Alfie Kohn discusses altruism in our modern society in his article entitled, The Wrong Way to Get People to Do the Right Thing (2015). His main argument is that we basically give a financial incentive to people for helping out others. Because of this incentive, people are less likely to act kindly to others unless there is a reward of any sort. Kohn sees this as a problem because it psychologically rearranges the way that people think about helping others into primarily just another way to ultimately help oneself. Altruism should not be a means to an end, but in our modern society, there is not a pure form of altruism that is inculcated in anyone. He states that the first and last question that we ask of helping others includes only whether there is any financial benefit to ourselves.
Ultimately, Kohn’s article is arguing that altruism is lost in any pure unadulterated form. He feels that the risk of this loss is pretty significant when we consider the social implications for wanting to help others and actually helping others as a means to helping ourselves: “If we don’t see ourselves as altruistic, we’re less likely to act prosocially once the extrinsic reward for acting that way is withdrawn” (Kohn). What this means is that there is a lack of prosociality since we only act for ourselves and not others. Sadly, when we consisder issues, such as helping the homeless, helping save infants, or providing assistance to impoverished pregnant women, we do so with the idea that there is a carrot on the end of a stick which provides an external incentive to the real issue at hand. We lose touch with the significance of the issues at hand, or the actuality of these issues, and instead, we replace the intrinsic good of helping out others with an extrinsic motivator.
The extrinsic motivator causes us to behave in a good manner, but what happens when there is not any extrinsic motivation? Kohn would argue that when there is a loss of secondary external motivation, that there is a correlating loss of helpful actions: “…whenever people seem to act altruistically, there must be egoistic reasons for it” (Kohn). This is unfortunate, for although there are helpful actions, the actions do not originate from the right place, with the right spirit. There are no options for people to help people solely for the good of helping others in need; this is a social anomaly. People remain motivated by their own self-interest.
Kohn’s argument is sound, and it is persuasive. His use of logic is not fallacious. Ultimately, he concludes that: “The use of rewards, and invocations of self-interest, to promote generosity creates a powerful, self-reproducing framework…” (Kohn). Kohn’s main contention with promoting the needs of others by benefiting ourselves is that this promotion of self-interest removes any true altruism, and thereby removes any future security in people doing the right thing simply because it is the right thing. Therefore, this leads to a psychological and social stand-off should any social needs arise that do not have immediate benefits for the helpers. If altruism is lost, Kohn would agree that the outlook for those who need the help of others is bleak; no one will be motivated by internal feelings to do good for good’s sake. The only motivation that has been inculcated in our society is doing good for our own sake. This fails the test of true altruism, and leads to a selfish society. Kohn would agree that it is difficult to feel secure that others actually care about anyone other than oneself in a society that erases the roots of altruism, and replaces those roots with egoism.
- Kohn, Alfie. “The Wrong Way to Get People to Do the Right Thing.” Psychology Today, 07 May 2015, www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-homework-myth/201505/the-wrong-way-get-people-do-the-right-thing. Accessed 22 May 2017.