In part 1, I discuss how the superficiality of mass media altruism has widened the gap between altruistic intention and altruistic action. In part 2, I discuss how altruistic intentions are also necessarily self-interested.
Okay, we get it. We are insecure, hypocritical, pathetic. We aren’t capable of doing good even when we want to (or at least we think we want to). Thanks for the fucking vote of confidence. This is why Anno is screwed up and Evangelion is bad for you. Now what?
Well, let’s take a break from anime and see what classical philosophy has to say about this. In ethics, an altruistic person is typically one who engages in acts of supererogation – actions that are good but not morally required. Rescuing a dog from an animal shelter, for instance, is an act of supererogation. It is good for the dog and good for the shelter, but given the amount of money and time we need to invest to care for the dog, there is no reason why we should be obligated to do so.
This is can be contrasted to duty – actions that are good but also morally required. Paying taxes to support the poor could be seen as both a legal and moral duty. But even where legal frameworks do not exist, certain actions, such as saving a drowning child or animal when it is clearly within your means to do so, could be seen as duty. Walk away and it will reflect poorly on your character.
The difference between supererogation and duty is not clear. Often, it has to do with the amount of sacrifice it takes to perform an act of good. Nonetheless, both of these categories are active: we go out of the way to do something to impact another’s life positively.
There is one last category, moral neutrality. Moral neutrality is neither good nor bad. However, it can be said to be good in relation to something that is bad. While you wouldn’t call someone who abstains from rape, theft, murder, or abuse a good person for that alone, it’s worth recognising that it could be a lot worse. Shinji may have been a huge pussy, but at least he didn’t kill all his friends. Violence and crime are still extremely rampant in many parts of the world, especially where the authorities are corrupt and power-hungry. Unlike supererogation and duty, moral neutrality is good in a passive way.
It is intuitive to think that moral neutrality should be the foundation for duty and supererogation. If you want to be a good person, not harming anyone is the least you could do. It is only after you have achieved moral neutrality, that you may proceed to engage in acts of duty, and finally supererogation. And there you have it, a three step guide to altruism.
There’s just one tiny catch. Moral neutrality is impossible to achieve.
Look at it this way; veganism, often seen as the epitome of sentimental do-goodism and overzealous self-sacrifice, is not even about doing good. Vegans don’t ‘save’ any animals. The animals already born in factory farms are going to suffer and die, no matter what we do. We’re just trying to prevent even more animals from being born into a life of suffering by refusing to pay other people to abuse these animals for our benefit. It’s nothing more than an attempt to reduce the amount of ‘bad’ that we do.
Now, some vegans might say that there’s no point rescuing animals if you aren’t already vegan. On a utilitarian scale, going vegan will probably eclipse the act of rescuing a single animal by a few hundred times, and any person who thinks that animal rescue is a good thing should consider going vegan. However, to deny the good that animal rescue does, even if by an omnivore, would be to subject veganism to the very same flaws.
Smart vegans will tell you that there’s no such thing as cruelty-free (yes that’s how you tell if a vegan is smart). Even plant agriculture has plenty of cruelty. We destroy the natural habitats of wild animals to create land to grow vegetables, and then we kill the wild animals who try to return to what was once their homes to protect our crops. As much as we can try to minimise our use of plastic, we’re still going to wind up consuming plastic in some form, which contributes to the suffering and death of many marine animals.
Moving away from veganism, if you don’t happen to own a Fairphone (good for you if you do!), the fact that you’re reading this blog post on your lifestyle device means that you’re responsible for the abuse of a child worker somewhere in Congo. And so am I.
Unless you abandoned all your earthly possessions and either a) lived a quiet life of subsistence farming in a remote village somewhere in East Asia or b) killed yourself, you couldn’t possibly be morally neutral.
That’s what it means to live in an indecent world. That’s what it means to live in a world where being responsible for some of the worst transgressions of basic dignity and rights is not something we need to consciously choose; by the time we have the opportunity to understand the impact of our actions on others, our hands are already bloodied.
It’s tempting to say, “screw it, I’m not perfect. I’ll just make do with wherever I’m willing to draw the line.” But then you play a dangerous game. If you draw such an arbitrary line, what gives you the right to criticise someone who wants to draw their line differently? What if someone deems harming YOU to be morally acceptable? What’s your justification for telling them that they’re wrong?
Allow one moral failing to slip through, and everything you stand for may just crumble like a brittle stack of dominoes.
In the end, it is clear that we need to reject the tripartite model of morality. Specifically, we need to do three things:
Firstly, we need to accept that the status quo is heavily skewed towards oppression, not moral neutrality. Here, I wish to introduce a new term: harm reduction (ignore the conventional definition). I define harm reduction as any attempt to move away from the oppressive practices of the status quo towards moral neutrality. Examples include observing women’s rights in a traditionally chauvinistic community, observing LBGT rights in a traditionally homophobic community, and observing animal rights in a community that traditionally doesn’t (or selectively excludes certain kinds of animals).
We shouldn’t expect people to intuitively move towards harm reduction, for it takes a lot of fortitude to resist social convention. Neither should we assume that engaging in an act of supererogation is necessarily better, more noble, or harder, than an act of harm reduction. Harm reduction can, in many cases, achieve far more good in the alleviation of suffering than supererogation, as is the case of veganism vs animal rescue.
Secondly, we cannot see moral neutrality as a precursor to supererogation. This is why I talk about harm reduction and not elimination. Moral neutrality is not a realistic goal. In fact, striving to achieve moral neutrality may actually inhibit the amount of good we can do. In cutting ourselves off from society to avoid engaging in its evils, we limit our ability to influence others to do good.
Thirdly, in order to avoid drawing an arbitrary moral line like Shinji does, we need to try our best. While we shouldn’t beat ourselves up over what is not within our power to do, we’ll never know what is so long as we remain complacent about what we’ve already done, and what we still can do.
Thus, my definition of altruism is this: altruism is not an action, but a disposition. Altruism is the willingness to push ourselves and challenge our own preconceptions of what we can achieve in the name of good. Altruism is not about what makes us feel good about ourselves, but what makes us uncomfortable.
Altruism isn’t easy, but that’s what makes it capable of bringing about change. When I decided to research the horrors of the animal industry, I did it while knowing, fearing, that what I discovered would change my life forever. I was plagued with unease. I was terrified. However, I did it anyway, because that was what felt right. Afterwards, I cried, and cried, and cried.
To me, that felt like altruism.
But now that I’m comfortable with being vegan, it’s just another boring part of my life. If I wanted to be altruistic, I’d have to look forward again, to push myself harder to do even more.
Let’s end this with The End of Evangelion.
As Evangelion has identified, mass media likes to impose unrealistic standards on what qualifies as altruism. However, mass media also likes to typify altruism as purely supererogatory, probably because supererogation gives us faith in humanity, while harm reduction only makes us feel shitty about about everything else we haven’t accomplished.
With the appropriate budget this time, The End of Evangelion ended on a far more brilliant note. Yes, Shinji winds up saving the world. But not in the way you would imagine.
One can only speculate why SEELE, the ‘antagonist’, would wish to dissolve everyone’s A.T. Fields (a metaphor for the barrier between the Self and the Other) to complete the Human Instrumentality Project. My best guess is that they were exactly like Shinji. They were terrified of what humans do to each other. They wanted a world that was fair, a world where nobody could be hurt, a world without otherness.
They wanted a world with perfect moral neutrality.
However, as Shinji discovers, a world with perfect moral neutrality is also a world without individuality, freedom, happiness, or love. Otherness shares a precarious relationship with love. Without love, otherness will drive us to destroy each other, but without otherness, there are no others to love.
And so, even though Shinji has spent his entire life running away and wishing for such a world, he changes his mind and instead chooses to restore everyone’s A.T. Fields.
When Shinji wakes up, he sees Asuka’s body beside him. He remembers that he loves her, and starts to strangle her, desperate to affirm that he is capable of hurting once more.
To his surprise, Asuka gently caresses his face. Wrought with guilt, it only is then Shinji realises, that otherness is a privilege that comes with the responsibility of being committed to loving and understanding one another.
And that is something we can all do.