So I’m rewatching Friends. (Don’t act like you’re not also doing it. Which season are you at?) There’s bucketloads of SJW rants to be had about that show, but that’s not why we’re here today. No, I want to talk about how a single episode in season five actually raised a profound philosophical question.
The episode in question is titled “The One Where Phoebe Hates PBS.” In what’s only its C-story (overshadowed by Ross’s relationship dilemma, and Monica and Chandler’s secret romance), Phoebe and Joey discuss the concept of good deeds. Joey insists that there is no such thing as a purely selfless act; everything you do, you do to make yourself feel better. Horrified by this cynical postulation, Phoebe becomes determined to prove him wrong, and spends the rest of the episode trying to commit a deed entirely out of altruism. But every time she thinks she’s done it, she quickly realizes that there was still a small element of satisfaction for her in the act. Meaning that Joey was right.
Pheebs is not the first to struggle with this philosophical issue. It’s a question as old as ethics: Does altruism really exist? Is it possible to do something exclusively for the benefit of another person or the greater good, with nothing to personally gain from it? The question is fascinating to me, and it’s a shame that the Friends episode had so little time to explore it. It could have been a fresh, in-depth, but still comedic take on the ancient conundrum. Thankfully, I happen to dabble in fanfiction:
It’s Friday afternoon, and Chandler Bing is headed home from his job as a transponster. It’s been a rough week. In the outskirts of Greenwich Village, he spots a donut stand, and is overcome with a craving for that circular pastry. As a matter of fact, he’s been thinking about donuts all week, but refrained from buying any because it’s not been the weekend. Monica has told him to watch his cholesterol levels. Well, now it is the weekend, and he deserves a reward for these challenging past five days, he thinks to himself as he purchases a single chocolate donut. But he doesn’t eat it right away. With his signature slow nod of satisfaction, he tells himself to save it until he gets home, so that the first delicious bite will truly herald the start of the weekend.
But then, on the way to the famous apartment buiding, he comes across a beggar. She looks hungry. Chandler doesn’t have any money on him, and is about to pass her by with a sorrowful smile, but then he remembers the donut. Deciding that she needs it more than he does, he produces the pastry from his bag and gives it to her. Despite how badly he wants it. Despite how much his brain, who is narrating over the scene in Matthew Perry’s voice with added reverb, hates him for parting with it.
Now, that has to have been a selfless deed, right? Chandler wanted that donut so bad, and giving it away was nothing short of agonizing, but he did it anyway. He set aside his own needs for the needs of a stranger. How could that not be altruism? But then again… Had he kept the donut, he would have felt guilty. The thought of the beggar would have haunted him for the rest of the season. By giving her the treat, he spared himself that agony, traded it in for a much more bearable and short-lived agony. Besides, he felt proud of his kind act. The pat on the back he gave himself on his way up the stairs was just as delicious as the donut would have been. So really, Chandler wasn’t being altruistic at all. He simply chose a longer, more winding path to satisfaction.
It’s a silly example, sure, but a challenging issue. Really try to think up a hypothetical act of kindness that would have nothing in it for you, not even the pride of having done what’s morally right. I know I can’t, and I think you’ll have a hard time with it too. Heck, even the person who one day solves world hunger, will only have done so because the faces of starving children in charity ads were killing them inside. Indeed, if you strip away every last layer of your own morality, you’ll find that, at its very core, it’s always about making yourself feel good. Every nice thing you do for someone else, can be traced back to that self-serving instinct. Selfishness is inherent and utterly inescapable.
But is that really a bad thing?
Isn’t it wonderful that human beings feel good when they care for each other? Isn’t it great that we’re hardwired to benefit emotionally from doing each other favors? Isn’t that a fact to be celebrated, not hidden away, or stated with smug cynicism?
We are all on a constant quest for personal satisfaction. There’s no use in denying that basic premise of human existence. However, we have two different ways of achieving that satisfaction, and that’s what’s truly worth talking about. We can either find it in immediate pleasures like food, parties, or rewatching classic sitcoms. Or we can derive it from the emotional reward of helping someone else out. Most of us choose both many times every day, and both are equally selfish pursuits. But the latter method is special in that it also helps others, while helping you. It’s a selfless means to a selfish end. I’d argue that this ability is our species’ most beautiful trait, and it’s one we should encourage and cultivate. Let’s keep doing good deeds and patting ourselves on the back afterwards. That pat doesn’t invalidate the deed.
Don’t strive for altruism. Be selfish in the kindest possible way. 🙂