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.



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4 responses to “Altruism

  1. Misterioso

    The word altruism has a specific meaning in philosophy. It’s the desire to sacrifice one’s own interest to that of another, as a principle. It can even become pathology. It stems from self-hating developed in childhood. It’s ultimate consequence is suicide.


  2. Please. Are you talking about philosophy or psychology?

    There’s a difference between a “desire” to sacrifice one’s own interests and a willingness to do so when required or called upon. The former may well be pathological, though perhaps not certainly. The latter is what many people regard as heroic, rightly in my view.

    In any case, like every other endeavor, the practice of the virtues of prudence and temperance would generally preclude pathological expressions of a misguided altruism such as self-hatred or suicide.

    Or are you just baiting me?


  3. Misterioso

    From the horse’s mouth (Comte):

    Altruism (also called the ethic of altruism, moralistic altruism, and ethical altruism) is an ethical doctrine that holds that individuals have a moral obligation to help, serve, or benefit others, if necessary at the sacrifice of self interest. Auguste Comte’s version of altruism calls for living for the sake of others. One who holds to either of these ethics is known as an “altruist.”


    • Well, yes. Note the phrases “moral obligation” and “if necessary”, which is quite different from any sort of pathological “desire”, which was your original statement.

      In any case, altruism would be quite in opposition to the Ayn Rand opinion, which regards altruism as immoral. Per Rand, “living for the sake of others” is the denial of one’s self and the most fundamental of heresies. It would therefore be natural, of course, for her and her followers to liken altruism to pathological behavior, having ruled out any other legitimate basis for it in advance.

      Randism is a curious blend of the intellectually sophisticated and the intellectually pedestrian. I think it is pedestrian to argue against a caricature of an opinion rather than the opinion itself, but she regularly did that. It’s one of the problems with her novels. There are interesting and almost unique concepts behind them, but as stories they tend to be flat and repetitive, the characters lacking depth or complexity, unlike real human beings who are very complicated.

      Even the simplest human being is incredibly complicated.


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