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Why Altruism?
by Joseph Rowlands

The other day I listened to some associates discuss the welfare state. Instead of giving my own opinion on the topic, I thought I'd listen in on them. It was a civil conversation, although they had fundamental disagreements. One guy believed absolutely that the government should support anyone who needs it. He believed money spent on the military was a waste when it could be used to "help" people instead. The other guy believed that welfare is often wasted paying money to people who don't deserve it. He cited people that have never worked a day in their lives, drug addicts, etc.

The conversation progressed and they managed to find some common ground. They both accepted that the government should help the unfortunate. They had a problem determining where you should draw the lines, though. Should drug addicts get welfare? Is it immoral to cut the welfare recipients off after a few years? They couldn't agree on any conclusions.

As a philosopher, it's easy to see the problem. In order to define the moral limits of an action, you'd have to understand the purpose of the action. What is the purpose of doing it? What do you accomplish? Why do it at all?

And that's where they ran into a problem. The welfare system is based on the ethical system called altruism. It is a system that requires the sacrifice of some individuals for the sake of others. The lives and livelihoods of the "others" is held as an absolute. We must make their lives comfortable and pleasant. It's a moral obligation.

To understand the limits of the welfare system, you have to identify the reason behind this alleged moral obligation. Why exactly do we need to sacrifice for the sake of these people? This is the question they needed to answer to solve their dispute.

You should now be able to see their dilemma. They started with assumption that altruism is good. When they started to look at the consequences, such a drug addicts or lazy people, they wanted to limit the scope of it. Their hope was to make the system more practical. What they failed to realize is that altruism is not practical. There's not a practical reason in the world for it.

Ayn Rand said "Now there is one word a single word which can blast the morality of altruism out of existence and which it cannot withstand the word: 'why?'"

Altruism doesn't serve a purpose. You can't make it practical because it's not meant to be practical. The premise is pointless and irrational, and you can't try to fix it by mixing a little rationality with it. The only real fix is to remove the irrationality entirely. The degree to which it remains is the degree to which it's impractical.

How would adding a little rationality affect this example? Well, what if you decided not to give welfare to the drug-users or hyper-lazy? You might make it more practical, but only by destroying the altruistic principle. Instead of these people having a right to your money, you'd be saying that they don't in some cases. To that extent, you'd be denying the altruistic principle. Reason would gain ground, but at the expense of altruism. And that's the way it must be.

This inherent impracticality stems from the sheer pointlessness of altruism. I could tell that these two would never settle on the right answer as long as they tried to find a balance between altruism and practicality. Only when/if they checked their premises would they realize the two ideas are fundamentally incompatible. Then maybe they could ask that simple question: "Why?"

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