Colman McCarthy has expressed dismay over the selfishness he finds in American children ["Teaching Altruism to Children," March 20]. He holds that parents have failed in "knocking the selfishness out of their children," and is pessimistic about the future prospects of altruism.
Such discouragement presupposes that there is something wrong with selfishness to begin with, and that altruism is morally superior to egoism. But Mr. McCarthy does not prove that this is so.
He describes a friend's daughter ("Ms. Me") demanding a first-class seat on the plane back to college, and her departing without a word of thanks. This, however, is not selfishness but thoughtlessness and ingratitude. (Would it have been all right if the daughter had demanded a first-class seat for some stranger?) Being selfish doesn't mean demanding more than one might deserve, or being ungrateful for favors done. It means simple concern with one's interests.
He complains that for the selfish "fame and wealth become replacements for integrity." But pursuit of one's interests need not involve fame or fortune or dishonesty, any more than altruism requires anonymity, poverty or saintliness.
We are told that parents are really to blame because they fail to serve others themselves and so provide a bad example to their offspring. But most parents work for a living, and the work they do serves their employer as well as his customers. These same parents also pay taxes that help support the poor, not only of this country, but of others as well. In addition, many have also served their country in the military, and most have struggled to provide their children with food, shelter, medical care, education and perhaps religious training. Have these parents provided no service to others?
Is altruism in fact as morally superior to egoism as we are often led to believe? Is it morally better to give something to another than to keep it oneself? Why? If it is altruistic for you to give it away, isn't it selfish for the other to take it? Or, if it is moral for the recipient to accept it, as alms or a gift, is it any the less moral for the donor to keep it himself as a reward for his labors?
We hear the tired old refrain of people "severely victimized by American materialism and hedonism." But what precisely is wrong with pursuit of material goods? And is anything really the matter with experiencing pleasure? Mr. McCarthy doesn't say. Presumably he would be in favor of giving some or all of one's material goods to the less fortunate. But if material goods are bad, then aren't we corrupting those to whom we give them? And presumably he advocates giving pleasure to others. But isn't this also to victimize those others with the same crass hedonism that is supposed to be objectionable?
It is in fact only recently that Americans have discarded the shibboleth of "service to others" and begun to enjoy living for their own sakes without feeling guilty about it as if this were an ugly and shameful thing. This throwing off of guilt has had good results even from the standpoint of those who need help. For the needy cannot be helped by those who are so selfless, so devoid of the ambition and accomplishment that McCarthy suspects, that they have nothing to offer.
His remedy for selfishness is that instead of asking our children what they want to be when they grow up, we ask: "How are you going to serve society?" But the most reasonable answer a child could give to that question would be: "By making the most out of my self that I possibly can."