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.
* * *
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.