Several years back, a local public figure encouraged his listeners to give blood because it was, essentially, a selfless thing to do.
"Selflessness" is an odd notion. Of course it is a wonderful idea to donate blood if one is physically able and free of disease. But if it were truly selfless, how many would do it?
The man promoting blood donation talked about self-sacrifice, but if there is no personal benefit involved, or even hope of a possible benefit, is self-sacrifice rational? Sacrifice is the relinquishment of something at less than its apparent value. If giving blood is truly a sacrifice, it is counterproductive to the donor. People being what they are, "sacrifice" has to be compensated somehow, if only with a warm glow and a pat on the back, making it something other than self-debasement.
Perhaps a better way to describe voluntary charity is this: rational self-interest.
While some might find it unseemly, the primary motivator for aiding those around us is personal gratification. Seeing positive developments in our society makes us feel good not only about ourselves, but the future. Therefore, so long as one consciously and freely chooses to, lending a helping hand can be a very self-sustaining course of action.
Living with others in a society involves a constant series of compromises; doing things for others that we would rather not do. In return, people do things for us. Charity can be seen as a form of insurance or as a means of earning credit with others that will buy us a better position in society. It thus becomes neither a chore nor a mindless burden. Rather, it fulfills important social needs and is beneficial for all parties involved. Realizing this is the key to motivating increased public participation in charitable causes and awareness regarding important social matters.
Simply put, people will shun things which inconvenience them if they are unconvinced that these inconveniences will produce some ultimate benefit. On the other hand, when people are given concrete reasons to take the time and effort to do something "selfless," we get a lot more civic minded behavior. Self-interest has a stunning track record of trumping all else.
Neglecting to acknowledge the importance of self-interest may be the worst mistake that is made during any charitable campaign. Moral virtue and wholesome self-sacrifice may do nicely in front of the congregation on Friday evening or Sunday morning (and are not even the faithful offered the carrot of God's favor, with the alternative being the stick of his wrath?), but elsewhere, overt appeals to self-interest are powerful incentives to be good and charitable.
This is a lesson, and not solely for the sake of charity, best learned early on. Rational self-interest is a key component of life, not a character defect that deserves shame and derision. Maybe most will own up to this glaring reality someday.
One should hope, anyhow.
Joseph Ford Cotto, 1st Baron Cotto, GCCCR is the editor-in-chief of the San Francisco Review of Books. In the past, he covered current events and style for The Washington Times's Communities section, where he interviewed personalities ranging from Fmr. Ambassador John Bolton to Dionne Warwick. Cotto was also a writer for Blogcritics Magazine and Yahoo's contributor network, among other publications. In 2014, H.M. King Kigeli V of Rwanda bestowed a hereditary knighthood upon him, which was followed by a barony the next year.