Rebirth of Reason


Eliminating the Altruistic Baggage
by Joseph Rowlands

This speech was delivered at The Objectivist Center/ The Atlas Society summer seminar in July of 2006.


Good morning.  Thank you for coming.

Today I'm going to talk about altruism.  Specifically, I want to focus on what I call altruistic baggage.

The idea is that the actual conventional use of altruism has many built-in assumptions, attitudes, and methods.  Many of these are not explicitly stated or understood.  That leads to an unfortunate side-effect.  When people decide to switch from altruism to the Objectivist ethics, many of these assumption are left intact, despite their real incompatibility with Objectivism.

Let me provide a quick example.  In a traditional ethics, there are many moral rules you have to follow in order to be good.  Don't lie.  Don't steal.  Don't cheat.  Don't murder.  You get the idea.  While there are excellent reasons to not do these things, the morality is usually taught as a series of commandments that you are just supposed to obey.  When people adopt the Objectivist ethics, a common mistake is to think that this moral system acts in the same way, and that you just have to learn the proper rules to obey.

So I intend to go into some detail describing these altruistic assumptions, and explaining why they exist.  I also show how Objectivists can unintentionally maintain these assumptions, in spite of the conflict with the Objectivist morality.  I'll also show an alternative to these assumptions.

Let's kick this off by taking a closer look at altruism.  Only by understanding that ethical system and its implications will we be able to see how some of those assumptions might be left behind.

Understanding Altruism

What is altruism?  At the most superficial level it is a moral code that holds other people as the standard of morality.  You're good when you help other people.  You're evil when you hurt them.  The only things in life that are morally praiseworthy involve you helping others.  If you donate to charity, you're a good person.  If you save a life, you're a hero.  If you go out of your way to help someone in need, you are moral.  

That's the idea anyway.

There's a problem with this description of altruism, though.  If helping other people was really the standard of morality, it would have a number of implications.  The first and major implication is that your moral actions would be judged by the degree of benefit you provided to other people.  Results would be what ultimately matters.  Is that the case?

Imagine a poor man, down on his luck, barely able to pay his bills.  He finds a young runaway girl on the street, crying and scared.  He only has 10 dollars to his name, but he gladly gives her all of it so she can get something warm to eat.

And now imagine a billionaire businessman walks by.  He's wearing his $1000 shoes, a $5000 rolex watch, and just came back from a $10,000 a plate gourmet meal.  Hearing her sad story, he pulls out his wallet overflowing with crisp 100 dollar bills.  He shuffles through them until he finds what he was looking for.  A 20 dollar bill, which he gives to the girl, with a lecture about the dangers of leaving home at such a young age.  He then hops in his limousine and drives away.

Under the conventional ethics, which of these two men would be viewed as the more morally praiseworthy?  Which would be portrayed as the noble altruist?  Which would be highlighted for his moral convictions? 

If the moral standard was really about helping people, the billionaire should be judged the more morally praiseworthy of the two.  The poor man only gave $10.  The billionaire gave $20, and some valuable advice.

But that's not who would normally be praised.  The poor man would be praised.  The billionaire could have given so much more, but chose to give a relatively small sum.  The poor man gave everything he had.  The billionaire would not be judged on the effectiveness of his charity.  He would be judged based on his alleged lack of generosity.  The poor man is also not judged on whether he helped the girl, but that he gave everything in order to try.

This is the real nature of altruism.  While it superficially upholds helping others as the standard of value, the moral value of an action is judged by the cost to the person.  The greater the sacrifice, the greater the moral virtue involved.

Why would sacrifice become a central concept?

We can see through this example that sacrifice plays a central role in altruism.  We need to go further.  We really want to understand why sacrifice has such an important role in altruism.  And to do that, we need to more fully understand what role it does have.

The first thing that's worth noting is that only some forms of sacrifice are actually considered moral.  If you chop off your legs for no reason, altruists are not going to praise you as morally ambitious.  Pointless or straightforward destruction is just stupid, even under altruism.  So while altruism might promote self-sacrifice, it only does it under specific conditions.  This implies that altruism doesn't really aim at self-destruction.

So when is it good to sacrifice?  When it's aimed at helping other people of course.  The motivation has to be there.  You have to be acting with the purpose of helping people in order for it to be a morally praiseworthy action.

Have we arrived at a contradiction?  After all, we saw earlier that the degree to which you sacrifice was the degree of your moral virtue, not whether it actually helped the person involved.  But now we see that it really does matter whether you were intending to help the person.  How can we reconcile these facts?  How can they be combined into a single moral standard?

The facts are actually quite easy to reconcile on their own.  Altruism is not really about helping other people.  And it's not simply about sacrificing.  Altruism is a moral system that promote sacrifice as a means to helping other people.  Helping other people is the goal, but your sacrifice is the measure of the success.  But we still have to answer the question of why this is the case.

Doing it for the right reasons

The answer to that question lies in the realm of motivation.  You not only have to help other people, but you have to do it for the right reasons.  Imagine a scenario where a business might donate a large sum of money to a local hospital.  They're clearly helping other people.  But if their actual motivation is to get publicity and create a good public image, it could be argued that they're doing it for the wrong reasons.

That makes us ask what are the right reasons under an altruistic morality?  Why should you help other people?  And this is where things get interesting.  There's no earthly reason for dedicating your life to helping other people.  There is nothing concrete you gain from doing it.  There's is one motivation, though.

People live for others in order to be moral.

That's a little weird, right?  Altruism tells you should help other people because it's the right thing to do.  It's just an assertion, really.  You can claim it's good, and you need not defend that claim.  If people assume that helping others really is the moral thing to do, they'll do it for that reason alone.

And that actually gives us another piece of the puzzle.  If altruism is helping other people for the sake of being moral, we can actually make sense of the need to sacrifice.

In order to have pure motives, you need to help other people solely for the sake of being a moral person.  If you had some other motivation for doing it, you wouldn't really be doing it just to be moral.   Your motivations would be tainted or suspect.  The only way to really prove that you did it for the right reasons is by having no other possible reason for doing it.  Any benefit you might derive would corrupt the moral purity of your action.

And we're at the final step to see how altruism judges virtue based on sacrifice.  If you really want to prove that you're acting for the right reasons, then a large sacrifice will do the trick.  If you are willing to hurt yourself in order to do it, it proves your commitment to doing the right thing.

And so we can see now that sacrifice is an integral part of traditional altruism.  The greater your sacrifice for other people, the greater your commitment to being good.  It stops being about actually helping other people, and instead is about proving your own moral character to either yourself or to others.  This is why the poor man who sacrifices everything is considered more virtuous than the rich man who sacrifices nothing or very little, even though he achieves more.

A Moral-Practical Dichotomy

Now that we can see that sacrifice is an integral part of altruism, we can identify something else about it.  Since every act of morality comes at a net loss, with the greater acts of morality incurring the largest costs, there is a fundamental conflict between this morality and practicality.  There is a moral-practical dichotomy.

It's not simply that altruism is often at odds with your self interest.  That would be bad, but nothing compared to what we have now.  In order to be virtuous, you actually have to lose.  The virtue is actually measured by how impractical it is.  That is, the worse it is for you, the more moral the act.

The Altruistic Framework

Now that we have some insights into the nature of Altruism, it's time to get to the meat of this talk.  The theory I'm presenting is that there are two important aspects to a moral system.  The first is the standard of value or moral purpose.  This aspect defines what the moral system is trying to accomplish.  It defines what kind of values are worth pursuing, as well as the relative importance of each value.

The second aspect of a moral system is what I'm calling the moral framework.  If you think of the moral purpose as defining the ends, the moral framework is the implementation of those ends.  It includes a number of elements that taken together show the specifics of how the moral system is used and understood.

Let me give an example.  Objectivism upholds life as the standard of value, which means you judge an action by how it affects your life.  That would be the moral ends.  But there is a lot more to morality than just that.  If we focused on the means by which it's implemented, we could point to the use of moral principles and virtues to quickly identify what kinds of actions are beneficial to your life.   We could focus on the idea of comparing values by reference to a single standard of value.  We could focus on how it is properly seen as a means of improving your life.  These, and other elements, make up a moral framework.

The nature of Altruism creates an Altruistic Framework

The nature of a moral theory will affect the framework in which it is used.  In this talk, we're going to focus on the Altruistic Framework, which is the moral framework in which altruism is adopted and put into practice.  I don't want to simply describe the framework.  Instead, I want to show how the framework is a product of the moral theory.  That way, we can get a better understanding of it.

Measuring in terms of Costs

One of the first things we noticed about altruism is that it measures moral worth in terms of how much is sacrificed.  While the morality may uphold helping other people as the standard of good, the framework in which it is practiced demands sacrifice.  This is one of the most significant elements of the Altruistic Framework.  It will help if we go into a little more detail here.

Labor Theory of Value

Let's start by looking outside of morality, but at the same kind of methodology that's being used.  Some of you may be familiar with the Labor Theory of Value in economics.  To give a quick summary, economists were trying to understand why goods were priced the way they were.  They had discovered laws of economics, like the Laws of Supply and Demand, but they hadn't figured out a theory that explained why some things were valued higher than others in the marketplace.

The Labor Theory of Value suggested that the value of a good was based on how much labor it took to create it.  It has a superficial appeal.  If something took a lot of work to make, of course it should be priced higher than something that took little.  The theory is wrong, though.  People don't value it because it takes more work.  Instead, people build it, despite the extra work involved, because it sells for more.

The interesting part of the theory is that the value was being measured in terms of costs.  Instead of trying to show why a product might actually be beneficial or useful or even desired by a customer, the theory focuses on the effort that went into it.  The first important point here is that it is because there's no way of measuring the value itself, they have to resort to looking at the cost. 

The second important point is that they are able to "measure" the value indirectly through an accounting trick.  Since the assumption is that the value is equal to the cost, and they are able to measure cost to some extent, the value is simply derived from that.

There's a third interesting implication to all this.  Let's accept for a minute that cost and value are correlated under typical conditions so one can be a rough measure of the other.  What happens when you start measuring value in terms of cost?  Well, you start trying to maximize your costs.  You lose focus of what is actually valuable, and instead focus entirely on how much effort it took to make.  If businessmen accepted this economic view, they'd be work under the bizarre idea that the higher the costs, the greater the value.

Labor Theory of Romance

Taking a different example, in an article I wrote, I described how romance is often measured in terms of costs.  The idea is that it's a matter of simple accounting in terms of motivations.  The cost of an action, if you're going to perform it, needs to be outweighed by other factors.  If you subtract the actual benefits I might receive for the action, then the rest needs to be attributed to some other factor.  In this case, it is attributed to love.

So for example, imagine I decide to spend a significant amount of money on a woman I like.  Maybe I buy her a diamond necklace.  I've just incurred a significant cost.  Now to make sense of the purchase, you look at the various reasons I might do something like that.  How much do I gain?  Unless I like sparkly things, probably not much.  So what explains this purchase?  What factor was so large that I was willing to incur that kind of cost?  The answer is love, romance, affection, and just wanting her to be happy.  Since that's the only factor not accounted for, the action "proves" how romantic I am.

There are many examples.  If a man takes his girlfriend to an opera, and he hates opera, then the greater the cost, the more proof there is that he cares about her.   He's proving his love for her by making a sacrifice.

Does this happen in practice?  If a man buys an expensive gift for his wife, she might indeed be happy.  What happens if she finds out that he bought it because it was on sale.  Does it matter?  If the gift is all that's important, it wouldn't matter.  If it does matter, then it shows that his motivation has importance.  And his motivation doesn't seem to be as strong if he's not incurring a cost.

And so you have a bizarre situation where romance is measured in terms of costs, and not benefits.  If you do something nice for someone, but it was easy and not out of your way, it doesn't mean much.  If you suffer horribly for it, you're proving something.

Just like the Labor Theory of Value, this Labor Theory of Romance does the actual measurement through a process of accounting.  When the factors on both sides are added together, they should equal (or the value side should be higher).

One motivation for this view of romance stems from "mysterious" love.  By that I mean that some people profess to be in love and the recipient doesn't really understand why.  They can't guess how much they are loved because the causes are unknown to them.  So because they're unable to directly measure the other person's love, or to estimate it based on knowledge of the causes, they're stuck deriving the measure of love by the costs involved in the sacrificial romantic offerings.

So just like in the Labor Theory of Value, the motivation for using this indirect accounting scheme is because of an inability to measure the value itself.

And again, once costs become the method of measurement, they also become the focus of the actions.  Proving how motivated he is becomes the primary goal, and the actual benefit to her is no longer relevant.  Her happiness is no longer a relevant consideration or the standard by which he chooses his actions.  The new standard is cost to himself.

Labor Theory of Virtue

Now let's go back to the Altruistic Framework, and discuss how virtue is measured.  The virtue is measured in terms of cost.  Just like in the two examples above, it is measured indirectly through a process of adding up the benefits and costs of an action, and attributing the remainder to the motivation in question.  In this case, the remainder is attributed to a person's desire to be moral.

The reason is that it shows your dedication to the morality in the same way romance is sometimes measured in terms of costs.  The degree of the cost must be attributed to some factor that makes you want to do it.  In this case, it's your own dedication to your moral code that is attributed the factors.  The larger the sacrifice, the greater your moral seriousness.  The larger the cost of an action, the greater it's moral stature.

In terms of the Altruistic framework, there are a few implications.  The first is, as we've already said, that cost is the measure of moral worth.  You show your seriousness about being moral by sacrificing in a big way.  Your moral worth is really defined by how much you've given up in life in order to act morally.

And once again, when the cost is upheld as the standard of measurement, it also becomes the focus.  Altruism stops being about helping other people, and it becomes all about proving your moral worth.  You have to increase your costs in order to prove how moral you are.

Morality for its own sake

This is worth discussing just a little more.  The end result is that people try to prove how committed they are to helping other people by incurring large costs to themselves.  That means the standard by which they choose their moral actions is no longer how much it benefits other people.  While that is still the theoretical goal, in practice, it doesn't affect the decision making process.  And if it doesn't affect how you make choices, how exactly is it the moral standard?

Well, it isn't.  The whole point of a moral code is to allow you to make choices between various alternatives.  The moral standard is the primary mechanism, because it allows you to weigh the alternatives.  It lets you measure the value of each alternative, so you can pick the most valuable choice.  When cost becomes the tool of measurement under altruism, it becomes the new moral standard.

What we have left is a moral system that says intentions are all that matter, not results.  And in fact, you don't even have to intend to help other people.  You only have to intend to obey the morality.  The morality itself becomes the goal, and all the talk about helping people is just a smokescreen.

This is the second element of the Altruistic Framework.  Morality becomes its own purpose.  You act morally in order to prove you're moral.  The pointlessness of it all is staggering.

Morality as antagonistic to life

When we understand that altruism is really about self-sacrifice or incurring large costs in order to be moral, we can easily see a new consequence.  Morality is in opposition to your life.  Since whenever you practice it you hurt yourself, you quickly come to realize that it's not something you really want to practice.

This is our third element of the Altruistic Framework.  Instead of morality being a useful guide to help you make choices in life, it becomes something you have to do in spite of the fact that it hurts you.  It becomes an unwanted burden that you feel you have to shoulder.  So not only do you practice the morality for its own sake, but you live with the knowledge that doing it is in opposition to your life.  This is the moral-practical dichotomy.

Balancing morality with everyday life.

You can't practice that kind of morality consistently.  Someone whose every act was an actual sacrifice would find themselves out of stuff to sacrifice.  They would die shortly.  What's a person to do?

In practice, people find a way of taking this horrible ethical system and pushing it to the side so it doesn't affect their day to day lives.  This is the fourth element of the Altruistic Framework.  People find a way to balance morality with everyday life.

This is worth exploring briefly.  I've thought of two ways in which morality can be balanced with everyday life.
Apply only in exceptional cases

The first method is making the decision that altruism is something you only need to apply in exceptional situations.  In other words, you pretty much ignore the morality unless the right kind of situation comes up.  If you walk past a lake and someone is drowning, you jump in to help.  If some child is starving, you give the family some food.  If your mother is sick, you let her move in with you.  If a coworker asks you to donate to her daughter's charity, you donate.

The intent is that you live your daily life normally and don't worry about being moral.  But if your dedication to being moral is questioned at any time, then you have to respond.  The hope is that this kind of situation doesn't happen often enough, and that you can mostly just spend your life doing what you want.

Treat moral principles as rules

A second method of limiting the scope of morality is to treat it as a set of rules that you have to follow.  Maybe you decide you have to give a certain percentage of your income away to charities.  Maybe you decide to be a pacifist.  Maybe you live by the golden rule.  Maybe you tell the truth because it's the right thing to do.

By setting up rules, you can simply rule out decisions that would violate those rules.  You can then choose the best alternative for you.  In this way, you can still claim to be moral, since you've followed all of the rules consistently, but you don't have to constantly make the largest sacrifice.

Morality as a limit on action

This actually brings us to our fifth element of the Altruistic Framework.  Morality is seen as a limitation on our actions.  Normally you're allowed to do whatever you want or think you should do in life, but morality constrains it.  It acts as a barrier to your free choices.  Morality is a kind of self-imposed restriction on your actions.

This fits very much in with the altruistic view that people's interests are in conflict.  That view holds that one man's gain is another man's loss.  Morality, then, is restricting your actions so that you don't harm the other man.  It means sacrificing the benefit that you would normally get for the sake of being moral.

A side-effect of morality as a limit on your actions is the view that morality is something best avoided.  There's this idea that if you can sneak and break your rules without being found out, you'll be better off.  In other words, people think shortcutting morality is a practical idea.

Having a separate standard for moral choices and practical choices  

The sixth element of the Altruistic Framework is that since you can't practice your morality consistently, you have to have a second morality that gets used most of the time.  The morality is no longer a method of making your choices.  It's a duty you have to perform, and in practice, you have to marginalize.  If you don't use altruism as your moral standard, you need something else to take it's place.

One interesting point about this is that it creates a view that you have two methods of making choices.  The first is how to be moral.  The second is what you do the rest of the time.  Of these two standards, only one is made explicit.  That's the moral standard.  So an altruist is able to identify his moral standard, but doesn't give a second thought to his "everyday life" standard.

But the point I want to emphasize here is just that the Altruistic Framework holds a view that you make your daily life choices in one way, and your moral choices in another.  It makes the artificial divide seem natural.

Altruistic Framework recapped.

I've listed several elements of the Altruistic Framework.  I've stuck with these because they have the most relevance to the rest of my talk.  But in fact, there are many more.  For instance, altruism puts so much emphasis on other people that it promotes second-handedness, which means caring too much about other people's opinions.  Or how altruism worships the weak and needy over the strong or successful.  There's potentially many more elements, but this is enough for our purposes.

I want to just recap the various elements of the framework that I did go through.

1.) Measuring in terms of cost.
2.) Morality for its own sake.
3.) Morality is in conflict with your life.
4.) Balancing morality with everyday life.
4a.) Exceptional situations.
4b.) A set of rules.
5.) Morality as a limit on actions.
6.) Having a separate process for moral choices and practical choices.

Self Interest in an Altruistic Framework?

Now that we've discussed what a moral framework is, and in particular, what the Altruistic framework is, we can move on to the relevance of this topic to our own lives.

The theory I'm proposing is that while Objectivists may renounce the altruistic morality in favor of a morality of self-interest, often times they retain their Altruistic framework.  It's relatively easy to decide to pursue your own self-interest instead of living for other people.  It takes some time to rethink many of your past conclusions, but the formula is pretty straightforward.

The hard part is shrugging off the old framework.  It's difficult because the framework tends to be implicit and habitual.  It's all that altruistic baggage that you pick up along the way.  You may not even be aware of it.

Let's start with an example to see how it's possible to pursue self-interest within an altruistic framework.  I mentioned earlier that one way altruists balance their impractical altruism with their day to day lives is to generate a set of rules they can follow.  In order to be moral, they have to follow the rules.

Now imagine a student of Objectivism that comes from this kind of moral background.  He reads about the Objectivist virtues.  He immediately thinks he recognizes a set of rules that he has to follow.  Instead of seeing virtues as guides to achieving his values, he sees them as a requirement for being moral.  He knows he must obey, and does so blindly.  He treats Objectivist virtues as just a better set of rules than he used to follow.

This example highlights how preconceptions about how morality works can lead someone to interpret a new ethical system incorrectly.  It's not that the student was still practicing altruism.  He certainly wasn't acting to help others, or sacrificing himself.  He may be fully dedicated to practicing Objectivist ethics.  But he hasn't escaped the altruistic framework.  Until he identifies it and confronts it head on, he'll continue to use his newfound morality in a suboptimal way.

I want to go through the various elements of the Altruistic Framework, and try to show how someone adopting an ethics of self-interest might actually maintain these altruistic elements.

Measuring in terms of cost.

The first element was measuring in terms of cost.  You might think that a self-interested philosophy wouldn't have this problem.  Of course it wouldn't uphold sacrifice as the means of measuring moral worth, right?

Well, it can be done.  We've seen that cost seems to be an effective way of measuring moral worth.  Unless someone recognizes the importance of this method, they could easily adopt it.  I intend to give several in-depth examples of this altruistic element later in the speech.  We'll wait until then to go into detail.

Morality for its own sake.

 The second altruistic element is morality for its own sake.  While one can appreciate that Objectivism doesn't require this mentality, it's easy to find cases where people treat it the same way.  People try to follow the morality for the sake of being good, instead of seeing it as a means of effective living.

The strongest indicator of this kind of view among Objectivists is a focus on trying to be moral and not immoral.  The focus is on the moral status, instead of on how well you're living your life.  Sometimes this takes the form of spending a lot of time pronouncing moral judgment on others.  The end result is that they see morality as something you do in order to be considered moral, disconnecting it from any relationship to your own life.

Morality is in conflict with your life.

The third altruistic element is that morality is in conflict with your life.  Surely, this one can't be maintained when someone adopts Objectivism, right?  After all, Objectivism upholds a philosophy for living.  Its ethics is based on promoting your life.  It can't be in conflict!  Can it?

Well, I wouldn't be talking about it if that were true.

Once someone thinks that "morality for its own sake" applies to Objectivism, it's easy.  In that view, they act morally in order to prove they're good.  Once that's accepted, the morality serves a purpose of its own.  It's no longer primarily about promoting your life.  It become all about proving that you're moral.  And as soon as that's adopted, there will be conflicts between the two.

When your own life stops being the sole purpose of your morality, then the morality becomes a bunch of abstract rules that you need to follow.   Moral principles need to be applied within a context to achieve a particular purpose.  If your own life is no longer the purpose, then you can't apply the moral principle correctly anymore.  And then you end up with just a set of arbitrary conventions that somehow prove your moral worth.

Balancing morality with everyday life.

 The fourth altruistic element is the view that you have to balance morality with your everyday life.  This is a natural consequence of accepting that morality is in conflict with your life.  If someone believes Objectivism is in conflict with their life, they will see the need to balance it as well.

This means that you have to find a balance between how much effort you'll put into proving how moral you are, and how much time you'll put into living your life.  If the two are believed to be different, then you have to find that balance.

Exceptional situations

Under altruism, one way out of this is to only apply the morality in exceptional situations.  You can have the same thing with Objectivism.  You can have someone who only refers to his moral standard when making a big choice in life, or when he wants to prove that he acts in his own interests.  The rest of the time, he might just act based on his emotions coupled with some common sense.

A set of rules

A second way to deal with this under altruism is to define a set of rules that you have to follow.  I've already given an example of this earlier, with the virtues being interpreted as a set of rules.  It's easy for people to think of Objectivism as a set of rules you have to follow.  The rules are non-traditional, and they might make better sense than the altruistic alternatives, but they're still just rules.

Morality as a limit on actions.

The fifth altruistic element is morality as a limit on actions.  It should be pretty clear that this applies to Objectivism as well.  If they set up a system of rules, those act as limitations.  If they only practice morality in exceptional situations, it also is limiting.

I mentioned that this view of morality leads to taking shortcuts to avoid these seemingly useless limitations.  It's very easy for someone to continue this view and apply it to Objectivism, believing that if they skip a virtue when nobody is looking, they'll get away with it and secretly benefit.

Having a separate process for moral choices and practical choices.

The last altruistic element is having a separate process for moral choices and practical choices.  This shouldn't be necessary under Objectivist ethics, because the moral is the practical.  But it's easy to happen.  Once you accept morality for its own sake, you think of the moral standard as a means of proving how moral or immoral you are.  Since you're probably used to splitting the moral standard from the practical standard, it's no big deal to continue.

Even if the two standards are similar, because they're treated as distinct things, it has some of the usual problems.  When you focus on standards, you focus on the moral standard and ignore the practical standard.  You have to live with conflicts between them.  Etc.

The Alternative:  A truly value driven morality.

Now that we've discussed how Objectivism can be adversely affected by the Altruistic Framework, it's probably a good time to show the alternative.  That is, instead of maintaining the Altruistic Framework, we can get rid of it entirely and adopt a fully consistent self-interested framework that matches the Objectivist moral standard.

I'll go through each of the altruistic elements and show their alternative.  I'll also go into more detail about the larger Objectivist framework.

Measuring in terms of benefit

The first altruistic element was measuring in terms of cost.  This is one of the most important elements that needs to be rejected.  Instead, an Objectivist framework must figure out how to measure in terms of benefit.

This isn't that hard.  We uphold life as our moral standard.  We try to figure out what effect an action will have on our lives, whether it's positive or negative, and to what extent.  We weigh that against our other choices.  That is the Objectivist process of measurement.  We measure value by seeing how any particular choice actually improves our lives, and to what extent.

Morality as a means of living

The second altruistic element is morality for its own sake.  Objectivist should reject this view.  We should not act just to be moral.  We do not live in order to serve our moral code.  Our moral code exists to serve our lives.

So in Objectivism, morality is a tool for living.  It's a guide to show us how to effectively pursue values in the course of our lives.  It's not an arbitrary set of rules or requirements.  And it's not a method of judging yourself as good or bad.  While moral judgment may be a possible consequence of a moral code, it must not be primary.

Morality is in harmony with your life

The third altruistic element was morality being in conflict with your life.  For whatever reason, morality is viewed as something that can hurt you.  This should never be the case in Objectivist morality.  Because its purpose is to promote your life, it cannot conflict.  If you found a conflict, I would suggest you check your premises.

Morality should affect every choice in your life

The fourth altruistic element is the need to balance morality with everyday life.  Again, this is never the case.  Morality is not a tool that you use in rare conditions, or when people are watching.  Morality can and should guide every decision you make.  Since it's a method of comparing your possible choices, it should be used whenever you have a choice.

This is one of the most radical differences between Objectivism and the traditional altruistic morality.  Objectivist ethics really is supposed to be applied all the time.  It's not a special method for comparing only some possible choices.  Properly understood, it's a tool that benefits you with every decision.

There are no shortcuts to morality

The fifth altruistic element is the view that morality is a limit on your actions.  Because it limits you, you look for shortcuts to bypass the morality.  In altruism, it pays to cheat.

In Objectivism, that's not the case.  Since morality shows you how to make the best decisions, cheating always involves picking some suboptimal choice.  If you cheat, you're just cheating yourself.  If you ignore what your best decision making process tells you, you're simply shooting yourself in the foot.

There is only one decision making process

The last altruistic element is that it upholds two decision making processes.  One for morality, the other for practical things.

As already mentioned, Objectivism rejects this view.  First, because there shouldn't be a method of acting in order to be moral.  Being moral is not an end in itself, and thus you don't need a method of trying to achieve it.  Also, since Objectivist morality is applicable for all choices, there is no need for a second mechanism.

More on Objectivist Framework

Looking at the whole Objectivist moral framework, there are many elements that would be worthwhile to discuss.  I only want to focus on the big ones that contrast it with the altruistic framework.

One of the most important elements to the Objectivist moral framework is the understanding that your moral code serves a specific purpose.  Altruism is pointless at so many levels, you get used to thinking about morality in terms of the arbitrary.  Objectivist ethics, on the other hand, must satisfy its purpose.  It needs to function as the basic methodology for making choices, with the goal of promoting your life.

Because it is tied to its purpose, there is no room for the arbitrary.  Any pointlessness would contradict the goal of the moral code.  The entire structure of the ethics, including how you put it into practice, must be consistent with its purpose.

Since there's no room for arbitrary rules, there's no simple method of automatically choosing the right values.  Morality is a set of tools that you can apply, but that means you still have to apply them.  And that means, you have to think.  You have to weigh values against one another.  You have to identify how principles can be used in a situation to improve your outcome.  You have to use your mind.

And of course, results matter.  This is an ethics where the whole point is to succeed in your actions, and succeed in life.  In other ethical systems, it might be fine to say "I can't be blamed!  I did the right thing!".  In Objectivism, you should be asking "Was there something I could have done to improve the outcome?".  Ethics should not be an excuse to fail in life.

Objectivist ethics also keeps the focus on living well instead of passing moral judgment.  Morality isn't a tool for attacking other people.  It is first and foremost a mean of successful living, and that defines it's nature and use.  Moral judgment is a secondary use, and should never define the nature of your moral code.  Your focus should be on making good choices, and not achieving a moral status.

There's always more we can talk about in terms of an Objectivist framework, but this should be sufficient to contrast it from altruism.  When you reject the Altruistic Framework for an Objectivists one, you get a much more radical and consistent approach to living.

I want to turn now to some major examples contrasting the alternative views.

Exploring the Virtues:  Contrasting views of the major virtues.

To get a better understanding of how the Altruistic Framework can affect someone adopting a self-interested moral guide, I want to take a look at the Objectivist virtues and how they get used.  The goal is to take a couple examples of the virtue in practice, and try to see how to compare them.  It should give us an opportunity to see how a consistently self-interested morality stands up against a self-interested system stuck in the Altruistic Framework.


Let's start with the virtue of rationality.  This virtue emphasizes our need to understand the world for what it is so that we can act in a way that's compatible with it.  It includes gaining knowledge of the world through the proper use of reason.  It also attempts to avoid having a distorted or incorrect understanding of the world.  So for instance, it emphasizes using logic to detect contradictions.  It also says you shouldn't evade knowledge or take things on faith.

Let's look at two examples:

Case 1:  There's a man named Al who's been exclusively dating a woman for awhile.  She's always been a little secretive, but he loves her and doesn't feel the need to pry.  One day a friend of his tells him he has some bad news.  She's been married the whole time.  He goes into a detailed description.

Al is heartbroken, and he doesn't want to hear all of this.  He knows he's going to break up with her, since that kind of distrust can't be overcome.  But he knows that if he tells his friend to stop, he'll simply be evading.  Despite how much it hurts, he listens through the whole description.

Case 2:  There's a man named Ratsi.  He's recently gotten a raise at work, and is trying to figure out what to do with his money.  He decides he wants to invest it, but doesn't really know how to.  He decides to sign up for a seminar on investing that his company offers.

Now ask yourself a question.  Of these two men, which of them is more committed to the virtue of rationality.  Al, who overcomes his emotional turmoil to see reality for what it is?  Or Ratsi, who takes a class on investing?  Which do you think?

Let's actually try to analyze the situations a little more.  First, why is Al in this situation?  Partly, it's because he though some facts were not worth knowing.  He didn't try to understand his girlfriend's strange behaviors.  Once he knew she had lied to him, what value did he gain from listening to all the details?  Not much.  Maybe it strengthened his resolution some.  And what was his main purpose for listening?  To make sure he wasn't evading.  In other words, he was doing it to be virtuous.  While Al did incur a large cost, the benefit he received for it was small at best.

Ratsi, on the other hand, gave up very little and learned some fundamentals of investing, which have the potential to help him a lot.  He didn't act this way in order to be moral.  He acted this way because he recognized that a better understanding of the world leads to better results.

This highlights the differences between the Altruistic Framework and the Objectivist Framework.  Al incurred large costs in order to prove he was moral.  Ratsi tried to maximize his benefits. 


Let's look at productivity.  It's the virtue that emphasizes the need to actually go out and pursue values.  If you want something, you need to act in order to achieve it.  Let's look at examples:

Case 1:  Al is a hard worker.  He firmly believes that to go somewhere in life, you have to work for it.  So at work, he readily volunteers for difficult and challenging assignments.  He's willing to spend large hours, even all-nighters, in order to achieve them.  The jobs he takes are ones where he can effectively use his already existing skill set.

Case 2: Ratsi is a bit lazier.  He still pursues values, but he's always looking for ways of making his life easier.  He doesn't take jobs that are too challenging.  Instead, he takes jobs that he can learn from and grow with. 

Which of these two is more committed to the virtue of productivity?

Again, looking closer, Al is willing to incur large costs for the sake of doing hard work.  While he may benefit from his work, his primary motivation is to work hard, since he believes that's the key to success.  His focus isn't on the values he gains, but on the work he produces.

Ratsi doesn't just look to gain immediate values.  He's methodically increasing his skill sets so his productivity keeps going up.  While he doesn't put as much effort into his work, his effort is more value effective.

Again, we can see the cost driven view of the virtue of productivity, and compare it to the value driven view.


Now the virtue of honesty.  This virtue emphasizes the importance of upholding the truth as opposed to trying to support a lie.

Case 1:  Al went to a bachelor party and got to see a stripper.  He doesn't really want to tell his new girlfriend about it, since she gets offended at that sort of thing.  But he recognizes the importance of honesty, and tells her anyway.  She dumps him.

Case 2: Ratsi didn't go to the bachelor party.  He knew his girlfriend wouldn't like it.  His girlfriend asked him whether he did, and he honestly answered no.

Which of the two is more committed to the virtue of honesty?  And I mean just honesty here.  I'm not looking for a general assessment of their moral characters.  Which is more committed to the virtue of honesty.

In this case, Al was willing to be honest in the face of large obstacles.  It clearly shows his commitment.

Ratsi had nothing to lose in telling the truth, so it's easy to think he wasn't showing any particular commitment.

But if you look at the bigger picture, Ratsi didn't go to the party for a good reason.  He knew that later, honesty would require him to tell the truth about it.  He put the virtue of honesty into practice by not creating a situation where he would need or desire to lie.

Al didn't do that.  He allowed himself to create a situation where the truth wasn't beneficial to him, and gave himself strong incentives to lie.  That he told the truth is good, but the damage was really done in the initial decision of his.

Again, in the Altruistic framework, he can be praised for incurring a large cost.  But in the Objectivist Framework, we recognize that the cost was self-imposed.  If value is our means of judging his moral worth, we have to look at his actions as a failure to effectively practice the virtue of honesty.


The virtue of independence consists of dealing with reality directly, instead of through a middleman.  In traditional terms, independence refers to financial independence, which means having the means to make your own choices.  And that means having the skills to have those means.

Objectivists also emphasize the mental version of independence.  That means thinking for yourself, and not letting other people's opinions override your best judgment.

Case 1:  Al got tired of being dumped, and joined a commune.  He gave all his money to the community, and decided to do his part.  The commune made money by making handmade furniture.  One day the commune decided to give up this semi-lucrative job and become truly self-sufficient, growing their own food.  Al thought it was a terrible idea, and they'd all starve since nobody knew anything about growing food.  He was overruled and pressured to accept the decision.  He stood his ground, making sure everyone knew it was not his choice.  He knew they would resent him and he'd lose his newfound friends, but he had to do what he knew was right.

Case 2:  Ratsi didn't join a commune.  He kept his regular job.  One day a client told him how he should do his job, and he simply said "I disagree".  That was the end of it.  Ratsi has many other customers.

Which is more committed to the virtue of independence?  Again, Al incurred a cost.  And again, it was a self-inflicted cost.  Furthermore, by giving up his financial independence, he also gave up his mental independence.  He can proudly disagree with the community, but he's still stuck doing what they say.  If the point of a virtue is to pursue values, then what value does he gain from defiantly arguing?

Ratsi, on the other hand, recognizes that independent thinking is tied to his financial independence.  He recognizes that thinking independently is only valuable if he's able to act upon his thinking.


Let's turn to the virtue of pride.  This virtue consists of being happy with yourself, but only if it's appropriate.  The virtue emphasizes doing the things that will make you justified in being happy with yourself.

Case 1:  Al quits the commune, and decides to go into an entirely new field he has no knowledge about.  He works hard to master the new skills.  His pride is enhanced because he tried something very difficult, and showed that he could accomplish it.

Case 2:  Ratsi kept his own career.  He continued to grow his skills, and expand his knowledge.  He knew he was capable of dealing with new problems because his skill set was so broad and useful in the market.

In the Altruistic Framework, Al incurred a significant cost in order to prove to himself that he could deal with the world in an effective way.  In the Objectivist Framework, Ratsi didn't need to perform some amazing feat in order to prove to himself he's capable of dealing with the world.  His accomplishments prove it to him.  He knows he's capable because he's built a solid track record of success.


Now let's look at Justice.  This virtue involves judging others morally, and treating them accordingly.  Justice can both punish the bad, and reward the good.

Case 1:  Al works with a real jerk.  But the guy does accomplish some useful things.  When Al's boss asks him what he thinks of the guy, Al makes sure to give the good with the bad.  Even though he doesn't like the guy, Al knows that justice requires him to be objective in his evaluation.

Case 2: Ratsi loves his girlfriend.  He decides to go home one day and tell her that.  He even buys her flowers.

Which is more committed to the virtue of justice?

In Al's case, he doesn't really benefit from his virtuous act.  In fact, there's probably a large emotional cost to having to say something nice about someone you hate.  Ratsi, on the other hand, had it easy.  And he may benefit the most.  Al might get stuck reporting to his enemy.

I'm not trying to say that Al is wrong for doing it.  This example is aimed at highlight again how the Altruistic Framework promotes situations likes Al's instead of situations like Ratsi's.  Ratsi is doing a very moral thing, but it doesn't count for much in that framework.


Finally, let's talk about integrity.  I want to change the format for this virtue a little.

I left integrity for the end on purpose. Even though we've gone through the other virtues, this one is a little unique.  That's because integrity is often understood to mean being committed to morality.  You can think of it as the virtue of being virtuous.

The traditional way of judging integrity is by how much you're willing to sacrifice in order to be virtuous.  A man with integrity does the right thing, despite the costs.  A man with integrity will not cave in.  A man with integrity will stand by his convictions in the face of opposition.

This is fully compatible with the Altruistic Framework.  The question is, is there a competing view of integrity that is compatible with the Objectivist Framework?

Of course!

Integrity has the same word base as integration.  The virtue consists of having an integrated moral approach to life.  This is often viewed as practicing what you preach, because obviously those that don't are inconsistent.  But integrity goes beyond that.

Integrity means being consistent in applying your morality.  It means not taking shortcuts or only applying it under certain conditions.  In Objectivism, it means consistently applying the Objectivist ethics to your life.

How do you measure something like this?  We know the dangers of measuring with cost.  Is there an alternative? 

You can measure it by how successful you are at living.  Instead of trying to measure integrity by a single action, you measure it in terms of how consistently and effective you apply your morality.  It's a summation of you moral behavior over a large period of time.  In concrete terms, if your morality is about promoting your life, you should be able to measure it by seeing how successful your life is.

I found this quote attributed to Ayn Rand:

"Achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose of your life, and that happiness, not pain or mindless self-indulgence, is the proof of your moral integrity, since it is the proof and the result of your loyalty to the achievement of your values."

All of the virtues act the same.  You can measure them in terms of the values they achieve.  Any particular virtue is not properly measured by a single event, but on a consistent use of that virtue.  The goal of all of them is to reduce cost, and maximize benefit, so cost should never be seen as an indicator of moral triumph.


The next big example is the idea of what constitutes a hero.  A hero is a profoundly moral concept.  A hero is a kind of idealized man.  He's a living embodiment of virtue.  He's a moral ideal concretized into human form.  He's man at his best, as he could and ought to be.

In real life, heroes are rare.  Even if they have heroic qualities, there's usually some unpleasant aspect as well.  So only within particular contexts can you usually refer to someone as being heroic.

In fiction, it's far easier to portray or see a hero.  A fictional hero can be consistent.  He can fully embody a moral ideal.  And in the fiction, his heroic qualities can be highlighted in a way that is difficult to show in real life.

The Conventional View

In the traditional view of heroism, the hero needs to overcome great hardships in order to prove his heroism.  A hero has to slay dragons, or fight a deadly opponent, or survive torture, or resist temptation.  The basic theme in the conventional view is overcoming hardship is the proof of heroism.  If you stand up for your ideals in the face of significant opposition, it proves your dedication to your moral ideals.

In real life, the status of hero is often applied to soldiers who risk or lose their lives.  It was applied to the firemen at the World Trade Center.  It is applied to policemen and rescue workers.  It applies to a scientist who stood up to the world and in the end proved that he was right.  In all of these cases, sacrifice or the risk of death prove the heroism.

This is just another aspect of the Altruistic framework.  In this case, heroism is accepted as a commitment to ideals in the face of significant resistance.  The moral ideal is straight out of the altruistic code.  The most heroic thing you can do is practice morality for its own sake, in spite of massive costs to yourself.

I don't mean to suggest that these people aren't heroes.  Often when someone risks a lot for his ideals, it is proof that he takes them seriously.  The problem here is that this is viewed as the primary or maybe only way in which you judge someone as a hero.  If they didn't sacrifice or risk everything, then they're not heroes under the conventional view.

I have a quote from the Fountainhead that I think highlights one result.  It's a quote from Mitchell Layton, who Rand describes thus:

"Mitchell Layton had inherited a quarter of a billion dollars and had spent the thirty-three years of his life trying to make amends for it."

At one point, Mitchell Layton starts speaking of Gail Wynand, a man he's incredibly envious of.  He says:

"What's he so damn arrogant about?  Just because he made the fortune himself?  Does he have to be such a damn snob just because he came from Hell's Kitchen?  It isn't other people's fault if they weren't lucky enough to be born in Hell's Kitchen to rise out of!  Nobody understands what a terrible handicap it is to be born rich.  Because people just take for granted that because you were born that way you'd just be no good if you weren't.  What I mean is if I'd had Gail Wynand's breaks, I'd be twice as rich as he is by now and three times as famous."

I think this highlight the problem with the traditional view of heroism.  It embodies the notion that paying large costs is the way of proving moral worth.  With this kind of view, people become envious of those who have had the opportunity to suffer.  With this kind of view, people long for conflicts and resistance, so they can prove their moral worth.  The vision of a moral ideal does not lead them to greatness, but leads them to the desire for obstacles.

A heroic alternative

Is there an alternative?  I think so.  If we're talking about moral ideals, then cost should not be our focus.  We should be focusing on value.  A person displays his heroic qualities by applying them consistently in life, and achieving great things along the way.  You measure his commitment to those values by the fact that he pursues them consistently and effectively throughout his life.

A traditional hero can go from common to hero in a single act.  An Objectivist hero builds a solid history of success and achievement.

The traditional hero is successful in times of conflict.  The Objectivist hero is successful in times of peace.

A friend of mine, Ashley Frazier, described the Objectivist hero in her own terms.

My heroes are people who have a clearly defined sense of self; they know what they believe in, what is important, how they want to live. They are uncompromising. Their actions have reasons. They are not ruled by emotions, but they feel powerfully in the presence of beauty, accomplishment, greatness. They generally know a lot about many things. They may have done something so extraordinary that they are known to all. More likely their lives are quietly extraordinary, filled with people who admire and are inspired by them on a local level.

My heroes pursue their work and avocations competently and creatively. With joy, honesty, and mindfulness.

I love my heroes, in a breathless, sacred way. And I think I am as much like them as I can be at this point. I am an inspiration to myself as my heroes are to me and I am to others. I feel amazement at myself on a regular basis.

I think that there has to be some connection on a personal level for someone to be a hero to me, rather than just a person who has accomplished something. For example, there are people in many arenas (politics, science, art) who have done great things that I don't understand or have little interest in. But I know artists who pursue their crafts in such a way that they are heroic to me. I know scientists who create wonderful, elegant tools and develop ideas that excite me! Today my mechanic diagnosed my car without doing much more than putting his hand on it, and then talked about it so clearly and reasonably that it made me want to get to know him better.

I don't think a hero needs to be larger than life. I think my heroes are deliciously real, living people that have their shit so together that they take being alive to a whole new level.

This is a view of heroism that moves way beyond the Altruistic Framework.  There's no room in here for desiring conflict and resistance.  There's no desire to incur costs in order to achieve moral stature.  Instead, this is a view of heroism fully consistent with the morality of Objectivism.


In the form of a conclusions, let's go over some of the larger point.  We looked into altruism, and we saw that it's not really about helping people at all.  We saw a moral code that exists for its own sake, and demands sacrifice in order to prove dedication.

We saw that the moral purpose of an ethical system is only a small part of that system, and there are many more elements the make up a kind of ethical framework.  We saw that the very nature of Altruism leads to many of these moral assumptions.

We also saw how even someone explicitly pursuing the Objectivist ethics can unintentionally adopt much of this altruistic baggage.

We saw what an Objectivist framework would look like, and why it's more consistent with its moral purpose.

We looked at the major Objectivist virtues, and saw how they can be seen from the Altruistic Framework.  We also saw how to rethink them in a consistently Objectivist framework, where proof of the virtue is measured in consistent and effective use.

We also saw how heroism is traditionally viewed in terms of costs and obstacles, but that it's possible to adopt a view that emphasizes success and benefits.

I want to add another point to this speech now.  As Objectivists, we often have a hard time communication our own moral system to people who still accept the traditional altruistic morality.  I believe part of this is because even if we communicate the difference in our moral standards, they still can't see the change in the moral framework.

Imagine explaining to someone who believes that incurring costs is necessary to show how moral you are.  If you come and tell him that you're promoting a moral system that doesn't have these costs, what would he make of it?  He might just think you're promoting a consistent shortcut policy, effectively proving your lack of sincerity when it comes to morality.  If we're going to effectively communicate our moral views, we're going to have to really understand what their context is.

But that shouldn't be our primary reason for understanding this.  Morality is our means of successfully living life.  It's for that reason alone that we should identify the altruistic baggage and eliminate its hold on our lives.

Thank you for coming. 
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