“Too much altruism is oppressive”

Here’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer writing to Eberhard Bethge, 6 May 1944:

I shall be writing next time about Christians’ “egoism” (“selfless self-love”). I think we agree about it. Too much altruism is oppressive and exacting; “egoism” can be less selfish and less demanding.

From Letters and Papers from Prison, p.287.

Sadly, Bonhoeffer appears not to have followed up on this statement in his subsequent letter, but it is a very useful principle to chew on and seek to apply in different circumstances. More subtle and interesting, if less amusing, than CS Lewis’ line about the “woman who lives for others – you can tell the others by their hunted expressions”.

There are certainly contexts in which I’ve found it particularly useful over the years: such as driving, where it is often safer (and shows more consideration for other road users) for a driver to behave in a predictable but “self-interested” manner than to cause confusion by excessive “altruistic” deferring to others.

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76 Responses to “Too much altruism is oppressive”

  1. D.S.Ketelby says:

    At the risk of trivialising a serious discussion:
    Did you hear about the masochist who liked a cold bath every morning… so he took a warm one.
    We’re called to live for others, yes – but also to be stewards of our gifts and talents (as well as our more tangible resources). It’s a creative tension. If we over-emphasise the former, we become Mrs Doyle, Uriah Heep or someone similarly passive-aggressive; if we over-emphasise the latter, perhaps we become emotional misers, bitter and self-denying in another sense.
    Take up the space you need, my driving instructor used to say. An existential point about living in an inescapably embodied, inescapably social world, I think. Took me about a year of lessons and three attempts.

  2. D.S.Ketelby says:

    At the risk of trivialising a serious discussion:
    Did you hear about the masochist who liked a cold bath every morning… so he took a warm one.
    We’re called to live for others, yes – but also to be stewards of our gifts and talents (as well as our more tangible resources). It’s a creative tension. If we over-emphasise the former, we become Mrs Doyle, Uriah Heep or someone similarly passive-aggressive; if we over-emphasise the latter, perhaps we become emotional misers, bitter and self-denying in another sense.
    Take up the space you need, my driving instructor used to say. An existential point about living in an inescapably embodied, inescapably social world, I think. Took me about a year of lessons and three attempts.

  3. D.S.Ketelby says:

    At the risk of trivialising a serious discussion:
    Did you hear about the masochist who liked a cold bath every morning… so he took a warm one.
    We’re called to live for others, yes – but also to be stewards of our gifts and talents (as well as our more tangible resources). It’s a creative tension. If we over-emphasise the former, we become Mrs Doyle, Uriah Heep or someone similarly passive-aggressive; if we over-emphasise the latter, perhaps we become emotional misers, bitter and self-denying in another sense.
    Take up the space you need, my driving instructor used to say. An existential point about living in an inescapably embodied, inescapably social world, I think. Took me about a year of lessons and three attempts.

  4. D.S.Ketelby says:

    At the risk of trivialising a serious discussion:
    Did you hear about the masochist who liked a cold bath every morning… so he took a warm one.
    We’re called to live for others, yes – but also to be stewards of our gifts and talents (as well as our more tangible resources). It’s a creative tension. If we over-emphasise the former, we become Mrs Doyle, Uriah Heep or someone similarly passive-aggressive; if we over-emphasise the latter, perhaps we become emotional misers, bitter and self-denying in another sense.
    Take up the space you need, my driving instructor used to say. An existential point about living in an inescapably embodied, inescapably social world, I think. Took me about a year of lessons and three attempts.

  5. Bill R says:

    If you haven’t encountered this difficulty yet with your children, John, well, just wait. You may remember Lewis’s other example of the doting mother in “The Great Divorce.” When I look at how Christ himself handled this issue, I note that he did not generally offer “unsolicited advice,” but rather responded when asked (or provoked). In Lewis’s examples, the victims never asked for the help the “altruist” insisted upon giving.

  6. Bill R says:

    If you haven’t encountered this difficulty yet with your children, John, well, just wait. You may remember Lewis’s other example of the doting mother in “The Great Divorce.” When I look at how Christ himself handled this issue, I note that he did not generally offer “unsolicited advice,” but rather responded when asked (or provoked). In Lewis’s examples, the victims never asked for the help the “altruist” insisted upon giving.

  7. Bill R says:

    If you haven’t encountered this difficulty yet with your children, John, well, just wait. You may remember Lewis’s other example of the doting mother in “The Great Divorce.” When I look at how Christ himself handled this issue, I note that he did not generally offer “unsolicited advice,” but rather responded when asked (or provoked). In Lewis’s examples, the victims never asked for the help the “altruist” insisted upon giving.

  8. Bill R says:

    If you haven’t encountered this difficulty yet with your children, John, well, just wait. You may remember Lewis’s other example of the doting mother in “The Great Divorce.” When I look at how Christ himself handled this issue, I note that he did not generally offer “unsolicited advice,” but rather responded when asked (or provoked). In Lewis’s examples, the victims never asked for the help the “altruist” insisted upon giving.

  9. Larry says:

    Yes, a Bonhoeffer post on July 20. A deliberate choice on your part, John, or coincidence?
    How might our world be different today if that briefcase hadn’t been moved?

  10. Larry says:

    Yes, a Bonhoeffer post on July 20. A deliberate choice on your part, John, or coincidence?
    How might our world be different today if that briefcase hadn’t been moved?

  11. Larry says:

    Yes, a Bonhoeffer post on July 20. A deliberate choice on your part, John, or coincidence?
    How might our world be different today if that briefcase hadn’t been moved?

  12. Larry says:

    Yes, a Bonhoeffer post on July 20. A deliberate choice on your part, John, or coincidence?
    How might our world be different today if that briefcase hadn’t been moved?

  13. Rick Ritchie says:

    Funny. I just ordered that Bonhoeffer book the other day.
    Ketelby’s point is good, too. To be a steward you may have to manage something you wish to give later, instead of giving it now. That may have a lot of applications. (e.g. education)

  14. Rick Ritchie says:

    Funny. I just ordered that Bonhoeffer book the other day.
    Ketelby’s point is good, too. To be a steward you may have to manage something you wish to give later, instead of giving it now. That may have a lot of applications. (e.g. education)

  15. Rick Ritchie says:

    Funny. I just ordered that Bonhoeffer book the other day.
    Ketelby’s point is good, too. To be a steward you may have to manage something you wish to give later, instead of giving it now. That may have a lot of applications. (e.g. education)

  16. Rick Ritchie says:

    Funny. I just ordered that Bonhoeffer book the other day.
    Ketelby’s point is good, too. To be a steward you may have to manage something you wish to give later, instead of giving it now. That may have a lot of applications. (e.g. education)

  17. John H says:

    How might our world be different today if that briefcase hadn’t been moved?
    Quite possibly not for the better. Funnily enough I posted on that very topic last July: see my post Why it’s a Good Thing that Hitler wasn’t assassinated.

  18. John H says:

    How might our world be different today if that briefcase hadn’t been moved?
    Quite possibly not for the better. Funnily enough I posted on that very topic last July: see my post Why it’s a Good Thing that Hitler wasn’t assassinated.

  19. John H says:

    How might our world be different today if that briefcase hadn’t been moved?
    Quite possibly not for the better. Funnily enough I posted on that very topic last July: see my post Why it’s a Good Thing that Hitler wasn’t assassinated.

  20. John H says:

    How might our world be different today if that briefcase hadn’t been moved?
    Quite possibly not for the better. Funnily enough I posted on that very topic last July: see my post Why it’s a Good Thing that Hitler wasn’t assassinated.

  21. Larry says:

    John, I read your post from last year. The link is now defunct except if you want to subscribe to The Spectator, which I think I’ll decline to do at this time.
    The three paragraph excerpt you post from it is sufficient in itself to be thought provoking and persuasive. For years I have been one of those who has thought what a rotten piece of bad luck that Hitler wasn’t killed that day. But, as you say, maybe it did work out for the best. Especially after the events of 1989 and 1991, when, respectively, the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union dissolved. Because the main benefit from a 1944 peace was always imagined as Russians not reaching Germany or still much of Eastern Europe.

  22. Larry says:

    John, I read your post from last year. The link is now defunct except if you want to subscribe to The Spectator, which I think I’ll decline to do at this time.
    The three paragraph excerpt you post from it is sufficient in itself to be thought provoking and persuasive. For years I have been one of those who has thought what a rotten piece of bad luck that Hitler wasn’t killed that day. But, as you say, maybe it did work out for the best. Especially after the events of 1989 and 1991, when, respectively, the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union dissolved. Because the main benefit from a 1944 peace was always imagined as Russians not reaching Germany or still much of Eastern Europe.

  23. Larry says:

    John, I read your post from last year. The link is now defunct except if you want to subscribe to The Spectator, which I think I’ll decline to do at this time.
    The three paragraph excerpt you post from it is sufficient in itself to be thought provoking and persuasive. For years I have been one of those who has thought what a rotten piece of bad luck that Hitler wasn’t killed that day. But, as you say, maybe it did work out for the best. Especially after the events of 1989 and 1991, when, respectively, the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union dissolved. Because the main benefit from a 1944 peace was always imagined as Russians not reaching Germany or still much of Eastern Europe.

  24. Larry says:

    John, I read your post from last year. The link is now defunct except if you want to subscribe to The Spectator, which I think I’ll decline to do at this time.
    The three paragraph excerpt you post from it is sufficient in itself to be thought provoking and persuasive. For years I have been one of those who has thought what a rotten piece of bad luck that Hitler wasn’t killed that day. But, as you say, maybe it did work out for the best. Especially after the events of 1989 and 1991, when, respectively, the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union dissolved. Because the main benefit from a 1944 peace was always imagined as Russians not reaching Germany or still much of Eastern Europe.

  25. greg bourke says:

    Regarding driving and altruism, I agree.
    In the equation of altruism I guess we include those we let in the queue before us? We should also include the poor shmucks stuck behind us. When we do, the altruistic pay-off must dwindle away becasue we are effectively giving away time and space that is not ours to give, i.e. our largess is really stolen from the resources of those behind us…
    ?

  26. greg bourke says:

    Regarding driving and altruism, I agree.
    In the equation of altruism I guess we include those we let in the queue before us? We should also include the poor shmucks stuck behind us. When we do, the altruistic pay-off must dwindle away becasue we are effectively giving away time and space that is not ours to give, i.e. our largess is really stolen from the resources of those behind us…
    ?

  27. greg bourke says:

    Regarding driving and altruism, I agree.
    In the equation of altruism I guess we include those we let in the queue before us? We should also include the poor shmucks stuck behind us. When we do, the altruistic pay-off must dwindle away becasue we are effectively giving away time and space that is not ours to give, i.e. our largess is really stolen from the resources of those behind us…
    ?

  28. greg bourke says:

    Regarding driving and altruism, I agree.
    In the equation of altruism I guess we include those we let in the queue before us? We should also include the poor shmucks stuck behind us. When we do, the altruistic pay-off must dwindle away becasue we are effectively giving away time and space that is not ours to give, i.e. our largess is really stolen from the resources of those behind us…
    ?

  29. John H says:

    Greg,
    I think letting people into the queue is an act of kindness for two reasons. First, it helps those we let in. Second, it helps those behind us by reminding them that they ought to let other people in as well, thus ensuring they do not inadvertently miss an opportunity for loving service to their fellow man. 😉
    Seriously, though, there’s a good example of what I was talking about: letting in one or two cars is generous, “selflessly” letting in more than that becomes more of a problem than a blessing to other road users.
    What I really had in mind though was in other circumstances, eg on motorways, where it’s far better to behave predictably – to keep in the outside lane until it is safe to move back across, for example, rather than prematurely giving way to tailgaters – than to start trying to open negotiations with other drivers.

  30. John H says:

    Greg,
    I think letting people into the queue is an act of kindness for two reasons. First, it helps those we let in. Second, it helps those behind us by reminding them that they ought to let other people in as well, thus ensuring they do not inadvertently miss an opportunity for loving service to their fellow man. 😉
    Seriously, though, there’s a good example of what I was talking about: letting in one or two cars is generous, “selflessly” letting in more than that becomes more of a problem than a blessing to other road users.
    What I really had in mind though was in other circumstances, eg on motorways, where it’s far better to behave predictably – to keep in the outside lane until it is safe to move back across, for example, rather than prematurely giving way to tailgaters – than to start trying to open negotiations with other drivers.

  31. John H says:

    Greg,
    I think letting people into the queue is an act of kindness for two reasons. First, it helps those we let in. Second, it helps those behind us by reminding them that they ought to let other people in as well, thus ensuring they do not inadvertently miss an opportunity for loving service to their fellow man. 😉
    Seriously, though, there’s a good example of what I was talking about: letting in one or two cars is generous, “selflessly” letting in more than that becomes more of a problem than a blessing to other road users.
    What I really had in mind though was in other circumstances, eg on motorways, where it’s far better to behave predictably – to keep in the outside lane until it is safe to move back across, for example, rather than prematurely giving way to tailgaters – than to start trying to open negotiations with other drivers.

  32. John H says:

    Greg,
    I think letting people into the queue is an act of kindness for two reasons. First, it helps those we let in. Second, it helps those behind us by reminding them that they ought to let other people in as well, thus ensuring they do not inadvertently miss an opportunity for loving service to their fellow man. 😉
    Seriously, though, there’s a good example of what I was talking about: letting in one or two cars is generous, “selflessly” letting in more than that becomes more of a problem than a blessing to other road users.
    What I really had in mind though was in other circumstances, eg on motorways, where it’s far better to behave predictably – to keep in the outside lane until it is safe to move back across, for example, rather than prematurely giving way to tailgaters – than to start trying to open negotiations with other drivers.

  33. The One and the Many – insoluble – always has been. Don’t immanentize the eschaton. (It’s Voegelin Remembrance day in Sunderland.)

  34. The One and the Many – insoluble – always has been. Don’t immanentize the eschaton. (It’s Voegelin Remembrance day in Sunderland.)

  35. The One and the Many – insoluble – always has been. Don’t immanentize the eschaton. (It’s Voegelin Remembrance day in Sunderland.)

  36. The One and the Many – insoluble – always has been. Don’t immanentize the eschaton. (It’s Voegelin Remembrance day in Sunderland.)

  37. John H says:

    The One and the Many – insoluble – always has been
    So they say. If only someone had found a way of demonstrating that unity and multiplicity were in some way equally fundamental to reality, however paradoxical that might seem. Say, for example, that the whole shebang – life, the universe, everything! – had been made by Somebody whose very nature embraced both one-ness and many-ness. But how “many”? Hmm, well “two”-ness would just imply duality. To imply true multiplicity and diversity you’d need at least “three”. And you’d not really gain much by adding more than three to that picture. So, “three”-ness would seem to do the trick.
    Answers on a postcard, please.
    I dare say someone whose philosophical knowledge and abilities surpass mine (not difficult: Francis Schaeffer’s He is There and He is not Silent is about my limit…) could run rings round all this, but what the hey…

  38. John H says:

    The One and the Many – insoluble – always has been
    So they say. If only someone had found a way of demonstrating that unity and multiplicity were in some way equally fundamental to reality, however paradoxical that might seem. Say, for example, that the whole shebang – life, the universe, everything! – had been made by Somebody whose very nature embraced both one-ness and many-ness. But how “many”? Hmm, well “two”-ness would just imply duality. To imply true multiplicity and diversity you’d need at least “three”. And you’d not really gain much by adding more than three to that picture. So, “three”-ness would seem to do the trick.
    Answers on a postcard, please.
    I dare say someone whose philosophical knowledge and abilities surpass mine (not difficult: Francis Schaeffer’s He is There and He is not Silent is about my limit…) could run rings round all this, but what the hey…

  39. John H says:

    The One and the Many – insoluble – always has been
    So they say. If only someone had found a way of demonstrating that unity and multiplicity were in some way equally fundamental to reality, however paradoxical that might seem. Say, for example, that the whole shebang – life, the universe, everything! – had been made by Somebody whose very nature embraced both one-ness and many-ness. But how “many”? Hmm, well “two”-ness would just imply duality. To imply true multiplicity and diversity you’d need at least “three”. And you’d not really gain much by adding more than three to that picture. So, “three”-ness would seem to do the trick.
    Answers on a postcard, please.
    I dare say someone whose philosophical knowledge and abilities surpass mine (not difficult: Francis Schaeffer’s He is There and He is not Silent is about my limit…) could run rings round all this, but what the hey…

  40. John H says:

    The One and the Many – insoluble – always has been
    So they say. If only someone had found a way of demonstrating that unity and multiplicity were in some way equally fundamental to reality, however paradoxical that might seem. Say, for example, that the whole shebang – life, the universe, everything! – had been made by Somebody whose very nature embraced both one-ness and many-ness. But how “many”? Hmm, well “two”-ness would just imply duality. To imply true multiplicity and diversity you’d need at least “three”. And you’d not really gain much by adding more than three to that picture. So, “three”-ness would seem to do the trick.
    Answers on a postcard, please.
    I dare say someone whose philosophical knowledge and abilities surpass mine (not difficult: Francis Schaeffer’s He is There and He is not Silent is about my limit…) could run rings round all this, but what the hey…

  41. John H says:

    Don’t immanentize the eschaton.
    And guess what, some idiot already did that as well…
    Voegel-who?

  42. John H says:

    Don’t immanentize the eschaton.
    And guess what, some idiot already did that as well…
    Voegel-who?

  43. John H says:

    Don’t immanentize the eschaton.
    And guess what, some idiot already did that as well…
    Voegel-who?

  44. John H says:

    Don’t immanentize the eschaton.
    And guess what, some idiot already did that as well…
    Voegel-who?

  45. Precisely!!! Now you don’t go trying to do it.

  46. Precisely!!! Now you don’t go trying to do it.

  47. Precisely!!! Now you don’t go trying to do it.

  48. Precisely!!! Now you don’t go trying to do it.

  49. John H says:

    Well, as the philosopher said, “Ooh, baby, don’t you know what that’s worth? Ooh, heaven is a place on earth”. Ms Carlisle could clearly immanentize eschatons with the best of them.
    Well, that just ruined my day. No way that song’s leaving my head now. No way at all.

  50. John H says:

    Well, as the philosopher said, “Ooh, baby, don’t you know what that’s worth? Ooh, heaven is a place on earth”. Ms Carlisle could clearly immanentize eschatons with the best of them.
    Well, that just ruined my day. No way that song’s leaving my head now. No way at all.

  51. John H says:

    Well, as the philosopher said, “Ooh, baby, don’t you know what that’s worth? Ooh, heaven is a place on earth”. Ms Carlisle could clearly immanentize eschatons with the best of them.
    Well, that just ruined my day. No way that song’s leaving my head now. No way at all.

  52. John H says:

    Well, as the philosopher said, “Ooh, baby, don’t you know what that’s worth? Ooh, heaven is a place on earth”. Ms Carlisle could clearly immanentize eschatons with the best of them.
    Well, that just ruined my day. No way that song’s leaving my head now. No way at all.

  53. Oh, BTW my comments on this thread are probably senseless because I’ve read your recent posts chronologically backwards and in my cogitations upon them I’ve constructed a sort of tertium quid. In short, I think I might be talking to myself.

  54. Oh, BTW my comments on this thread are probably senseless because I’ve read your recent posts chronologically backwards and in my cogitations upon them I’ve constructed a sort of tertium quid. In short, I think I might be talking to myself.

  55. Oh, BTW my comments on this thread are probably senseless because I’ve read your recent posts chronologically backwards and in my cogitations upon them I’ve constructed a sort of tertium quid. In short, I think I might be talking to myself.

  56. Oh, BTW my comments on this thread are probably senseless because I’ve read your recent posts chronologically backwards and in my cogitations upon them I’ve constructed a sort of tertium quid. In short, I think I might be talking to myself.

  57. Oh, now, what did you go and do that for? It’s in my brain now as well.

  58. Oh, now, what did you go and do that for? It’s in my brain now as well.

  59. Oh, now, what did you go and do that for? It’s in my brain now as well.

  60. Oh, now, what did you go and do that for? It’s in my brain now as well.

  61. Bill R says:

    Comments just sort of live in a world of their own, don’t they?
    BTW, am I the only one here who actually ever studied under Eric Voegelin? It was quite an experience to be in a class in which virtually no one understood what the professor was saying at least half the time.

  62. Bill R says:

    Comments just sort of live in a world of their own, don’t they?
    BTW, am I the only one here who actually ever studied under Eric Voegelin? It was quite an experience to be in a class in which virtually no one understood what the professor was saying at least half the time.

  63. Bill R says:

    Comments just sort of live in a world of their own, don’t they?
    BTW, am I the only one here who actually ever studied under Eric Voegelin? It was quite an experience to be in a class in which virtually no one understood what the professor was saying at least half the time.

  64. Bill R says:

    Comments just sort of live in a world of their own, don’t they?
    BTW, am I the only one here who actually ever studied under Eric Voegelin? It was quite an experience to be in a class in which virtually no one understood what the professor was saying at least half the time.

  65. greg bourke says:

    For sure.
    Predictably selfish driving is safe driving.

  66. greg bourke says:

    For sure.
    Predictably selfish driving is safe driving.

  67. greg bourke says:

    For sure.
    Predictably selfish driving is safe driving.

  68. greg bourke says:

    For sure.
    Predictably selfish driving is safe driving.

  69. BTW, am I the only one here who actually ever studied under Eric Voegelin?
    I would guess that the odds are in favour of that one. I take it, you are a Stanford alumnus? That’s fascinating to hear! These days it’s getting harder and harder to find people who have even heard of Eric Voegelin.

  70. BTW, am I the only one here who actually ever studied under Eric Voegelin?
    I would guess that the odds are in favour of that one. I take it, you are a Stanford alumnus? That’s fascinating to hear! These days it’s getting harder and harder to find people who have even heard of Eric Voegelin.

  71. BTW, am I the only one here who actually ever studied under Eric Voegelin?
    I would guess that the odds are in favour of that one. I take it, you are a Stanford alumnus? That’s fascinating to hear! These days it’s getting harder and harder to find people who have even heard of Eric Voegelin.

  72. BTW, am I the only one here who actually ever studied under Eric Voegelin?
    I would guess that the odds are in favour of that one. I take it, you are a Stanford alumnus? That’s fascinating to hear! These days it’s getting harder and harder to find people who have even heard of Eric Voegelin.

  73. Bill R says:

    Pastor Joel, yes, I am an alum of The Farm (as is my daughter). Voegelin’s name was better known in the ’60s and ’70s than it is now. But he was truly a genius. Which of course meant that those of us who are not were often too intimidated to ask him to explain what he meant. I usually would follow up AFTER his lecture, and found him to be a surprising warm individual–not what I expected from a European intellectual of his generation.

  74. Bill R says:

    Pastor Joel, yes, I am an alum of The Farm (as is my daughter). Voegelin’s name was better known in the ’60s and ’70s than it is now. But he was truly a genius. Which of course meant that those of us who are not were often too intimidated to ask him to explain what he meant. I usually would follow up AFTER his lecture, and found him to be a surprising warm individual–not what I expected from a European intellectual of his generation.

  75. Bill R says:

    Pastor Joel, yes, I am an alum of The Farm (as is my daughter). Voegelin’s name was better known in the ’60s and ’70s than it is now. But he was truly a genius. Which of course meant that those of us who are not were often too intimidated to ask him to explain what he meant. I usually would follow up AFTER his lecture, and found him to be a surprising warm individual–not what I expected from a European intellectual of his generation.

  76. Bill R says:

    Pastor Joel, yes, I am an alum of The Farm (as is my daughter). Voegelin’s name was better known in the ’60s and ’70s than it is now. But he was truly a genius. Which of course meant that those of us who are not were often too intimidated to ask him to explain what he meant. I usually would follow up AFTER his lecture, and found him to be a surprising warm individual–not what I expected from a European intellectual of his generation.

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