If I want to generate a spirited ethical discussion in a class, all I have to do is ask my students whether altruism derives from a higher moral sense or from enlightened self-interest. It is one of those questions that theologians, philosophers, biologists, anthropologists, psychologists, and others can debate for hours. They draw examples from every realm. Why do vampire bats regurgitate blood for those who haven’t eaten? Why does an individual donate to charity? If self-interest is involved, is the altruism tainted? Is it even possible to be selflessly altruistic? When people like Martin Luther King say they feel compelled to help others–that it doesn’t feel like a choice–does that diminish their heroism? In short, every action that is done on behalf of another, whether in the animal or the human world, can be scrutinized endlessly.
To stimulate your mind on this Sunday, I turn to my favorite fabulist, one who writes in the tradition of Aesop. Looking at how chimpanzees groom their fellow monkeys, Scott Bates tells us not to agonize over the reasons. It’s enough that the result is a flea-free ape.
So help someone in need today and don’t ask why you’re doing so. Whatever your reason, the world will be better off. Here’s the poem:
The Seven Charitable Chimpanzees
By Scott Bates
Seven charitable Chimpanzees
Were delivering a friend of fleas
The First one hadn’t dined for days
The Second aspired to public praise
The Third was suffering from ennui
The fourth one itched vicariously
The Fifth feared social criticism
The Sixth believed his altruism
Would get for him the keys of Heaven
While philosophic Number Seven
Thought to himself if I agree
To aid my fellow chimpanzee
Someone someday may deflea me!
The seven cornered every flea
Which proves that actions such as these
Keep our world safe for Chimpanzees.
From Lupo’s Fables (Sewanee, TN: Jump-Off Mountain Press, 1983)