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Doing well by doing good

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Eric Thayer/Reuters

(Read caption) Volunteers place wood floor planks for a house under construction a year after a tornado tore through Joplin, Mo.

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Is altruism good, or just a good strategy? The biologist E.O. Wilson has described it as both. The purest form of altruism involves self-sacrifice for others – a family, tribe, or cause – with no expectation of reward. The other altruism, which seems less noble, is doing a favor to get a favor.

Poems and statues are dedicated to uncompromising heroes. Most people are turned off by back-scratching deal-makers. But wait. Pure altruism, Dr. Wilson pointed out in his book “On Human Nature,” advances the goals only of a narrow set of people. The hive benefits when a honeybee gives up its life to defend the group. By contrast, dealmaking altruism may look cheesy and hypocritical, but it is essential in a complex, diverse society.

Hard altruism is the stuff of legends. Soft altruism is the infrastructure of civilization.

A family, company, cause, or ideology needs hard altruism to cohere. One for all and all for one. But at some point, even the most tightly disciplined island needs to connect to the mainland. Deals must be done, favors returned. 

Whatever form it takes, altruism is good for others, for us, and for society, which is why versions of the golden rule and the good Samaritan parable exist in most cultures. In communities where social capital is high, hard times are not as hard. 

Periodically, social analysts worry that the wheels have come off society, that economic pressure or new technology or fads or amusements are undermining our social capital, making us more selfish and less caring. In the mid-1990s, Robert Putnam penned a much-talked-about essay titled “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital.” Americans were spending so much time in front of TVs and computer screens, Dr. Putnam wrote, that participatory democracy, volunteering in the community, even amiable activities like bowling leagues were withering. If people were not connecting, social capital would wither as well.

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