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How can one live w/out altruism?

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Geoff
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Im having a lot of trouble grasping the concept of altrusim. The way I see it is, if altrusim didnt exist America might not be here today. Take a soldier for example. This man or women is risking their life, so that other people can be free. Is this not altruistic? In ITOE it says that concepts must be absolute, ok but it seems like theres an exception here, but there can be no exception if something is to be absolute. Also in VOS I believe it mentions that its ok to jump in to a river to save your child from drowning, but should'nt jump in if its a stranger. Again, I cant see how this is being absolute, since there are exceptions. I really need some feedback on this problem im having.

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Geoff, it's great that you're asking these questions! I think the best way for you to start answering the questions you have is to define altruism, tell us what you think it means. Perhaps you are defining it incorrectly, in which case someone on this forum will give you the correct definition, and that may resolve many conflicts that you see.

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Also in VOS I believe it mentions that its ok to jump in to a river to save your child from drowning, but should'nt jump in if its a stranger. Again, I cant see how this is being absolute, since there are exceptions. I really need some feedback on this problem im having.

Jumping into a river to save your child is something you do for very selfish reasons. You love your child and imagine how miserable your life would be if your child was dead.

It would be an act of altruism to risk your one and only life for something where you don't gain anything.

VOS also made the good point that you should not base your ethics on emergency situations.

If you have no choice, no morality is possible.

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so that he can be free.

If you are talking about how he was inspired by the idea of freedom and what the military can do, making him dream to be a soldier and love it, then sure. But if he is doing it for the reason that he can maintain his freedom, then this is no different from thinking that your vote will change the outcome of an election -- except in this case your life changes to accomdate your decision.

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But if he is doing it for the reason that he can maintain his freedom, then this is no different from thinking that your vote will change the outcome of an election....
Are you saying that it's not important to vote because a single vote won't change the outcome of an election?

Tommyedison apears to have been saying that a rational soldier fights for selfish reasons, including maintaining his own freedom. There may also be certain principles and/or ideals (freedom, for example) that are so dear to the soldier, he would rather die than continue to live in the absence of those things. This is hardly altrustic.

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If you are talking about how he was inspired by the idea of freedom and what the military can do, making him dream to be a soldier and love it, then sure. But if he is doing it for the reason that he can maintain his freedom, then this is no different from thinking that your vote will change the outcome of an election -- except in this case your life changes to accomdate your decision.
Tim, there is an important difference between fighting in the military because of an actual threat to your freedom which you as a soldier can do something about, and being pointless cannon-fodder. The war in Vietnam falls into that latter category: even though the ostensive purpose was to prevent the spread of communism, the government demonstrably was unwilling to actually due what was necessary for accomplishing that purpose. What they did accomplish was kill about 50,000 US troops and destroy hundreds of billions of dollars of stolen money, for the purpose of demonstrating the government's willingness to engage in a prolonged low-key war whose goal was stalement, rather than victory. You can put that in contrast to the war to boot the Taliban out of Afghanistan, an operation which was a success with quite low US casualties -- on the order of 100 combat deaths. There is no question at all that the Taliban regime actively supported an actual attacks on the US, and there is every reason to believe that there would have been more attacks on the US, had that government not been utterly dismantled. Some wars are pointless, but not all are.
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Are you saying that it's not important to vote because a single vote won't change the outcome of an election?

I will admit up front that there is a part of Objectivism that I am still trying to understand and internalize, pertaining to forming moral principles and applying them, which is why I was careful with my choice of words. If a single vote is worth it, then the analogy would apply in the same way to joining the military for the sole reason of maintaining one's freedom. Otherwise, vice versa.

If voting is worth it, then joining the military might be. If it is not, then joining would be immoral, by the absolute nature of the principle. Which of the two it actually is, maybe you can explain to me in a manner that I can understand. I sure would appreciate it :).

David, that certainly makes sense, but I'm not sure that I would be able to see myself, or any other single person, having a major effect in the nation's military, especially considering the limitations that are placed on the individual. Even as an officer, my father just retired from the air force with plenty of reasons to dislike it. He was both a pilot and a computer programmer, and said that he was constantly being restricted by his commanding officer in programming, who knew nothing about computers, and his flights were always planned to where he had little freedom over where he went, even as an instructor pilot. He basically couldn't make decisions for himself, even when he was the expert in the situation. I would hate to live like that. In addition, the military is very effective at breaking the indivual down and building him back up as a member of the group, basically erasing his identiy and teaching him not to think for himself. As a society, sure it's effective. As an individual, I couldn't do it.

Edited by tnunamak
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  • 1 month later...

This topic has been dead for awhile, but im still having trouble. Here is a different way to put it. Take firefighters for example. These men and women go rushing in to burning buildings to save people they dont know at a risk of losing they're life. This is the ultimate sacrifice and the highest form of altruism. Yet Objectivists dont seem to have a problem with this. Also if we take a look at Army medics they too are very altruistic. They run out in to combat to rescue wounded soldiers. Why is it ok in this situation, but not in others. Im getting very confused over the concept of things being absolute. This dosent seem very absolute too me. :)

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It might be altruistic, but it might not. It depends on context. If a firefighter highly values human life in general, he may rightfully devote his own life to saving people from fire. As long as human life is a high value to him, his actions aren't sacrificial, even though he knows he may die; in doing so he is serving his own values.

That same goes for soldiers and Army medics, but the specific values involved are different. A soldier is a hero to us all, sure, but that doesn't (necessarily) make him an altruist, because a moral soldier is, first and foremost, a hero to himself. He values freedom, he values his life in America, he values the good people back home, and acts to protect these values from those who would destroy him.

Other people can be (and usually are) values, too. The point that Objectivism makes in regard to "serving" others is that there is no moral edict demanding it, and that one should only do so on the grounds of rationally chosen values. If one has an unfavorable judgment of another person, and views him as a great disvalue, then acting to save his life, or help him in any way whatsoever would be altruistic.

[Edit: removed quote for "spring" cleaning. Cheers! Matt]

Edited by Groovenstein
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It might be altruistic, but it might not. It depends on context. If a firefighter highly values human life in general, he may rightfully devote his own life to saving people from fire. As long as human life is a high value to him, his actions aren't sacrificial, even though he knows he may die; in doing so he is serving his own values.

I will now quote a passage from VOS

"It is only in emergency situations that one should volunteer to help strangers, if it is in one's power. For instance, a man who values human life and is caught in a shipwreck, should save his fellow passengers(though not at the expense of his own life.). But this does not mean that after they all reach the shore, he should devote his efforts to saving his fellow passengers from poverty, ignorance, neurosis or whatever other troubles they might have. Nor does it mean that he should spend his life sailing the seven seas in search of shipwreck victims to save.

"though not at the expense of his own life"

The man in the shipwreck scenario is free to help these people just like the fireman is free to help, but not if his life is in jeopardy.

"Nor does it mean that he should spend his life sailing the seven seas in search of shipwreck victims to save"

This again, relates to the way that a fireman spends his life looking for people in burning buildings to save.

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"though not at the expense of his own life"

This is true, assuming that the forfeit of one's life is certain. In the case of a fireman, he goes through a massive amount of training to ensure that the forfeit of his life is unlikely. True, his particular line of work may be more dangerous than the average Joe sitting at a desk, but so are a lot of other jobs (such as a policeman). I would regard it as improper for a fireman to save a strangers life if it necessarily meant the end of his own, but that's not even close to the case. In all likelihood, a fireman will live to a ripe old age.

Besides that, there are a lot of other values at stake in the case of a fire besides human life.

This again, relates to the way that a fireman spends his life looking for people in burning buildings to save.

That's not really accurate. A fireman takes a job (which is only a portion of his life) which involves saving people in burning buildings, but he does not spend his entire life "looking for people in burning buildings to save." Most of a fireman's professional time is spent chilling at the station waiting for the alarm to sound. He also has an entire life outside of work, which he spends doing the same things the rest of us do.

That said, I'm not saying that all firemen are pursuing rational values. I'm sure there are some who are acting altruistically. My point is really that an egoistic ethics does not exclude this kind of work.

Could you give a page number reference to that quote so I can read it in context? I have a hunch that it is in regard to situations in which no value is gained in return for the help, as Objectivism does not exlude donating to charities which serve one's own values.

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Soldiers (including medics), Firemen and other emergency responders might have something in common: They might value a benevolent universe, or, more simply put, benevolence. Having the power to turn a malevolent situation into a benevolent one and exercising that power could offer great emotional rewards. Malevolent situations are inherently dangerous, but these people are willing to put up with that danger to do what they love. Hence, their actions can be selfish.

Edited by FeatherFall
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Other people can be (and usually are) values, too. The point that Objectivism makes in regard to "serving" others is that there is no moral edict demanding it, and that one should only do so on the grounds of rationally chosen values. If one has an unfavorable judgment of another person, and views him as a great disvalue, then acting to save his life, or help him in any way whatsoever would be altruistic.
This point of view stands in stark contrast to the prevailing religious and Kantian notions that one has a "duty" to your fellow man. The more painful and difficult it is to fulfill your duty, the better. If you happen to pursue happiness or pleasure, then you should feel guilty about it. In fact, under the logical extension of the Kantian ideal, saving the life of someone who you despise is more moral than saving the life of someone you love. Pulling Hitler out of a burning building is more altruistic and, therefore preferable, to helping your spouse.

Now if that isn’t immoral, I don’t know what is.

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