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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Altruistic can of worms and Kantian hornet’s nest

I am probably opening a can of worm or poking a hornet’s nest or something with equally disturbing consequences but I cannot let John Webb’s posting go without comment.

He correctly identified Paul Foot’s assumptions that enable him to spew out such blatant and primitive fallacies about capitalism in particular and economic reality in general. The bit I found unpalatable was his analysis of Paul Foots ‘motivation’ for such statements and his sin of ‘failure of morality’, which is supposed to be altruism. I have encountered this ‘belief’ before as it seems to be a staple argument among the libertarians of the Objectivist variety and I have always been taken aback by the ferocity of their insistence on ethical and psychological egoism and the corresponding denial of altruism. I shall take this opportunity to spell out my objections to what seem to me to be an irrational strain in libertarian thought.

John Webb states that ‘many people today mistakenly assume that altruism means having a regard for the well-being of others.’ Actually, one of the most common definitions of altruism is ‘concern for other people, or unselfish or helpful actions’. True, in evolutionary biology, it is defined as ‘behaviour by an animal that decreases its chances of survival or reproduction while increasing those of another member of the same species’. Needless to say, altruism in its biological sense does not imply any conscious benevolence on the part of the performer, imposition of which is what John Webb rallies against.

Then John Webb redefines altruism as meaning:

…”in practice, having a necessary hostility to others as a consequence of adopting something other than oneself as the very standard of evaluation. Though the precise standard of altruist morality varies depending on the prevailing ideology, the People, the Race, the Proletariat, the Gender, the God, the Prophet, the Environment, the Social Organism etc., the premise which always remains constant in the altruist’s world-view is the notion that there is some overriding standard, something other, something above and beyond and greater than the individual to which everyone should gratefully and enthusiastically sacrifice themselves.”

This is a description of collectivism (and totalitarian at that) and not altruism. The distinction is an important one, as you can have altruism without collectivism. It seems that the collapse of altruism into collectivism and vice versa for the likes of John Webb is due to a fundamental misunderstanding of what psychological egoism and self-interest mean.

If we understand psychological egoism as the theory that all human actions are motivated by self-interest, this taken as a factual claim based on observation, is obviously false: people are often motivated by emotions like anger, love, or fear, by altruism or pride, by the desire for knowledge or the hatred of injustice.

Also, it is not true that everything we can be said to ‘want’ or ‘desire’ is an enhancement or fulfillment of the self. We may want to give way to irrational rage or to wayward sexual desire, to hurt another or indeed to help another – without manifesting ‘self-love’ in any of these instances. My rage or aggression may in fact be self-destructive. The beginning of altruism is the realisation that not all good and bad are good-for-me and bad-for-me: that certain others – my close friends, say – have joys and sufferings distinct from mine, but for which I have a sympathetic concern – and for their sake, not my own. I may then acknowledge that others beyond the small circle of my friends are not fundamentally different – and so reach the belief that there are objective goods and bads as such. As one self among the others I cannot claim special privileges simply for being the individual that I am! If it is neither impossible nor irrational to act simply for the sake of another, the occurrence of satisfaction or ‘good conscience’ when we have done so is not sufficient ground for the egoist to claim that it was only for these ‘rewards’ that the acts were performed.

Nor on the other hand does the possibility of altruism mean that it is a constant moral necessity: an altruist can allow that in most circumstances I can act far more effectively on my own behalf than can any other person. A simple but crucial step separates a broken-backed ethical egoism from a minimally acceptable and consistent moral theory. It involves the recognition of others as more than instrumental to my fulfillment. I may promote my own interests and personal fulfillment, so long as I do not encroach upon the pursuit by others of their fulfillment. That is to recognize other persons as limits to my action: altruism may, of course, go beyond that in seeking positively to advance their good.

I have come across one more ‘philosophical’ misunderstanding – that of Kant’s ethics – also common among some libertarians. I will comment in a later posting.

My aim today is to point out that the often-hysterical denial of altruism is rooted in a belief rather than a rational argument. Some libertarians seem to believe that it is necessary to insist that altruism is wrong or immoral in order to provide firmer grounds for conclusions that are central and essential to their world-view. This is a world-view that espouses individualism and liberty, the belief that prosperity and freedom is best achieved by pursuit of self-interest and many other conclusions that I share. It is also a world-view that often must be expounded by what amounts to an intellectual crusade, fighting the collectivist, totalitarian and socialist dark forces. I have had the ‘privilege’ of facing those at their darkest and at the peak of their powers in a communist regime. Nevertheless, I do not think you have to deny altruism in order to defend pursuit of individual good, happiness, free market and liberty.

To be continued: In Kant’s defence

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