Rebirth of Reason


Altruism Against Freedom
by Joseph Rowlands

Politics is a branch of ethics.  It is defined by the ethical system at its root.  You can't just pick and choose ethical standards and political systems.  Some are necessarily incompatible, and others are mutually reinforcing.  The combination I want to focus on is the political system of liberty and the ethics of altruism.

Altruism is the ethical system that holds the well-being of others as the standard of good.  Your actions are moral to the extent that you benefit other people.  This can be seen clearly by the use of the phrase "good deed".  Taken literally, it means an action or achievement that is morally praiseworthy.  But in the conventional sense, which is dominated by the ethics of altruism, it only applies to actions taken in order to help other people.  A good deed is helping an old lady cross the street, not learning a new skill.

Under altruism, your own happiness and well-being come last.  There's nothing morally praiseworthy about getting an education, or making money, or starting a business, or increases prices to raise your own profits.  Further, your motivations are considered suspect if you benefit from the actions at all.  The ends result is that the only morally good actions are those that benefits others at the expense of yourself.

So is individual liberty supported by altruism?  If it is, what are the qualifications?  How principled is the position, and how secure is the conclusion?  Does it support violations of rights as well?  And is it fundamentally compatible with freedom? 

The first question to answer is how altruism allegedly supports freedom.  How can a system of self-sacrifice lead to a system of individual liberty? 

The first possibility is that if freedom leads to prosperity, it could be considered good for others.  Notice that this is not a principled support of liberty, though.  There's nothing about freedom itself that is being supported in this example.  Freedom is just a means to the prosperity.  It's at best a partial defense of freedom, and only to the extent you can prove that it will lead to prosperity. Social freedoms, for instance, would not be justified here.  Even economic freedoms would hinge on the debate over whether freedom leads to prosperity.  It is not a principled position.  If you could help people through the use of force, this argument for freedom couldn't stand in the way.

There are other problems here worth noting.  For instance, what happens if some people cannot make a decent living under a system of individual liberty.  Or what if they choose not to?  In both cases, freedom would have to be violated.  Once you start with the assumption that everyone has a right to be fed, freedom is a luxury you won't be able to afford.

Furthermore, freedom does often lead to prosperity, but only because when people pursue their own interests in a free-market, others benefit from it.  If you assume a system where everyone is acting self-sacrificially, is the assumption about prosperity true any longer?  And is it moral to have a society that encourages and allows the rewarding of self-interested behavior?  Altruism would seem to be in conflict with a society based on liberty.

What about the fact that altruism is about self-sacrifice, and that hurts the people the practice it consistently.  Reality doesn't reward self-sacrificial behavior, it punishes it.  Governments have usually stepped in to remedy this metaphysical 'oversight'.  Again, freedom and altruism are opposed.

Of course, if making people well off was the goal, the altruist should preach rational self-interest to everyone else.  Instead, the focus is on self-sacrificial action.  The extent to which you help someone is not the extent to which an action is morally praiseworthy.  The degree to which you sacrifice is.  A poor man who gives every cent to charity is a better than a billionaire who gives twice that (but still just a fraction of his wealth).

So this justification through prosperity is not really supported by altruism.  What's really important under altruism is that people sacrifice themselves for others.  It's the means that are important, not the ends.

This brings us to the second possible justification for freedom under altruism.  Morality requires choice.  Freedom is a necessary requirement for real moral action.  Does this hold up to scrutiny?  Is it a solid defense against invasions of liberty?  The answer is no.  Although it may be true that you need freedom to act morally, there is no reason others should respect your rights under a system of altruism.  If they believe violating your rights will help you or others, they have no moral reason to not violate your rights.

Altruism fails to support liberty in another respect.  Since altruism is a code of action that is judged entirely by the result of other people, your own individual rights are unprotected.  If someone want to initiate force against you, how can you justify using defensive force to protect yourself?  Your own well-being is secondary to everyone else.  Even if you recognized that you have rights, it would call for you to sacrifice them for the benefit of others.  A system where people can't morally assert their rights can hardly be considered a system of secure individual rights.

Along these lines, if the violence against you is in the name of helping someone else, you're doubly disarmed.  In an example of a man mugging you for his relatives, your defensive actions would not only hurt the thug attacking you, but whoever he is intending to share the loot with.  This would be considered an appropriate use of force within an altruistic society.  Once again, altruism is opposed to liberty.

The conclusion is that altruism is not a firm foundation for liberty.  The support for freedom is at best partial and tenuous.  In addition, it is compatible with violations of rights if done to benefit someone else.  In fact, because it starts with the premise that others must be helped, it easily comes to oppose freedom directly.  Further, your own rights cannot be asserted or defended on moral grounds.

It should be obvious that we need a moral revolution if we're ever going to have a lasting political revolution.
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