From time to time the subject of “altruism” comes up in libertarian political discourse. Today it came up by way of a column by one Wilt Alston over on the Lew Rockwell website. There’s usually a sort of Ayn Rand subtext to it.
The basic thesis is that there’s no such thing as altruism. That all human actions are based on self interest, even the most seemingly altruistic ones. Altruism is, in other words, a “myth”.
The proof is always the same: the concept of “self-interest” is expanded so far that any human act fits within it. Thus when the soldier falls on the grenade to save his buddies, perhaps the most selfless kind of act imaginable, it is argued that this act was not altruistic, that it was merely consistent with the soldier’s preferences for his own sake and as such was motivated by self-interest.
This is a silly argument: a quibble over the meaning of words, not a meaningful discussion of thoughts or ideas. The real question is, why does anyone make such a silly argument?
First, it is thought to bolster the “free market” mindset. The free market works, and indeed is the highest attainment of social interaction, because it is predicated on individuals acting in their own self interest. Altruistic acts are not accounted for in this model. Therefore, they must not exist.
Seriously. That’s part of the reason.
Why else? There’s a certain amount of titillation, shock value, in frankly arguing such an extremely counter-intuitive idea. That’s a sophomoric motivation, but it’s there.
Then there’s the real problem underlying the argument: self-justification. If it is impossible to truly act in the interests of others and all acts are at bottom self interested ones, there is no need to apologize for any behavior that serves self interest, no matter how detrimental to others that behavior might be.
Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein would approve.
You see, there are limits. There are principles. The free market is a fine thing. Within limits, self interest is a fine thing. But lots of otherwise valid thoughts and beliefs, run out on a string to their logical extreme, become invalid as applied. Even perverse, turning into a distortion or inversion of themselves.
I see arguments like these from Randians and Rockwell-ites and wonder how 20th century modernity could have continually missed the moderating influence of the cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. Thinkers who were aware of the well known and ancient practical guidance these virtues supply would not make such silly arguments in the first place.
This is another of those 20th century relics that stands to be transcended – thankfully – in the 21st, through the simple and obvious recovery of old and settled wisdom that the 20th century inexplicably denied.