The problem with altruism

Jesus, a cultural symbol of the idea of self-sacrifice.

Just to be clear, this post is concerned with philsophical altruism, or the philosophy of altruism, not acts of generosity and kindness. Also, I may reference Objectivism in some way, but don’t confuse me for a genuine Objectivist, because I’m not, though I probably respect or agree with some of their ideas. In the end, I have my own philosophy.

Altruism is defined as the discipline and/or elimination of self-centered desire and the practice of a life devoted to the good and welfare of others and selfless love and devotion to society and the good of all. Esssentially, in altruism, you don’t live for your own sake, but for others. You can bet I have problems with this.

The problem as I see it is that altruism values serving others over yourself, or living for the good of all as opposed to your own. This effectively devalues any life that is lived for oneself. It devalues any existence that is not devoted primarily to the well-being of others, or the community. Its two most fundamental values are community and self-sacrifice, but especially self-sacrifice and self-denial (in the sense of a devaluing of the self), the denial of the value of the self. Altruism doesn’t give you a right to exist for your own sake, or live your life for yourself, but rather expects your existense to be based around the well-being of other people, because in that philosophy self-sacrifice is the highest ideal. It doesn’t even recognize the notion that people can be really kind or nice based on selfish desires or thinking for one’s own benefit. Nor does it value actual accomplishment, or creation, for there is nothing about it that involves creation.

For some reason, most if not all religions promote altruism as an important moral value and have an altruistic morality (or do they?). Notable examples include Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism (that is assuming Hinduism has altruism as its defining value, like the others on this list). Keep in mind, however, these are religions have the pattern of having a defined doctrine (except for Hinduism, which tends to encompass a wide variety of beliefs and doctrines), so vernacular or pagan belief systems probably aren’t about this sort of thing. Regardless, I guess the reason for religion’s relentless promotion of altruism is related to the devaluing of the self and living life for yourself on the part of altruism and religion, and those without self are easier to control and manipulate, which is what religion has all too often been shown to do.

Though I’ve never read it, the book Anthem paints a picture of a society characterized by collectivism and goal of eradicating individuality and individualistic thought, to the point that people are even burned at the stake for saying the words “I”, “Me”, “Myself”, or “Ego”. It is a totalitarian dystopia, founded on the idea of the selfless devotion to the lives of others over thinking for your own sake. The book was of course written by Ayn Rand, and as I said earlier I am not a flat out bona fide Objectivist, I just happen to agree with some of their ideas, such as their promotion of individualism, their opposition to collectivism, and their valuing of the self.

Now even though I’ve laid out my problems with altruism, I am not devaluing acts of kindness, generosity, or charity, since those can actually benefit yourself, and are linked to the desire to be treated nicely, which in itself is still a selfish desire because it pertains to how it benefits you. Sometimes you can even be nice because you just feel like it (not the same as altruistic thought, which advocates serving other purely out of selfless thought). Who said the desire for social contact isn’t selfish? Or that it’s bad because it’s selfish? Selfishness, self-centered though, or selfish desire has both good, bad, or neutral fruits, but it’s not bad on its own.