Economists who use math to model the economy often make assumptions about the motivations of the players in the economy. One of the primary assumptions they often make is the assumption that people function in the economy out of self-interest. When Adam Smith first proposed his idea of the existence of an “invisible hand” that guides people to make decisions to bring about the best outcome for the welfare of everyone in the economy, he noted that altruism was not necessary to reach such an outcome. Instead, he proposed that choices made out of self-interest were sufficient to lead the economy to a position where no one could be made better off without someone else being made worse off. This assumption, of course, is one that is a challenge for those of us who study philanthropy and the nonprofit sector, where we often assume that people approach involvement in the sector with some intrinsic altruism. The issues of altruism and selfishness was one that I found myself thinking of the other day, when my daughter asked me to increase the volume on the radio so she could better listen to a song about people taking and posting "selfies."
I was not thrilled to hear the song as it played on the radio, and even more disturbed when I looked up the words that I had been hearing. It reminded me a little of the song from the 1980s that featured the words “gag me with a spoon.” Can it be that young people have not matured at all in the last thirty years? Or is it just that this is a new group of young people, who have to learn the same lessons on their own?
As a parent, I am particularly disturbed by the words to the song about taking a selfie because the words describe a very self-centered person who does not seem to have a lot of respect for those that they interact with. In the song, people are important to the degree to which they respond to postings of pictures or whether they are with the right people or wearing the right clothes. While I know it is just a song, I found myself thinking that this is NOT what I want for my daughter in the coming years!
I want more than anything for my daughter to develop a sense of selflessness in her life, to have respect for her family and friends and for those she comes in contact with. I hope that she grows up to be empathetic of others, and that she thinks of the needs and feelings of others as she makes her way through life. And so, I ask my readers for suggestions; how do you help your children realize that they are not the center of the world, and that they have responsibilities for using their unique talents to improve the well-being of those that they encounter? And, expanding on that basic sense of empathy, how do you help them develop a sense of altruism, altruism that I have to believe will make the world a better place for everyone?