Tuesday, July 11, 2017

On Altruism

I was once told that altruism is based on being 3 years old and one's survival depending upon other people. This is completely wrong. I have had dealings with altruistic organizations such as the Salvation Army and Medicins Sans Frontiers. They were not composed of 3-year-olds. They were composed of honest, intelligent people working to make the world better.

Another claim comes from Ayn Rand: That altruism is a totalitarian trick. Here she was confusing the value with the misuses of the value. Just about anything that is good can be used for wrong. It does not make it a bad thing in itself. Money can be used for wrong; that does not mean that money is bad. Intelligence can be used for wrong; that does not mean that intelligence is bad. Beauty can be used for wrong; that does not mean that beauty is bad. The same is the case with moral values. They can be used for wrong, but that does not make them wrong in themselves. That Lenin and Stalin appealed to the legitimate virtue of altruism for an illegitimate goal of creating a brutal totalitarian state does not damn altruism. It damns Lenin and Stalin.

Then there is the claim that, if you are getting anything out of the situation, even if it be a good feeling, then you aren't being actually altruistic. I cannot begin to tell you how wrong this is. Doing good things should feel good. If it gets something for you, then you have earned it. Whether we are here as function of evolution or as God's design, in either case it would make sense that doing things that are good for others should feel good for you. So if you are doing something good and getting something out of it, that is how things should be.

Probably the worst claim I've heard on this subject came from an Indian lady. She said that she enjoyed helping people because she had low self-esteem. I told her that it may not have anything to do with her self-esteem but rather with her values and education. This kind of thinking is absolutely atrocious. Something good is presented as something bad. Being willing to help others is one of the best qualities that you can have, and it is wrong to portray it as psychopathology.

Where the proponents of altruism can in fact go wrong is when they decide that only altruism is right and that everything else is evil. That is wrong. There are all sorts of ways to do good things, and there are all sorts of ways to do bad things. Not all forms of self-interest are bad. Not all forms of religion and spirituality are ignorance or superstition. If a person wants to pursue prosperity or to raise a family or to worship God, that in and of itself is not a problem. It becomes a problem if the person is burning the rainforest or flooding the atmosphere with CO2. The solution to that is not to end economic progress but to move toward smarter technologies.

Of course the negative experience of Communism has discredited any number of altruistic purposes. However altruism is not limited to Communism, and I've seen altruistic tendencies in any number of people who want nothing to do with Communism. It is a part of human makeup. As such it can be done in any number of ways – good, bad, or a mix. Which means that the right way to deal with such tendencies is not to disparage them but to leave them free to do their work of making the world a better place.


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