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Altruists argue that, as citizens and individuals, we have a moral responsibility to our fellow countrymen, especially the economically insecure, the disabled, the elderly, etc. This sense of responsibility justifies the welfare state and the seizing and redistribution of wealth.

Why is this false?

asked Feb 08 '12 at 17:42

JK%20Gregg's gravatar image

JK Gregg ♦

edited Feb 08 '12 at 22:47

Why is it right? It's not a premise at all, it's a conclusion from unstated premises. It's true that IF we have a moral responsibility to others, THEN the welfare state may be justified. But the question (aiming for the unstated premises) is why we have such a responsibility in the first place.

(Feb 08 '12 at 17:58) FCH FCH's gravatar image

What I'm searching for is an encompassing answer refuting the common notion and argument that individuals have a responsibility to society. The question I asked, perhaps worded poorly, aims for such an answer.

(Feb 08 '12 at 18:02) JK Gregg ♦ JK%20Gregg's gravatar image

Nevertheless, I think that is exactly the problem, that people start from this premise and evade the fact that it is based on unstated premises which they refuse to evaluate for fear of being immoral. Argument from Intimidation against themselves, if you will. I'm looking forward to a full, comprehensive answer as well - there's a reason why I only comment and don't post answers :)

(Feb 08 '12 at 19:02) FCH FCH's gravatar image

One justification of this is Social Contract Theory. Another is a more "pure" sense of altruism. Did you have a particular model in mind?

(Feb 09 '12 at 01:05) Rick ♦ Rick's gravatar image

I was thinking more of the Social Contract Theory, simply because I didn't want the answer to reduce down to a battle of competing ethics (although two answers addressing each aspect would be benficial, I think, to interested parties).

Altruism's refutation is abound in the Objectivist literature, but what I have found lacking is a confrontation with this concept of "positive liberty" and the obligation it imposes on individuals to provide for others. I think the answer lies in a proper understanding of rights.

(Feb 09 '12 at 01:11) JK Gregg ♦ JK%20Gregg's gravatar image

No, I think the answer actually lies much deeper than rights, and IS altruism. Let me put it this way - why do people believe they have an obligation to provide for others? Because they believe they have an obligation to provide for others(i.e. because they are altruists). Whether it manifests personally or politically is way secondary.

(Feb 09 '12 at 08:39) FCH FCH's gravatar image
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Why would people have a responsibility to society? That is the question that proponents of such a responsibility need to answer.

From the comments it appears that you want an answer that does not reduce to ethics, but this is not possible. The only possible explanation of an obligation of the type you ask about is a moral theory, and its refutation requires understanding a proper moral theory.

It is true that some of the arguments people use don't initially sound like moral arguments--they speak of "social contracts" and "interdependence" and the like. These are just smoke screens. Did you ever sign a social contract? Did anyone? No. Then how ever would this hypothetical contract bind us? "Well," they will say, "because you benefit from society, and therefore should give back." Why? "Because it is just the right thing," they will answer. And you are back to ethics.

Some will try to convince you that you really did actually consent to the social contract, even if you don't know it. They will come up with dozens of reasons for how you consented against your will (never mind the contradiction in that--contradictions don't bother them): you vote, ergo you accept the social contract; you have not moved to another country, ergo you accept the social contract; you drive on the roads, ergo you accept the social contract; your forefathers accepted the social contract for you, and who can argue with the founders? Once again, these are smoke screens. If you push on each one, asking why each particular fact matters and how it binds you, you will eventually end up back at the ethical level. If you are interested in one scholarly examination and refutation of such theories, check out the first chapter of Randy Barnett's Restoring the Lost Constitution. He is not an objectivist, and he doesn't understand the proper moral theory either, but he does explain how the above theories fail miserably. For consent to mean anything, people must be able to not consent. If everything you do in life constitutes consent, then you cannot possibly not consent. And if you cannot not consent, then what does it mean to say you have consented? In other words, what the social contract theorists are really saying is that by the mere fact that you are alive, you have a duty to society. But this is altruism! Once again, you are back at the moral level. You simply cannot escape it.


The questioner asks for an ethical argument to counter those who argue in support of the obligation to others. I will give a very abbreviated argument.

First, ask them what justifies their moral theory.

You will generally get (1) God says so, (2) society says so, or (3) other arbitrary claims ("Everyone just knows it"). If you know much about Objectivist epistemology and metaphysics then you will know what you need to do about those claims--proceed to demolish them. Of course, some of those people are never going to let go of their beliefs on those points, so you might not want to waste your time. However, if you have someone who seems honest and is trying to be rational, you can proceed to explain the objectivist ethics. But note that the burden of proof is on them. They assert that the obligation exists, they must explain why. By showing that their justification for the obligation (i.e., their morality) is false, you have done all that is required of you. You have no need to put forward an argument in favor of a different moral theory. However, if you are interested in doing so, I would ask them why we need morality. You cannot justify a morality without first answering this question. Rand's answer (the only rational one I have heard yet) is that we need morality because we face the alternatives of life and death. If we want to live, then we must do certain things in accordance with our nature and the nature of reality. Morality is the code that guides our actions so that we can live. As such, a proper morality is inherently selfish. You can then go on to explain what this entails: rationality and the other virtues.

Obligations do not spontaneously arise. They must be voluntarily accepted, or imposed from without by something with authority to impose them (which authority must be normatively justified). If someone claims an obligation exists, they must put forward proof for why it exists. The only proof people who support the social-contract type obligation have is their morality, and because their morality is foundationless (i.e., false) they have proved nothing.

answered Feb 09 '12 at 14:03

ericmaughan43's gravatar image

ericmaughan43 ♦

edited Feb 09 '12 at 21:53

In that case, for current and future students of Objectivism, how would you respond to the question within the context of ethics? You may post a second answer if need be.

(Feb 09 '12 at 17:32) JK Gregg ♦ JK%20Gregg's gravatar image

See John's answer for some good stuff. I would also strongly recommend reading Tara Smith's Viable Values (after reading Rand's works first). This Lexicon entry is also helpful. But it sounds like you are looking for more of a "sound bite" rather than a treatise, so I'll provide a brief explanation by updating my answer.

(Feb 09 '12 at 21:10) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

Slaves are born INTO responsibilities. Freemen are not.

answered Feb 09 '12 at 04:15

Humbug's gravatar image


The questioner says ". . . we have a moral responsibility to our fellow countrymen, especially the economically insecure, the disabled, the elderly, etc."

And asks "Why is this false?"

Because the opposite is true -- that we do not have a moral responsibility to provide aid to our fellow countrymen, etc.

Egoism, the moral aspect of Objectivism, holds that the proper beneficiary of moral action is the actor, and that any claim that an action is more moral if it benefits someone other than the actor is false.

Altruism is simply false. It has never been rationally defended.

Accepting altruism requires you not think, and just accept a social duty.

As for how and why egoism is true, rather than altruism, one must read "The Objectivist Ethics" in The Virtue of Selfishness. The essential is that morality itself exists for the sake of guiding each individual in the actions which are to make up and further his own life.

Morality is the science of living well. Morality as such serves life, which is the act of self-support.

Altruism, as a doctrine, claims that morality is essentially about other people -- and gives no reason why.

answered Feb 09 '12 at 20:49

John%20Paquette's gravatar image

John Paquette ♦

My response to the question may duplicate much of what others have already expressed, but it may also add some additional useful perspective.

The question asks why altruistic responsibility is false. It has already been pointed out that the question did not offer any justification for claiming that altruistic responsibility is true, and that the onus of proof is on those who claim that altruistic responsibility is true. Comments by others have offered the idea of a "social contract" as a way that proponents might try to justify the claim of truth while they ignore the role of choice in any normal contract or code of values.

It has also been pointed out that a refutation of altruism in any form would reduce to ethics, an identification with which I concur completely. I go on, however, to point out that in Objectivism, ethics is not independent of reality-based truth. Ethics can be objective, as Objectivism shows; Objectivism holds the good to be a species of the true. Consider any claim that "X" is a value. Is this claim true or false (by a reality-based standard of truth)? Objectivism shows that the answer depends on whether "X" serves or diminishes the life of the proposed valuer.

If one accepts the definition of "value" as "that which one acts to gain and/or keep," and recognizes that man accepts values by choice, then what value can man gain and/or keep by being morally and economically "responsible" to others? Altruism, in its purer forms, does not recognize the need for any kind of trade -- of getting something in return for what one does for others. Do some proponents of altruistic responsibility nevertheless see a trade of some kind involved? "Social contract" theory does, indeed, seem to border on just such a claim, although without a clear recognition of whether or not choice matters.

Objectivism recognizes and upholds trade in a specific form, namely, the benefits (knowledge and trade) of living in a free, productive, rational society. But that is not what the altruistic responsibility advocates are talking about. They usually reject trade and choice (as well as reason, logic and reality), and uphold duty and unchosen obligation instead. They are usually committed to the wider context of mysticism-altruism-collectivism-statism, and raise the kinds of attempted agruments alluded to in the question, perhaps embellished with vague appeals to "contract" and "giving back," to divert their victims' attention away from the fundamental anti-life nature of altruism in general and its wider context of mysticism-altruism-collectivism-statism.

Their victims need not be fooled by it. One of the great benefits of man's conceptual faculty is that man doesn't have to analyze every possible variant of a concept in order to know that each variant has the same essential distinguishing characteristics as all the other variants of the same concept. So it is with altruistic responsibility: it's altruism, and altruism is demonstrably very bad for man, i.e., very harmful to man's life, with "life" identified as the only objective standard of value. For a detailed survey of altruism -- its theory, its practice and its psychology -- refer to The Ayn Rand Lexicon under the topic of "Altruism."

This approach to what is true or false in valuing probably won't have much impact on deeply committed altruists, since altruism is an integral aspect of the whole mysticism-altruism-collectivism-statism axis, which rejects reality-based truth at the outset. Ultimately, the only way to uproot altruism fully may be to leave altruists no alternative -- through productive victims "shrugging" on a widespread scale, as Ayn Rand concretizes in Atlas Shrugged.

answered Feb 10 '12 at 01:52

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

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Asked: Feb 08 '12 at 17:42

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Last updated: Feb 10 '12 at 01:52