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Someone tried to logically prove to me why one ought to be altruistic. I found a list of logical fallacies here link text and I'd like to know which one's apply to what he wrote. This is what he wrote...

"You should be altruistic because in the long run it will be beneficial not only to society, but also to yourself. Being altruistic fosters and encourages a society in which people help those in need of help, which ultimately means you will be helped when you need it. Conversely, altruism also encourages a society where negative acts against others are discouraged, meaning for yourself that you are less likely to be attacked, stolen from, killed, raped, etc. On the evolutionary level it means that a society that protects and helps each other, and does not ransack his fellow man whenever he deems it beneficial to himself in the short run, has a greater chance of survival, both for the group as a whole, as well as for the individual within that group, which in the end leads to a much increased probability of reproduction, which is the ultimate evolutionary goal of any individual being."

asked Oct 29 '12 at 16:55

elnate's gravatar image


edited Oct 30 '12 at 02:43

Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Greg Perkins ♦♦


You should act against your self-interest because it's in your self-interest to do so?

No, there are no logical arguments for being altruistic.

(Oct 29 '12 at 18:21) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Anthony is right. The only way altruism can seem beneficial to any individual is by comparing it with a straw-man as the alternative: cynical exploitation.

The argument goes: without altruism, all we'll have is thieving and allowing people to starve in the streets.

On the contrary: without altruism, we'll all be much more proud, happy, benevolent, self-respecting, and just.

Altruism is the rationalization of theft! "He's so much richer than me, I deserve his car."

There is no reason to be altruistic. That altruism is so prevalent is evidence of human credulousness.

(Oct 30 '12 at 09:28) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image

The major problem with confronting this paragraph with logic is that the speaker is speaking in large-scale terms, i.e. "society." Why should we be moral? What constitutes a moral action? What constitutes a value? These are all questions that must necessarily begin at the individual level. But the paragraph also mixes concepts and drops contexts.

Consider the first sentence, "You should be altruistic because in the long run, it will be beneficial not only to society, but also to yourself." Altruism, by definition, is sacrificing one's self for the sake of others. This is antithetical to the furtherance of the self and in no way could "be beneficial." Perhaps the speaker is confusing kindness with altruism, in which case one would need to point out that kindness and good will towards others are conditional acts, filtered by the virtue of justice. We treat those we judge to be valuable with kindness. An argument could be made that other people in a society are valuable as partners in trade, and thus could reasonably be treated kindly.

Take a look at the next sentence, "Being altruistic fosters and encourages a society in which people help those in need of help, which ultimately means you will be helped when you need it." To which I would reply, "Says who?" Altruism does not guarantee that you will be helped. Altruism is simply a moral philosophy telling individuals what they ought to do. This person is extrapolating a moral philosophy into probabilities that, in reality, contain far more variables than they are willing to admit. Furthermore, history has shown altruism to give birth to the most heinous dictatorships (Soviet Russia, Hitler's Germany) and justify the most deadly actions (the mass slaughter of Jews in the 20th century in the name of preserving the greater society). Far from providing 'eventual help,' altruism is much more likely to kill you.

The entire paragraph continues in this vein, building upon assumptions, stretched from nothing, and applied broadly to a society.

Here is the bottom line: altruism is always the sacrificing of the self to others; of higher values for lower values, and in no possible way is that ever beneficial to an individual or a group of individuals because it necessarily truncates values, lives, goals, and minds. No amount of twisted logic could sanction such an anti-individual, anti-life philosophy. And remember, morality is a code of ethics to guide the actions of individuals. "Society" is nothing except for a collection of individual human beings.

answered Oct 30 '12 at 09:56

JK%20Gregg's gravatar image

JK Gregg ♦

There are a number of mistakes he is making. The mistakes aren't so much with logic as they are with mistaken premises. For instance, he implicitly assumes that to act in your own self interest necessarily implies that you are out to screw other people. That's just not true.

Another mistake is confusing the results of evolutionary psychology with philosophy. In evolutionary psychology (which he is invoking in his discussion) it has been argued that if people help each other, their group will benefit, and if the group is a collection of related individuals, then those genes will get promulgated further, even if those genes don't necessarily come from you. This fact serves as the foundation for a lot of "intellectual's" defense of altruism. They neglect to realize that those results only apply to genes, and to prehistoric human societies. These same people don't then argue that each person should have as many children as possible (to further promote their genes). They want it both ways, and haven't carefully sorted out their premises. (I haven't fully sorted that out yet in a way that is digestible in this forum, all I can do is point out the problem.)

Finally, you'll note that altruism is not carefully defined. What does your correspondent mean by altruism? People use it to mean a wide variety of things. From "being nice to your neighbor." To, "taking 5 minutes a day to go out of your way to help your neighbor." To, "sacrifice your life for your neighbor." These have vastly different implications in how they get practiced, and the impact to your daily life. If you don't carefully define your words, you can get into a lot of confusion. No one argues that being nice to your neighbor is in your own self interest. There are lots of cases where taking 5 minutes a day to be nice to help your neighbor is reasonable (but not in all cases.) But, it is never okay to sacrifice your life to your neighbor. Your correspondent hasn't sorted that issue out carefully, and because of this he is drawing some very erroneous conclusions.

answered Oct 30 '12 at 12:51

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John Hoffman ♦

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Asked: Oct 29 '12 at 16:55

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Last updated: Oct 30 '12 at 12:51