Rebirth of Reason


Selfish Altruism
by Joseph Rowlands

There is an inconsistency among people who support altruism. They can't quite decide whether altruism should be practiced because it benefits them or in spite of the fact that it benefits them. They hold two different views of altruism, and the views are incompatible. One view of altruism claims it is actually beneficial to our lives, while the other view sees any potential benefit as robbing it of moral worth. And promoters of altruism often switch between these two incompatible views as if they were identical.

The view of altruism as ultimately beneficial has two major premises. The first premise is that self-interested behavior ultimately leads to ruin. The second premise is that altruistic ideals allows for social harmony, peace, friendships, and cooperation.

Does self-interested behavior lead to ruin? Is it in someone's interest to kill anyone they happen upon so they can take their money? This is insane. If someone acted in this way, or any of the other nightmare scenarios promoted by altruists, they would immediately end up in a war against all of the rest of humanity. They would be hunted down and arrested or killed. How is this actually in a person's interests? Taking these kinds of actions would lead to horrible outcomes for the person involved.

The confusion is possible because they don't ask what actions are genuinely in the interests of the person. They don't ask what actions will lead to a better life, and which will hurt. Instead, the category revolves around the motive of the action. If you are acting to benefit yourself, no matter how short-sighted and destructive the act, they describe it as self-interested or just selfish.

This view of self-interest is unjust. It condemns actions for their motives, when the actual basis of the condemnation is the results. An action is said to be evil because it intends to benefit person acting, but the justification of the condemnation is that the action leads to disaster. The only way to justify such a position is to show that motivations are consistently linked to the results. They don't try, and they would fail. Instead, they continue to condemn by one standard, but justify the condemnation by an unrelated standard.

Why do they think they can look at motivation alone? There is a belief that morality is needed so it can show you how to act altruistically. This belief is coupled with a second belief that you need no method of deciding how to act in your own interests. This second belief sees acting in your self interest as so natural and intuitive that there is no need for an explicit method or principles. This creates the mistaken view that a motivation to help yourself is enough to determine that the action is in your self-interest. If determining if actions are self-interested is so easy, you would only take an action if it was benefit.

Some of us believe that self-interest is not so easily determined. To know that something is a benefit to you, you need to be able to anticipate consequences and make careful comparisons and judgments. A simple desire to benefit is not anywhere near good enough. And that means the motivation to benefit is not a good determination of whether an action is in your best interests or not.

The altruist doesn't just mistakenly believe that self-interested actions lead to disaster. They also propose that acting altruistically leads to various social benefits. Many of these beliefs revolve around the belief that self-interest leads to bad results. So if aiming for your own benefit leads to war and strife, then peace is only possible when people ignore their own interests and work for the betterment of mankind.

Note that these kinds of arguments do not show that altruistic actions leads to good results. They assume it, arguing that only a lack of self-interest could explain the cooperation, peace, good manners, etc.

They might supplement these arguments with additional claims like if altruism leads to less conflicts or confrontations. If one side is willing to preemptively surrender his own position and take the interests of the other side as his goal, the conflict will disappear. Perhaps. But what if both sides do it? If both parties take the interests of the other as their position, an irreconcilable argument will occur where both try to give till it hurts but neither side is willing to take. Altruism is preposterous.

There may be other claims as well. But now we can see an important point to these positions and argument. Each argument is an attempt to show that if you want to really act in your self-interest, you should act altruistically. While we can reject that claim, the interesting part is that they are attempting to argue for altruism in terms of the benefits that accrue from it. They are treating altruism as merely a means to achieving self-interest!

This is best seen when they conjure up a nightmare alternative to their altruistic vision. They present a world where self-interest rules is one where murder, theft, and rape are common, and where everyone is out to destroy everyone else. It is a world where life is a brutal struggle for survival. What's the point of this vision? So you can see the benefits of the hypothetical altruistic world, where everyone works to make sure you are happy and healthy. The alternative is an appeal to your own interests. In the selfish world, you are a lonely and helpless victim, waiting for a violent and tortured death. But in the altruistic world, you are happy and healthy with friends and family, living in peace and harmony. They are appealing to your self-interest.

Imagine if they offered a different scenario for the selfish world. One where you were king, where all of your desires are satisfied, where luxury is common and members of the opposite sex worship and adore you. And then they can contrast that with the altruistic world where you are expected to give away all of your property, to sweat and slave for your fellow man, never seeing any of the benefits yourself but content knowing that others are gaining at your expense. If they wanted to sell their morality based on their own set of values, they could offer these scenarios and see how well their marketing works. But instead, they present scenarios that attempt to show the self-interestedness of altruism.

The contradiction is clear. Any attempt to justify altruism through an appeal to self-interest undermines altruism as the goal. If the scenarios are convincing, and someone starts practicing altruistic actions, they would actually be aiming at promoting their own lives. It would be a morality that ultimately aims at self-interest, and simply points out that certain kinds of actions unexpectedly lead to it. It wouldn't be a real altruistic morality.

So eventually some altruistic purists will raise their voices and declare that anyone who thinks that altruism leads to personal benefits is not morally pure. That their motives are at minimum suspect, and possibly corrupt. They would argue that only when you are truly selfless can you be altruistic. Then some will argue for a purer form of altruism, where you suffer more for the sake of morality. Others will lament the fact that nobody is really altruistic because they are doing it for the expected benefits. They will dream of an altruism devoid of personal benefit, actual or perceived. And they may weep at the fear that it isn't possible.

Of course it is possible. Altruism does not lead to a better world. That is based on an irrational understanding of self-interest. It demands a form of self-interest that results in personal destruction, and dismisses the possibility of a rational form of self-interest that recognizes long term consequences and acts rationally to achieve positive results.

Altruism requires personal sacrifice, allegedly for the sake of others. It requires you to give till it hurts, and then give some more. It requires your own personal destruction for the sake of proving that you care more about others than you do yourself, despite the pointlessness and wickedness of such a view.

Altruists may try to sell their morality through an appeal to self-interest, but this is simply because altruism has nothing to offer. It demands sacrifice in every sense, leaving no way to gain from it. It is a morality of self-destruction, for the sake of self-destruction. There is no possible, rational motivation for adopting altruism. It is offers nothing but harm.

That means the only way to sell it is to distort it and its alternatives. Make it seem like there is a benefit, but make it indirect so the contradiction is less obvious. And if anyone ever catches on to the contradiction, cry that you wish there really was no benefit as if you reluctantly accept the truth of it even though it contradicts your goals.

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