The New Clarion

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Caring versus Altruism

March 30th, 2009 by Jim May · 9 Comments · Culture

Below the fold is a comment I posted earlier on Dr. Helen’s blog entry  “If you made it yourself,….Why shouldn’t you keep it, you made it…”

It contains my argument on why it is contradictory for altruists to define themselves as “people that care”.  I am addressing a commenter “Laura”, who identifies herself as a Christian, but seems to embody a more individualistic version of such than I’ve ever encountered.

It’s one of the essays I’ve had bouncing around in my head for years that I planned to write on my own blog, not in someone else’s comments… but it came together well enough there that I’m going to call it done and post it here.

* * *

Hi Laura,

Regarding your last point: I can’t speak for Ayn Rand (and neither can she, since she’s dead), but speaking for myself, I don’t have a problem understanding the idea of caring about someone who is down on his luck, and hoping he can get his stuff together.

One of the most idiotic, persistent patterns among Rand’s critics (none in this thread, mercifully) is the assumption that to care about others is automatically an “unselfish” thing… to the point of considering that as the very definition of “unselfish”. This is, to put it mildly, poppycock.

To “care” about something or someone is to value that something or someone. In the latter case, to care about a person means that their interests become part of your interests. The more you care about a person, the higher the priority their interests are to you. I too would not “beggar myself” for the benefit of a stranger, but if I had to do that to save the life of my fiance or a member of my family, I would selfishly do it in a heartbeat.

By the proper definition of “selfishness” — concern with and pursuit of one’s own interests and values (notice that this contains no reference to “others” at all) — caring about other people is quite natural, and properly selfish in the Randian view. I think we can agree that human beings per se are a good thing, and that when we meet someone for the very first time, we ought to treat them with goodwill on that principle.

Where I suspect that you would differ from an Objectivist like myself, is that I don’t care indiscriminately. It is possible for someone to forfeit that goodwill; it is possible for a person to descend to a certain moral level where I become indifferent to their fate.

Regarding the meaning of altruism, I strongly suggest that you consider some of the words of that benighted doctrine’s leading thinkers.

From the penultimate apostle of “moral duty”, Immanuel Kant:

The principle of one’s own happiness, however, is the most objectionable, not merely because it is false and experience contradicts the pretense that well-being always proportions itself to good conduct, nor yet merely because it contributes nothing at all to the establishment of morality, since making someone happy is quite different from making him good. –Groundwork of the metaphysics of morals (1785)

“To be beneficent when we can is a duty; and besides this, there are many minds so sympathetically constituted that, without any other motive of vanity or self-interest, they find a pleasure in spreading joy around them, and can take delight in the satisfaction of others so far as it is their own work. But I maintain that in such a case an action of this kind, however proper, however amiable it may be, has nevertheless no true moral worth, but is on a level with other inclinations. … For the maxim lacks the moral import, namely, that such actions be done from duty, not from inclination.

Put the case that the mind of that philanthropist were clouded by sorrow of his own extinguishing all sympathy with the lot of others, and that while he still has the power to benefit others in distress, he is not touched by their trouble because he is absorbed with his own; and now suppose that he tears himself out of this dead insensibility, and performs the action without any inclination to it, but simply from duty, then first has his action its genuine moral worth. Ibid.

When Kant says “to act from inclination”, he most emphatically does NOT mean a mere emotionalistic “when one feels like it”; he specifically means to act from the pursuit of values, a.k.a. self-interest, what Ayn Rand calls selfishness.

Now a quote from the man who coined the term “Altruism”:

[The] social point of view cannot tolerate the notion of rights, for such notion rests on individualism. We are born under a load of obligations of every kind, to our predecessors, to our successors, to our contemporaries. After our birth these obligations increase or accumulate, for it is some time before we can return any service…. This [“to live for others”], the definitive formula of human morality, gives a direct sanction exclusively to our instincts of benevolence, the common source of happiness and duty. –Auguste Comte, Catechisme Positiviste (via Wikipedia)

These men mean it. Ayn Rand was not exaggerating. There can be no mistaking the meaning of altruism in the words of its advocates — and it is not benevolence or charity, or least of all “caring”. Altruism is about living for others, about placing others at the TOP of your priority list, trumping all personal values and concerns — including integrity, rationality, and your life itself.

Their idea of “true moral action” is not giving when you care, but giving when you don’t — but you have to.

So, Laura, in your last example: is it really true that when you bought a sandwich and a bottle of orange juice for someone, that it “didn’t do anything for you?” That is a declaration of indifference.

That flatly contradicts what you wrote earlier — that a part of charity is that you care about the recipient. If you do care about someone, their interests become part of your interests, to the extent that you care about them. Your lending assistance to them becomes an act from values, which I would call moral, but what Kant would deride as having “no moral import” because it was done from “inclination”.

The only way that buying that person breakfast could really do “nothing for you” would be if it made no difference to you whether that person ate or not — just like the miserable philanthropist in Kant’s example.

We already know this is wrong. By your own words earlier, it does make a difference. You do care.

What you did was not altruism. So say the acolytes of altruism.

Good for you, say I.

9 Comments so far ↓

  • Mike N

    Great post on altruism and ‘caring’.
    If you care to help someone, you are acting in your self-interest. Good point. But altruism requires that you don’t care. Better point.

  • madmax

    This is a great post with great quotes. But did you leave yourself open to the argument that a person should desire to buy breakfast for a homeless person, ie that a person should care? I don’t have any desire to buy breakfast for the homeless. In that sense, I don’t care. Couldn’t the altruist argue that I am cold and heartless precisely because I don’t value helping the downtrodden?

    Also, there is a common argument altruists use (usually leftists) and that is:

    “The poor will die in the streets without a welfare state, would you let that happen? Yes, than you are an evil, greedy, heartless Randian, yada, yada, yada.”

    When you get past all the philosophical arguments, the ultimate answer to that question must be:

    “**YES**, a person who does not support himself and can not find someone who will support him will die, and maybe they will die in the streets.”

  • Inspector

    “But did you leave yourself open to the argument that a person should desire to buy breakfast for a homeless person, ie that a person should care?”


    While your main thrust is absolutely true, there is definitely going to be some confusion on this point, especially the “good for you” part. Is it good for her, really? I know you know this, but Objectivism is not psychological egoism, where anything that makes one feel good is selfish. That she personally felt good giving to a homeless man does not mean this was a rational act.

    Yes, the fact that it was personally satisfying does make it egoistic as opposed to altruistic (which is your main point) but not necessarily *rationally* egoistic. And that’s a pretty big “but” for reasons we both know.

    So “What you did was not altruism. So say the acolytes of altruism.” is definitely true but I have many reservations about the next line.

  • Neil Parille

    As “altruism” is used today, it means concern for others, not necessarilly making others one’s exclusive concern. I don’t think “selfishness” ever meant what Rand claimed its “dictionary definition” was.

    Although Rand wasn’t entirely clear on this, she didn’t support most of what we would consider charities, such as helping victims of drought and famine. She gave money to charities with more specific purposes, such as the Hollywood Studio Club where she stayed shortly after moving to California.

    Personally, I do consider charity a virtue and one of the reasons we have a welfare state is the perception that people will not voluntarily help others.

  • L-C

    It is often noted – and complained about – that Objectivists use definitions that are not standard or commonly accepted.

    That is because many standard definitions have replaced proper ones. If a concept isn’t even present in language, it can’t be expressed. It might be felt by young minds with a hint of idealism still present in them, but it is not taught or learned.

    Most regard altruism as the technical act of giving something from yourself to another. Between buying something for yourself and offering a gift to someone whom you value, they see a difference that doesn’t exist, and which has been dispelled in Objectivism.

    Rational egoism is not a commonly known or accepted concept. Instead, only the dichotomy of hedonism versus selflessness is recognized. Thus the rational act of giving to those worthy of (some sum of your choosing) your wealth is confused with “charity from duty” and true charity is accused of being altruistic.

    Christianity is something some individuals cling to more than it clings to them. It makes increasingly less sense the more they embrace the resulting happiness of individualism, but it is their sole source of explicit morality.

  • Jim May

    I sought to drive home the point that altruism is directly opposed to the notion that morality is determined by reference to the pursuit of values — not by the fulfillment of duty. The goal was to drive home the point that altruism IS about duty, not values. Duty is essential to altruism.

    What I meant by “good for her” was that to the extent that she is acting on values, she is far closer to an Objectivist than an altruist.

    The question that Inspector and madmax are raising — about whether I have left myself open to the idea that we *ought* to buy breakfast for a homeless person — is correct. Yes, I did leave that opening. I did so for two reasons.

    One is scope; that comment was already getting a bit long, and I wanted to drive home the point that unlike charity, which is about “helping others”, altruism is all about duty.

    Second and more important, is that the question of what values should we be pursuing is the next stage in the evolution of egoist morality. In other words, this “opening” is only open to someone who grants the pursuit-of-values premise, and wants to base altruism on that (incompatible) premise.

    What do you suppose would happen to someone who tries to make a values-based case for altruism? In light of what happened when people tried to argue for capitalism from the duty-based moral premise, I am not worried. Let them try it.

    Remember that values are that which one acts to gain and/or keep. That’s a key pillar of ethical egoism right there. Someone who is arguing that we *should* buy breakfast for the homeless, must somehow make the case that it is of value to us, to do so. They have to sell us on it, as a morally better option than whatever alternatives we are facing at that point.

    They must answer that dread question which Ayn Rand told us was the ultimate weapon againt altruism and duty — the question “Why?”

    This has been tried, of course — but what few such examples I have seen are quite weak, and are vulnerable to attack from more consistent altruists. I cite as evidence the commenter Laura, who argues for charity as an obligation, but who nonetheless constrains it within parameters of individual choice that originate not in Christianity at all, but in secular individualism — in a manner directly incompatible with the all-encompassing cult of sacrifice which is altruism operating in a deontological moral context.

  • Inspector

    Okay, I see what you’re getting at there, Jim. I’ve had a lot of success with that sort of approach, as well. Obviously, you don’t have to come out and tear up the morality of her actions, even if as Madmax says, that is where the thing must ultimately go. I mean, I get it – one step at a time. Learning is a hierarchical process and it would be, if anything, counterproductive to jam seven steps worth of concepts in there all at once. Both from the standpoint of making your point, and from thread-topic sanity.

    So, by all means I hear you.

    But… still. It does rub me the wrong way because I really do hear Objectivists frequently go too far out of their way to reassure people on the subject of charity (or, worse, are rationalizing a previously-held valuing of it rather than fully evaluating whether it really is something they ought to do). To even be ambiguous on the subject could inadvertently nurture this error. (you never know who’s reading it)

    Note that your article is just as effective if it simply stops before the last sentence.

    But if you have to put in some kind of endorsement, I think it’s important that it be a *qualified* one. (if I didn’t, I wouldn’t mention it – I’m not trying to pick nits or get on your case, here) Such as, “you’ve taken the first step” or “good for you, inasmuch as you’re acting from values and not altruistic duty,” and then have a * with some very small print at the bottom which reads (whether those values are actually reasonable is another matter, but beyond the scope of this discussion). Or something like that.

    And, again, we all agree on the correctness and importance of your primary point.

  • Inspector

    I mean – I don’t want to overdo this or anything. I could just be paranoid here, but Madmax saw it, too, so…

  • Jim May

    Inspector: no problem, I agree with you. After all, what’s the point of posting if I’m not going to get pointers on doing things better in the future?

    After all, I envision my role in the ideological battle as one of munitions-maker. This post is intended to be one piece of ammo for you guys to integrate into your own arsenal. I fully expect that you will adapt it to your purposes and standards, and offer critiques to improve it.

    As for Objectivists going “too far” to reassure people about charity, I will say that I’ve seen a fair bit of the opposite — Objectivists who reflexively dismiss all charity in reaction to its strong association with altruism.

    The funny thing about it, is that I would speculate that in some respects, charity might actually become more vibrant and effective in an Objectivist culture, once the stigma of altruistic moral “duty” is finally cleared away.

    But that’s a whole other discussion.