Rebirth of Reason


Personal and Political Altruism
by Joseph Rowlands

For those who accept some kind of altruistic morality, there are two radically different ways of putting that morality into practice. One treats altruism as a personal morality, requiring the individual to live his life in the service of others. The other treats altruism as something best pursued in the political arena where the power of government can be harnessed to help the poor. These two approaches to morality work in very different ways.


Altruism as a personal morality mean focusing on your own actions and choices. It requires that you help other people through your own efforts and your own sacrifices. It requires that you prove your moral worth by incurring significant costs during your attempts to help others. The greater the costs, the greater the moral credit earned. If you sacrifice your own interests in a significant way to help others, it proves your dedication to helping others.


One of the key characteristics of altruism as a personal morality is the focus on selfishness vs. helping others. If you benefit from your actions, you get no moral credit even if it helps other people because your motivations are suspect. Only sacrifice leads to moral credit. There is always this comparison between selfishness and altruism in personal morality. Any hint of personal gain destroys the moral worth of an action.


The political form of altruism doesn't work the same way. One of the major differences is that you can gain moral credit without personally sacrificing. The 'sacrifice' can be assigned to others and spread across large groups. A politician who proposes and passes a new welfare program can gain the moral credit of helping others while distributing all or most of the cost to others.


This means that the political version of altruism is judged in a completely different way from personal altruism. In personal altruism, your moral intentions are judged by how much you are personally willing to give up in the pursuit of others. But if you can simply force others to pay the costs, it doesn't prove anything in the same way. A personal sacrifice with no objective gain can be attributed to the only factor left, which is moral commitment. The smaller the sacrifice, the less it proves. And in politics, where you force others to pay the costs, it should prove nothing at all. And yet politicians are still given moral credit for programs they create without the slightest sacrifice. And since their jobs are dependent on votes, they actually benefit.


This turns everything upside down. This formula would be seen as morally corrupt from the perspective of a personal morality, but it is seen as perfectly legitimate and morally praiseworthy from the perspective of political altruism. So what standard is used for judging in political altruism?


One of the ways moral credit is earned within the political arena is by creating a moral divide. For instance, the left presents a view where the right are in bed with big business and are constantly attempting to sellout the little guy for a quick buck. The left gains moral credit by claiming to side with the little guy. This mirrors personal morality by suggesting that many politicians are corrupt and swayed by money from big businesses, and that their policies reflect this selfish corruption. From there, they assert that they themselves have not been corrupted, and are willing to stand up against the corporate enemies to redistribute wealth to the needy or underprivileged.


This vision has a few supporting themes. The first is that corporations have enormous power, and are destructive towards society. By having this enemy to stand up to, it makes every act of 'disobedience' appear noble and even sacrificial. The second theme is that they have to sacrifice the huge gains they could get by selling out. They are refusing the lavish rewards that come with selling out in order to do the right thing. The third theme is the moral illegitimacy of the opposition. They can't simply be misguided. They have to be corrupt.


With this vision, their programs gain them moral credit because it is viewed as sacrificial in comparison. They could have piles of money from special interests and kickbacks, but they are giving it up to do the right thing. The sacrifice is in terms of opportunity cost. So even though they may never pay a penny of the costs for their programs, they get to at least claim some amount of sacrifice. And even though many of their programs are intended to buy votes, they spin it as a principled sacrifice.


Even without the idea that they are giving up money from special interests, they might still be able to claim moral credit. As long as they present themselves as struggling valiantly against the forces of greed and selfishness, they can claim moral high ground for their choices. They portray themselves as trying to change the world for the better in the face of an opposition focused on their own petty interests.


The right portrays its own vision of the moral divide. In their view, the left is out to control people and regulate every detail of everyone's lives. The right is the noble opposition that resists the conceited left. The path to altruism is different. Instead of directly redistributing wealth and controlling people, the right see altruism as best achieved by creating incentives and institutions that attract altruistic behaviors. Consequently, the moral credit they get is in resisting the quick fixes that always have unintended consequences, and supporting policies that promote freedom and morality.


While personal and political altruism are practiced in very different ways, it should be obvious why political altruism is so attractive. A politician who passes a massive redistribution of wealth, such as social security, is credited with all of the benefits of such a program. He may get the adoration and fame of not only the people he knows, but the entire country and maybe even history itself. Not only does he get to avoid personally sacrificing, but he may get lavish rewards including fame, respect, and even money.

Contrast the moral "saints" in these two approaches to altruism. In personal altruism, the saint is the person who gives up everything, living in misery, all in an attempt to help others. It requires a lifetime of burden.


The political altruistic saint, on the other hand, is the one who creates some massive new government program and gets the adulation of a large part of the population. He is adored and even worshipped. He'll probably gain financially, either directly from the legislation, or through book deals, speaking tours, consultations, lobbying, or any number of other possibilities. He'll be set for life.


Is it any wonder that politics is so attractive? The moral credit gained may be proportional to the number of people helped, with no sacrifice needed and even plenty of rewards to follow. It's a much better deal than living a life of personal sacrifice, sweating and straining to live a miserable existence in order to help a pitifully small number of people.


Of course, not everyone can get into the position to get this kind of political credit. So what about the average citizen? Can they partake in the political altruism? Absolutely.


A normal citizen can view himself in terms of political altruism as well. He can think of himself as being on the side of the good guys. He can give himself credit for promoting policies that help others instead of selling out to the greedy businesses. The moral credit is diminished from not being in the spotlight, but it can still assumed.


In this version of political altruism, you get credit for choosing the right side, for resisting the temptation to join with the other side, and may for arguing with people about politics. And you can claim credit for all of the policies you support. Free moral credit without any personal sacrifice, except maybe having to go in and vote occasionally. Even the arguing part is less about actually making a change and more about highlighting your own moral greatness in comparison to whoever you are arguing with.


So even here, political altruism is infinitely easier to practice. And you get potentially more moral credit than you could earn through personal toil. There's no contest. Personal morality is hard. Simply telling other people what to do is easy. And because of the way it is judged, political altruism provides far more moral credit with essentially no effort or cost. Of course it's popular.

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