Altruism is essential for humans to surviveI disagree with Mark Hunter's indictment of altruism in his letter ["Deny the mind, deny life," Nov. 1]. Hunter believes that an ideal society (in his argument, a capitalist one) can profitably dispose of altruism. The argument is self-contradictory.
Hunter sees as ideal a society in which people are guided in their actions by "rational self-<>
interest," taking care all the while not to violate the rights of others by their own actions. However, viewed realistically, even this society requires altruism for its own survival. Some members of society will inevitably choose to violate the rights of others -- to believe otherwise is hopelessly utopian. If we are not to exist by "might makes right," then the rights of others must be defended.
So, what motivates this defense of the rights of a helpless individual? The defender cannot assume, a priori, that the favor will ever be repaid. Thus, the motives must be altruistic. Without altruism, the rights of the powerless will go undefended, and "might makes right" will inevitably become the rule -- precisely what Hunter wishes to avoid in the first place.
Hunter will no doubt argue that we pay people (e.g. police) to deal with such things. This is no substitute for altruism. This attitude leads to such tragedies as the death of Catherine Genovese, who in 1964 was raped and murdered in front of her New York apartment building. Thirty-eight of her neighbors witnessed the half-hour-long attack; doubtless acting out "rational self-interest," none of them came to her aid -- not even the ones who knew her.
It is self-evident that, so far from being evil, altruism is in fact essential to the existence of a civilized society. Hunter may be correct when he asserts the inconsistency of altruism with capitalism; if this is the case, then the problem lies not with altruism, but with capitalism.
Gregory T. Merklin G->