Alterity, Altruism and the “Selfishness Gene”

I contend Richrd Dawkins is wrong, not evil, but wrong, to identify the altruistic acts of humankind as only selfishness. That is, Dawkins hold this; man does good, when he does, because it makes the doer feel right, good and strong. Therefore, altruistic acts are just things one does to make oneself feel better about oneself. He holds that altruistic acts are essential to any society. Indeed, no society can exist long without its Altruists, but altruism itself is just selfishness, worked out in the life of a what we would have to call an Altruistic Narcissist.

I spent yesterday afternoon and this morning burying a friend. I spent last night and part of the afternoon re-reading Derrida and Husserl, to find again their work on phenomenology, the philosophy, that is, behind why Humankind might do good. Yes, I know. Husserl was, well, let’s say, holding on to a faint sliver of sanity much of the time and Derrida was the first Deconstructionist. Both of them, I think, wanted to peel back the religious layers, human-made, set over the face of God. My Philosopher friend, Roark, if he bothers to read me here will immediately disagree, because he is the first Contrarian, but I will hold to my position.

And this crisis of occasion was what Barbara’s son, the woman who died, said about her. He said:

After going through all my mothers papers and files, I know these two things. The lengths she wen to in order to make sure all three of her kids had everything ll others kids had were just staggering. And, the second thing I know is this, the lengths she went to keep her first efforts unknown to us, those efforts were staggering.

So, you see my dilemma. I have to call my friend selfish, or I have to find some other explanation for her actions. A single mom much of the time, Barbara finished her Master’s degree, became a pediatric nurse and worked 24 hour shifts so she could have 48 hours off afterward, and arranged her schedule by her kid’s activities.


I had a dim memory of the word alterity. Alterity is a term denoting “otherness.” If altruism is hard wired to our DNA, making us compelled, not constrained to do good, alterity opens us  up to the possibility that there is “otherness,” a condition wherein we find our centeredness in another being, whether that being is personal entity (unlikely, according the first deconstructionists) or disembodied intelligence capable of action.

I am left to try to explain her. Barbara, who was very decidedly not perfect. Barbara, who tended to do most things to excess. Barbara. working her 24 hours shifts, mending her clothes, tending to the neighborhood and then keeping her toils private, particularly from the persons most directly benefited by her actions, the children.

I cannot dismiss her as just “selfish.” A person of selfishnes checks out along the way, somewhere, because their other genetic predisposition (one of the four F’s of human activities) has to kick in along the way. A truly selfish person has to be, well, selfish. How can they then be found to practice kindness at great personal cost without pause for thanks or applause?

For once, I have to find myself on the place of the deconstructionists. They are wrong, for me, most places, but alterity is not something I can just set aside. When I find someone who is visibly imperfect, but capable of immense self-sacrifice and other-centeredness, I am forced to believe there is Someone beyond and above all of this we do.


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