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Keeping this rental sailboat shipshape benefits me, the owner, and other renters.

Indulging in Selfish Altruism

Selfish altruism, isn’t that a contradiction in terms? It could be overly simplistic to say you’re either selfish or altruistic. Somewhere in the middle, perhaps?

To me, it’s abundantly clear: Selfish altruism is when you do something for yourself that may benefit another.

For example, I keep up the sailboats at the boat dock on a lake near me. It’s a great deal. $99 a year for all-you-can-eat sailing on Mercs, Hobies, MIT Techs, and RS Quests, whatever’s available. I’m a self-taught sailor and have learned to maintain boats along the way. So, I like to bail and clean the boat I’m using, maybe string the stays with a telltale from a ball of leftover yarn, supply from my own pocket a missing or broken piece of small hardware, string a bit of line for a downhaul, restring a badly strung pulley. I sponge all the birdshit off the benches or trampoline before going out. I like to sail a clean boat. When I leave it, every line is in place, out of the drink, tight, carefully tucked. Rudders up, sails furled properly and stowed, deck dry, everything better than when I arrived. Other people get the benefit of my efforts. They may not realize it, or know it’s me, and I’m okay with that. The staff likes to see me coming. I talk with them about the boats and wind conditions.

For years, I’ve been litter-policing the stretch of 150 yards or so on my lane from my house to the main road. I do it so I can pull in to a pretty stretch of country road unmarred by the detritus of civilization. It happens that my neighbors (and passersby) can enjoy the same pleasure, and for free, since I do it, and they don’t have to. But I do it for myself. If they don’t even notice, I don’t mind. If they like it and never know who did it, that’s fine, too.

In the past, when I rented apartments, I tended to keep them up, and, unless it was something big, did little leasehold repairs without asking for reimbursement. That behavior benefited the landlord, whose tenant not only didn’t trash the place, but made it more valuable. But primarily, it benefited me. I got to live in a nicer place.

The other day, I went out to the main road and trimmed a line of arbor vitae that my corner neighbor planted along side of his lot. He might not have realized that anyone turning left would have their line of sight obstructed by his privacy hedge, but he certainly wasn’t going to do anything about it. I had a casual conversation with our local police on issues of jurisdiction, and they suggested informally that guerrilla action might be the best course. I donned my best could-be-a-subcontractor-to-the-highway-department clothes and went down there with a tarp and pruning tools. In 40 minutes, I had it looking just fine, with an even surface and clean line of sight, all trimmings tarped up and taken away. The owner might not even be aware of my phantom job, since the hedge falls in that neglected interstice between public and private spheres, where cigarette butts fall from passing cars. And drivers may not notice it, either. They’ll just have a safer crossing, likely never knowing why. But I notice my handiwork every time I make that corner.

It’s hard to go wrong with selfish altruism. If people detect it and like it, great. If not, no harm done. I still get all the pleasure and utility of both the action and the result. It’s the opposite of the tragedy of the commons. It’s nurturing the commons. By stepping up, I get better commons. It’s also empowering. I have the means to make my own world better. I’m not a victim, but an active participant in my own quality of life.

And no one can question my motives. They are absolutely transparent. In a society driven by materialism and money, anyone can understand why I am doing something for myself. If, as a byproduct, someone else gains, so much the better.

In the long haul, it may be shoveling sand against the tide, but the gratification is immediate, come what may in the future.

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