Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Objectivism and altruism

Rand defined altruism as the principle "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."

One must distinguish between altruism and helping others. Simply helping others is not altruism: altruism is the belief that you have a duty to help others, that you owe others. As Rand put it, the issue is not whether or not you should give a dime to a beggar, but rather if you "have the right to exist without giving him that dime. The issue is whether you must keep buying your life, dime by dime, from any beggar who might choose to approach you. The issue is whether the need of others is the first mortgage on your life and the moral purpose of your existence." Altruism holds that one person's need is a blank check against the lives of others. Altruism holds that self-sacrifice is the good and that self-interest is evil.

Although some would call this characterization of altruism "extreme", in fact altruism so defined pervades our culture. Ambition, greed, success: today these are viewed with suspicion at best, with downright hostility at worst. On the other hand, the New Deal, the Peace Corps, and "a thousand points of light" are upheld as great achievements or noble goals.

Although altruism claims to be based on "love" for man-kind, in practice altruism leads to suffering. On a personal level, altruism leads to unearned guilt. Personal achievement requires you to concentrate on yourself to the exclusion of others. If you accept altruism as the "good", then to the extent that you achieve, you are left with the nagging feeling that you should be doing more to help others, e.g., by working in a soup kitchen or some other such activity. On an interpersonal level, altruism leads to suspicion and ill will. Since any person's need is a blank check drawn against the lives of others, each person knows that any stranger may cash this check at any time, and conversely each person feels that every stranger owes him something.

From: Objectivism and Ayn Rand

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