More on narcissism

In case it isn’t obvious from my last post, I get touchy about the accusation that someone is just doing good as validation of self. This is because doing good for others, especially strangers with whom I have no reciprocal relationship, validates the shit out of me.

I think about myself and my image quite a lot. I believe if I had better character, I wouldn’t be so obsessed with myself. But another part of me rebels against that thought. No, it says, It’s just a normal human need to feel special. But then yet another part of me pipes up and says that I don’t just want to feel special in the way normal humans deserve, as a beloved friend and family member– I want to feel objectively special. I want to feel like I’m actually, objectively good, not just in the eyes of friends and family. I want to do the most good possible. And I think that’s what puts people off about the alleged communal narcissist.

The legitimate accusation about communal narcissists is that they are cold and unloving in their personal relationships. The victims of their manipulation and coldness have been wronged. And I totally see how someone could take narcissistic pride in volunteering their time and money, and that pride can be an issue for the people around them even if their time and money are put to great uses.

The illegitimate part, and what I was trying to argue in the post, was the implication that narcissistic motives necessarily tainted the fruits of the narcissist’s labor. The implication is that goodness can only come from selfless feelings, that goodness itself is nothing more than externalized character traits. Many, many people hold this view. I grew up getting this message indirectly in church and school. It’s a common objection to effective altruism: we’re “cold and calculating,” we aren’t “giving from the heart.” And it makes me crazy, because I think viewing good acts merely as evidence of character is unbelievably narcissistic. 

This is what makes giving about the giver and not the receiver.

Objections to people that get off on community service are not objections to egotism. They are demands for the right kind of egotism. They are demands that in grasping for goodness, we not exceed the reach of people we feel special feelings for. The objection sees only the speck in the communal narcissist’s eye and not the log in the eyes of the good, unselfish people who would never impeach their character by doing a good deed they might feel smug about. If you are engaging in effective charity, thinking that the validity of your motives even compares to the benefits delivered to others is so self-absorbed as to be nonsensical. And that’s okay, as long as your scrupulous motivations don’t stop you from doing the charity. Fortunately, it doesn’t matter to the beneficiaries if you’re self-absorbed.

I grant the possibility that narcissistically-motivated communal acts are less likely to do good, because they are optimized to satisfy the giver’s feelings rather than help the recipients. (Though I would argue that the more common and accepted warm-glow giving is also optimized for the giver’s feelings and not the good of the recipients.) That just seems like such a minor risk when compared with the risk that “being a good person” with pure motives would stop willing and able people from actually doing good things!

It was clear from the Psychology Today article that the author felt that doing charity while harboring narcissistic self-regard in your heart was hypocrisy. She might have just been assuming that it’s highly unlikley to do a lot of good with alloyed motives at your core. (Heaven help us if that is true, because we don’t have enough saints to meet the world’s need.) She might also be assuming that most community service doesn’t really accomplish that much for others. But if that was the case, I don’t see why having pure motives would turn make-work into something valuable. If the community service is actually way, way less important than the motives it reveals, then the real problem is not that some people have insincere motives, but that the community is awarding status for pointless bullshit. My point is that, somewhere along the line, the author was failing to connect the goodness of acts to the goodness they accomplished for others– acts were evaluated solely on the basis of pure or impure motives.

The idea that good has to come from a pure heart threatens me on a personal level, because I know I can’t deliver that, even though an idealistic part of me still holds on to the fantasy that I could. On a more rational level, I simply don’t accept that good should be beholden to my flaws. That comes as a huge relief. So many people and animals are suffering, and they don’t have to wait for me to be a better person to get my help. When they get my donations or benefit from my volunteering, they don’t know a thing about me. My inner goodness or badness can’t reach them. When I think of what they are feeling, I don’t matter at all. I can’t bear this truth in my heart at all times, or, indeed, at most times. But, fortunately for them, it doesn’t matter.

One thought on “More on narcissism

  1. “If the community service is actually way, way less important than the motives it reveals, then the real problem is not that some people have insincere motives, but that the community is awarding status for pointless bullshit.”

    Hot damn!

    Liked by 1 person

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