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.
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. . . .
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. . . .
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. . . .
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.” . . .
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. . . .
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. . . .