Being individualistic and altruistic at the same time. The story of Jack Casey the firefighter.

Have you ever swam through icy waters fully clothed and without a life jacket to drag to the shore an unconscious woman who you never met before? Jack Casey has. In the course of two years he responded as a volunteer to more than five hundred emergency calls ending up saving people from burning buildings or risking his personal safety by entering situations where persons were stabbed by their own family members. Ever since high school volunteering has been a big part of Jack Casey’s life. In addition to being a member of the rescue squad he spends three hours a week teaching a Red Cross course in first aid and takes people backpacking through an outdoor program he initiated a few years before. Jack Casey is truly a selfless american hero who wants to be there for the others.

At the same time Jack Casey describes himself as a person ”who likes to be relatively independent of other people.” He refuses to be dependent on anyone and prides himself for being a rugged individualist who does what he wants, when he wants, disregarding anyone’s opinion. Freedom to do what one wants has been said to be the number one American value. At least for Jack Casey it is his guiding principle.

Jack Casey represents what Robert Wuthnow calls an American paradox. On the one hand he is more individualistic and less dependent on others than most of us. On the other hand he cares for others much more than the average person. What is he then, an individualist or an altruist?

The answer is: he is both. Being individualistic and caring about others don’t cancel each others out. They are like apples and oranges. First there is the issue of who controls our lives? Are we able to make independent choices or are we so weak and dependent on others that we let them run our lives? This is the question of individualism. It is thus a question about are we in charge of our own lives.

Second we have the issue of who do we care about? Are we egoistic persons for whom only our own benefits count? Or are we more altruistic persons who find satisfaction in helping others? This is the question of altruism. An individualistic person who makes his or her own life decisions can make a totally independent choice of whether to help only oneself or help also those in need. As long as the choice is one’s own, one is an individualist. Thus it is perfectly possible to be an altruistic individualist.

The paradox is that in our times individualistic people are actually more altruistic than less individualistic people. Wuthnow found in her survey that those people who placed a high emphasis on self-oriented values such as realizing one’s talent were actually slightly more likely to be involved in charitable activities than other citizens.

The reason for this is found in the fact that we are constantly bombarded with propaganda that says that everyone should take care of only their own business. There is a norm in our society that tells that either be self-interested or be a fool. And no one wants to be the fool. Thus many people suppress their more altruistic instincts in order to live up to the selfish norms of our times. They don’t dare to be unselfish as they fear that people would mock them for not being able to take care of their own interests. It actually takes courage to admit that one did something for others without any self-interest in mind.

We live in paradoxical times: It is the weak who believe that you should only care about yourself. It takes some balls to be out there and admit that one cares about others and is willing to make sacrifices for them. So be a true individualist and dare to care about others!

One comment

  1. Karla Nieminen

    Great sentence: ”The paradox is that in our times individualistic people are actually more altruistic than less individualistic people.”

    I think other way to say this is the old wisdom ”Love your neighbor as yourself.”

    This makes me wonder, is this current situation you discribed the way it should be, or should it be so, that the ”weak” less individualistic people would feel it is the norm to be altruistic.



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