All Good Deeds Get Punished

“Loving your fellow as yourself,” said the great Jewish sage, Rabbi Akiva, “is a most basic principle in the Torah.” Altruism takes good deeds further by stipulating that loving your fellow has to include a disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others. However, recent neuroscience studies have shown that, when people behave altruistically, their brains activate in regions that signal pleasure and reward, similar to when they eat chocolate (or have sex). Does this benefit not negate the act’s pure altruism?

Literally thousands of women and men from countries all around the world volunteer for humanitarian or development work. Most volunteers, whether for the UN or agencies such as CARE and Oxfam, do not earn much money. Some work their way up through administration to career positions, but those positions are scarce. Some volunteer because of a personal need to help, be admired, get away from or resolve a personal problem, or live out a messianic fantasy.  Nevertheless, most are sincerely committed to a variety of faith-based and secular global values; the work itself provides the primary reward for their efforts.

One such woman was my friend, Martha Teas. In the early 1990s, Martha and I were both working for the United Nations in Cambodia. I was a volunteer, escaping the end of a marriage and supervising local elections, whereas Martha was a career UN worker with the World Food Organization. When she and I had a chance to visit, our conversations always turned to the topic of whether we were altruistic. Martha maintained that our work met the definition of altruism and, because the so-called rewards were an unexpected benefit, they thus did not count against us. I disputed that claim, since any psychological or financial benefit voided the stipulation of selflessness. I argued that real altruism could only be obtained if, in addition to not benefiting, you had to pay a price; in essence, you had to be punished. I was way too happy in Cambodia for my work to count as altruism.

Martha, who reminded me of a bookish librarian, was a pacifist who abhorred the military. Nevertheless, as a UN careerist, she continued to work in areas of sustained low-level combat and instability, on missions caught in open warfare and hostilities. As the UN became increasingly involved in nation-building, the traditional military/humanitarian distinction blurred, turning civilian humanitarian workers into targets for resistance fighters.

Martha and I lost touch after I returned to my academic position in the U.S., but I never forgot her or our endless debates about the meaning of altruism. Maybe all good deeds don’t get punished. Maybe I was wrong.

On August 19, 2003, a suicide bomber drove a truck full of explosives to the United Nations headquarters in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, and blew it up, killing 22 people—among them Martha Teas, age 47, UNOHCI Manager in Iraq.

Published by Carole J. Garrison

I’m a conversationalist, an observer, a passionate participant in life. And now, in my later years, I’m a recorder of the lessons of my life through essays, stories, and novels. I live in the fourth moment of life, just outside the normal distribution of most people and it is from this place that I write.

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