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Altruism

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woolcutt
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A friend of mine asked me to explain the immorality of altruism to him. He is basically a socialist at heart, and so societal altruism is really really important to him.

I'm looking for some help in making four or five good points. I'm not particularly good at debate, and since I have convinced myself of this a while ago, haven't thought much about "Objectivist Apologetics" the past couple of years. So I could use some pointers!

In particular some help from similar experiences would be nice, such as identifying and establishing a workable common definition (we're obviously not going to agree on that), and building up a case from there.

Thanks!

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Try to get him to see the moral essence of altruism and how it must necessarily be "the non-0good for oneself" and not "good for others."

Give them examples of when helping others is in one's self interest as well and ask him if it is moral, and if he says yes, ask him if it would be more moral if it wasn't in one's self interest, and if it would be more moral is it were against one's own self interest. This will help illustrate the essence of altruism to him, and then you can attack the concept of self sacrifice and show that is it anti value.

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That is no small feat you have there. Assuming you just want to get hte ideas out to him, rather than expect him to come over.

Think in terms of breaking his dichotomies. He has a false idea of what self interest means. In other words, he thinks self-interest is evil because of X, Y, and Z. And socialism appears to be his only method to overcome X, Y and Z. EIther come at it from X isn't necessarily so in self interest, or that the socialist solution is itself evil. That keeps you on the moral high ground.

Some key concepts I always think are very important.

1. The Objectivist view of sacrifice. Self interest isn't necessarily "all about me", but it is about my values.

2. Voluntary trade as the proper interaction in rational self-interest. This can be applied to material as well as spiritual trades, such as love. And charity is included in the concept.

3. Socialism as inherenty compelling some by force. I always find this the most pernicous attribute of socialism that people don't like to admit. They use "society" as a general thing with a need. Break it down into "you are forcing me to act the way you think I should". Why is it not enough that you voluntarily give to the poor, but that you see fit to force me to do it.

I once had a discussion with a colleague who was also an avowed socialist. I told her I was for rational self-interest. She thought that that was a very pessimistic attitude to take, why I didn't think "society" should "help its fellow man". I said I thought that there was a lot of evidence to say that the capitalist countries of the world are the most charitable, and that voluntary charity shoudl be sufficient. She countered by saying man is not inherently good enough to support those in need this way. I countered by saying "now whose the pessimist", and walked away.

This is not the way I'd defend the concepts, but this is the way I'd have a conversation with someone who was itnerested. Sort of meeting them where they are. Showing them that I have the more benevolent solution, and that both their view of self interest and socialism are false alternatives.

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A friend and I got into a similar argument on live journal. Here is my response as to why selflessness sucks:

Selflessness disgusts me simply because if I were selfless, I could never be happy. I say the purpose of life is to enjoy yourself, to be happy. If sombodies own happiness in life is so unimportant that they let others' needs come before their own, they really don't think all that much of themself. That doesn't sound like a very good way to be happy does it?

Looking back, its probably not the best arguement, but I won. :)

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Thanks for the ideas so far. I understand also from another friend that Augustus Compte's original definition (?) of the word was closer to Rand's. Perhaps that is to say, Rand was closer to the original meaning than most people understand the word today.

I consider the possible effects of my actions in the following way (extremely general of course). Every action I take has an effect on myself and on others. The effect in each case can be positive, negative or neutral. Altruism in the original sense was a negative-self/positive-others interaction. It places the highest priority on the satisfaction and happiness of others. Many things fall in this category like going out of your way to hold a door open for a stranger (almost a negligible altruistic act) to adopting beliefs that allow yourself to be starved to death for the good of humanity (extreme--I'm thinking bread lines in old USSR).

There are positive-self/positive-others interactions where all parties benefit. These are in one's rational self-interest. Also in one's rational self-interest are positive-self/neutral-others type actions since no one is harmed. Similar break-downs and classifications apply to the other categories. This is of course fairly general and some situations may be hard to classify, but I find it an effective tool.

One practical problem I find with altruism, especially *ahem* those with bleeding hearts, is that it can be very very difficult to determine what is best for another. Your solution to their problem may be the last thing they need. Think raising taxes to spend on a failing education system, or forcing wages to be set so high that a company can't afford to do business thereby causing everyone to lose their jobs, think printing money superfluously to pay debts without actually creating wealth to support it.

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Many things fall in this category like going out of your way to hold a door open for a stranger (almost a negligible altruistic act) to adopting beliefs that allow yourself to be starved to death for the good of humanity (extreme--I'm thinking bread lines in old USSR).

This may be a minor point but I don't agree that holding the door open for a stranger is altruistic. It can simply be a gesture of good will towards someone who may one day become a value to you. While a stranger is not an actual value, he is a potential one so I think that in normal circumstances this is enough justification for the action to be selfish.

Of course, the situation is different if holding the door open will have negative consequences to you, because it will make you late at work or something like that. In that case it would be altruistic, but if you're just walking somewhere then I don't see how the extra 2 seconds it takes to hold a door open constitute a sacrifice of a greater value to a lesser one.

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You've probably heard this classic scenario relating to (1) compassion and (2) socialism (i.e., that 1 does not have to lead to 2):

You live in an apartment complex. In the corner apartment lives a single mother who barely has enough money to get by, for whatever reason. Your neighbor comes by and tells you that he wants to give some money to her so that she can pay her heating bill. You tell your neighbor that now is not a good time for you since you have two kids in college, car payments, and other financial concerns of your own, leaving nothing to give to a stranger. Your neighbor says, "sorry this isn't optional," and pulls out a gun, forcibly taking your money to give to the single mother.

Did your neighbor act compassionately? Was what he did right? If it's wrong for him to rob you at gunpoint to serve his concern for charity, then why is it okay to do it on a nation-wide scale?

Obviously this doesn't address the issue of what's wrong with altruism, but I find it DOES help a person to draw a line between having altruistic urges and needing to force altruism on others. In other words, you can be altruistic without being a fascist. Many altruists understand this, such as Christian capitalists, but this is something that socialists tend to overlook. They see no difference between feeling the need to help someone and forcing others to help.

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