I was stuck in a college library for a few hours (lucky me; I love libraries; I could probably live in one) and came across William F. O'Neill's With Charity Toward None; An Analysis of Ayn Rand's Philosophy. I had time to kill, so I thought I'd give it a read.
One section I came across that I wanted to bring up here was O'Neill's charge that Rand's definition of altruism was outdated. He claims Rand is "guilty of destroying her customary straw man" when she efforts to refute "absolute altruism" - a mode of altruism that few adhere to today, or so he claims. O'Neill:
Essentially, O'Neill is arguing that altruism "is merely one way in which egoism manifests itself." He then goes on to claim that Rand's conception of absolutist altruism is inconsistent with "her own assumptions about the intrinsic value of pleasure," but I knew better having read Dr. Smith's Viable Values and understand what makes something a value, and that Rand did not believe value was intrinsic.
Anyway, my question: how would an Objectivist respond to O'Neill's charge that Rand's concept of altruism is antiquated?
As an analogy: Imagine I were to say to you "capitalism is the best political system," and you were to respond "the idea of capitalism you are talking about is antiquated -- we haven't had pure capitalism, well, ever." Would that make sense?
No, it wouldn't. The point is, to whatever extent we have capitalism, that is good.
Now the same thing applies to altruism. We don't have much pure altruism, but that doesn't mean we don't have many, many varieties of altruism, as well as subtly altruistic policies, and the extent to which we have any altruism in our policies, that is bad.
Ayn Rand's definition of altruism is exactly correct, and those who use the term to refer to anything benevolent or beneficial are doing so to hide the evil of of what "altruism" really means. If you mix true altruism with some selfish ideas, and ask people to call that altruism, you've made it impossible for them to identify the essence of altruism, which is sacrifice to others for no personal reward.
People who say "altruism isn't bad, it's what keeps our society civil" are not using the term correctly. Altruism is precisely the idea that unleashes people like Adolf Hitler. Though our modern rulers might not yet be as bad as he, it is still altruism which causes them to lean in his direction, and which, if adhered to more and more consistently, will visit greater and greater evils against good people.
When politicians, pundits and intellectuals stop advocating rights violating policies that demand the sacrifice of the productive to the non productive and when our cultural ideals, as represented through the mainstream of Hollywood, stop demonizing success and perverting the concept of fairness, then maybe we can take another look at evaluating whether the proverbial altruistic horse is dead or not. Until then O'Neill is simply rationalizing to arrive at an explanation for the myriad examples of selflessness as a noble ideal in our society.
answered Oct 16 '12 at 11:29