Be Nice: a selfish act?


I started the Be Nice. project in the fall of 2008 while I was completing my MFA in Studio Art. I had created its first piece of the same name, and was showing it for the first time to my faculty and fellow students for critique. Their reactions shocked and excited me: the room erupted in a near 20 minute argument over the piece. The responses were quite varied.

“How dare you tell me how to behave?” one incredulous person asked.
“This has fascist undertones,” someone accused.
“You don’t think this is going to stop a war, or cure cancer?” one man mocked.
“It is overly controlling,” another stated.
“It’s completely annoying. Keep it up,” my professor remarked.
“How wonderful!” others maintained.

Some questioned its sincerity, hinting that my motivations were irony disguised as genuineness. It was difficult for some of my peers and teachers to believe that I could be “okay” with their reactions–that I could accept their frustration, their support, their anger, their suspicion, and even their dismissal simultaneously. They questioned how I could be so heavily invested in the message of Be Nice, and yet be willing to accept that many people would blow it off. My response was this: “Your reaction to this piece is more telling about your relationship to your environment than it is telling of my motives. And that is what the piece is about.The piece, I thought, is meant to make people think and perhaps improve on their behaviors and actions.

For two years, their question of my authentic sincerity has stuck with me. And I admit I am doing this project for selfish reasons.  Something so time-consuming could not be 100% altruistic. I love to make my art–it makes me happy and it is as much a part of me as my intellect, values, and emotions. Even more, I desperately wanted a more pleasant social environment and thought this might be a way to achieve the social change I longed for. It was and still is a “selfish” endeavor. Of course, at the same time, I have an ingrained desire to “look on the bright side” and “point out the positive” for myself and those with which I interact. To make all the bad stuff disappear–if only for a while–in the face of what there is to be grateful for can benefit others, and I hope it does (because otherwise, I wonder what is the point?)

My peers (and myself to be honest) considered my “authority” to recommend my ideas. This, too, lingered since 2008. I have only two degrees in Studio Art. Not psychology, not sociology or philosophy. And the truth is, I don’t know if my way is the best way, but I do know that there are certain core values which make most people happy when implemented into their lives.  And above all I believe people have a right to act how they please when it comes to civility and morality (with a few exceptions obviously), so they also have the right to completely ignore what I write if they think I am wrong. With those things in mind, I thought, “Well, hell. Why not?”

Indeed, this is a selfish project and an altruistic one. It makes me feel good when I make others feel good. Those moments make me feel like I have a purpose, and it brings positive returns on my efforts. And I like to see others happy, sometimes more-so than seeing myself happy (like spending a gift card on my sister, rather than on myself). Maybe something I write will “make” someone’s day or change their perspective. But if this blog were just for me, I would definitely not put the entries online for anyone to read.

This week I came upon the article, Is Pure Altruism Possible? by Judith Lichtenberg on the New York Times website. In it, she discusses the relationship of egoism with altruism. Many people argue that any benevolent act is solely an act of selfishness veiled in the attractive guise of altruism. Lichtenberg discusses this idea and asserts a different angle: yes, we know benevolence will bring us rewards, attention, and satisfaction. But that is not wholly the reason people behave benevolently.

And at that, I thought, “Finally! Thank God!  Someone (with a degree in Philosophy no less!) is explaining the motivations behind altruism much more intelligently and smoothly than I can! Woot! Yippee!”

Here’s the resonant bit for me, which Lichtenberg wrote (text color change mine):

Altruists may be more content or fulfilled than selfish people. Nice guys don’t always finish last.

But nor do they always finish first. The point is rather that the kind of altruism we ought to encourage, and probably the only kind with staying power, is satisfying to those who practice it. Studies of rescuers show that they don’t believe their behavior is extraordinary; they feel they must do what they do, because it’s just part of who they are. The same holds for more common, less newsworthy acts — working in soup kitchens, taking pets to people in nursing homes, helping strangers find their way, being neighborly. People who act in these ways believe that they ought to help others, but they also want to help, because doing so affirms who they are and want to be and the kind of world they want to exist. As Prof. Neera Badhwar has argued, their identity is tied up with their values, thus tying self-interest and altruism together. The correlation between doing good and feeling good is not inevitable— inevitability lands us again with that empty, unfalsifiable egoism — but it is more than incidental.

Altruists should not be confused with people who automatically sacrifice their own interests for others. We admire Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel manager who saved over 1,000 Tutsis and Hutus during the 1994 Rwandan genocide; we admire health workers who give up comfortable lives to treat sick people in hard places. But we don’t admire people who let others walk all over them; that amounts to lack of self-respect, not altruism.

Altruism is possible and altruism is real, although in healthy people it intertwines subtly with the well-being of the agent who does good. And this is crucial for seeing how to increase the amount of altruism in the world. Aristotle had it right in his “Nicomachean Ethics”: we have to raise people from their “very youth” and educate them “so as both to delight in and to be pained by the things that we ought.”

You can read the whole article here, and I hope you will! Thanks for reading.

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