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Hitler demanded altruism from his countrymen

Morality continues to inhabit the opinion pages of The Tech. John Morrison's letter ["Anti-altruism will lead to cruelty," Nov. 22], indicates that the concept of altruism is still not clearly understood. Objectivist philosophy must be better understood before ascribing misinterpretations to Ms. Rand.

Morrison claims that Hitler's regime "demanded absolute obedience and total conformity, as well as disregard for other people. His government tortured and murdered millions of people... There was nothing altruistic about this; it was downright selfish." I claim that Hitler was altruistic, by the definition of that moral philosophy. He required individuals to put the good of other people, whose will was represented by the state, above their own.

Hitler did demand "absolute obedience and total conformity," as Morrison said, but he expected this compliance only to attain altruistic goals. Hitler achieved power legally and had the democratically demonstrated approval of the majority. Wasn't he, therefore, justified in doing whatever he felt necessary for the people? If you think rights come only from convention, like government, then you shouldn't have any qualms with Hitler's authority, only his methods.

Only individuals have rights. It does not matter if a government, like the National Socialist Party, achieves power democratically, or by any other measure of fairness. Nor does it matter how totalitarian that government is: Groups which claim to have authority over you have no more rights than any individual member of that group has over anyone else. Hitler and Botha are wrong because they have overstepped the bounds of what government properly can do.

Morrison harbors a common fallacy that those who help others at their own risk are altruists. The people who choose to help others do so for selfish reasons: It makes them feel better. Knowledge of other people in trouble evokes bad feelings in most individuals; thinking that one is helping others makes one feel good.

Many people believe that Mother Theresa is altruistic because of the sacrifices she makes to help the people around her. She simply finds the rewards of helping people greater than those from any other lifestyle.

Everyone who acts to help others is ultimately driven by his own desire. Motivation is only internal. Those who claim that they act for others are deluded: Self-esteem, other people's opinions, and religious convictions motivate actions. People who help the persecuted act for themselves, and they can be admired for what they self-servingly do.

Let me clarify the difference between a personal desire to help people and an obligation to help others. A desire to help others is voluntary; when a government enforces an "obligation" because it is acting on altruist premises, the government is threatening innocent people. This is how altruism leads to statism. When people freely chose to do things for others because they "are supposed to" (according to the morality that they have been told and that they decide to accept), and not for themselves, they live miserable lives.

The wrong of altruism is in its definition: that the purpose of your life is to live for others, that you have an obligation, rather than an inclination, to work for anyone but yourself. Unless you have harmed someone, you have no duty to do anything at all. If you do not like something, you can do something about it if you desire, but do not think that anyone else is obliged to help your cause. The most you can do is try to convince them that they want to help.

Morrison blatantly attributes wrong ideas to Rand when he asserts that "It is obviously altruistic to oppose harm when one is not a potential victim himself... [and that] the anti-altruism in Objectivism necessarily denounces the opposition to harm."

Rand explains that you should care about other's rights because someone who violates those rights may decide to violate your own rights. People can choose to join up with others who agree to deter or stop those who violate rights. This voluntary union is how governments begin. Protecting rights, which Rand holds to be nonarbitrary and knowable, is the only legitimate function of government.

Morrison displays another misunderstanding of altruism when he says an employer cannot be an alruist if his employees enjoy working for him. A businessman is not altruistic when he improves his employees' working conditions. He knows that improved conditions will improve his workers' productivity. If conditions are bad, his employees may quit. The businessman will not provide infinite comfort, but some level is optimal.

Ah, Morrison might object, but workers can be replaced. Yes, this is true, but it is not without a cost to the businessman. At some attrition rate, he will be motivated to find out why everyone's leaving. And it will be in his own interest to implement and maintain changes. Since the workers are free to do other jobs, they will stay where they are until it is in their best interest to leave. Worker quality varies. Thus there is a competition between employers for good employees. It behooves a businessman to keep efficient people, and so for his own benefit he cares about their happiness.

Labor unions fit into the anti-altruist world easily. Everyone has the same rights to assemble, talk and quit. Individuals or groups of workers make demands of their employer, but the employer can refuse to listen to them. They can decide to work elsewhere. They can peacably protest, but anyone can cross their line. Unless one party initiates physical force, the government has absolutely no role to play.

Only when a government intervenes in economics, destroying the freedom of choice that is the lifeblood of trade, and all human relations, do monopolies, waste, and injustice occur. When people believe that their lives are the property of anything other than their own selves, further scenarios like the Third Reich are inevitable.

David A. Honig '86->