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What causes people to accept altruism as a moral ideal? I think it begins with our dependence as infants and children knowing that our survival is impossible without proper care and feeding from adults and continues into adulthood as a result of the fact that we are taught to please others and are rewarded for our success in doing so. What do you think?

asked Jun 26 '15 at 14:19

CraigC65's gravatar image


This is far from a full answer, but I believe that infants, and most children, are generally quite selfish, though not always rationally so. Altruism is generally something that is taught to children rather than something that they come up with on their own. It's one of those horrible memes that spread like a virus. (I'm sure a lot has been written on how memes spread, and much of it is probably relevant to giving a detailed answer to your question. I'm sure religion plays a large role in it, though there are plenty of non-religious mechanisms by which altruism spreads as well.)

(Jun 26 '15 at 17:05) anthony anthony's gravatar image

There is a suggestion of environmental determinism in this question, which Objectivism challenges. The basic Objectivist answer to the question of what causes any action of man's consciousness on the conceptual level is that man's conceptual faculty is volitional, which means that its actions are caused by one's own volitional choice. One's conceptual functioning is caused by oneself.

Still, it would be entirely consistent with volition to ask:

(a) What motivating factors lead a person to choose to accept altruism as a moral ideal originally? -- and
(b) What motivating factors lead a person to continue to accept it?

Volition does not preclude the existence of motives; it merely means that the motives are not necessarily determining, if one decides to challenge them. It's not necessarily easy to challenge and revise long-held, thoroughly automatized beliefs and values, but it is always possible.

To put the basic question another way, what is the appeal of altruism? Why do so many continue to cling to it even when they are entirely free to act differently, and are at least dimly aware of a more life-fulfilling alternative?

This tends to be an exceedingly difficult question to answer if one strives to live by reason, i.e., by one's own independent rational judgment. There is no rational basis for a morality of self-sacrifice; one cannot convincingly sustain adherence to self-sacrifice (altruism) if one also strives to adhere to reality and reason with cognitive independence, although some philosophers have tried to do that and failed.

And therein lies the key. People who are deeply committed to altruism do not strive to face reality through independent rational judgment. The answer to the mystery of altruism's appeal, in short, lies in the field of psycho-epistemology.

In both fiction and nonfiction, Ayn Rand has offered many discussions of psycho-epistemology and its result: one's sense of life. Both topics, "Psycho-Epistemology" and "Sense of Life," are summarized in The Ayn Rand Lexicon (along with "Automatization" and "Subconscious"). There is further discussion in The Romantic Manifesto (RM) in Chapters 1 through 4. Ayn Rand's short story, "The Simplest Thing in the World" (RM Chap. 12) dramatizes the "benevolent universe" sense of life of a hypothetical fiction writer driven to create exciting, uplifting stories, but whose painful awareness of the massively contrasting sense of life of his audience cripples and paralyzes him. In the end, he gives up trying to write fiction and instead looks for a job in the "Want Ads" in a newspaper. (The Lexicon includes entries on "Benevolent Universe Premise" and "Malevolent Universe Premise," for further discussion of those topics.)

Further dramatic concretization of differing senses of life can be found in The Fountainhead, especially the scene in Part Four, Chapter 11, where Roark discusses what he has learned about "Second-Handers" with Wynand. The philosophical essence of that scene is excerpted in FNI under the subtitle, "The Nature of the Second-Hander." The Fountainhead vividly concretizes just about every imaginable form of "second-hand" living, in contrast with the sense of life of "creators" like Roark.

I have recently found that Ayn Rand's earlier play, Night of January 16th, provides a remarkably concise dramatization of what the play calls "two different types of humanity." The play depicts a courtroom trial in which the jury is chosen from members of the audience who had volunteered to be jurors. The factual evidence is carefully balanced, with key witnesses contradicting each others' testimony so that the outcome of the trial has to be decided based on the credibility of the witnesses. In effect, the jury (and audience) are placed in the position of having to conclude that some key witnesses have to be lying, because the others couldn't possibly have done what was implied or alleged, since they were seen as too good for such misconduct, and since they provide seemingly credible explanations for the available factual evidence. In her Introduction to the published version of the play, Ayn Rand explains (pp. 1-3):

[The play's] events are not to be taken literally; they dramatize certain fundamental psychological characteristics, deliberately isolated and emphasized in order to convey a single abstraction: the characters' attitude toward life. The events serve to feature the motives of the characters' actions, regardless of the particular forms of action -- i.e., the motives, not their specific concretization. The events feature the confrontation of two extremes, two opposite ways of facing existence: passionate self-assertiveness, self-confidence, ambition, audacity, independence -- versus conventionality, servility, envy, hatred, power-lust. [...]

A sense of life is concerned primarily with consciousness, not with existence -- or rather: with the way a man's consciousness faces existence. It is concerned with a basic frame of mind, not with rules of conduct.

If the play's sense of life were to be verbalized, it would say, in effect: "Your life, your achievement, your happiness, your person are of paramount importance. Live up to your highest vision of yourself no matter what the circumstances you might encounter. An exalted view of self-esteem is a man's most admirable quality." How one is to live up to this vision -- how this frame of mind is to be implemented in action and in reality -- is a question that a sense of life cannot answer: that is the task of philosophy.... that basic frame of mind (and its opposite) is all that I wanted to convey [in this play].

The final closing arguments by the defense and prosecution lawyers reiterate and emphasize the sense of life issues (pp. 118-119):

Two different types of humanity are opposed in this case -- and your verdict will have to depend on which side you choose to believe.

The full closing arguments cite the specific details that demonstrate the conflicting senses of life. In essence, what the two sense-of-life types boil down to is the issue of confronting reality first-hand, by one's own independent rational judgment, or "second-hand," through other people -- respecting objective facts above all else, or seeking acceptance by others first and foremost, even if it means evading significant facts of which one is at least dimly aware.

The "two types of humanity" can be described most succinctly as cognitive independence versus cognitive dependence. "Cognitive independence" refers to facing reality by means of one's own independent rational judgment, which may include seeking opinions of experts and learning from them, but always with one's own power of independent observation and rational inquisitiveness as one's final arbiter. "Cognitive dependence" refers to facing reality through others, characteristically asking, first and foremost, "What do they think," not "What do I think?" Being dependent on others cognitively leads naturally to being dependent in many other ways, as well, and viewing dependence on others as man's natural state -- while simultaneously failing to develop and refine one's own capacity for independent rational judgment and practical action guided efficaciously by one's own rational faculty. (Dependence also leads naturally to tribalism in many forms. Refer to the Lexicon topic of "Tribalism.")

The cultural and historical consequences of the "two types of humanity" are concisely described in Ayn Rand's article, "For the New Intellectual" in her book by the same title (p. 16 in the newer Signet paperback edition):

Men's epistemology -- or, more precisely, their psycho-epistemology, their method of awareness -- is the most fundamental standard by which they can be classified. Few men are consistent in that respect; most men keep switching from one level of awareness to another, according to the circumstances or the issues involved, ranging from moments of full rationality to an almost somnambulistic stupor. But the battle of human history is fought and determined by those who are predominantly consistent, those who, for good or evil, are committed to and motivated by their chosen psycho-epistemology and its corollary view of existence -- with echoes responding to them, in support or opposition, in the switching, flickering souls of the others.

A man's method of using his consciousness determines his method of survival. The three contestants are Attila, the Witch Doctor and the Producer -- or the man of force, the man of feelings, the man of reason -- or the brute, the mystic, the thinker. The rest of mankind calls it expedient to be tossed by the current of events from one of those roles to another, not choosing to identify the fact that those three are the source which determines the current's direction.

The "two types of humanity" refer to one's entire sense of life and its underlying philosophy, not just to one's chosen psycho-epistemology. Ayn Rand identified the fact that man needs philosophy to guide his thoughts and actions. In "The Chickens' Homecoming" in ROP, she explained (pp. 45-56):

Philosophy is the science that studies the fundamental aspects of the nature of existence. The task of philosophy is to provide man with a comprehensive view of life. This view serves as a base, a frame of reference, for all his actions, mental or physical, psychological or existential....

It is not a question of whether man chooses to be guided by a comprehensive view: he is not equipped to survive without it. The nature of his consciousness does not permit him an animal's percept-guided, range-of-the-moment form of existence....

The task of philosophy requires the total best of a mind's capacity; the responsibility is commensurate. Most men are unable to form a comprehensive view of life: some, because their ability is devoted to other professions; a great many, because they lack the ability. But all need that view and, consciously or subconsciously, directly or indirectly, they accept what philosophy offers them.

Leonard Peikoff's book, The DIM Hypothesis, further explains the nature of cognitive integration, misintegration, and disintegration (psycho-epistemological methodologies) and their historical significance. So long as the only choice offered to man is misintegration or disintegration, man will most likely choose misintegration by default (in the long run), in order to have something that "makes sense" (logical coherence) to guide his choices and actions, even if his philosophical framework has little tie to reason and reality (and may even deny that reality exists at all and/or that reason can know it).

Dr. Peikoff points out that it is extraordinarily difficult to formulate a complete, fully integrated philosophical system from top to bottom that consistently upholds man's faculty of reason at all levels and thoroughly embodies the view of oneself and others as rational beings. Ayn Rand would not have been able to do it without the work of Aristotle before her, and the ancients (including Aristotle) could not have done it prior to the Industrial Revolution and the spectacular demonstration of reason as a practical faculty for living.

These contrasts can be exceedingly difficult to understand, even for one who sees himself and others as individuals possessing the faculty of reason which gives them knowledge of reality. And those who see themselves as dependents and units of a collective tend not to understand reason and individualism very well, except as a purely emotional revolt that arises at times against the prevailing social and cultural order and leads quickly to the sacrifice of others to oneself if it isn't promptly stopped. As Ayn Rand noted in her Introduction to VOS:

In popular usage, the word "selfishness" is a synonym of evil; the image it conjures is of a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own ends, who cares for no living being and pursues nothing but the gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment.

Is it too late for a philosophy of reason to take root and grow in the face of today's accelerating resurgence of the centuries-old philosophical tradition of mysticism-altruism-collectivism-statism? No, it's not necessarily too late, but the road will not be easy.

Update: Additional Insights

The comments have raised questions about whether or not people truly "accept" altruism, what "accepting" altruism means, how well people understand what "accepting" altruism means, and so on.

I have now found some additional insights on these questions (and on the original question) in the new book by Peter Schwartz, titled, In Defense of Selfishness: Why the Code of Self-Sacrifice Is Unjust and Destructive. (I recently finished a first reading of this book while this website was inoperative.) The book's main emphasis is on what altruism is, why it is unjust and destructive, and why readers should choose to follow rational self-interest (relying on their own independent rational judgment) instead; but the book also offers many helpful insights about the motivation behind altruism. A variety of motives are possible, depending on whether the focus is on altruism's leaders or merely the followers of the leaders, and on how well the followers comprehend the nature of what the leaders are exhorting the followers to do.

Consider, for example, the role of one's cognitive methodology (independent rational judgment versus relying on others for primary guidance) in relation to the following observation:

...we're taught that behaving altruistically is in our self-interest.

Students don't necessarily take everything their teachers (or parents or other "elders" or supposed "authorities") say or "teach." Some students conscientiously strive to ask questions and think for themselves, to the best of their ability. And many teachers, parents, and others want students to do that, although a probably greater number of others do not. So the mere fact of being "taught" something doesn't automatically assure that the student will necessarily accept it without further critical questioning. Secondly, altruism, by its nature, demands precisely the opposite of acting in one's own self-interest. Altruism, in its most consistent, purest form, demands living for and through others, never for oneself. This means it is a blatant contradiction to tell a student that he should behave "altruistically" (whatever "altruistic" means) because it's in the student's own self-interest. Some students will notice the contradiction (if they think about what they are hearing) and either reject altruism, or denounce such a crude attempt to "pollute" altruism with self-interest. Altruism as a moral ideal means rejecting one's own self-interest as having any significance or importance whatever. To be truly altruistic, one must be selfless (devoid of "self") and must blend with others in all possible respects, cognitively as well as materially. (And not just with selected others, but with all others who have alleged "needs" that cannot be met except by someone else's sacrifices.) The modern K-12 educational system in the U.S., inspired by the pragmatic doctrines of John Dewey, specifically strives to inculcate "social adjustment" in the students, blending in harmoniously with others. (See pp. 90-92 in Schwartz's book.)

If one understands altruism's demands somewhat poorly but nevertheless accedes to them as best one understands them, then one is merely surrendering one's mind to others as well as devoting one's physical capacities to the service of others. That is the opposite of independent rational judgment. It is the rejection of independent rational judgment and would lose motivational import very quickly as soon as the sought-after followers start to question the leaders' urgings independently and rationally for themselves. Altruism has no answer to offer for the question of why one must sacrifice oneself endlessly for as many others as possible. Peter Schwartz's book explains that altruism's only hope of persuading its followers is to offer a confused, vague concept of "selfishness" as always predatory, as the only alternative to altruism -- implicitly denying that non-predatory, rational self-interest is even possible in human existence -- which relies on the followers not asking too many rational questions.

There are significant insights in Galt's Speech, too. At one point, Galt observes that many followers of altruism "blank out" the need to question the morality of altruism if they want to live:

You blank it out, because your self-esteem is tied to that mystic 'unselfishness' which you've never possessed or practiced, but spent so many years pretending to possess that the thought of denouncing it fills you with terror. No value is higher than self-esteem, but you've invested it in counterfeit securities—and now your morality has caught you in a trap where you are forced to protect your self-esteem by fighting for the creed of self-destruction.

A longer version of this excerpt can be found in The Ayn Rand Lexicon under the topic of "Self-Esteem."

Regarding the link between altruism and the rejection of reason, Galt also observes:

A mystic is a man who surrendered his mind at its first encounter with the minds of others. Somewhere in the distant reaches of his childhood, when his own understanding of reality clashed with the assertions of others, with their arbitrary orders and contradictory demands, he gave in to so craven a fear of independence that he renounced his rational faculty. At the crossroads of the choice between 'I know' and 'They say,' he chose the authority of others, he chose to submit rather than to understand, to believe rather than to think. Faith in the supernatural begins as faith in the superiority of others.

This excerpt, too, can be found in the Lexicon under the topic of "Mysticism." Again, to sum up: acceptance of altruism depends on and requires looking to others for primary guidance instead of exercising one's own independent rational judgment.

Peter Schwartz's book and Ayn Rand's writings also discuss those who don't genuinely accept altruism, but who nevertheless try to compromise with it, explaining that the attempt to compromise is self-defeating (over time). There is an excellent collection of excerpts on the topic of "Compromise" in the Lexicon.

In short, when we ask, "What causes people to accept altruism," we need to specify which people we are inquiring about, i.e., leaders or followers, superficial or devoted followers, choosing altruism by rational deliberation and thought (allegedly) or by unthinking emotional support from others, etc. In Western culture today, one can find all kinds.

answered Jun 27 '15 at 14:46

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

edited Aug 10 '15 at 23:55

CraigC65CraigC65, I'm curious as to whether or not you think this answers your question, and if so (or even if not), what exactly you meant by accepting altruism.

Personally, I don't think very many people do accept altruism, as part of a volitional act. I do think that many people implicitly accept altruism, due to mistaken reasoning. How people come to make such mistakes in their reasoning is, in my opinion, an interesting question. The simplified answer, which I give above, is that we're taught that behaving altruistically is in our self-interest.

(Jun 27 '15 at 18:54) anthony anthony's gravatar image
... behaving altruistically is in our self-interest.

This is an "A is A" type of claim. The question I would ask is how would a person be likely to "process" that claim if he (a) exercises independent rational judgment, or (b) looks to others for primary guidance? I will let the questioner comment (if interested) before I comment further.

(Jun 28 '15 at 23:38) Ideas for Life ♦ Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Objectivist Answers seems to have been in "Unhandled Exception" status for the past 6 weeks. Welcome back!

(Aug 09 '15 at 11:40) Ideas for Life ♦ Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Apologies for the interruption -- alas, we had "issues", but they are straightened out now. :^)

(Aug 09 '15 at 11:45) Greg Perkins ♦♦ Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

All claims are of the "A is A" type.

Not everyone realizes that behaving altruistically is behaving altruistically (in the same sense that Oedipus didn't realize that his mother was his mother).

(Aug 09 '15 at 17:30) anthony anthony's gravatar image
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Asked: Jun 26 '15 at 14:19

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Last updated: Aug 10 '15 at 23:55