Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Dissecting a Joke (weekly feature)

Many readers complain that my blog is too serious. It's time to amend that!

From today onwards, every Tuesday (as far as possible), I will present a joke, and then kill it with analysis. As someone has said, a joke is like a frog. One can dissect it, but it will die in the process. Hence, the joke will be presented first, and then the analysis and through it, hopefully, an illustration of an idea or some aspect of the human condition. Feel free to ignore the analysis!

The Joke of the Day:
The bus was crowded when the little old lady got on, and Mulla Nasrudin stood up. She pushed the Mulla back gently and said, "No, thanks." Nasrudin tried to rise again and she pushed him back a second time. Finally, Nasrudin said to her, "PLEASE LET ME GET UP, LADY, I AM TWO BLOCKS PAST MY STOP NOW."


The Analysis:

We can get so caught up in doing good to others that the feeling it provides to us becomes more important than the act of help itself. Altruism makes us feel good (for various reasons) and when that feeling good becomes our primary aim (as it is for the vast majority of social workers and do-gooders), then it is time to introspect.

The conventional notion of virtue has a selfish component in it. One does good, in order to be good, and the belief in karma makes one a little more secure about one's own future (now that one has an accounts receivable entry in the books of the Lord). It would be curious to consider the doctrine of karma in the light of evolutionary psychology, which considers altruism a game-theoretic (albeit not a consciously calculated) move to further the survival aspects of one's genes. If I help others, then I believe I too would be helped in my time of need. This belief is frequently confirmed in life since altruism builds a reputation of goodness.

Dawkins clarifies two facets of altruism in The Selfish Gene:
An entity, such as a baboon, is said to altruistic if it behaves in such a way as to increase another such entity's welfare at the expense of its own. Selfish behavior, has exactly the opposite effect. 'Welfare' is defined as 'chances of survival', even if the effects on actual life and death prospects is so small as to seem negligible.

... It is important to realize that the above definitions of altruism and selfishness are behavioral, not subjective. I am not concerned here with the psychology of motives. I am not going to argue about whether people who behave altruistically are 'really' doing it for secret or subconscious selfish motives. Maybe they are and maybe they aren't, and maybe we can never know, but in any case that is not what this book is about. My definition is concerned only with whether the effect of an act is to lower or raise the survival prospects of the presumed altruist and the survival prospects of the presumed beneficiary.

... It often turns out on closer inspection that acts of apparent altruism are really selfishness in disguise. ... I do not mean that the underlying motives are secretly selfish. But that the real effects of the act on survival prospects are the reverse of what we originally thought.
People might think that they don't care about reputation, and that their altruism is their "inner voice" and nothing else. Evolutionary psychology dissects this inner voice as well, and tells us that this voice is not of metaphysical origin, but is merely a pattern in our brain, and the result of millions of years of evolution and of our social conditioning.

In the modern world, institutions are making acts of real altruism mostly superfluous. Don't help others with money when they need it, there are banks. Don't tend to others in their illness, there are hospitals. Don't entertain others in their boredom, there is the television. Don't offer words of help to someone in depression, there is the "suicide hotline". These institutions are both the cause and effect (in a spiraling fashion) of altruism becoming impractical. Apart from the ubiquity of institutions, there are just too many people who need help (of all kinds). Altruism and empathy will drain one out in such a scenario (Compassion fatigue is a well known term in certain circles).

When altruism is unnecessary in the presence of institutions, and one is idle and disconsolate, how to feel good and secure? Hence, certain people set out to be altruistic, even though that is not essential to their biological survival prospects. And some actively seek people (e.g. in the third world) who need help. That provides them with the so-called meaning that they think they lack in life.

In the joke above, Mulla was apparently trying to be altruistic (as observed by the old lady). And the old lady was being very kind in refusing the altruistic act (that refusal also being an altruistic act on its own merits, since it was presumably going to raise Mulla's comfort and absolve him of doing something for her). The joke is that while Mulla was not being altruistic at all (the selfish clod), the old lady's altruism was so misdirected so as to actually discomfort the Mulla.

In the third world, since the institutions are so inefficient, altruists do find much to do. And there is nothing wrong in it, except that sometimes they take the heat off the institutions responsible, they take the accountability off those people whose job it is to attend to that situation. To altruists in such scenarios, I will suggest: keep up the good work, but also put pressure on the institutions to shape up, help the institutions to get better. The latter is also an altruistic act, but a much more significant one. On the other hand, by giving up on institutions, one perpetuates the need for altruistic people to come forward and help.

Altruists: Help create institutions, and make yourselves obsolete.

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