A simple Google search on giving and happiness yields several results indicating that Adam Smith might have been right: giving makes us happier over time. Here is the beginning of his seminal work, A Theory of Moral Sentiments.
“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.”
While it might turn out that donating to charity or giving gifts makes us feel better, we must admit that marketing to people’s selfishness rather than their ability to sympathize seems like a poor reason to give.
Instead of focusing on the needs of others, we focus on making ourselves feel good. We all do it, and it’s selfish. In other words, we need to examine if we’re giving for the right reason? Shouldn’t we be giving out of sympathy and charity, not to make ourselves feel righteous? Certainly the recipients benefit from time or gifts, but giving to feel good about oneself is different than giving out of sympathy.
Of course sympathy, compassion, and charity, while often viewed as some of the most virtuous values, have a potential dark side of their own. The whole concept of viewing others as less fortunate than oneself contains a bit of arrogance. By donating to a cause or a charity, you position yourself as the fortunate one, and the recipient as the unfortunate. In an attempt to alleviate an inequity, you actually highlight the differences by the act itself. It is strange, since the act aims to diminish inequality.
Let me digress to offer a concrete example of my previous point. As a student, I volunteered in New Orleans for a group known as Common Ground. Their motto “Solidarity not Charity” sought to identify victims of Katrina, as a something other than victims. According to Common Ground, these “victims” needed people in solidarity with them, not charity or sympathy. I thought of it as a matter of semantics, but got their larger point-people don’t want to be pitied.
Well this seems like quite a downer for the holiday season, two depressing approaches to giving: selfishness and a rather harsh interpretation of sympathy. Yet most of us who give hardly think of ourselves as selfish or arrogant. However, Adam Smith thinks we should consider the merit of the selfishness.
“The whole account of human nature, however, which deduces all sentiments and affections from self-love, which has made so much noise in the world, but which, so far as I know, has never yet been fully and distinctly explained, seems to me to have arisen from some confused misapprehension of the system of sympathy.”
To begin a philosophy of self-interests discussing sympathy seems odd, doesn’t it? At least I found it odd, when I first read Smith. However, Smith’s point, I believe, is not just the basis for a free market or invisible hand, but rather a recognition that because humans-even the most barbaric among us-sympathize, our self-interest, and the interests of seeing others prosper, forces us to perform acts of charity. We become industrious in order to make others industrious because that’s how others will prosper.
One could sum it up this way: we should be teaching the starving how to fish, not just feeding them. That’s the kind of sympathy that improves lives, communities, and, yes, makes us feel good about ourselves too.