The New Clarion

The New Clarion header image 2

If All Men were Altruists…

January 28th, 2010 by Jim May · 4 Comments · Uncategorized

Many years ago, I read a fascinating short story by Theodore Sturgeon, entitled “If All Men were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?”

(A key spoiler follows below the break.  It is not necessary to read the story first to grasp my point, but I highly recommend it; it is a good one.)

The story dealt with a future where there was a world named Vexvelt, which was shunned by all the other civilized planets in the galaxy because incest is not only accepted there, but actively encouraged.  When the protagonist in the story visits Vexvelt, he finds that it is a virtual utopia — and that its rejection of the incest taboo is in fact precisely why it has achieved such prosperity and peace.

There is a line spoken at one point by a magistrate, one of the few outside Vexvelt who knows the truth about the planet.  At one point after the protagonist describes the “sanity” of the Vexveltian society, the magistrate said a line which still sticks in my head:  (paraphrasing from memory)

“I would rather go stark, raving MAD than ever endure such sanity!”

Sturgeon later explained that the particular taboo was not the point of the story.  From Wikipedia:

“Sturgeon wrote the story with an afterword that makes it plain that [the taboo] is not the real issue here, but rather how we manufacture falsehoods and turn them into perceived ‘truths.’ How we often take something harmless, then add and build on the perceived ‘truth’ to the point of creating something that is positively harmful.”

The funny thing for me, is that as much as incest is seen as repulsive by nearly everyone, writing a story like that did not damage Sturgeon’s career.  If you examine his Wikipedia page, there is no mention of any big controversy over it.  His writing career continued, and to this day Sturgeon is regarded as one of the stars of science fiction, and rightly so IMO.

Ever wonder what might have happened to him if he had made Vexvelt the only egoist society in the galaxy — if the harmful idea the Vexveltians rejected had been altruism?

I don’t have to wonder.  Paul Shirley, a former ESPN basketball writer and former player, questioned altruism in clear terms recently in connection with the Haiti disaster, and the responses were (not to put too fine a point on it), batshit crazy.  Evidently, altruists too would rather go “stark raving mad”.

As much as I respect Sturgeon’s writing, I can see why he might have seen the risk of being construed as an advocate for incest to be less dangerous than to be seen as questioning that other, far more harmful taboo.

4 Comments so far ↓

  • Mike

    One of the greatest things about science fiction is that one can touch taboo subjects without necessarily being seen as an advocate for them. This couples well with the core concept of science fiction, that the story introduces a speculative element and explores what that element reveals about the human condition as we know it.

  • Grant

    Wow, the direction this blog post took was NOT AT ALL the one I expected it to take. I fully expected the whole “… then would you let one marry your sister?” line to be a metaphor for the unworkability of altruism as a categorical moral imperative.

    The health and continuation of the species should never be the goal of a person’s actions, but it is true that that can’t happen unless incest is shunned. That’s just like how the overall well-being of society should never be the goal either, but that too cannot be achieved unless altruism is shunned. Reality has a graceful way of achieving those collective positives as nice, fringe benefits of rational, selfish actions.

    I see your point though – that people would rather stay crazy than question their dogmas – and you’re right that in today’s environment he wouldn’t get away with going against the grain of altruism, but do you really think that the lesson he was trying to impart was worth it? I don’t think the conventional position on incest, unlike altruism, lacks (at least the potential for) a rational justification, so it seems dangerous to take shots at a widely held position which required a rational (even if never explicitly identified) process solely for the purpose of making a point about epistemology.

    I think the reason why there wasn’t a controversy about his defense of incest is because people realized he wasn’t really defending it. He may have been trying to make the point you referenced from his Wikipedia page, but he didn’t do it very compellingly (and that’s why I’d never heard of him). If anything, people probably thought it was cool that he was nihilistically going against the grain – and that only reinforces the idea that the answer to dogmatic belief is perpetual open-mindedness.

  • madmax

    Altruism is a shiboleth that simply cannot be questioned. I think the ultimate difference between Left and Right is that the Left has surrendered to the Post-Kantian view of Altruism while the Right will offer some small resistance to it.

    I also marvel that Ayn Rand is allowed any time whatsoever in the popular media and that she is not totally forbidden. Its a testimony to just how powerful her arguments were that they can not be silenced.

    Regarding Shirley, he had guts to write what he did but he was just asking to be fired. There is no way that a mainstream media outlet will allow altruism to be challenged especially in regard to a *black* country. The combination of the the black demographic plus altruism means that both altruism and *racial egalitarianism* are on the line in the Haiti crisis. As with the black inner-city residents of New Orleans, so with the black citizens of Haiti, you simply will not be allowed by the Left to challenge altruism at all let alone in the context of black welfare-statism (international or domestic). Nothing amplifies the power of altruism over the modern world like when the recipients are black (non-white in general).

    Which makes me wonder if Objectivism should tackle racial egalitarianism directly or not? Part of me would like to see it but part of me thinks it will be easier to speak in race neutral terms.

  • Jim May

    If anything, people probably thought it was cool that he was nihilistically going against the grain – and that only reinforces the idea that the answer to dogmatic belief is perpetual open-mindedness.

    … until someone goes against the altruist grain, then all hell breaks loose as Shirley found out. As with most of their professed values, “open-mindedness” only goes skin-deep.

    BTW,I agree with madmax, that Paul Shirley was just asking to be fired. There are much better ways to do what he did.