Rebirth of Reason


Altruism and Integrity
by Joseph Rowlands

Some people dismiss the Objectivist critique of altruism by proclaiming that altruism doesn't really require self-sacrifice. It's just about helping people, and any call for a sacrifice is just an interpretation, and not actually part of the ethics. We can counter these arguments in a number of ways. We can show that any moral standard that's different from self-interest, will necessarily conflict with self-interest. And so, upholding altruism consistently would require self-sacrifice.

That's a good argument, but they shouldn't be let off the hook so easily. It's not just that there's an occasional conflict, in which altruism might require some small sacrifice. In fact, often the moral praiseworthiness of an action is judged by how much of a sacrifice is being made. If a poor man gives $10,000 to charity, he's considered praiseworthy. If a rich man gives the same amount, he's considered stingy. Why is that? If helping other people is the goal, certainly they've each helped other people the same amount. Why is the poor man considered noble, and the rich man considered evil? Is this accidental or essential to altruism? To know this, we have to examine the cause.

There's this common view of morality that you only really show your moral worth when it's difficult to. If an action obviously benefits you, it's easy to do and doesn't require much or any integrity. It's when there are serious costs to an action that you learn whether a person is serious or not. A man may be honest when he's got nothing to lose, but it's different when there's a cost involved. If he knows that telling the truth would cost him his relationship, for instance, he might choose to lie. It's like being courageous. In times of peace, courage is easy. But when things get difficult, brave men distinguish themselves by sticking to their values.

It's the character of a person that's being judged. Specifically, it's the person's integrity. Integrity is the virtue of practicing what you preach or sticking to your guns. You witness integrity most clearly when someone has to stand up for what he believes, instead of taking the path of least resistance. When Howard Roark continues building his buildings despite the criticism and abuse, he's showing his integrity.

Well, integrity is just one of many virtues. And yet, often moral judgments are rooted in the concept of integrity. Under altruism, actions are considered to be moral based how hard they are to do. Being kind when things are going well for you is easy; but when you're having a hard time, it's exceptional. Showing mercy to the good is easy, but showing it to your enemies is noble.

As you can see, this idea of tough moral choices is compatible with altruism. In fact, it's difficult to see any difference. When the difficulty of a choice is the criteria by which you judge an action or person, it's not hard to see how this would inevitably lead to self-sacrifice. Self-sacrifice is the ultimate difficult choice. It requires you to throw away your values for nothing in return. The bigger the sacrifice, the stronger a case for your integrity. Sacrificing your life is then considered the ultimate act of integrity.

How is it that altruism can be so dependent on this virtue of integrity? Why, of all the virtues, does this one seem to take a crowning position in that system of ethics? How did it become almost synonymous with moral worth?

The answer lies in the fact that altruism is a pointless system of ethics. The morality is not a means to other ends. It's an end in itself. They don't do these actions to benefit themselves. They do it because they feel they should. Because the morality is pointless, it requires its adherents to be blind followers. They must obey, regardless of the cost.

A morality that requires non-thinking adherence must inevitably make integrity a central theme. Since the morality is an end in itself, the highest end can only be practicing that moral system. The only "value" gained from practicing an irrational ethics is the feeling of moral worthiness. So practicing the moral standard becomes the central value.

But wait! Isn't altruism supposed to be about helping others? Isn't that the central value? In practice, the answer is no. As I discussed above, the rich man and poor man help others equally well when they donate the same amount. But the rich man is condemned while the poor man is applauded. If helping people was the central value, then you'd expect that the degree to which you helped someone was the degree to which the action is moral. But it's never the case. Always the action is judged, not by how much you've helped, but by how much it cost you. The rich man spent little compared to what he could give, so is considered stingy. If anyone praises him, it would be grudgingly -- even if he doubles the donation of the poor man. No, helping people is not the central value.

So it makes sense that integrity would become so important. Virtues aim at particular values. Integrity aims at the value of a good moral character. It's the value of knowing that you're a good person. And whenever you have an ethical system that doesn't actually benefit you, you practice it only to be a "good" person. It's inevitable that integrity would take over and become the supreme virtue. And as noted above, that means that moral action in the face of difficulty is the most morally praiseworthy act. And of course, that elevates self-sacrifice to a noble ideal.

Objectivism differs greatly from this position. It doesn't just uphold moral worthiness for actions that are difficult. In other words, it doesn't elevate integrity to a primary virtue. Instead it upholds moral worthiness for all of the virtues. A man showing productivity is morally praiseworthy, regardless of the cost to him. A man who thinks rationally or is honest is morally praiseworthy, not because those are difficult, but because he understands that they benefit his life. It's his life, and the values that make it possible that form the criteria for moral praiseworthiness.

Sanctions: 4Sanctions: 4 Sanction this ArticleEditMark as your favorite article

Discuss this Article (16 messages)