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I've encountered a criticism of Objectivism that essentially states: altruism is an aspect of human nature; therefore the demonization, and to view someone's altruism as such a depravity ("as Randians do"), is to contradict a normal and (and sometimes good) aspect of human life.

asked Feb 19 '11 at 22:16

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edited Mar 07 '11 at 19:17

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Andrew Dalton ♦

Thanks Dante.

A response to Rand's conception of altruism, as elucidated in your answer would be: "well, that's just the Comptian notion of Altruism, a straw man that nobody actually subscribes to or defends...what kind of inhuman robot is going to stand aside and watch a child drown while stroking their chin as they calculate the potential gains and losses of saving him!? A normal and (I submit moral) person would unhesitatingly jump in and save the child! This is the altruistic essence that makes us human!"

(Mar 15 '11 at 20:44) Andrew Andrew's gravatar image

In other words, "it's all just definitions, you can just define altruism from your Randian perspective and wammo, slam dunk, discussion is over, no more contemplation required!!"

This is not the real me talking, but I am genuinely interested in a retort.

(Mar 15 '11 at 20:51) Andrew Andrew's gravatar image

Objectivists use the word "altruism" to mean "ethical altruism" which, according to Wikipedia:

"is an ethical doctrine that holds that individuals have a moral obligation to help, serve, or benefit others, if necessary at the sacrifice of self interest. Auguste Comte's version of altruism calls for living for the sake of others. One who holds to either of these ethics is known as an altruist."

To your first comment: I would respond with "unhesitatingly jumping in to save a child is not altruism but rather the virtue of integrity."

(Mar 15 '11 at 21:38) Alfred Centauri Alfred%20Centauri's gravatar image

Well recall also that Rand states explicitly that her conception of altruism is a code that must be cheated on, if the individual in question is to survive. To practice altruism consistently, according to her, leads to an almost immediate death. Thus, we should not take her to be saying that anyone actually practices this doctrine consistently, with no personal considerations. What we should take from her is that any elements of altruism contained within any code of ethics work against the life of the actor and should therefore be rejected.

(Mar 17 '11 at 12:39) Dante ♦ Dante's gravatar image
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Those who make the claim that altruism is part of human nature mean by 'altruism' a concern for the well-being of others; they mean that empathy for others comes naturally to humans. This usage of altruism is completely different from the moral code that Ayn Rand condemned.

Ayn Rand defined altruism in the following way (from the essay “Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World”):

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.

Here, altruism is not a feeling at all, but rather a moral code which holds that a person's basic moral obligation is to others (this is also how the term was used by the person who coined it, Auguste Comte). Once the philosophical doctrine of altruism is properly understood, we can easily see that it cannot be an aspect of human nature; individuals are not born with innate ideas about their moral obligations.

In fact, Ayn Rand held that the philosophical doctrine of altruism ultimately makes genuine empathy, benevolence, and good will to others impossible. From the same essay:

Do not confuse altruism with kindness, good will or respect for the rights of others. These are not primaries, but consequences, which, in fact, altruism makes impossible.

If you attempt to live consistently by the doctrine of altruism, whereby you hold that your primary moral duty is to sacrifice to others, then you have established others as a danger to your personal values. You have accepted that you are morally obligated to help anyone who comes along and asks for it; each stranger around you is another potential drag on your life. This will not lead to feelings of benevolence towards those around you, but rather feelings of resentment. True benevolence and empathy for others can only be based on the doctrine that it is morally proper to live for yourself; from this basis, you are free to extend help to others as you choose. Helping others becomes just another positive value that you can choose to pursue within the context of a life fully chosen by you. It becomes a positive value, rather than an obligation that's always just around the corner. Thus, Rand's opposition to altruism was not at all an attempt to 'demonize' feelings of empathy and benevolence.

answered Mar 15 '11 at 16:52

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Dante ♦

Egoism and altruism are abstract perspectives a man can have on himself. Today, most men are neither egoists nor altruists because they do not have such a perspective. If most men are neither egoists nor altruists, how can altruism be "an aspect of human nature"? I think that such an answer would make your partner state what he actually means by altruism. If he gets more concrete, you should have no difficulties answering him. If he says something about helping others in emergencies, for example, you can look up what Ayn Rand said about that and you will know the Objectivist position.

answered Feb 27 '11 at 13:07

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Selfmadesoul ♦

  1. On what does the premise that altruism is an aspect of human nature depend? Objectivism posits that living is an essential aspect of being human. Altruism may be an aspect of some persons but not of others. That does not result in its being innate to the condition of being human.
  2. I cannot speak for others who consider themselves to be objectivists. However, I see no reason to demonize altruism. Assisting others in need of help can be of benefit to one's self and to one's community. What objectivism objects to is being forced to be altruistic. When the government (or some self designated Robin Hood wannabe) steals from me in order to carry out "altruistic" activities, they are initiating forceful theft of my value and that is not acceptable. I will choose my charities and do not need the government or others to do so for me.
  3. Perhaps even worse than stealing my value in order to carry out "altruistic" actions is to attempt to shame me into doing so voluntarily. I pay my taxes some of which is clearly misused by the government because the alternative is to go to jail. Those who attempt to shame me into performing charitable actions are asking me to provide of my value to something that I do not consider to be of value. That is indeed a sacrifice and I refuse to participate in such actions. I do participate in a number of charitable activities but only those that I believe I find value in.

answered Feb 19 '11 at 22:45

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ethwc ♦


You said "Altruism may be an aspect of some persons but not of others" and "I see no reason to demonize altruism" -- unfortunately there is widespread confusion about the term altruism, which I believe you suffer from as well.

As Objectivists generally mean the term -- which coincides with the way the originator of the term meant it -- "altruism" should indeed be demonized. There is no situation in which any rational human should give up higher values in exchange for lesser ones, which ultimately means death.

(Feb 20 '11 at 08:58) Raman ♦ Raman's gravatar image

Defined as you put it, I agree that it is unacceptable. I apologize for any confusion. It is also true that altruism in that context is not only not acceptable but would be suicidal as an aspect of human nature. Such is not compatible with survival. That simply makes the so called premise posited above even more flawed.

(Feb 20 '11 at 17:20) ethwc ♦ ethwc's gravatar image

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Asked: Feb 19 '11 at 22:16

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Last updated: Mar 17 '11 at 12:39