Jump to content
Objectivism Online Forum
hernan

Altruism Revisited

Rate this topic

Recommended Posts

As I was rereading Atlas Shrugged, I came across a passage that reminded me of an issue that I had never really clearly resolved: Rand's view of altruism.

 

The passage is:

 

"I shall charge you for your room and board--it is against our rules to provide the unearned sustenance of another human being. Some of us have wives and children, but there is a mutual trade involved in that, and a mutual payment"--he glanced at her--"of a kind I am not entitled to collect."

 

 

 

Now in order to discuss this and avoid confusion we need to agree on terms and I'm more than happy to use Rand's terms. I'll offer these (feel free to correct):

 

Altruism: The welfare of other people is the measurement of ethical action.

 

Sacrifice: The surrendering of a greater value for a lesser value.

 

Selfishness: Using one's own welfare is the measurement of ethical action.

 

Benevolence: Mutual respect for the values of the self and of other people.

 

Now, to my point:

 

I have argued in these forums and elsewhere with objectivists and libertarians of various stripes about what Rand meant in her condemnation of altruism and whether she was right to condemn it. The reason that I gave the above definitions is that often people criticize Rand on the basis that she was opposed to helping others. A moderate position that many (e.g. libertarians) take absent force, there is nothing wrong with altruism, often called charity.

 

I believe that the passage quoted above suggests that Rand was opposed to more than forced altruism. Altruism, as defined above, applies whether or not someone is forcing you. If you are simply evaluating two options it is wrong, Rand says, to weigh the choice on the basis of the welfare of others irrespective of whether there is a punsihing authority involved or not. An ethical choice, she would say, must be made on the basis of value to one's self. This include's not just the beggar on the street but one's own wife and children who must pay their own way in some sense. To give the starkest example, if you had to choose between your own life and that of your wife or children it would be immoral to sacrifice yourself for them.

 

Now there is a lot of wiggle room in the area of happiness (I prefer Tara Smith's flourishing concept). As the saying goes, when momma ain't happy, ain't nobody happy. This, then, leads to a lot of complicated analysis of mutual benefit and domestic harmony. Things can be even more difficult when we are considering charity. If I give to a beggar on the street am I being altruistic? What if it gives me the warm and fuzzies? More importantly, it is often prudent in social situations to be the first to give and to develop a reputation for benevolence absent mechanism to enforce mutuality.

 

Which brings us to the problem of benevolence. Often it is stated as a condition: I will respect your rights if you respect mine. Otherwise, my respect for your rights is unconnected to your respect for mine. I can't control your respect for my rights. At most I can respect your rights conditionally. People often imagine enforcement mechanisms where none exist. The real choice is often between giving without certainty of getting or not giving. Without an enforcement mechanism benevolence can look a lot like sacrifice and altruism.

 

(There have been some older threads on this topic but none were focused where I intended to focus so I decided not to hijak them.)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I don't think I had a single issue in mind. Partly I wanted to check my argument. For example, it does seem to me that Rand was not making the distinction that libertarians do.

But I think there is a one-sentence claim that might help get the discussion going: In an uncertain world, being altruistic is useful.

 

It's useful to think about other people's needs. It's often useful to err on the side of giving.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Ayn Rand provided an explicit answer:

 

"What is the moral code of altruism? The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist 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 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. 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.” 

Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World,”

Philosophy: Who Needs It, 61 

 

As for relations inside of the family, they are based on the hierarchy of values and their mutual trade. As in any voluntary trade the result is not a sacrifice but mutual benefit.

Edited by Leonid

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

If it's useful, is it altruistic?

 

Well, that's my point. I was carful to present the definition to avoid just such confusion. Suffice it to say that it's not easy, in an uncertain world, to distinguish.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Ayn Rand provided an explicit answer:

 

"What is the moral code of altruism? The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist 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 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. 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.” Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World,”

Philosophy: Who Needs It, 61

 

As for relations inside of the family, they are based on the hierarchy of values and their mutual trade. As in any voluntary trade the result is not a sacrifice but mutual benefit.

 

I am not challenging Rand's defense of the right of man to exist for his own sake nor her accusations against those who assert that we have a moral duty to live for others and deny ourselves.

 

But I am suggesting that trade is not a good general model for the reasons I cited in the OP. The goal of benevolence is mutual benefit but the lines blur in the context of uncertainty.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

As far as I understand Objectevism has no problem with benevolence as long as it's not sacrificial. It even doesn't have to involve mutual benefit, simple empathy will be a sufficient reason. For example, as Ayn Rand once observed, if you are running a train and it happened to run empty, you may allow to some people who genuinely cannot afford ticket to have a free ride. On the larger scale one should help people who deserve help, who are in essence not parasites and need temporary help due to difficult circumstances. However, benevolence is not major virtue and well being of others is not your standard of value. The situation is different when the person you help has a high position in your hierarchy of values-a friend, a lover, a family member.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

As far as I understand Objectevism has no problem with benevolence as long as it's not sacrificial. It even doesn't have to involve mutual benefit, simple empathy will be a sufficient reason. For example, as Ayn Rand once observed, if you are running a train and it happened to run empty, you may allow to some people who genuinely cannot afford ticket to have a free ride. On the larger scale one should help people who deserve help, who are in essence not parasites and need temporary help due to difficult circumstances. However, benevolence is not major virtue and well being of others is not your standard of value. The situation is different when the person you help has a high position in your hierarchy of values-a friend, a lover, a family member.

 

Good example, thank you, The quoted passage implied a lot more rigidity. There is a big gulf between sacrifice as she defines it and certainty of beneficial trade.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

"...the basic absolute[of altruism] is self-sacrifice -- which means self-immolation, self-abnegation, self-denial, self-destruction..."[AR]

With that, the irreducible primary of altruism, I think Rand was casting the net wider than "The welfare of other people is the measurement of ethical action", as you defined it.

Self-abnegation = surrender of one's mind. To whom, or to what?

It would appear: to the morality, judgment and values of another person; or to those of 'people' en masse and the pervasive philosophy of the time (altruism-collectivism); or to a mystical ideal. It could be viewed as suicide... of the mind, and mind-independence.

Then, self-denial and self-destruction also make sense as cause and effect of self-sacrifice.

So, although altruism has its root in "service to others", it is presupposed by mind-sacrifice to the minds and authority of others.

For that reason I think Rand implied altruism as not only existing 'for' others, but- as I see it- also 'by' and 'through' them (their sanction, their standards, their values and existence) - too. All the outcome of one's moral timidity and guilt - or by coercion.

Framed this way, it follows that benevolence from one toward others is impossible here - since not only are they permitted to be one's spiritual and/or physical masters - and being selfless renders one's selfish respect/benevolence to others redundant; but too, those who take sacrifice as their due are the last people on earth to merit benevolence.

Benevolence (and charity) can only (and will) eventuate when men are independent of each other by personal morally selfish choice.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

"...the basic absolute[of altruism] is self-sacrifice -- which means self-immolation, self-abnegation, self-denial, self-destruction..."[AR]

With that, the irreducible primary of altruism, I think Rand was casting the net wider than "The welfare of other people is the measurement of ethical action", as you defined it.

Self-abnegation = surrender of one's mind. To whom, or to what?

It would appear: to the morality, judgment and values of another person; or to those of 'people' en masse and the pervasive philosophy of the time (altruism-collectivism); or to a mystical ideal. It could be viewed as suicide... of the mind, and mind-independence.

Then, self-denial and self-destruction also make sense as cause and effect of self-sacrifice.

So, although altruism has its root in "service to others", it is presupposed by mind-sacrifice to the minds and authority of others.

For that reason I think Rand implied altruism as not only existing 'for' others, but- as I see it- also 'by' and 'through' them (their sanction, their standards, their values and existence) - too. All the outcome of one's moral timidity and guilt - or by coercion.

Framed this way, it follows that benevolence from one toward others is impossible here - since not only are they permitted to be one's spiritual and/or physical masters - and being selfless renders one's selfish respect/benevolence to others redundant; but too, those who take sacrifice as their due are the last people on earth to merit benevolence.

Benevolence (and charity) can only (and will) eventuate when men are independent of each other by personal morally selfish choice.

 

I think you make some good points here but, again, I think we need to avoid fixating on the extreme and missing the most common situations. 

 

Surely Rand is not condeming trust. We would not get very far in life without trusting others.

 

But when does trust cross the line to blind obedience to authority?

 

One reason that this interests me is that I do meet people who will not act without certainty of profit and it is my experience that they tend to live impoverished lives.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

 

 

One reason that this interests me is that I do meet people who will not act without certainty of profit and it is my experience that they tend to live impoverished lives.

Hola Hernan, 

 

It's about taking risk. People who never act without the certainty of profit are people who don't invest. In my experience those kind of folks usually do trust their very limited and small family and friends circles.

 

In the passage you quoted Ayn Rand means John Galt could not honorably collect Dagny's body at that time. 

 

d

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

It's about taking risk. People who never act without the certainty of profit are people who don't invest. In my experience those kind of folks usually do trust their very limited and small family and friends circles.

 

Yeah, risk is probably a good way to conceptualize it. So Rand is not condemning risk taking in human relations. But I would go further: in many if not most social situations the upside opportunity is far greater than the downside risk; risk is frequently asymetrical.

 

In the passage you quoted Ayn Rand means John Galt could not honorably collect Dagny's body at that time. 

 

That part didn't concern me, though it is interesting. I was focusing on the rest, that it would be verboten to "provide unearned sustenance." That sounds pretty hard.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Hernan,

The passage you quoted implies that it was against the rules in the valley for Galt to have a house-guest. Would you agree?

If so, do you take this to imply Rand thought one should charge house guests?

 

I read Galt's Gulch as Randian Heaven though there were some rules peculiar to the circumstances such as the one month vacation. My reading is that this is a general moral claim, that people ought not have dependents who don't pay their way. Am I misreading it?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Yeah, risk is probably a good way to conceptualize it. So Rand is not condemning risk taking in human relations. But I would go further: in many if not most social situations the upside opportunity is far greater than the downside risk; risk is frequently asymetrical.

 

 

That part didn't concern me, though it is interesting. I was focusing on the rest, that it would be verboten to "provide unearned sustenance." That sounds pretty hard.

Risk is asymmetrical that is why it requires judgement. 

 

In the case of the valley, Galt already knew Dagny, he could trust her inside his home. After that, it is the rules of the valley, (and everything John Galt was fighting for) that one earns his or her own sustenance. 

 

After the emergency (the crash for which she wasn't charged rescue fees) order is restored and the rules go back into place. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

After that, it is the rules of the valley, (and everything John Galt was fighting for) that one earns his or her own sustenance. 

 

This is really want I want to focus on here. The cited passage (and the sign over Galt's power station) seem to express something harder than mere judgement about long term mutual benefit. The fact that Galt felt the need to explain wives and children certainly reflects this.

 

(I think I noted elsewhere in these forums that Objectivists tend to have much smaller families than average, if they marry at all.)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I think you make some good points here but, again, I think we need to avoid fixating on the extreme and missing the most common situations. 

 

Surely Rand is not condeming trust. We would not get very far in life without trusting others.

 

But when does trust cross the line to blind obedience to authority?

 

One reason that this interests me is that I do meet people who will not act without certainty of profit and it is my experience that they tend to live impoverished lives.

But extremes are the parameters which have to be focused on, not fixated upon. In a sense, how does one comprehend rational selfishness without observing and understanding self-sacrifice and altruism? We know that a generally altruistic person acts largely from duty to others, not from benevolence. Conversely, we know that a rational egoist, by definition, cannot act out of obligation - and when he's helpful and shows good will to others, it is true benevolence.

I don't see benevolence as 'value for value' mutual benefit - that's something else. I think one approaches the world at large with the presupposition that everyone has value in themselves too, and will not demand your self-sacrifice to them. (Until or unless you discover otherwise) Equally, you cannot possibly even consider their self-sacrifice to yourself either. Maybe that's all there is to it: the acknowledgement of other people's values.

Initially, of course there is always a basic level of trust for people, which should be distinguished from benevolence: although I agree they overlap.

And it's not merely the explicit "blind obedience to authority", but a general, implicit diminishing of 'self-authority' that is one's early warning sign, I think.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

But extremes are the parameters which have to be focused on, not fixated upon. In a sense, how does one comprehend rational selfishness without observing and understanding self-sacrifice and altruism? We know that a generally altruistic person acts largely from duty to others, not from benevolence. Conversely, we know that a rational egoist, by definition, cannot act out of obligation - and when he's helpful and shows good will to others, it is true benevolence.

I don't see benevolence as 'value for value' mutual benefit - that's something else. I think one approaches the world at large with the presupposition that everyone has value in themselves too, and will not demand your self-sacrifice to them. (Until or unless you discover otherwise) Equally, you cannot possibly even consider their self-sacrifice to yourself either. Maybe that's all there is to it: the acknowledgement of other people's values.

Initially, of course there is always a basic level of trust for people, which should be distinguished from benevolence: although I agree they overlap.

And it's not merely the explicit "blind obedience to authority", but a general, implicit diminishing of 'self-authority' that is one's early warning sign, I think.

 

I want to be careful because I do not mean to disagree with what you are saying. Rather, I wish to acknowledge your points and move the conversation elsewhere.

 

So, yes, it is useful to consider extremes. Let us acknowledge the pathology of self-sacrifice and altruism at those extremes. In the common world, though, I doubt you will find any genuine altruists though you'll find many posing as such if only to win brownie points.

 

Trust, too, can obviously be taken to absurd extremes. Commonly over-trusting is probably a bigger problem than over-altruism. Although I comlained above about untrusting paranoids I've also seem my share of overtrusting fools.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

It might be useful to remember context. 

 

Atlas Shrugged was a novel and things that are said in there, while certainly reducible to her philosophy, reside in the context of the characters and the story.  It is also a dramatization.  Rand herself always said that in real life ordinary things are marginal while in a story they are to omitted if they do not support plot, them, characterization, etc.   Her books were not about generosity, which is good as generosity as a theme sounds more like an after school special to be truthful. 

 

Modern talking heads simply confuse the point by package dealing Altruism (as sacrificing yourself to society i.e. Comte) with goodwill/generosity (traditional).  Altruism, which she reiterated in her speech quote you highlighted, is a core philosophic point that is the backbone of many other ethical and political justifications and she hammered the point to keep it unpackaged.    Atlas Shrugged dramatizes that point.  For general generosity, she didn’t spell it out since it was not a theme of the book but if you really want to understand it you can look at how she dramatized people’s actions.  Notice that the heroes of the book consider how the government’s policies will affect others while the looters who preach altruism claim to want to help the poor while ignoring how their actions do the opposite (because they really want power).  Dagny is desperate to get farm loads shipped so people so they will not starve.  It is not a sacrifice, society collapsing and others dying is certainly not in her interests either, but yet the fact is true goodwill does not conflict with rational self-interest.  The looters sabotage this, even redirecting trains to crony projects, while wringing their hands about sacrifice, unconcerned of the real harm they are doing. They know it conflicts with rational self-interests but expect others to compromise towards the sacrifice.  Generosity and goodwill is not compatible with altruism and it's all over the book. 

 

There are many more examples of goodwill.  Reardon gives his brother a charity check to make him happy and gets slammed for it.  Reardon sees it as being generous and nice to his brother while his brother criticizes Reardon for being personally motivated and doesn’t want his name tied to the money.  James Taggart expects Cheryl to love him for nothing selfish and treats her badly while Dagny actually tries to give her moral support.  Stadlar thinks people are animals and not to be trusted while Dagny gives the tramp a warm meal. 

 

You might not have noticed them since Rand was pounding the big picture while these flowed naturally from the characters, but they also happened for a reason.  It’s just not the point of the story.

Edited by Spiral Architect

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I think Rand is very ambiguous on this point and I've had countless debates on this with other readers. The quote i cited in the OP is one that seemed pretty hard. There are, as you cited, examples of generosity and benevolence. But what I remember is that some of the most awkward and artificial dialog consisted of her justifying these examples. I can't swear she did it every time but it was common.

Her definitions are very precise but they don't always fit well with how words are commonly used. I've been in plenty of arguments about whether are genuinely altruistic even when they try to be.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

It's useful to think about other people's needs. It's often useful to err on the side of giving.

Our minds are finite; to think about one thing necessarily prevents us from thinking about another thing.  Obviously this isn't absolute (even the act of integration requires some amount of multitasking) but it is a constant and pervasive part of us.

Mental time, space and effort is every bit as finite as physical.  This means it must also be spent wisely. 

Now, it can be useful to consider other people's needs- but only under certain circumstances.

 

When speaking to someone who insists on evading the truth, it is immoral to spend one's thoughts on them (either their beliefs or their feelings).

When working alongside someone who is incompetent, it is immoral to worry about their self-esteem.

When someone wants you to behave in opposition to your own mind, it is immoral to accept their terms.

 

Now notice that in every situation where benevolence is immoral, it is because of the other person's choices- and that the same applies to those situations where benevolence is moral.

---

 

"Altruism," even in its milder forms, places all other people on equal ground- regardless of their relation to you.  The problem therein is not that benevolence is immoral, as such, but that it is only moral when it is useful.

Benevolence must stem from selfishness; it's a matter of hierarchy.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

And to treat every human being as essentially "good" because of one's own uncertainty, results in a still-weaker variant of altruism.

 

The problem with the "problem of induction" is that possibilities cannot be used interchangeably with actualities.  Finding a black swan is not the same as the possibility of such.

This also applies to other people.

One must spend one's mental resources (and benevolence) on those who deserve it, and not on those who don't, according to the context of one's current knowledge about them.

 

Anything else would contradict the nature of the human mind (and hence be functionally useless).

*Treating every human being as essentially "good until proven bad" is, however, analogous to my grasp of 'rights'- the crucial difference being that "benevolence" is different from "mutual consent".

Edited by Harrison Danneskjold

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Are free samples of goods or services, altruism?

 

In the past I have gotten a free packet of shampoo, dishwashing detergent, grocery stores often give away morsels of food for free.

 

What is the "altruism" status of such things?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now


  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    No registered users viewing this page.

×