Widgets Magazine


Sense and Nonsense: Altruism Without Virtue

It seems strange to juxtapose those two ideas, altruism and virtue. But that’s what I’m about to do. I want to suggest Stanford students are, by and large, overflowing with altruism but lacking in virtue. And I want to suggest this is a problem, for both altruism’s and virtue’s sakes.


Our current generation may be more concerned with the world’s biggest problems—issues like global poverty, climate change, health care, education and women’s rights—than any generation that has preceded us. The biggest initiatives on campus are almost all philanthropic enterprises aimed at tackling these problems: Dance Marathon, Alternative Spring Break, Impact Abroad, Jumpstart, Anjna, EPASA and the list continues. Altruism thrives on campus.


At the same time, virtue is a stale topic. We don’t discuss being all we can be, only doing all we can do. We are comfortable with the outward-oriented morality embodied in the word “altruism”, but uncomfortable with the inward-oriented morality embodied in the word “virtue.” Virtue talk is associated with attitudes of superiority: if we focus on cultivating virtues in ourselves, we fear we are also cultivating arrogance toward those who live and think differently. It is also associated with questionable values: virtue talk has often led to the blind acceptance of societal sympathies and prejudices as actual representations of what is good and bad.


It might also be true that students admitted to Stanford are simply less likely to be focused on inward-oriented morality because that is not the type of morality that would have been highlighted in the application process. It helps more in admissions to devote a lot of time to community service, volunteering abroad, starting NGOs and campaigning in Washington than to developing independent standards to live by or considering what are worthy pursuits. That kind of inward moral attention would have rewarded us much more in our personal lives than in the application process.


There are lots of good things to be said about elevating the concept of altruism while abandoning the broader idea of virtue. For one, commitment to altruism is a safe moral bet. While there can be a lot of debate about what it means to be virtuous, the morality of true service is not in question. Secondly, focusing on virtue may come at the expense of altruism. Indeed, the image of reflective students at elite schools one or two generations ago is often of a cultured few absorbed in thinking about their own character while ignoring suffering in the world beyond. Valuing virtue can be a recipe for too much self-involvement.


But I think it is a mistake to reject contemplation of virtues, to neglect questions about what kind of behavior—both in terms of public service and our everyday actions—lives up to our ideal selves. Without this kind of holistic reflection, we can never fully endorse both our personal and public selves. Cultivating virtue is at the core of discovering the life that is most worth living.


And altruism itself is much more secure when it stems from a deeper individual, when it is one among a set of values we have decided make up the person we want to be. I remember watching a video op-ed by New York Times columnist Nick Kristof in May about how humbled he is by missionaries like the one he met in rural Sudan, Father Michael Barton, who looks after four schools and has been providing education to children there for 32 years. As I watched Kristof’s video, it struck me that there was something very different about the altruism Father Michael exhibits and the altruism of today’s students who have all either volunteered in East Palo Alto, launched microfinancing initiatives in Peru, administered vaccines in the Central African Republic or become a Teach For America volunteer.


Unlike many of these well-meaning service recruits, Father Michael does not search for a new life after a couple years. How he lives and what he does stem from a broader vision of what it means, to him, to live the good life. There is no burning out; he does not grudgingly choose service while secretly lamenting the career he could have had. His altruism is but one part of a vision of his ideal self, and so it isn’t going anywhere.


As strange as it sounds, students should spend a little less time directing our energy to the world beyond and a little more time thinking about ourselves in relation to that world. I don’t mean students should stop engaging in service; that is often the best way to prompt reflection on ourselves and on the value of what we learn in the classroom. But our primary focus in college should be on improving ourselves, not the world, on cultivating a broad set of virtues. That is the way we will ultimately do ourselves, and the world, the greatest service.


Send Aysha your comments at abagchi@stanford.edu.

  • Sam King

    I don’t think that Stanford students are as solely morally extroverted. As you argue, moral introversion (virtue) and moral extroversion (service) are deeply connected. I think that they might be even more connected than you think.

    While students might not talk a lot about the values that matter to them (virtue), I would be surprised if we weren’t thinking about it. I’m involved in a lot of things on campus, and from an external perspective, someone might think that I was solely service oriented, with no attention to virtue. Indeed, I do talk more about my service than thy philosophical introsepection that led to that service. But I’m involved in Queer Straight Alliance because I saw The Laramie Project, which showed me the virtue in campaigning for LGBTQ equality. I’m the director of Hackathon, and what makes it special is the energy that Dance Marathon brings — it’s not just about the service itself, but it is absolutely amazing to be a part of such a community dedicated to service. It is the biggest party on campus. I’m a debate coach because I saw the value of a debate education when I was a debater. I’m studying bioinformatics and working for global public health because watching Dr. Larry Brilliant’s TED talk about eradicating Small Pox made me weep.

    Service is personal.