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365 Anonymous Favours

This morning I decided to have a browse over my 101 Things list: a collection of things that I would like to do at some point in my life – some important, some not so. I had a look at this list today because I realised that it has been a long time – a very long time – since I’ve done anything on the list.

There is one that I haven’t even started to complete and it struck me as quite strange that this is the case. It may even strike you as quite strange that it is even on the list. In the ‘Misc’ section, I have stated that I would like to do 365 anonymous favours… that’s one favour, done anonymously, for every day of the year.

I decided to do this when a few years back I read that humans are incapable of genuine charity. Now I cannot remember if I read this in a philosophy book, a journal or even just heard it in a passing conversation, but it definitely stuck in my head for a long time. Individualism, it seemed, was what humans strived for.

The argument that was put across was that all humans do all deeds for selfish reasons. Toys are bought for children to ‘shut them up’, favours are done so that one can be returned, charity donations and volunteer work is done in order to reap praise, admiration and gratitude of our peers and some even go as far as to say giving ones life for a loved one or a country is selfish as we know we shall be remembered long after we have died for the most ‘noble’ of deeds. It is also argued that we do this (sacrifice our life for another) in order to advance our genes – by sacrificing our own life for our children and extended family we are ensuring that our genes survive longer. We could also do this in a Biblical sense, saying that we do this so that we get an ‘easy’ pass into heaven.

I didn’t like to believe this, as I have always believed that, as many religions teach, altruism is a very important moral value, innate to human beings. This is why I decided to do 365 anonymous favours. I believed that if I did these favours, and nobody ever found out they were done by me, I would have no personal gain from doing them and thus not be selfish. In over a year since I wrote the list, I have done 0 of the 365 favours.

Is this because I know that I would gain no personal enjoyment from doing them and as such do not bother or is it that subconsciously I want people to know when I do a good deed so that I can get praised for doing so? I hope not, and plan on doing one of these soon enough.

I’m starting to think that if I now do an anonymous favour, will I get a bit of self-satisfaction from completing it? Will I be happy that I’ve now crossed off one of the favours and now only have 364 to go? Or will helping someone anonymously actually bring me pleasure, and will I prove the theory that we are all, deep down, selfish? If I do succeed, would proving that we are all altruistic rather than selfish be an achievement that would make me happy or proud and thus, in itself, proving the opposite?

Steve Kanga’s Liberalism FAQ has a great article on this entitled Spectrum One: Individualism vs. Altruism. I suggest you read it.