Rebirth of Reason


A Room Full of Altruists
by Joseph Rowlands

Imagine there were two rooms full of people talking about morality. All of the people in the first room were committed altruists. In the second room, each person rejected altruism and promoted rational self-interest. Now coincidentally in both rooms, they were talking about morality. And not only were they talking about morality, but they were talking about the best examples of their morality. They were discussing what it means to embody their morality. They were discussing their conception of heroism. They were discussing the noblest and most praiseworthy acts.


Now if you walked into one of the rooms at random, do you think you would be able to tell which group it was? Here are two moral systems that are as close to opposites as you can get, and the topic is the strongest form of each. It should be simple, shouldn't it? Let's see. You walk into the room.


You are told that a hero is one who is willing to sacrifice everything for his principles. You are told that the greater the costs, the more heroic the act. And you are told that a hero must sacrifice, and you can't be a hero without sacrificing. You are told that a successful inventor or industrialist can not be a hero because they succeeded, showing it wasn't a sacrifice.


You hear that one of the most noble acts is running into a burning building to save children. You are told that throwing yourself on a grenade to save your comrades is the epitome of heroism.


You are told that Warren Buffet is a hero because he donated all of his money to charity.


Which room did you happen to walk into? Surprisingly this happened to me, and yet it was supposed to be a room full of Objectivists. But I could find no way to distinguish these alleged ideals from altruism. It was a room full of altruists.


If this is rational self-interest at its extreme, it seems we've come full circle! If you really can't tell the difference between rational self-interest and altruism in their most extreme forms, may I humbly suggest you check your premises?


I think there is a problem, and the problem is the way in which morality is measured. Take the notion of heroism. Heroism is a profoundly moral concept. A hero is an embodiment of a moral ideal. And living in an altruistic world, it's no surprise that the normal view of a hero is one who sacrifices everything for his moral ideal. That is altruism. Sacrifice for the sake of being moral.


The hero embodies this idea of sacrifice, and takes it further than anyone else. He is so committed to his beliefs that he is willing to suffer any price for them. He will give up his happiness, his love, his health, and even his life. The heroic ideal is that he is willing to give up anything for the sake of an ideal. A lesser man would cave in to prudence and self-interest. The altruistic hero goes all the way!


In the room full of altruists, this point was brought up. But the altruistic heroic ideal was taken as a given. Sure, they claimed to reject altruism. Sacrificing for the sake of others was wrong, they'd admit. But they insistent that the defining characteristic of a hero is his willingness to sacrifice. They wanted to retain that as the defining attribute of a hero.

How can this apply to an Objectivist hero? A hero is supposed to embody the ideals of the moral system. But if a willingness to sacrifice is the defining attribute, how can you reconcile that with a moral ideal that abhors sacrifice? It should be impossible. By retaining the defining characteristic from the altruistic conception of heroism/morality, you invalidate the possibility of an Objectivist hero.


In practice what they did was find values that could arguably be said to be in a person's interest, and then construct a scenario where the hero would have to sacrifice everything for it. So when they talk about running into a burning building or throwing yourself on a grenade, they point to the values gained and claim a compatibility with self-interest. Most values gained through altruistic sacrifice have some value in terms of rational self-interest. Feeding the poor, helping the sick, etc. They are all valuable. But the important question is what you give up in the process. If you give up a greater value to your life, you are sacrificing. If you are giving up a lesser value, you are profiting. Instead of looking at the means required to achieve these values, the values were taken as proof in themselves that it was rational self-interest, and then it was coupled with a heroic sacrifice.


Heroism is just an extreme form of the moral ideal. We can look at lesser cases as merely virtuous. And once again, we can see that some people define virtue in terms of sacrifice. The only way to prove your virtue, in their eyes, is to sacrifice for it. If you profit from acting virtuously, you probably aren't doing it for the sake of being virtuous. You are doing it for the profit.


Again, this is the way it is measured in the altruistic morality. And by holding on to sacrifice as the measure of virtue, all virtue ends up being sacrificial. The result is that you can sit in the room surrounded by people talking about their moral ideals and most consistent practitioners, and you would have no clue that you weren't in a room full of altruists. And if you can't tell by the most consistent forms of the moral ideals, you can't tell from lesser cases either. It becomes indistinguishable.


How can it be done? How can you have a room full of people promoting rational self-interest and somehow distinguish your ideals from that of the altruists? Remember that these are opposites moralities. This should be simple! The fact that it is not suggests something is very, very wrong.


It so happens that I was giving a presentation to the room where I spelled out an approach that would distinguish the two. But it requires rejecting the sacrificial component of heroism and virtue. It requires measuring virtue and heroism in terms of values gain, instead of costs incurred. A morality of sacrifice, like altruism, counts costs. The greater the net costs, the more it proves your willingness to sacrifice. A morality of rational self-interest should be concerned with net benefits.


So virtue is when you act in a way that significantly improves your life. If you do something very well, like make a very good decision that leads you to success, it is an act of virtue. A hero is one who excels in all aspects of life. An Objectivist hero is not one who gave up the world, but the one who succeeded in it. Roark was not a hero because he suffered through parts of The Fountainhead. He was a hero because he won in the end. His "sacrifices" were no such thing.


This is such a different view from traditional morality that it's not surprising that is hard to accept. Typically an act is considered virtuous if it is hard to make. But the prosperous Objectivist hero manages to avoid situations that make doing the right thing difficult. He shapes his life and decisions to continuously enhance his life and make it easy to do what's in his interests. The Objectivist view of heroism is deeper and wider. A hero is one who makes a lifelong commitment to himself and his happiness.


With this view of heroism and virtue, a room full of Objectivists should be talking about people who thrive in life. People who are successful in love, business, health, and everything else. They should be talking about how people benefit from their choices, and how they avoid ugly situations where none of the choices are good. They should be praising very successful people for the fact that they succeeded, and not because they decided to give up their fortunes.


If there was a room full of people talking about living life well and stories of success and achievement, you'd have no doubts about which room you were in.

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