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.


3 responses to “The problem with altruism

  1. Very insightful.

    I agree that altruism is a very flawed ethical theory. From a psychological-egoist perspective– is it even possible to act altruistically when all actions are the product of a self-interested desire? Incidentally, this criticism was leveled by the Charvaka school at other ancient Indian schools of philosophy which advocated snuffing out desires. On that note, perhaps it is worth noting that there are some religious traditions which do advocate discipline and the elimination of selfish desires, but who don’t necessarily advocate replacing them with other-oriented desires. I’m thinking here of Indian religions focused entirely on self realization or liberation (from desire, and from symbolic thought in general.) Taoism also might fall into this category.

    But also from a moral-philosophy perspective, why is it that someone should act against their own interests? Or to put it simply: Why be moral? Are you familiar at all with the work of Max Stirner? He is the most extreme moral egoist I know of. He makes Ayn Rand look positively altruistic!


  2. To make sense of altruism in religion you would have to accept the idea that the individual and the whole are one thing. This means that when we are being altruistic we are also being selfish. The distinction between the two modes of behaviour breaks down. Without this idea altruism becomes paradoxical and inexplicable, as you rightly say. With it, it all makes sense.

    At the risk of too many words here is a summary of the religious solution for altruism, and an explanation of its importance in religion. It would be explained as the breakthrough of a metaphysical truth.

    “In the Foundation of Morality, Schopenhauer asks the question: How is it that a human being can so participate in the pain and danger of another that, forgetting his own self-protection, he moves spontaneously to the other’s rescue? How is it that what we think of as the first law of nature – self-protection – is suddenly dissolved and another law asserts itself spontaneously? Schopenhauer answers: this is the breakthrough of a metaphysical truth – that you and other are one, and that separateness is a secondary effect of the way our minds experience the world in the frame of time and space. At the metaphysical level, we are all manifestations of that consciousness and energy which is the consciousness and energy of life. This is Schopenhauer:

    “The experience that dissolves the distinction between the I and the Not I … underlies the mystery of compassion, and stands, in fact, for the reality of which compassion is the prime expression. That experience, therefore, must be the metaphysical ground of ethics and consist simply in this: that one individual should recognise in another, himself in his own true being … Which is the recognition for which the basic formula is the standard Sanskrit expression, ‘Thou art that’, tat tvam asi.”

    John Mathews
    Joseph Campbell and the Grail Myth
    in At the Table of the Grail,
    Ed. John Mathews

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