Comic Relief: Bringing charity to remote scenes of poverty is a very go od deal - for us
`What's in it for me?" is, on the face of it, a five-word epitome of grasping self-interest, unimprovable in its concision. So it may seem slightly perverse to argue, as I wish to, that it can provide a perfectly respectable motto for a charitable enterprise. Surely the whole point of charity is the absence of calculation - reason not the need, you know, and certainly don't do sums about what your profit will be once all the costs have come in. This habit of mind is so engrained that it has even generated a mistrust of the accidental pleasures that altruism can deliver - as if the gift might be diminished by the gratification of the giver. The only proper donative position, it seems, is head bowed, with a stone in each shoe.

Comic Relief, the organisation responsible for Red Nose Day and for dispersing the funds raised by thousands of acts of mystifying self-gratification (some people just like sitting in baked beans), has frequently been a victim of this way of thinking, its undoubtable achievements the subject of much fretting and anxiety. Aren't the celebrities just in it for their own careers, people ask, and shouldn't schoolchildren be doing something a little more self-sacrificing than going to school in their favourite clothes? Should we really be enjoying ourselves for other people's benefit? As it happens, one of the guiding principles of Comic Relief has always been that of "fair exchange" - the BBC offers airtime and resources but gets an audience-grabbing array of stars for what amounts to a bargain price; comedians give up their time but benefit from honorary membership of the Good Bloke Club; viewers and participants cough up the cash but get a top-up of glee in return.

If that sounds depressing or defeatist about human nature there are some consolations. First of all it should be remembered that interrogating your conscience takes up much valuable time. The figure of the person who never gives to charity because they are paralysed by a mistrust of their own motives is not simply a satirical fantasy - as they agonise over "paternalism" and "amelioration" and "letting governments off the hook", as they trace the machinery of charitable aid through every slipping cog of petty corruption and unintended consequence, the objects of their undeniable compassion may perish one by one. In any case the malnourished may prefer to eat, knowing that a government bureaucrat is also getting fatter, than go hungry in the serene assurance that graft will join them in the grave. This isn't to argue, incidentally, that it is wrong to think about charity and take stock of its effects - just that in this field, above all, the perfect can too easily be the enemy of the good. It isn't inconceivable that an impure motive is better than one pharmaceutically purified of all self-interest - a lengthy process which has its own costs. To pursue the metaphor of chemical analysis, the self-interested givers could even prove to have more "active ingredient" good in them than a more rarefied compassion, which has distilled its charity down to a thimble of the real thing.

Secondly the definition of self-interest should in any case be expanded to include some less material benefits. "Christ was an epicurean" says a character in Georg Buchner's play Danton's Death, his point being that Christ pursued his own pleasure in his deeds and teachings. By this way of thinking the mystery of truly good people is not how they can abandon happiness for virtue but why it is only in virtue that they can find happiness. What looks like self-sacrifice to the rest of us may well feel like the satisfaction of a gnawing hunger to the saint. Most of us are at least temporarily capable of the same refinement of appetite, and we shouldn't be worried if it gives us pleasure to assuage it. (You might worry about why it is so quickly replaced by coarser cravings, but that is a different question.)

All these issues were beautifully distilled in the three-part series with which BBC1 has been warming up viewers for Red Nose Day itself (tomorrow). Balls for Africa filmed a celebrity football team - soap stars, telly chefs, quiz masters and comics - on an African tour, starting in a tiny village in Burkina Faso and ending up in a national stadium. On the way they took in Comic Relief projects and passed on their impressions of the country and the result was a subtle comedy of the Western conscience learning how to swim. There was, for instance, the vexing question of whether they should try to win their matches and how they would feel when they did, defeating some impoverished team that hadn't seen a ball for months. There was also the question of where exactly they stood in relation to the people they met. Shortly after a soft-drink anthem had insisted that we are all God's children, or some similar formula of global identity, David Baddiel took a different view, explaining how a display of ball skills had united an audience of English celebrities and Sahel villagers: "I was pleased and so were they and we come from different planets", he said, unwittingly breaking the party line on one big human family.

But what was most interesting was the way in which spiritual benefit was described. Introducing the trip David Essex talked of the "warmth of spirit" in Africa and similar phrases chimed through every episode - "faces flooded with joy", "resilience", "vibrancy", qualities that are often the only wealth of people who have nothing else at all. I don't think this was simply wishful thinking on the part of the speakers, but I wonder whether the extravagance and insistence of such terms is partly generated by relief - by the liberating realisation that one's mournfulness is the very last thing these people need. Remote poverty offers much besides - a refreshed sense of your own blessings, an opportunity for sincere connection, even a moral example of courage - all precious commodities. Indeed, perhaps we should hope that the objects of our charity never catch on to just how good a deal this is for us - otherwise they might put the price up