Monday, March 23, 2009

Ayn Rand and Altruism

I answered a question for someone who asked about Ayn Rand's use of the word "altruism" and her vehement objection to it.

"I've heard people ranting and raving about Rand's ethics, and I must admit that I find it disappointing. She goes on about how "most philosophers" and the "history of philosophy" have favored altruism, but she provides no examples of who might fit these descriptions. I honestly can't think of a single philosopher who fits her idea of altruism, and it appears to me that her whole argument is rooted in a strawman argument: she is attacking an opponent who doesn't exist. How can a Rand fan defend her?"


RAND: It is ideas that determine social trends, that create or destroy social systems. Therefore, the right ideas, the right philosophy, should be advocated and spread. The disasters of the modern world, including the destruction of capitalism, were caused by the altruist-collectivist philosophy. It is altruism that men should reject.

PLAYBOY: And how would you define altruism?

RAND: It is a moral system which holds that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the sole justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, value and virtue. This is the moral base of collectivism, of all dictatorships. In order to seek freedom and capitalism, men need a nonmystical, nonaltruistic, rational code of ethics -- a morality which holds that man is not a sacrificial animal, that he has the right to exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others, nor others to himself. In other words, what is desperately needed today is the ethics of Objectivism."

"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 a 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.There are two moral questions which altruism lumps together into one “package-deal”: (1) What are values? (2) Who should be the beneficiary of values? Altruism substitutes the second for the first; it evades the task of defining a code of moral values, thus leaving man, in fact, without moral guidance.

"Altruism declares that any action taken for the benefit of others is good, and any action taken for one’s own benefit is evil. Thus the beneficiary of an action is the only criterion of moral value—and so long as that beneficiary is anybody other than oneself, anything goes."

Altruism: (Alter: other) In general, the cult of benevolence; the opposite of Egoism (q.v.). Term coined by Comte and adopted in Britain by H. Spencer. 1. For Comte Altruism meant the discipline and eradication of self-centered desire, and a life devoted to the good of others; more particularly, selfless love and devotion to Society. In brief, it involved self-abnegating love...As thus understood, altruism involves a conscious opposition not only to egoism but also to the formal or theological pursuit of charity and to the atomic or individualistic social philosophy of 17th-18th century liberalism, of utilitarianism, and of French Ideology. Dictionary of Philosophy: Runes

[Comte] defines a theory of conduct by which only actions having for their object the happiness of others possess a moral value.

Altruism is the opposite of egoism. The term “egoism” derives from “ego,” the Latin term for the English word “I”. “Egoism” should be distinguished from “egotism,” which means a psychological overvaluation of one’s own importance, or of one’s own activities. Rational egoism claims that the promotion of one’s own interests is always in accordance with reason.

THEN THERE WAS kant: By contrast, philosophers in the Kantian tradition conceive of altruism as a rational requirement on action. They claim there is no need to postulate a benevolent desire to explain altruism. Kant's initial argument appeals to his requirement that we may only act on principles that we can will as universal laws. Willing a world in which everyone has a policy of not helping others, while knowing that you will need help, would be inconsistent, so we must will to help those who are in need. Kant also argues for a duty of beneficence on the basis of the requirement of treating humanity as an end in itself. He argues that you must treat the ends of others as you treat your own ends. You take your own ends to be good and worth pursuing, so consistency requires that you treat the ends of others as good and worth pursuing. This suggests that we have reason to help not only those in need, but anyone we are in a position to help.

The fallacy of altruism, or altruistic moralism (or moralistic altruism), is the sense that there is a general duty, or that morality as such requires us always, to act in the interest of others.

OK, SO..............Because Rand was a rational egoist, and because altruism is defined as the opposite of egoism, anything not egoism is altruism. Collectivism of any sort, whether Marxism, Obama-ism (redistribution of wealth), communism, socialism, etc is thus altruistic, especially since Comte DEFINED it as being anti-egoistic, by making it "self abnegating love," whatever that is. An egoist would say you cannot love if you abnegate your personality.

BUT DO NOT SAY IT DOES NOT EXIST, as many people claim. The questioner says it is a "strawman" argument. Others say no such thing as altruism can actually exist because no one can live by its requirements.

There are plenty of people out there who are trying to make it work. This web site even calls itself "Re-Establishing Altruism As A Viable Social Norm", as if it ever was the norm.

In the sense that anything which is NOT rational egoism is collectivism is altruism, that is how Rand meant it. You can listen to a half hour debate about it that Rand had on a radio show here

It is in the DEFINITION of altruism as "a theory of conduct by which only actions having for their object the happiness of others possess a moral value", that Rand objected.

Yet, there are those who believe that in order to produce happiness in one's own being, one MUST take actions which have as their object the happiness of others.

That is the true definition of "altruism."

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