Posted by Steve Lettau on Dec 31, 2020

Editors Note: altruism [al-troo-iz-uhm], noun, 1) the principle or practice of unselfish concern for or devotion to the welfare of others (opposed to egoism).

The people who fill the truly essential roles in society are often in short supply

By Joe Queenan Illustrations by Sébastien Thibault

From time to time, societies run low on the things — and the people — they really need. We wake up one day and realize that there are too few doctors. Or far, far, far too few nurses. Or it suddenly dawns on us that there aren’t enough teachers, engineers, or plumbers to go around. There are certainly never enough guys who work well with sheetrock.

Other professionals we have in spades. There are always more than enough landscapers, baristas, actors, masseurs, personal trainers, hairdressers, IT guys, and chefs. Nor are we ever in any real danger of running out of hedge fund managers, ballerinas, real estate agents, claims adjusters, standup comics, bartenders, aspiring singer-songwriters, or car salesmen. But the people who fill the truly essential roles in society are often in short supply.

Something like this may already be happening with Good Samaritans. From time to time, societies run desperately low on the kinds of devoted, implacable altruists who are always ready to pitch in and make the world a better place.

Institutional altruism is rarely a problem. Plenty of churches, foundations, and government agencies are working night and day to help better society. These people do good for a living. But institutional philanthropy alone can’t handle a problem as large as the one created by the current pandemic. Societies always and everywhere rely on large numbers of those people sometimes derisively referred to as “do-gooders” to keep things running smoothly. And right now there aren’t enough do-gooders to go around. It doesn’t help that a lot of do-gooders are stuck indoors because of the pandemic.