Difference between Altruism and Benevolence...Med School Interview

Nov 22, 2013
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I don't know the philosophical content of the medical school interview, but I was watching an interesting video about a Q&A with an objectivist philosopher.

I hear the word altruism get thrown a lot out at school and read about it in these forums regularly. I was just curious if maybe altruism would be topic of an admissions interview for someone with a lot of ecs and wanted to do medicine for personal reasons.

Apparently, altruism and benevolence are not the same thing.

According to him, altruism is the belief that your moral duty is to help others, to take care of others, and to provide for them. That your whole life is for the well being of others, the placing of other people's lives above your own and you are a social servant who has the duty of taking care of others when they need you.

Whereas, benevolence is a general positive vibe about the people and society as a whole.

Apparently altruism harbors resentment according to this person because you have a whole life philosophy of, "why am I sacrificing to this person, and why isn't he sacrificing to me, if he was moral, he'd be help me."

Benevolence is a side effect of living your life as happy as you want it, and stems from mutual benefit and gain and win-win relationships in a course of self interest.

What do you think?

So in terms of volunteering and how you want to live through as a prospective MD, do you want to claim that you're benevolent or altruistic?
 

NickNaylor

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I don't know the philosophical content of the medical school interview, but I was watching an interesting video about a Q&A with an objectivist philosopher.

I hear the word altruism get thrown a lot out at school and read about it in these forums regularly. I was just curious if maybe altruism would be topic of an admissions interview for someone with a lot of ecs and wanted to do medicine for personal reasons.

Apparently, altruism and benevolence are not the same thing.

According to him, altruism is the belief that your moral duty is to help others, to take care of others, and to provide for them. That your whole life is for the well being of others, the placing of other people's lives above your own and you are a social servant who has the duty of taking care of others when they need you.

Whereas, benevolence is a general positive vibe about the people and society as a whole.

Apparently altruism harbors resentment according to this person because you have a whole life philosophy of, "why am I sacrificing to this person, and why isn't he sacrificing to me, if he was moral, he'd be help me."

Benevolence is a side effect of living your life as happy as you want it, and stems from mutual benefit and gain and win-win relationships in a course of self interest.

What do you think?

So in terms of volunteering and how you want to live through as a prospective MD, do you want to claim that you're benevolent or altruistic?
No one is going to be using philosophical definitions for anything in regular speech. I would stick to the lay meanings of altruism meaning putting someone else's interests above your own while benevolence is the general idea of doing "good" (whatever that means, but medicine is usually lumped in there). I don't think anyone will care which term you use to describe your activities, interests, etc..
 

DokterMom

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According to him, altruism is the belief that your moral duty is to help others, to take care of others, and to provide for them. That your whole life is for the well being of others, the placing of other people's lives above your own and you are a social servant who has the duty of taking care of others when they need you.

Whereas, benevolence is a general positive vibe about the people and society as a whole.
Interesting technical distinction and philosophical difference -- But I agree with NickNaylor. Far too picky a distinction of which far too few people will be cognizant to come up in medical school interviews.
 

Carl Seitan

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I would say that you should disregard anything that someone who describes his/herself as an objectivist says.
 

Euxox

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I would say that you should disregard anything that someone who describes his/herself as an objectivist says.
Absolutely. In case you didn't know, OP, objectivists are libertarian "philosophers." I put philosopher in quotes because they are really just political flag wavers. This altruism vs. benevolence thing is a very thinly veiled political dialogue (just swap altruism with socialism and benevolence with laissez-faire capitalism) and really has nothing to do with medicine or ethics. I definitely would not bring it up in an interview. You could end up offending your interviewer if he or she falls on the wrong side of the political spectrum.
 
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Planes2Doc

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I'd like to think of myself as being benevolent. I try to help out family, friends, and strangers whenever I can. I find it important to be friendly and to care to some extent about someone elses well-being.

As for altruism, it's a very rare trait. I am extremely bothered by the need to put on a huge facade in medical school admissions, in order to pretend that you are altruistic.

In regards to volunteering and such "altruistic" ECs: I have never heard anyone ask about the number of people they can help, but instead ask about how they can make themselves look better.
 
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Apparently altruism harbors resentment according to this person because you have a whole life philosophy of, "why am I sacrificing to this person, and why isn't he sacrificing to me, if he was moral, he'd be help me."

Benevolence is a side effect of living your life as happy as you want it, and stems from mutual benefit and gain and win-win relationships in a course of self interest.

What do you think?

So in terms of volunteering and how you want to live through as a prospective MD, do you want to claim that you're benevolent or altruistic?

In my opinion, you should never delve too deep into absolutes. Especially when it comes to the topic of Altruism vs Benevolence. In my opinion, no one is completely altruistic or benevolent, nor should they be. Being completely altruistic could lead to denial of one's personal well being and possibly detrimental in their goal to help others in the first place. It's noble to want to put the world on your shoulders but its also impractical and slightly naive since none of us are superheroes.

Benevolence on the other hand is also something that should not be taken absolutely. Trying to live a happy life is a great goal but what happens when life deals you a bad card and you're not as happy as you'd like. In your definition, would this means that you would then not spread as much happiness to others as you would before? One cannot always win at life, but does that mean that one should be less good or spread less happiness?

My idea is that to be the best Doctor, we have to gain a good mix between these two. We have to be Altruistic in that we are selfless in our actions and do whatever we can to improve the lives and wellbeing of our patients, but we cannot forget that we are also human and we also have to look after our own health and wellbeing. Then, we must also be Benevolent to each other. Not so that we are only benevolent when we are happy and life is good. We must strive to put aside whatever negatives and problems we have in our own lives knowing that its not fair nor right to be less than our best for the sake of the people we have devoted out lives to help.

Thats my interpretation. Never deal in absolutes between the two. Take it for what you will.
 

kevinnbass

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n=1 here, but after 11 interviews so far, my experience is that bringing in theoretical issues to interview situations will virtually always prompt a negative response. I believe that I have probably lost acceptances because of this.

I think this situation is because physicians are generally not inclined to theoretical issues outside the sciences. The two pillars of medicine, as is often stated, are humanism and science. Humanism in medicine is defined in fairly emotional terms, whereas science, as we understand the term in the biomedical sciences, is a technical discipline. This leaves little room in the mainstream medical culture for theorizing in the sense that philosophers mean it. Therefore, you will generally be docked points in interviews, and even be suspected of being unfit for medicine, if you emphasize philosophical issues--that is, if you stray from this mainstream culture--and cannot directly relate this kind of thinking to concrete, hot topic-type issues in medicine.

I can understand this orientation on the part of interviewers. After all, interviewers want to admit those who will thrive in contemporary medical culture. And the culture itself reflects the conditions of practice that physicians currently must abide by. To draw and emphasize distinctions that are extraneous to the culture is, in a sense, to put one at odds with the ways that physicians are expected to practice. Can it then be expected that an individual inclined to such thinking will be the most suited among applicants to be a physician? I believe this is the implicit, not explicit, thinking on the part of interviewers. Interviewers usually just dislike hearing about things they do not know or care about, but I think this dislike generally reflects this attitude implicit in general intellectual orientation.

This way of thinking seems limiting to me in a few ways of significant practical importance. The biggest is that the healthcare system is currently in crisis. Adhering tightly to past standards re-entrenches current conditions; it does not encourage physicians that can think their way to the future. According to Paul Starr, physicians in the United States have a poor track record of leadership when it comes to reform. This should change, and I don't think that the bias against more intellectually oriented people in medicine is compatible with this.

We know that there are health systems that reject both technological advance as a pillar for improving healthcare (and, according to any health economics textbook, rightly), as well as the emotionally humanistic orientation currently so prevalent in American healthcare culture--often outperform the United States in outcomes measures. I think the latest OECD report makes this clear (http://newsatjama.jama.com/2013/11/27/jama-forum-oecd-report-offers-a-contrast-in-perception-vs-reality-in-us-health-care/). To me, therefore, different ways of thinking about healthcare, within healthcare, are needed, if we want healthcare to change in the ways that it needs to change. With regard to compassion and altruism, specifically, it is obvious that there are many ways in which to be compassionate or altruistic. To me, the failure of physicians in leading healthcare to a better place is that they simply accept compassion (and good technology), narrowly and emotionally defined, as enough to provide good healthcare. As American health outcomes demonstrate, this clearly cannot be true. Therefore, this current emphasis in medical culture, if I am right in characterizing it, is wrong. As a result, I think the question with regard to our generation of physicians is not, "are you compassionate?" but rather, "in what way does, and should, your compassion affect your practice and your leadership within healthcare?" I believe the second question is exponentially better one for those who will provide for our future healthcare system.

I think that the question is also crucial at a personal, individual level--not just with respect to system-wide considerations. With physician burnout such a prominent phenomenon, potentially becoming worse in the coming years as physician expectations continue to diverge from the clinical reality (what with increased patient volume, decreased pay, etc.), to ask in what ways we are "altruistic" is essential: how, after all, should we reconcile our personal needs with that of the patient's? To say that we want to put the needs of the patient over the needs of ourselves, and to leave it at that, would be irresponsible from this point of view; it could lead, and probably does, to physician burnout among those who have not been challenged (or challenged themselves) to think about and come to healthy conclusions about how to be altruistic. Again, the question is not, "are you altruistic?" but rather, "in what way?" This is essential requires conceptual, and not emotional thinking. To the degree that this kind of thinking is not an emphasis in medical admissions and training, I think physicians and healthcare as a whole suffer.

I say therefore that not only do many physicians not care about such distinctions, but that they are wrong not to care. What, therefore, do we do? How do we reconcile what is right, with the current limitations of the profession? How do we reconcile the needs of our training with own personal and professional needs -- even the needs of society? The answer comes from Kant. Kant distinguished between the private and public use of reason. The private use of reason is when conducting one's function: one uses reason solely for the purpose of fulfilling one's occupational and social obligations. The public use of reason, on the other hand, occurs when one is not doing one's job: when he is writing, when he is talking with friends or the public. In the case of medical school interviews, and medical school training, and I think even as our lives as physicians, I think that, when we must, we simply do and say what we are supposed to. This is different from "playing the game". The idea of "playing the game" is too cynical. It suggests that we don't believe in the values of the profession. But I for one do. It's just that the values of the profession are too simple-minded to be realistic or even morally sound. So, we do what we need to do in the short run, in order to make a positive impact in the longer run. This division in oneself requires discipline, fortitude, and practice, but I think it is necessary if we are going to lead authentic lives and leave something positive for the next generation after us.

Dare I be accused of naivete: I know cultural change is a process that must take decades, and I have my share of life experience after college to understand the soul crushing nature of some bureaucratic life. Much less can I deny the juggernaut inertia of our healthcare system and its culture. I just think that this distancing of ourselves from ridiculous aspects of our institutions is not a cause for bitterness, but rather an obvious call and opportunity to make a difference. It is possible, and these days, absolutely necessary. This much is not even a choice.

So to finish this rambling post, I just want to thank the OP for making the post, rather than, as most people are, rolling their eyes. At the very least, it gave me the fantastic opportunity to make a rambling post.
 
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kevinnbass

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I would say that you should disregard anything that someone who describes his/herself as an objectivist says.
I am not sure why what a philosopher called him or herself should invalidate what he or she says.

Absolutely. In case you didn't know, OP, objectivists are libertarian "philosophers." I put philosopher in quotes because they are really just political flag wavers. This altruism vs. benevolence thing is a very thinly veiled political dialogue (just swap altruism with socialism and benevolence with laissez-faire capitalism) and really has nothing to do with medicine or ethics. I definitely would not bring it up in an interview. You could end up offending your interviewer if he or she falls on the wrong side of the political spectrum.
Rand gets the original inspiration from Aristotle, specifically from Aristotle's concept great-souled man (the benevolent), which Rand then juxtaposed with the Judeo-Christian ideal (the altruist). This distinction really goes back to the heart of Western culture, between that of Greece and Jerusalem. Rand updates the debate, polemically, in terms of capitalism versus socialism, but Rand's idea isn't substanceless.

How one conceives what is good or bad is the central concept in ethics.

Can't disagree with your interview advice, just commenting on your rabid attempt to dissuade others from thinking about things.