Enough of Altruism

This one’s for Don Watkins III of Anger Management, who has announced that he’s shuttering his blog and taking down his archives. (The links in this post to Don’s blog and posts may not be working by the time you read this.) I’ve been fiddling with this post for a few months, off and on, in the hope that Don would reply to it at Anger Management. Perhaps, if he has the time, he’ll acknowledge it at Diana Hsieh’s blog, where he promises to post occasionally.

A while back I posted “Redefining Altruism,” in which I said:

Altruism is defined as “the quality of unselfish concern for the welfare of others.” . . . A better definition of altruism would go like this:

Altruism is the quality of concern for the welfare of others, as evidenced by action. An altruistic act is intended, necessarily, to satisfy the moral imperatives of the person performing the act, otherwise it would not be performed. The self-interestedness of an act altruism does not, however, detract in the least from the value of such an act to its beneficiary or beneficiaries. By the same token, an act that may not seem to arise from a concern for the welfare of others may nevertheless have as much beneficial effect as a purposely altruistic act.

There is no essential difference between altruism, defined properly, and the pursuit of self-interest, even if that pursuit does not “seem” altruistic. In fact, the common belief that there is a difference between altruism and the pursuit of self-interest is one cause of (excuse for) purportedly compassionate but actually destructive government intervention in human affairs.

Don Watkins III of Anger Management had much to say about my post, including this:

Thomas is defending psychological egoism: the view that all actions are selfish, because the fact that a person chooses to do something shows that he valued it more than the other options available to him. He then uses this premise to try to reconcile altruism and self-interest.To grasp the fallacy on which psychological egoism is based, take a simpler case of the same error: those who argue that every action involves a sacrifice since, no matter what value one pursues, one is necessarily giving up or choosing not to pursue something else. A sacrifice, on this view, is anything a person gives up in exchange for something else. What epistemological fallacy is involved here? Uniting by non-essentials.

To define the concept “sacrifice” this way obfuscates two essentially different kinds of results: a gain and a loss. It says that trading a dollar for a penny is essentially the same as trading a penny for a dollar, since in both cases you gave something up in exchange for something else. What that definition evades is the fact that in one case you gained values from the exchange, while in the other case, you lost values.

If the purpose of a concept is to unite similar existents according to their essential characteristics, then any concept that does not distinguish between a gain and a loss is an invalid concept.

Properly speaking, to sacrifice is to surrender a higher value for a lower value or a non-value. A sacrifice is a loss. . . .

Thomas’‚’s error should now be apparent. By equating all chosen actions with self-interested actions, he is uniting essentially different units under a single concept: he is uniting those actions a man chooses for the purpose of sustaining his life and achieving his happiness, and those aimed at sacrificing his life and his happiness for others. He is uniting Mother Teresa and Bill Gates. Peter Keating and Howard Roark. They are all selfish, he says, because they all chose to take the actions they valued the most. . . .

Here is a proper, essentialized definition of altruism: “The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to live for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value” (Ayn Rand, PWNI).

Advocates of the “everyone is selfish” doctrine do not deny that, under the pressure of the altruist ethics, men can knowingly act against their own long-range happiness. They merely assert that in some higher, undefinable sense, such men are still acting “selfishly.” A definition of “selfishness” that includes or permits the possibility of knowingly acting against one’s long-range happiness, is a contradiction in terms (“Isn’t Everyone Selfish?”, VOS, 69). . . .

What Thomas . . . is saying is that the good of others can be achieved by means of self-interested action, and so therefore there is no conflict between altruism and self-interest. But this misses the point: the good of others is not the standard of altruism, neither historically nor philosophically. Altruism means self-sacrifice, it means sacrificing oneself to others.

It is true, that if one lives selfishly, he will end up benefiting others, but this does not make him an altruist, any more than the fact that by sacrificing himself for others, the altruist gets a momentary sense of satisfaction makes him an egoist.

I am not defending psychological egoism, nor am I trying to reconcile psychological egoism and altruism. I reject the concept of psychological egoism because it’s just a label for behavior that seems to involve a “gain,” as Don would have it. I similarly reject the concept of altruism because it’s just a label for behavior that seems to involve a “loss,” as Don puts it. The problem with trying to separate egoism and altruism is that a person’s behavior arises from a single human mind. One cannot accept a “loss” without considering (even for a subconscious instant) the potential “gain,” and vice versa.

So, it seems to me that what I am talking about is the motivation of a person who commits a seemingly altruistic act, whereas Don is talking about some external force that seems to demand altruism of us. My mistake was to use the term “self-interest” as shorthand for that motivation. There is no “egoism” or “altruism,” there’s simply behavior that reflects an individual’s values, and which seeks to serve those values.

Let me make it clear that Don’s post isn’t a defense of altruism but of the concept of altruism against my denial that there is such a thing as altruism. In the essay linked to by Don, Rand makes it clear that she has no use for altruism:

As to altruism — it has never been alive. It is the poison of death in the blood of Western civilization, and men survived it only to the extent to which they neither believed nor practiced it. But it has caught up with them — and that is the killer which they now have to face and to defeat. That is the basic choice they have to make. If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject….

What is morality? It is a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions — the choices which determine the purpose and the course of his life. It is a code by means of which he judges what is right or wrong, good or evil.

What is the morality of altruism? The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to live for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value.

Do not confuse altruism with kindness, good will or respect for the rights of others. These are not primaries, but consequences, which, in fact, altruism makes impossible. The irreducible primary of altruism, the basic absolute, is self-sacrifice — which means: self-immolation, self-abnegation, self-denial, self-destruction — which means: the self as a standard of evil, the selfless as the standard of the good.

Do not hide behind such superficialities as whether you should or should not give a dime to a beggar. That is not the issue. The issue is whether you do or do not have the right to exist without giving him that dime. The issue is whether you must keep buying your life, dime by dime, from any beggar who might choose to approach you. The issue is whether the need of others is the first mortgage on your life and the moral purpose of your existence. The issue is whether man is to be regarded as a sacrificial animal. Any man of self-esteem will answer: “No.” Altruism says: “Yes.”

Now there is one word — a single word — which can blast the morality of altruism out of existence and which it cannot withstand — the word: “Why?” Why must man live for the sake of others? Why must he be a sacrificial animal? Why is that the good? There is no earthly reason for it — and, ladies and gentlemen, in the whole history of philosophy no earthly reason has ever been given.

It is only mysticism that can permit moralists to get away with it. It was mysticism, the unearthly, the supernatural, the irrational that has always been called upon to justify it — or, to be exact, to escape the necessity of justification. One does not justify the irrational, one just takes it on faith. What most moralists — and few of their victims — realize is that reason and altruism are incompatible. And this is the basic contradiction of Western civilization: reason versus altruism. This is the conflict that had to explode sooner or later.

The real conflict, of course, is reason versus mysticism.

Rand gives altruism a life of its own — makes an evil totem of it — in order to oppose it. And that is where Don goes wrong: He insists that there is a separately identifiable thing called altruism. I am surprised that an Objectivist adheres to the notion that there is such a thing, for, as Rand says, “Reality exists as an objective absolute — facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.” Yet, in a reply to my comment on his post, Don said:

. . . The reason I define altruism as “self-sacrifice in the service of others” is because that is the fundamental characteristic that distinguishes altruism and egoism.

And altruism and egoism ARE distinct. They are distinct, because egoism doesn’t mean doing whatever you want to do. It means identifying the actual requirements of human life, and using your mind to enact those requirements. Altruism says that your concern must not be with your interests, but the interests of others. This makes self-sacrifice the crowning moral virtue of the altruist ethics.

And there’s the heart of the matter: Don Watkins separates and reifies egoism and altruism. He’s quite clear about the reification of altruism in a later post:

Sheldon Richman notes a peculiar criticism of Wal-Mart’s charity operations…they’re too selfish:

Consider this: Wal-Mart is the biggest corporate donor in the country. The Foundation Center says the Wal-Mart Foundation is second to none in contributing money to charitable causes, with annual donations totaling $120 million. If for no other reason, youÂ’d think this would win some plaudits from Wal-Mart’s critics — and you‚’d be wrong.

According to the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), Wal-Mart‚’s efforts hardly qualify as charity at all. ‚“Unfortunately, their philanthropy is more about corporate advertising than it is about helping nonprofits or communities.” That‚’s how NCRP deputy director Jeffrey Krehely sees it. Anyone surprised?

That’s the naked face of altruism, friends. Altruism doesn’t demand you do good for others, it demands that you sacrifice yourself for others. Self-sacrifice, not the welfare of others, is the essential characteristic of altruism.

Altruism isn’t a force that operates outside us, it’s what we tend to call a certain kind of result when we see it. Don acknowledges that an act which seems to be “selfish” or egoistical” may benefit others, and that an act which seems “altruistic” may give its performer some “egoistical” satisfaction. In doing so, he almost gets it right: What we call “altruism” and “egoism” are simply manifestations of an integrated, internal decision process that thinks not in terms of “altruism” or “egoism” but in terms of serving one’s values.

If altruism exists, where does it come from? How does it operate on us? Is it social pressure, community norms, or the like? If that’s what it is, a person who is under pressure to commit a so-called altruistic act has the option of saying “no” to it. Whether or not a person says “no” to it, the person is making a choice about how best to serve his or her own values. If the person says “yes” and commits what seems to be an altruistic act, that person may seem to “sacrifice” something (e.g., a life, a fortune) but that sacrifice was the person’s choice. A “sacrifice” serves an end: the satisfaction of one’s personal values. Nothing more, nothing less.

The implication of calling another person’s act a “sacrifice” is that someone can get into that person’s mind and determine whether the act was a gain or a loss for the person. I say that someone must be able to get into the person’s mind because I don’t know how else you one determines whether or not an act is altruistic unless (a) one takes the person’s word for it or (b) one assembles a panel of judges, each of whom holds up a card that says “altruistic” or “selfish” upon the completion of an a particular act.

To illustrate my point I resort to the following bits of caricature:

1. Suppose Mother Teresa’s acts of “self-sacrifice” were born of rebellion against parents who wanted her to take over their business empire. That is, suppose Mother Teresa derived great satisfaction in defying her parents, and it is that which drove her to impoverish herself and suffer many hardships. The more she “suffered” the more her parents suffered and the happier she satisified her personal values.

2. Suppose Bill Gates really wanted to become a male version of Mother Teresa but his grandmother — on her deathbed — said “Billy, I want you to make the world safe from the Apple computer.” So, Billy went out and did that, for his grandmother’s sake, even though he really wanted to be the male Mother Teresa. Then he wound up being immensely wealthy, much to his regret. But “Billy” obviously put his affection for or fear of his grandmother above his desire to become a male version of Mother Teresa. He satisfied his personal values.

Now, tell me, who is the altruist, my fictional Mother Teresa or my fictional Bill Gates? You might now say Bill Gates. I would say neither; each acted in accordance with her and his personal values. One might call the real Mother Teresa altruistic because her actions seem altruistic, in the common meaning of the word. But one can’t say (for sure) why she took those actions. Don’s definition of altruism nevertheless requires such knowledge. Suppose the real Mother Teresa acted as she did not only because she wanted to help the poor but also because she sought spiritual satisfaction or salvation. Would that negate her acts? No, her acts would still be her acts, but we would understand them as acts arising from her values. That’s the best we can do absent the ability to read minds.

My argument rests on the proposition that human actions are, by definition, driven by the service of personal values, which come to us in many and mysterious (but not supernatural) ways. As a consequentialist, I prefer to look at results, not motivations. (“The road to hell,” and all that.) I eschew terms like altruism and egoism because they imply that a given result is somehow better if it’s “properly” motivated. A result is a result. What matters, to me, is whether the result advances liberty or infringes on it. What matters to others may be something else entirely.

Objectivism may offer a useful set of values for ordering one’s life. I have yet to find that it offers a good explanation of why we humans act as we do. Rand rejects mysticism, yet the reification of “altruism” is nothing if not mystical.