Despite everything done to disparage altruism and glorify selfish success, most work done by people, today, in the 21 st. century, is still not done for cash … but because people actually care.
Every single morning, almost every mother on Earth, has to invest time, effort and kindness to the care and feeding ( and cleaning and educating, etc. …) of their child(ren). In many parts of the world a mother may have to walk miles to carry water and fire-wood to keep their homes alive. If we factor in all the time and effort of mothers, and of other family members, to first covering the bare survival needs, and then to the growth and flourishing, of these children ( and of old people, and of people 'down on their luck' , etc. … ) it probably equals or exceeds all the hours of paid labor in the market economy.
But this is only part of the story. So many workers put in extra, sometimes a lot of extra, time and enthusiasm into helping other people; that it must be considered a vast pool of essentially volunteer labor.
Every librarian who puts in extra effort, every DMV clerk who goes out of their way to help a person NOT have to start all over at the back of the line, every Social Worker or Parole Officer who goes the extra mile, everyone who has worked late to help a last customer -- knowing they were not going to get paid for the extra time, every lawyer or law clerk who has put in un-billed hours to help justice prevail, has demonstrated the power of kindness.
Then there is all the explicitly volunteer labor -- some of it of course pursued for not solely altruistic motives -- everyone ranging from Girl Scout Leaders to College Trusties. Every part of our society has volunteer organizations and we would be vastly poorer society without them.
What is even more striking are the un-planned acts of generosity: there are myriad of cases of people offering time, money and sometimes even risking their lives to help strangers; braving horrors and dangers in order to pull someone out of a car-wreck, or more prosaically -- walking quite a ways in order to get a stranger to where they want to go, or even just taking the time to give directions or advice.
When hidden cameras watch a mom on welfare come up short at the cash register, someone usually steps in to quickly cover the difference. People might spend hours helping look for a lost child or pet, never intending to end with a request for payment. If you are struggling to load a vehicle people will often stop and help, once again - for free. Most people will help a foreign visitor navigate their community, only the poorest or most devious will try to directly profit thereby.
Should we not also consider all the many, many times that someone helps a co-worker about to make some critical mistake, even at the cost of possible rewards in the game of office politics, and spends extra time and energy to help sort things out. They might instead have chosen to devote this energy to selfishly 'putting their own house in order' and setting up future 'I told you so' opportunities to climb their own corporate ladder -- at the expense of the co-worker(s) and of course any possible collateral damage.
How about all of our teachers and doctors, how many unpaid hours have the best among them offered without any cash incentive? Everyone in public uniform is usually earning only a fraction of what their purely mercenary counterparts are banking … they are doing it for duty, and a strong ethic of civic mindedness not the rational selfish maximization that is supposed to govern.
Given all the oodles of cash the internet has generated, it is interesting to remember that much of its basic infrastructure was created by volunteer labor. There was no lack of effort or creativity long before the financial rewards were so lavish.
Similarly many artists and thinkers have done their best stuff outside a traditional reward structure. The 'starving artist' whose genius is discovered after their death may have dreamed of fame and riches but they were certainly able to be amazingly creative without realistic pay-off. This is by no means to encourage our society continuing to underpay all but the top 1% of its creative talents, but to argue that artists and brilliant thinkers will continue to wish to offer their talents, even if it costs them a bundle rather than being a revenue source. Certainly there is a selfish love of public praise, but most will keep up their work even if unsung as well as unpaid.
I believe we should not merely offer tepid praise and casual dismissal of this human drive to help. Instead, in a world running out of options to keep the present Rat Race going this may offer Humanity an avenue towards a better economy, and social Paradigm. If we create a society that nurtures and channels our human urge to help others, we can live a lot better on a whole lot less.
Unfortunately in the USA today, there is a systematic effort to discourage a more positive view of human nature in order to bolster the case for the "free market" gospel. Instead of promoting and nourishing our natural instincts to help each other, we are subject to a barrage of pro selfishness propaganda. Why? Because rational selfish maximization is crucial to the "free market" theories that protects and empowers those in positions of influence today. Our schools are being strip-mined of the chances to collaborate and experience generosity. As we teach to the test and grade to the curve, it becomes increasingly hard to foster helpfulness in class-rooms. Meanwhile ever shrinking job options help promote a do-eat-dog view of reality. Unrealistic body images are used to fuel the body-perfect competition. We see the old being deliberately pitted against the young, White versus Black, financially stable (for now) against people on public assistance, private versus public workers, etc. ... Yet despite all these negative influences, human helpfulness -like grass growing in the cracks of the sidewalk- still springs up when given the chance. If we massively praised and encouraged kindness we could transform the world.