Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Altruism and Economics

So I'm taking Econ 110. It's been a reasonably enjoyable class and I had a writing assignment for that class. I've been saying for forever I need to post to my blog and I rather liked the writing I did, so I thought I'd share it with my non-existent readers. Basically I explored the ideas of Altruism (or Christlike charity) and Economics. Here it is:

This is a concept I’ve often thought about myself and had a few discussions on. So Naked Economics suggests that every single decision we make is affected by our desire to maximize our utility. I think this is a very fair statement and the book exhausts that idea rather fully to show how it really is accurate. The book is reasonably tactful in its presentation of this idea by suggesting that not everything we do is necessarily selfish, it’s just about us trying to maximize that utility. So in the case of those that donate time, talents, and efforts to good causes we do so because we have some sort of utility we seek out of it. That can be a variety of things: happiness, seeing the difference it makes for others, or to receive blessings. This is a common teaching in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we receive blessings for the good things we do in life. I think to some degree we’re even taught that we should do things because of the blessings it will bring into our lives. However, there is the idea of being a Christlike individual, which is the ultimate goal we can hope for our character. Christ is described as being “the perfect example of charity.” (True to the Faith p. 28) So what is this element that is charity? The prophet Mormon describes, “Charity suffereth long, and is kind, and envieth not, and is not puffed up, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil, and rejoiceth not in iniquity but rejoiceth in the truth, beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.” (Moroni 7:45) Basically it is a vastly encompassing love for others. I think the core of what I am discussing is the actual idea of altruism though. The American Heritage Dictionary describes altruism as “Unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness.” Now I would take this definition of altruism a bit further to a state of pure altruism, meaning that there is absolutely no personal motivation in what we do for others. From the teachings I have heard of what Christ embodied, this sounds like an accurate description. So we are left with a bit of a dilemma. So many things that we do, even as righteous, worthy members of the Church are still motivated by our desire to secure blessings for ourselves. But we’re supposed to be like Christ, who had no personal motivations whatsoever in what He did. How do we reconcile this? I think Elder Oaks probably did the best job of this in his talk “Why Do We Serve?” Basically he suggests there are varying reasons to serve and most of them are at least to some degree self serving. There is only one pure, altruistic, charitable Christlike way to serve and have it be completely selfless and that’s not an easy task. Most of us, with most of what we do are not quite to that point. It’s still okay to not have reached that far, but really most of us have some sort of personal motivation for why we do what we do. And economics definitely addresses that and says that everybody does that. Of course I don’t think economics can quite reconcile the idea of Christ and His attributes. I mean it makes perfect sense, Christ is perfection and economics is a manmade device meant to help understand the world. I think it takes an approach rather relative to Realism and so how could it hope to capture and embody the idea of perfection. So I think economics is wrong in suggesting that nobody can do anything without some sort of personal desire to maximize utility, but looking at it from that realistic approach, I think there are few that will actually rise to that higher plateau of true Christlike charity to take action with complete selflessness.

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