"Altruism" misconstrued[mk1]To the Editor:
David Honig's letter ["Hitler demanded altruism from his countrymen," Dec. 3] contains a section which completely undermines the rest of his otherwise cogent agrument.
Recall that we are discussing the role of ethics in politcal science. In trying to show that one can help someone selfishly, Honig uses the word "selfish" in an extremely loose sense. He misconstrues Ayn Rand's clarification of the concept.
Just because something makes one "feel better" hardly makes it selfish. A dope addict, after all, feels better every time he shoots up, yet he is destroying himself as a human being.
Mother Theresa, the famous nun Honig mentions, is substantially selfless and altruistic, according to the code of her calling. Yet doubtlessly she feels better when she publicly says that a woman does no own her person and abortion is immoral. Furthermore, this spreads misery rather than help.
Few practitioners of altruism ever help anyone. Many hurt (according to a valid standard) their alleged beneficiaries; some hurt only themselves -- and none are admirable.
Honig says that "knowledge of other people in trouble evokes bad feelings in most individuals." He should have taken care to note that it is the trouble which is bad, not you. Someone's trouble is no claim on others unless they caused it; chronic suffering has no moral claim on an innocent man. Objectivist ethics is incompatible with the Judeo-Christian ethics and Original Sin. (One should help a stranger in the rare emergency situation because he has the potential to share one's own values. This is not done out of self-sacrifice but rather out of goodwill.)
Honig gives several lleged examples of selfishness, but on examination they don't hold up. I won't go into details, the examples are all cases of the generalization he gives: that every act is selfish, because ultimately the actor wanted to do it. This is the essential error behind the section of his letter which I dispute.
Obviously everything one does, in the very last stage of its analysis, is what one wants to do out of all possibilities seen to be available. Why one does it is another question. If your goal is to place other's benefit above your own, then, whether or not you feel you have gained, you are acting altruistically. Feelings can be unreliable.
The Heil Hitlering crowds we have all seen on the newsreels of evidently wanted to give their lives to the Reich. That doesn't make them selfish. Indeed, each individual of them willingly placed the German state above himself. They did not benefit as human beings; they voluntarily were or became cannon fodder, factory fodder, or SS robots.
The disputed section of Honig's letter comprises paragraphs five, six, seven and perhaps the first part of the eighth.
I hasten to add that, after removing those three paragraphs or so, what remains holds together. David Honig explains what altruism fundamentally is, and shows how it helped make Hitler possible. If you really care about preventing another horror like the Nazi empire, you will heed his letter and fight the idea that service to others is the moral justification for one's existence.
I would like to comment on the theoretical part of my own letter ["A government should not be a social planner," Dec. 3] (where I define altruism and egoism) which is relevant to the above discussion. Recall that ethics, any etics in general, is a code of values to guide ones life.
Altruism focuses exclusively on who should be the beneficiary of an action, it makes who the beneficiary is the sole criterion of virtue - and leaves one completely without guidance as to the act itself, a criterion for what it is that is "beneficial."
Furthermore, if you examine the definition of altruism and follow its consequences faithfully (see my Dec. 3 letter), you'll see that altruism means self-abnegation.
Psychic suicide to help others according to an unspecified criterion is hardly a guide to life! Altruism is not an ethics at all: it is really a denial of ethics as a smokescreen which parasites use to lord it over you.
Egoism (in the Objectivist sense) has a different (and genuine) beneficiary than altruism, but also a much more stringent criterion than just who benefits. It is quite incorrect to see a symmetry between altruism and egoism of: others vs. me as opposed to me vs. others. Egoism sweeps the versus away.
Egoism starts out by reaffirming that one's own life is the province of ethics, that to promote one's life is good. But this is only a preliminary. For this self-interest idea to have any content, one must inquire into the nature of man so as to know how to objectively promote one's life as a human being. The conclusion is not just the preliminary self-interest, but "rational self-interest."
This of course requires elaboration. I am not an expert on this subject, so even if I could have the space necessary I would still refer you back to Ayn Rand's essays. My purpose here is merely to show that egoism is more complex than I may have indicated in my letter of Dec. 3.