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Isn't every one selfish? Altruism is impossible

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dark_stranger
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My understanding of objectivism thus far is that a person should live for one's own happiness and thus reject altruism altogether.

What I can't help but wonder is: is altruism even possible?

Starting with a definition of altruism from dictionary.com:

Unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness.

One might argue that no act can ever be unselfish. There is always some reward for things... whether it be a tax break for donating to charity, a promise of immortality in heaven for good works, admiration from other looters, etc.

Maybe I'm looking at this wrong; if so, could someone please straighten me out here?

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The issue is whether an act is in fact in a person's self-interest, i.e., promotes their life and happiness--not whether they think it does. Their motivation for acting unselfishly may be the promise of rewards in heaven, but there are in fact no such rewards, so so much for that. People do indeed act altruistically all the time.

Now, whether it is possible to consistently be an altruist is another question. The answer then becomes no, because if you did nothing at all for yourself, you would be dead in two days.

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The main issue there, Dark Stranger, is the need to distinguish between ethical egoism and psychological egoism. Psychological egoism states that everything we do is in what we think (or are impulsed to think?) is our self-interest, not out of choice but out of necessity (it is our natural inescapable impulse), and if psychological egoism were to be correct there could be no such thing as altruism. Ethical egoism requires the ~choice~ to act in one's self-interest, and one could conceivably sacrifice one's interests (i.e. sacrifice a higher value for a lower one), and therefore commit to altruism. Psychological egoism can never be proved, and there is no reason to believe it is axiomatic (we are not assuming it to refute it, but must assume it to attempt to prove it). I don't know what kind of job that is of refuting it, but I could also make it simple and say that there is no reason to believe in it, and it is clearly unfalsifiable. I think it is safe to say that we can act altruistically.

-Dominic

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The issue is whether an act is in fact in a person's self-interest, i.e., promotes their life and happiness--not whether they think it does. 

Thank you for the prompt reply! :)

What you say makes sense; however I am still uncertain of the role of intent in the process.

This is to say, despite the fact that there is no God, if one only did a good deed to save themselves from the wrath of the angry god they believe in, is it really a selfless act? Is altruism defined merely on reality and consequence and not at all on intention?

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This is to say, despite the fact that there is no God, if one only did a good deed to save themselves from the wrath of the angry god they believe in, is it really a selfless act?  Is altruism defined merely on reality and consequence and not at all on intention?

If the person's goal was to avoid the wrath of God and get into heaven, then he did his good deed and wasted his time and effort for nothing.

That's a sacrifice.

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Is altruism defined merely on reality and consequence and not at all on intention?

That is a very good question. Altruism is an ethical system, so first let's be clear about what we mean by ethics and altruism.

By ethical system I mean a code of morality as stated in Galt's speech, a "code of values accepted by choice." And a value "is that which one acts to gain and keep." But a random collection of values will not help us to choose among them when we decide to act. So we must prioritize our values by setting up a hierrarchy leading from our highest to our lowest values. Altruism, then, in advocating that we put concern for others ahead of concern for ourselves, is stating that other people are at the top of our hierrarchy of values.

So the "intent" of a person acting morally according to altruism is not a sacrifice, in that to sacrifice is to give up a higher value for a lower one. I suppose one can consider such an act as a "reward," but only in an inverted ethical system where "reward" means the benefit of others, and "punishment" is what happens when you put your own concerns first.

The choice between a morality of rational self-interest and a morality of altruism is, in essence, the choice between life and death. Since there will always be others whose concern for food, clothing, and shelter take preference over your own, it is literally impossible to consistently practice altruism and to remain alive. Of course, the goal of those who promote altruism is to be the recipient of your giving, leaving you with just enough to survive and feel guilty that you cannot do more.

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  • 10 months later...

[Mod's note: Merged with an earlier thread. sN]

I just finished The Fountainhead two days ago, and I have a question about Rand's assertions that altruism and the self are entirely contradictory ideas...

...but couldn't altruism be, in a way, selfish as well? I mean, say you're a person who has done well for themselves. I mean really well, economically speaking. Would it be in line with with Objectivist principles for them to give away a chunk of their earnings every year to altruistic endeavors, if only because they thought it the right thing to do (not because of guilt or someone told them to) , or does this fall under the heading of living another man's life for them? Or am I missing the point (this is entirely possible)? See, I always had this idea that if done of one's own free will, and not motivated by any religious or social principles, just the basic idea of seeing a problem and trying to correct it, that altruism could still work within the Objectivist philosophy. Or not. Set me straight, if need be.

Edited by softwareNerd
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Would it be in line with with Objectivist principles for them to give away a chunk of their earnings every year to altruistic endeavors,  if only because they thought it the right thing to do (not because of guilt or someone told them to)

Objectivist principles say that "the right thing to do" is to be 100% selfish. So why would a person give a chunk of their earnings away to "altruistic endeavors?" You can't just say that "they want to." WHY do they want to? What selfish reason is there for their actions?

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Objectivist principles say that "the right thing to do" is to be 100% selfish. So why would a person give a chunk of their earnings away to "altruistic endeavors?" You can't just say that "they want to." WHY do they want to? What selfish reason is there for their actions?

Inspector has the right approach. Take an example, so this discussion won't float above reality: A woman has amassed a great fortune while developing her business. She knows philosophy causes history. She wants a better world for herself, her friends, and her children. She donates half of her fortune to The Ayn Rand Institute.

She has acted selfishly in making her donation. This is not altruism, the sacrifice of oneself for others. The word "altruism" itself is etymologically related to the Latin word or "other." Altruism is placing others above self.

The best beginner's resource for issues like this one is The Ayn Rand Lexicon. See the articles for "Altruism" and "Selfishness," as a start.

Edited by BurgessLau
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Take an example, so this discussion won't float above reality: A woman has amassed a great fortune while developing her business. She knows philosophy causes history. She wants a better world for herself, her friends, and her children. She donates half of her fortune to The Ayn Rand Institute.

She has acted selfishly in making her donation. This is not altruism, the sacrifice of oneself for others.

This is the idea I was going for, but I guess I couldn't say it as eloquently. I was still thinking along the lines of giving to a charity, if only to make the world at large a better place for you to live in. As in: "I live in this city. This city is overpopulated with homeless people. I don't want to look at/step over homeless people anymore. Therefore I will give money to a homeless shelter so these people will be off the street and I don't have to see them anymore."

Does that work? Or is that just a perverted form of altruism?

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...but couldn't altruism be, in a way, selfish as well?

This is impossible because, by definition, altruism is unselfish.

See, I always had this idea that if done of one's own free will, and not motivated by any religious or social principles, just the basic idea of seeing a problem and trying to correct it, that altruism could still work within the Objectivist philosophy. Or not. Set me straight, if need be.

Perhaps you're confusing altruism with charity. The latter is a type of action that can be moral and selfish within the proper circumstances. Altruism, however, is a moral code that permits no selfishness, because its standard is self-sacrifice. And that can never be to the interest of the perpetrator.

I recommend Ayn Rand's "The Virtue of Selfishness" for further reading, as that book addresses this issue in detail.

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I was still thinking along the lines of giving to a charity, if only to make the world at large a better place for you to live in. As in: "I live in this city. This city is overpopulated with homeless people. I don't want to look at/step over homeless people anymore. Therefore I will give money to a homeless shelter so these people will be off the street and I don't have to see them anymore."

Does that work? Or is that just a perverted form of altruism?

You have the right idea, but the wrong example. If the "homeless people" are only bums, then the solution is to campaign for property rights -- demanding that police remove squatters or imprison them (at their own expense).

In a capitalist society, all property will be private. No trespassers allowed.

If some of the homeless are victims of statism, as many people are, then donate money to an organization that will campaign to abolish property taxes, rent controls, building regulations, and other statist barriers to production of housing.

An alternative is to move to a better city.

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Any time you give money (I'm not talking about wages here), it should be in payment for the value that person represents to you and/or the potential value they may have.

For instance, a private scholarship may be given to bright students as payment for their intelligence (an actual value), on the condition that they will use the money to get an education and become an independent, self-sustaining individual (a potential value).

Homeless bums have no rational value to offer and deserve no payment.

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This is the idea I was going for, but I guess I couldn't say it as eloquently. I was still thinking along the lines of giving to a charity, if only to make the world at large a better place for you to live in. As in: "I live in this city. This city is overpopulated with homeless people. I don't want to look at/step over homeless people anymore. Therefore I will give money to a homeless shelter so these people will be off the street and I don't have to see them anymore."

Does that work? Or is that just a perverted form of altruism?

As someone has already mentioned: basically right idea, but poor (no pun intended) example.

I'd like to add that, while charity can be fine thing in the right context, one of Ayn Rand's points in this regard is that you don't have to buy your life off one charitable act at a time. Charity, in other words, is a morally marginal issue. It's not the central issue of ethics. Incidentally, the idea that altruism is the central or only proper concern of morality is a tragic instance of what Ayn Rand calls the fallacy of the frozen abstraction. Principally, you should be concerned with how to live your life rationally, so that you may enjoy the fruits of your efforts.

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?

"the" should have been they. And I was being a little overly dramatic, I guess, in making my point. What I meant is I don't care what happens to bums in the street, and I'm definitely under no obligation to give them any of my hard-earned money.

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Billy Liar,

Altruism cannot be selfish no mather what. It is unselfish by definition as someone else said. However, one MAY find selfish reasons to give to a charity. I can imagine a situation in which there can be selfish reasons for why to give to a charity. However, today I doubt that.

I think that that is in effect what you are asking. Your formulation of the question may be the result of the generally accepted notion that giving to a charity is necessarily an act of altruism. Well, it isn't. Selfish reasons are there, and giving to a charity may pay off in a long term, and if these long term plans are sound - and in a world where such a long term planning is possible.

A fine example of this is your own: you don't want to stumble over the bums in the street, and I really don't see why anyone would want to, so you give to a charity or whatever organization can find them food, shelter, etc.

Inspector,

Maybe you don't care about the bum in the street and you don't care if they die out there. However, you will find that many of these "bums" are often the victims, not of their own laziness, but of the country's bad political system. Maybe that is not so often in the USA, but here in Croatia, some of these bums are better educated than the "owners" of some of the largest companies. I put the term "owners" between quotes because it is known that it is the politicians who have a final say in these companies and who profit most from them.

As a side note, this Croatian politics reminds me more and more each day of German Nazism, except that we do not have a war industry. In fact we have no industry whatsoever. Anyway, I just remembered that this is a bit off-topic, so I'm going to stop here.

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Inspector,

Maybe you don't care about the bum in the street and you don't care if they die out there. However, you will find that many of these "bums" are often the victims, not of their own laziness, but of the country's bad political system. Maybe that is not so often in the USA, but here in Croatia, some of these bums are better educated than the "owners" of some of the largest companies. I put the term "owners" between quotes because it is known that it is the politicians who have a final say in these companies and who profit most from them.

Was this addressed to me in error?

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Incidentally, the idea that altruism is the central or only proper concern of morality is a tragic instance of what Ayn Rand calls the fallacy of the frozen abstraction.  Principally, you should be concerned with how to live your life rationally, so that you may enjoy the fruits of your efforts.

(emphasis mine)

This is not quite accurate. The fallacy of the frozen abstraction is treating a concrete subsumed under an abstraction as synonymous with the abstraction. In the case of morality, this usually manifests itself as someone hearing "morality" and thinking "altruism"--not because they think altruism is the only way to be moral, but that they think it is the only morality.

Another example occurs when people think "reason" means "science," and you get (for instance), materialists' claim that the only way to arrive at knowledge is to measure things in a laboratory. While science is one instance of the use of reason, it is not the only one. (A similar error occurs when people substitute "mathematics" for "rigorous argument.") The Religious Right is fond of freezing "values" to just "Christian values" and saying things like, "Society would have no values without religion." Finally, although I know of no one who substitutes "orange" for "fruit" or "green" for "color," these too would be frozen abstractions.

This fallacy usually results from a lack of experience, so that the concept-formation process is short-circuited and the person ends up with a concept that stands for just one item in their mind, rather than "an unlimited number of concretes of a certain kind" (ITOE, p10).

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(emphasis mine)

This is not quite accurate.  The fallacy of the frozen abstraction is treating a concrete subsumed under an abstraction as synonymous with the abstraction. In the case of morality, this usually manifests itself as someone hearing "morality" and thinking "altruism"--not because they think altruism is the only way to be moral, but that they think it is the only morality

I do appreciate the lesson, but I understand the fallacy of the frozen abstraction.

My statement reflects the fact that many people do not subscribe to the fallacy strictly, but are instead influenced by it in a somewhat watered down form. Thus, while they sometimes acknowledge that doing things for self has some merit and may be required to some degree, the real essence of being moral for them means doing things for others. Since, we were addressing a very new person to Ayn Rand's philosophy, I thought it best to focus on a broader and more understandable (while less technically precise) point.

Perhaps I should have used consequence rather than instance.

Edited by Gabriel_S
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