to your thoughts.

Altruism preserves for a greater good. Egoism deconstructs for individual purposes. When we replace “tree” with “child” it illustrates the power of Altruistic motivates.

The Kauri removal debate illustrates how ethics are not created in isolation. New Zealand as a Society was forced to consider what it valued as the greater good. The couple adhered to all the rules of law yet Society deemed its written law did not express a value they held to be above the law.

I appreciate that perhaps ethics should not change a value because of others; if something is good it is good no matter how many agree or disagree. However, to deny the input of Society is to elevate the individual’s selfish understanding. The result would be as described long ago, “Every man did that which was right in his own eyes.”

I am not advocating Society’s right to change values; I am arguing that the values are discoverable in the midst of Society and that the alternative is open to narcissistic exploitation. I realize Society is not a Person but a collective of people; it is Community.

Community is positive. It invokes feelings of happy social gatherings. Ethics is not meant to be austere; it is an accepted guide to healthy interactions within the Community.

The masses are protected when individual elitists purporting a greater good are stripped of sole determination of “what is good”? It is interesting how such individual’s definition of “good” seems to advance personal agendas.

Challenge: Ethics finds definition of value outside of the individual. Why do I believe my definition of good is correct? Does my understanding of good mutually benefit Society?

Author: A Sojourner's Diary

Dr Timothy Rose is a long-term student of ancient writings seeking practical wisdom for the life journey under the sun.

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