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Is Altruism Really a Virtue?


Altruism has commonly been held up as the standard for moral behavior, with those claiming to see deviations from altruism commonly condemning the deviants as selfish or greedy. For example, Martin Luther King claimed that “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.” Similarly, Alan Dershowitz asserted that “Good character consists of recognizing the selfishness that inheres in each of us and trying to balance it against the altruism to which we should all aspire.”

In contrast, accepting altruism as a touchstone of morality was vehemently rejected by Ayn Rand. She asserted that altruism was not an “automatic trademark of virtue.” Instead, it was “incompatible with freedom, with capitalism, and with individual rights,” making it “the basic evil behind today’s ugliest phenomena.” In fact, “In any encounter with collectivists, it is always the acceptance of altruism as an ideal not to be questioned that defeats us.”

That head-on collision between the widespread endorsement of altruism as virtuous and Rand’s diametrically opposed view justifies giving it serious thought. Perhaps the best place to start is with the word’s inventor.

The term was coined by French philosopher Auguste Comte. The altruists.org website describes Comte’s meaning as “Self-sacrifice for the benefit of others,” where “the only moral acts were those intended to promote the happiness of others.” The philosophybasics.com website describes it as a doctrine that “individuals have a moral obligation to serve others and place their interests above one’s own.” In Comte’s Catechisme Positiviste, he wrote that altruism “gives a direct sanction exclusively to our instincts of benevolence,” and therefore “cannot tolerate the notion of rights, for such a notion rests on individualism.” In short, Comte asserted that people had to be altruistic to be moral and fully selfless to be altruistic.

In Comte’s view, if an act was performed for any reason beyond advancing the well-being of someone else, it was not morally justified. As a consequence, we must ask how many of our generous, benevolent, or charitable acts meet his criteria for being altruistic, and therefore moral.

If I get a tax deduction for a charitable donation, I didn’t solely benefit others. There was a benefit to me. While I was altruistic in the now-commonly used sense of being generous (I did less for my narrow selfish interests with my resources than I could have), I was not altruistic in Comte’s view. Similarly, if I performed an act of generosity because I viewed it as “enlightened self-interest” or because “what goes around comes around,” I would still fail Comte’s altruism standard.

Even if I am generous because doing good for someone else makes me feel good, there is a benefit to me. So tainted, it falls short of Comte’s standards. In other words, the generosity involved in doing anything for others is essentially invalidated if it helps satisfy an individual’s desire to help others. It is hard to imagine a bleaker criterion for morality than one that demands such joylessness.

Comte went further. He argued that the golden rule failed the standard of altruism, because it introduced a “purely personal calculation” into individuals’ behavior (I decide who and how and how much to help), in contrast to Comte’s assertion of an unlimited duty to do for all others. Even “love your neighbor as yourself” fails, due to the “stain of selfishness” (e.g., assistance I would not desire need not be offered to others). As George H. Smith summarized Comte’s view, it is inadequate because “One should love one’s neighbor more than oneself.”

Ayn Rand’s attacks on altruism as a standard for morality take Comte’s meaning as its starting point. Roderick Long described her as “taking Comte’s conception of altruism seriously,” when others had eroded its meaning to little more than a synonym for generosity. But that has made Rand’s now non-standard meaning of altruism a source of much confusion. In Long’s words,

her sometimes misleading rhetoric about the “virtue of selfishness”…was not to advocate the pursuit of one’s own interest at the expense of others…she rejected not only the subordination of one’s interest to those of others, (and it is this, rather than mere benevolence, that she labeled “altruism”), but also the subordination of others’ interest to one’s own.

This offers a key to understanding Rand’s categorical rejection of altruism. Comte’s requirement of total selflessness is inconsistent with any individual mattering for his or her own sake. In other words, it requires the rejection of individuals’ human significance, invalidating the reality that, as Albert Camus put it, “man alone is an end unto himself.” In Rand’s words,

The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value.

Consider the “virtue of selfishness” as a response to Comte’s demand that each person completely disregards him- or herself. One need not equate it with the extreme of megalomania or exclusive self-involvement, as some critics have done. But starting from Comte’s view of selflessness as the ideal, more attention to oneself --more selfishness--is the direction we must move to find the “golden mean” that finds value in each individual and significance in each life.

So what is wrong with Comte’s altruism as a moral standard?

No actual person could ever meet Comte’s standard. As noted above, virtually nothing an individual could do would ever be “good enough.” And anything that might be judged “good enough” would be disqualified if someone felt good about it. Importantly, it also acts to immobilize our moral sense by taking away self-reflection as an at-all-reliable guide to action—if I feel something is good, the satisfaction I feel as a result must make me question whether it is really good. In consequence, not only does altruism fail as a moral standard for individuals, it undermines their morals.

Further, even if an individual could meet Comte’s criteria, no society could ever do so. His logic is internally inconsistent. It is impossible for you to sacrifice yourself fully for me, while at the same time, I am sacrificing myself fully for you. We cannot both be altruistic in Comte’s sense at the same time. Perhaps even more important, if neither of us has any intrinsic value, what would be good about the result if we tried? That would be true even for a society of just two. For an extended society, the inherent contradictions are multiplied. In consequence, supposedly altruistic societies, which by definition cannot exist, offer no guide to morality or goodness.

That conclusion is reinforced by something Adam Smith noted long ago. “Nobody but a beggar chooses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow-citizens.” In contrast, Comte’s view would characterize a society where everyone was sustained as a beggar, dependent on charity, as moral, but would characterize people providing for themselves and their families as immoral.

Beyond such inherent problems that reveals Comte’s conception of altruism as suffering from fatal logical flaws, it is also consistent with liberty. Comte defined it as the duty to put others first, above yourself, at all times and in all circumstances. But that denies self-ownership and the power to choose that derives from it. Unbounded responsibility to others means that individuals can make no claims on others, while somehow, others always have preemptive claims on them, thus overriding any individual rights. In contrast, benevolence involves voluntary choices to benefit others of one’s own choosing, in ways and to the extent one chooses for oneself. That respects individuals’ self-ownership and the property rights (power to choose) that derive from them. And the power to choose is necessary for an act to be either moral or immoral.

This is why Rand criticized equating altruism with benevolence. The key is not the “doing good for others” aspect that the two words share, but the distinction between benevolence’s individual discretion in making such choices with one’s recognized-as-valid claim to decide such things and altruism’s unconditional requirement to sacrifice for others in all things. Rand called the latter treating man as “a sacrificial animal.” As she put it,

Do not hide behind such superficialities as whether you should or should not give a dime to a beggar. That is not the issue. The issue is whether you do or do not have the right to exist without giving him that dime…The issue is whether the need of others is the first mortgage on your life and the moral purpose of your existence.

Rand also noted that altruism’s duty of self-sacrifice, once accepted as the ideal, opens the door to the imposition of vast harm on the humanity Comte claimed to advance and fulfill.

The fact that the omnipresent duty of self sacrifice can never be consistently met leaves people feeling valueless and guilty, self-condemned for their inability to act as they say they believe. They become dispirited, which erodes both their self-respect and their moral sense. That makes them vulnerable to manipulation by those who can dress up a desire for the acquisition of power over others as “really” a means to attain some noble goal people feel they cannot otherwise achieve. The desire to sacrifice for the good of others becomes transformed into the requirement to sacrifice to the desires of leaders. From there, it requires only a small step to turn the moral ideal of self-sacrifice into the coercive political imposition of whatever sacrifices rulers see fit. As Rand expressed it,

Those who start by saying: “It is selfish to pursue your own wishes, you must sacrifice them to the wishes of others”—end up by saying: “It is selfish to uphold your convictions, you must sacrifice them to the convictions of others.”

Given that society’s “leaders” have for ages aggrandized themselves by harming rather than helping people, the desires of some to be selfless can thus become transformed into the means by which still others are sacrificed. The wars of the 20th century, including the cold war, offer good illustrations. In Rand’s unfinished The Moral Basis of Individualism, she wrote,

Every major horror of history was perpetrated…in the name of an altruistic purpose…Every leader gathered men through the slogans of selfless purpose, through the plea for their self-sacrifice to a high altruistic goal…

Philosopher Leonard Peikoff’s description of the results is particularly striking:

Every man, [altruists] argue, is morally the property of others—of those others it is his lifelong duty to serve; as such, he has no moral right to invest the major part of his time and energy in his own private concerns…if he refuses voluntarily to make the requisite sacrifices…he is a moral delinquent, and it is an assertion of morality if others forcibly intervene to extract from him the fulfillment of his altruist obligations…Thus has moral fervor been joined to the rule of physical force, raising it from a criminal tactic to a governing principle of human relationships.

In sum, Comte’s view of altruism can be seen as logically inconsistent, joyless, liberty excluding and morality eroding. And, as Ayn Rand took the lead in showing, it has enabled the imposition of vast harm on vast numbers. It is not entitled to deference as a guide for morality. And one need not accept everything Rand ever argued to recognize her rebuttal of Comte as overwhelming.

However, with the world having largely transformed altruism in Comte’s sense into a synonym for benevolence, why should we still care about a rebuttal of a term that now usually means something else? The key here is Rand’s emphasis on duty.

While in typical modern usage, what people who endorse altruism really advocate is benevolence (something Rand did not reject, despite misrepresentations that she did). But just below the surface, the concept of duty remains. And it frequently re-emerges as an illustration of William Graham Sumner’s “forgotten man.”

When A needs something, in B’s opinion, if C, who can do something about it (and virtually everyone could always choose to divert some of their time, efforts and resources from their current ends to other ends), refuses, what happens? C is pilloried as someone who is selfish rather than altruistic for not choosing to support B’s cause. The faulty syllogism remains that “C is failing to do his duty here. C should do his duty. So C should be made to do it.” And with the vast number of margins at which someone else’s need can be asserted, using that syllogism as a bludgeon remains an ever-present threat from everyone who wants to do good with someone else’s resources, and finds coercion an acceptable mechanism.

Rand reminds us of the central defense against that threat. It lies in protecting individual self-ownership and the property rights that derive from it. When that is maintained as fundamental, my power to choose what to do with myself and my property—including when my conclusion is “I could contribute to cause X, but I choose not to”--is accepted as legitimate. Thus we would soundly reject the view that “Apart from such times as [a person] manages to perform some act of self-sacrifice, he possesses no moral significance.” Without the coercive violation of rights, liberty can be maintained. The vast majority of people would not only be generous, they would have far more to be generous with as a result. Their voluntary arrangements, including their voluntary generosity, creates a better world than altruism.


Gary Galles

Gary M. Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University and an adjunct scholar at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He is also a research fellow at the Independent Institute, a member of the Foundation for Economic Education faculty network, and a member of the Heartland Institute Board of Policy Advisors.

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