Rebirth of Reason


The Thousand Faces of Altruism
by Joseph Rowlands

Ethics is supposed to be a guide to our actions.  It's supposed to give us some kind of direction for our decision making.  Ethics answers the question, "What should I do?"  It does this by providing us a standard of value by which we can compare our different options, and select the one that best fits.  Simple, right?

Well, Objectivists often talk about the dominant morality in the world today, altruism.  We know that it upholds helping other people as the good, and that means sacrificing your own interests and desires.  But does this conception of altruism really fit the description from above?  Does it really provide us guidance?

Imagine you're an altruist.  You decide you should choose the goals and actions that are oriented to help other people.  But which people?  And what do you mean by help?  Do you help your neighbor?  Poor people in another country?  Some millionaire you know (after all, he is an "other", so technically fits the requirements of altruism).  Altruism, as is often used by Objectivists, is an abstraction of many kinds of actual ethical systems.

The most conventional form is the system that says you should help those people who are most in need.  But that opens up a whole can of worms.  What do you mean by those most in need?  Are you talking about the poorest?  Are you talking about those most likely to die (such as the sick or those living under despotism)?  Are you talking about those least likely to get help from someone else?  All of these are possibilities.

In fact, you can't even rely on the word "help."  It can mean any number of things.  Think about a personal ethics for a minute.  Say you decide to formulate an ethics for helping yourself.  What standard do you use?  What do  you mean by help?

You could mean it in a hedonistic way, meaning something that gives you pleasure.  You could mean it in a rational self-interested way, meaning that which promotes your life.  You could mean it in a "it's the thought that counts" way, meaning you do whatever you feel like.  You could uphold physical health as your standard, and do whatever makes you healthier.  You could jump into the mind-body dichotomy, either meaning it in a materialistic way in which money and wealth are the goals, or in a "spiritual" way, by which you would concentrate on your mind or feelings.

There are all of these possibilities, and more.  And these same possibilities exist when discussing "helping others" under altruism.  Depending on what you think is helping them, altruism will guide you to radically different conclusions.

But there are other kinds of altruism besides the standard.  Utilitarianism is one form.  It means trying to maximize the total happiness of "society" at large.  And that doesn't necessarily mean helping the worst-off.  It may mean sacrificing them for the better-off, if you can somehow come up with an explanation for why that would improve things.  But what it would mean for the committed altruist is that he'd try to put his efforts where they'd make the biggest difference.

Another form is egalitarianism, which just tries to make everyone equal.  This is similar to helping those most in need, but the standard it uses is a relative one.  You help the worse-off by making them equal to the best-off.  And if that means hurting the best-off (in objective terms), so be it. 

And of course, there's the most vile form of altruism.  It doesn't care so much about whether you objectively help other people or not, it just cares that your actions revolve around them, and not yourself.  Your own sacrifice is the goal, and other people are just a means to it.  The extent to which you suffer is that proof and reward of your moral convictions.

When you look at all of these different kinds of altruism, there isn't that much in common.  Although "other people" is the principle behind each of these, they're very different from one another.  How is it that there can be so many variations?  Is there a right one?  A better one?  Is one closer to the final goal of altruism?

And that's the punch-line.  Altruism doesn't have a goal.  There is no good reason behind this "other people" principle.  Any particular variety of altruism is as good as any other.  They're all equally pointless.
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