There is an ominous component to altruism. Not just sacrifice but the abnegation of self.
Altruism: Sacrificial Compulsion
“An Investigation Into (Self)Sacrifice”
There can be no ‘altruism’ without self-sacrifice, this is inarguable. Why? Because the essence of the term was envisioned, created, developed and presented to us from the mind of Auguste Comte, a French philosopher, who is known as the ‘Father’ of sociology and was integral in the development of socialism and other collective ideologies as well as the liberal democratic mindset that is so prevalent in our social narratives that we ‘enjoy’ today.
His greatest achievement is his work on ‘Positivism’, where he attempted to explain his philosophy on sociology, altruism, and the ‘moral regeneration’ of humanity. He sets the bar fairly high and is willing to do almost anything to see his vision realized. Luckily, after less than two hundred years it is well on its way to insignificance and ignominity, which is a legitimate end for such a point of view.
He also dreamed of a ‘Religion of Humanity’, which he actually implemented at some point, with remnants remaining around the world. It was a government-backed and directed religion (which never really happened) without the existence of god, of which he was not a believer, but based on this bizarre concept of altruism that he believed would bring a Utopian existence to us all, with the only caveat being that we would eradicate the individual, the self, most of science and any personal consideration for personal pleasure, sense of achievement, satisfaction or pride in anything whatsoever that an individual might value or use to legitimize their own existence or survival.
As an additional insight, he believed that the sum total of mankind’s achievements was of little consequence ‘except’ in the context that they validated his vision of reality and humanity, and they could now be dismissed since his work was the ultimate result of historic investigation and interpretation and nothing else was necessary. He was also a staunch advocate for the science of phrenology and spent an inordinate amount of time explaining the workings of the inner person through the bumps on one’s head. A unique individual who we can celebrate does not impact us through his presence anymore, except perhaps within the paradigms set out by those same collectivist and liberal movements that have achieved so little over the centuries.
In any case, August Comte is the focus of much of what we explore when we talk of altruism and the argument that Ayn Rand spent so much time trying to identify, define and argue for the eradication, not of self, but of his concept of altruism, which is anathema to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, all freedoms and most assuredly the concept of choice. Let us delve into the idea of altruism and sacrifice. Are you an altruist? Do you freely embrace the concept of sacrifice, even to the point of self-sacrifice? Even to the point of sacrificing your life, without recognition or satisfaction for your actions? If not, you may, in fact, not be an altruist at all, but something completely different.
The Concept of Altruistic Sacrifice
You will sacrifice and sacrifice until there’s nothing left to sacrifice...
My contemplations into a detailed investigation of altruism (a historical and originalist version) have often brought me to a similar sentiment. I don’t wish to get ‘lost in the weeds’, so to speak, by talking of the magnitude of what our species has to endure in its quest for survival. Our planet endures a fatality rate of something in the vicinity of over 56 million souls each and every year. This, of course, translates into well over a million per week, perhaps close to 200 thousand each day, with the inevitable result of more than two of those souls each and every ‘second’ of every day, of every month, of every year. When the altruist makes the case for sacrifice and any version of altruism, extreme or casual, I continually ask myself how any single individual or group of individuals can be expected to accept such a burden when it is obvious that no human being can even begin to deal with such a reality, such an insurmountable challenge.
Even if I was able to ‘donate’ the time and resources, let’s say, with a value of $10 a day, not an exorbitant amount by any definition, that would result in a price tag (I hate to be mercenary for a moment) of something in the vicinity of almost $4000 per year. Personally, I cannot afford such an outlay, especially when, reasonably, there can be no expectation that anything demonstrable or substantive will happen in any particular year to alleviate the problems that exist, and it will be an expectation, an obligation, and a necessity, year after year after year. Possibly forever.
This, of course, does not even take into account the huge numbers of those that do not die but may be in great need of assistance today, with some requiring help consistently for the rest of their lives, which could be counted, not in years, but in decades. The task is daunting, and at times incomprehensible. So this is not a one-time deal, and our concern, our efforts and our resources will be a perpetual requirement for the future. Is there no other way to deal with such a reality? Add to that the fact that almost a quarter of the world’s population is living ‘under’ the poverty line, it would suggest that the other 75%, many of whom also have their own issues and misfortunes, will be willing and able to contribute that $4000 per year for the diminishment of the ‘misfortunes’ of others that we have been discussing, and shoulder the burden. I think it would be irrational and irresponsible to believe that they would be able to accomplish such a feat for that quarter of humanity that remains in need.
I don’t want to get bogged down in a mathematical exercise here, my point simply being to try and put the problem in some kind of perspective in relation to our subject of altruistic sacrifice, but suffice to say, even ‘if’ the other 75% ‘could’ afford to help to the tune of that $4000 a year per person (but my research tells me that a full 33% of the world population is under the age of 20, so that reduces the available pool of ‘donors’ down to something above fifty percent of the population. Considering that the richest 3% of the world population has an average income of $40,000 it would seem reasonable to expect no more than 5 to 10 percent of the planet even capable of offering a full 10% of their income (before taxes) to the goal set forth in altruism (even if only peripherally) to assist those in need.
In any case, using this example, that would translate into something in the vicinity of $1600 per person (2 billion) in assistance. Not a vast sum by any means, and something that may well be required of every ‘fortunate’ worker that is able to make that level of income we reference. But remember, that is per year, and may well be for the rest of your natural-born lifetimes, so it would not be unreasonable to call it our ‘altruistic humanity’ tax. Unless of course we come up with other alternatives to fix the problem. While this kind of money would certainly help, and the amount mentioned may well be appreciable in some parts of the world, in most nations it would be little more than a ‘drop-in-the-bucket’ as the saying goes. Not nearly enough to make any real difference. And don’t forget, this precludes the charitable ‘giving’ to all the legitimate areas from disease research, medical care for the dysfunctional, homelessness, and mental and psychological counseling assistance.
I have to ask why those in favour of altruism never speak in the language of numbers, but only in the language of ‘need’ and ‘obligation’, never conceding that most of the efforts taken would be incapable of making an appreciable difference that we all can agree is so desirous. Do we understand what that means? It means that we cannot solve this problem with exploitation (for the collectivists out there) or confiscation or taxation or donations. This altruistic option ultimately only consumes emotion, effort, and resources that could be used in other ways to achieve something substantial and demonstrable. What would that be?
Am I the only one thinking about this? Does no one else have something viable and without the need for coercion and derision and the dissolution of the individual and the ‘self’? Is the only alternative to consider those unfortunate individuals as without value or substance and only need, with no abilities and no chance or opportunity to ‘ever’ fend for themselves? I find that to be dehumanizing and a bigger issue than the initial ‘need’ for material help.
It is completely irrational and irresponsible to rely completely on the concept of altruism to fix anything, and it has not impacted the issues in any demonstrable way to this point. So what do we do to solve the issue? From my experience, I am not sure if anyone even cares. And let us not forget the millions upon millions of animals being abused, sick, and at the mercy of an environment (and individuals) across this planet that can be oppressive and unforgiving, to the point of malevolence. They exist with as much need as the members of our own species, perhaps in some cases even more. Many are endangered by extinction. And what of our planet? It is resilient, with an abundance of resources, but it is being exploited and pushed to the limit, and ailing as well, even if this hysteria about climate change is not as dire as some would have you think. Do we simply turn away from these issues, or do we think so little of the concept of ‘life’ that they are of little consequence?
The problem, from my perspective, is that the issues are not actionable without a drastic overhaul of the philosophical foundation of this country, this planet, and our species. In this, I would be in agreement with the illustrious August Comte. It is imperative and has been for quite some time, to ‘regenerate’ our sense of morality, although I question just how much of that morality we have ever had to begin with, and to reorganize our political paradigms.
The only rational path forward can come through the utilization of philosophy and morality and all the derivatives from them as to ethical behaviour, the development of impeccable character and the introduction and implementation of a desire and courage to act with an integrity of unprecedented levels within our individual thought and action, our communal resolutions and our political mindset.
Anything without motivation, incentive and resolve will result in nothing but more wishing and whining and animosity, finger-pointing, and unrestrained hatred which inevitably results in an unsustainable variety of physical and psychological violence as well as coercion and oppression. The irony is that it has never been otherwise, and there is no reason at this time to think it is going to change anytime soon. Terribly so sad, but so very true.
We have already touched on the issue of ‘sacrifice’ any number of times at this point. It is a central tenet of Comte’s altruism and a subject that those adherents of the ‘vanilla’ form of altruism tend to ignore and are reluctant to discuss in any great detail. It is something I do not shy away from since I think it epitomizes the fundamental weakness in the positions of these very same altruists as well as all other (coercive) forms of altruism. We need to attempt a more in-depth exploration of what the concept actually promotes.
David Kelley is a professed objectivist with a certain provocative controversy very similar to my own. He was a philosopher and founder of the Atlas Society, and also a member of Ayn Rand’s circle and read what is purported to be her favorite poem, ‘If’, by Rudyard Kipling, at her funeral in 1982. While discussing Ayn Rand’s views he made the comment that “there is no rational ground for asserting that sacrificing yourself in order to serve others is morally superior to pursuing your own (long-term, rational) self-interest. Altruism ultimately depends on non-rational ‘rationales’, on mysticism in some form. . . .”
In addition, he makes the point that there is a danger of the state actually ‘enforcing’ that moral ideal: “If self-sacrifice is an ideal – if service to others is the highest, most honorable course of action – why not force people to act accordingly?” Is it not reasonable to think that a consensus perspective could not be interpreted as a compelling argument for the initiation of coercion? It has been perpetrated throughout history for much less.
Such an eventuality would inevitably be against the concept of the individual and towards that of a collectivist worldview, and that, my friends, is what the argument about altruism is really all about. The individual vs. the collective. Choice vs. coercion. The morality of the few is placed upon the existence of the many. As some might say, the ‘greater good’, which is neither.
The Concept of Rational Sacrifice
The concept of sacrifice is every bit as controversial and just as difficult to define as are the concepts of rational self-interest, which suggests a negation of coercion within the structure of the theory, and altruism itself, which embraces coercion as a compelling aspect of the objective. They are all intimately relative to one another, and it can be argued that sacrifice ‘can’ be a component of ‘either’ morality, but our conversation here today questions the essence of sacrifice, and if it is possible to actually choose to sacrifice oneself for some other value, and if that value approaches the negligible, does that not seem to negate the self-value we hold for ourselves, or is sacrifice legitimate only when that which we value above all else is inarguably threatened and demands we act in a way that many may consider irrational and self-destructive.
There is a myriad of definitions and examples of what people think best describes exactly what constitutes sacrifice, and many see it as simply an ‘inconvenience’ of some sort when it can be life-changing as well as the end of existence itself. Is that what we really want to see happen? Do we want one individual to have to offer their lives to save another? Or are there other alternatives that would achieve the same result, with little or no apparent imperative for anyone to suffer, much less die? Another concept, another conflict, another argument.
Why don’t we talk about these things? We have found virtually no answers to speak of after ten thousand years of investigation. I find it disconcerting and incomprehensible. I guess that means that we can have no real expectations to find any here today either, and yet we continue to think and continue to explore the possibilities, but first we must make an attempt to understand both concepts and especially our opposition. I can understand why there can be disagreement, but I find it difficult to accept that it must be opposition. I don’t understand why we make so little progress. It is surreal at times.
“Sacrifice” is the surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser one or of a nonvalue.
Thus, altruism gauges a man’s virtue by the degree to which he surrenders,
renounces or betrays his values (since help to a stranger or an enemy is regarded
as more virtuous, less “selfish,” than help to those one loves).
The rational principle of conduct is the exact opposite:
always act in accordance with the hierarchy of your values,
and never sacrifice a greater value to a lesser one.
Ayn Rand - The Virtue of Selfishness “The Ethics of Emergencies” (44)
Where better to start than with the words of the Grande Dame herself? It is important to understand what she is trying to say. It is not a matter of whether you think she is correct in her assumptions, but that you comprehend her own theory based upon her own belief system. It is so difficult and disappointing to grow up in a country that is based on choice and freedom, especially the freedom of religion, which, by the way, defends the right to no religion as well. The freedom to think our own thoughts and to speak our own words, with no fear or expectation of retribution or condemnation. Is that not what you desire for yourself? Is that not something that every single individual in this country deserves? Is that not justice? Does Rand not deserve the same considerations that we all believe we deserve?
If someone were rejecting morality outright, that might be a different issue, but she has reasons for her position, and we need to listen and contemplate her perspective. If not, I am not sure what we are trying to accomplish with our little experiment in the art of communication within this discussion. Are we not here to resolve issues, or is it just to complicate and perpetuate the ignorance and reluctance of some to discuss and reasonably debate? I find the answer to that question to be quite elusive at times. It can be intriguing and fascinating as well.
I find her comments specific and to the point. She does not misdirect or cloud the issue with strawmen, she speaks with confidence and in clear and concise words. She is not here to engage in rhetoric but to define and explain her own interpretation of the world around her, the positive as well as the negative.
I find it difficult not to admit that she can be forceful and even arrogant at times, but so what? Is not her opposition every bit as presumptuous with a concerted and strategic intent to demean and condemn with their personal ad-hominem rhetoric? If disagreement exists, it seems only natural that one would question the philosophy and the ideology, and I would expect nothing less, but what I see is often inappropriate and without merit or some form of reasonable legitimate argument.
She makes the point that “altruism gauges a man’s virtue by the degree to which he surrenders, renounces or betrays his values (since help to a stranger or an enemy is regarded as more virtuous, less “selfish,” than help to those one loves)”. Is that not what altruism promotes? If so, there can be no argument. In not, then we need to explore where a mistake may have been made. Is the opposition based on delivery? What about content and context? Does the individual not have the right to decide when and where and to whom they can be altruistic? Is there someone specific that one can name that has the authority or morality to tell anyone else what to do and when to do it?
Is there not an implication that altruism is correct in wanting us to help strangers and enemies over those we admire or hold affection for? Does not altruism (and collectivism) promote that type of altruism as ‘virtuous’ and helping those we love as ‘selfish’? Is there a cogent and rational argument to be made for either? I really don’t believe there is. Rand certainly does not. The arguments I have seen rarely delve into such a question and never offer an answer. This is why we sit here today with little expectation of a resolution, or even a meeting of the minds. I don’t think that this is an objective of the opposition. There is only a need to distract and create as much havoc as possible, not to address and analyze and resolve, which is what I passionately would like to see.
“Sacrifice” does not mean the rejection of the worthless, but of the precious.
“Sacrifice” does not mean the rejection of the evil for the sake of the good,
but of the good for the sake of the evil. “Sacrifice” is the surrender of that
which you value in favor of that which you don’t.
Ayn Rand - For the New Intellectual - Galt’s Speech (139)
This is not an objective absolute but a subjective morality of the paradigm that is being presented here. ‘They’, the individual, get to decide what determines value, and to act accordingly, while ‘we’ get to do the same, and contemplate, to the best of our abilities, experiences, and morality, what actually ‘is’ the ‘right thing to do’ and then we have the freedom to do it. Why does there always have to be some component of coercion within the paradigm to force some other individual to do something against their wishes, their philosophy, their ideology, their religion, or their morality? Why?
It stands to reason that where there’s sacrifice,
there’s someone collecting sacrificial offerings.
Where there’s service, there’s someone being served.
The man who speaks to you of sacrifice,
speaks of slaves and masters.
And intends to be the master.
Ayn Rand - For the New Intellectual - “The Soul of a Collectivist” (73)
Is there a simpler way to explain the concept of sacrifice? I don’t think so. This does not negate the concept of some ‘sacrifice’ if you so ‘choose’ to do so, only that another individual may not agree or wish to do as you do, or what they desire you to do. Do they have such a right? Are individuals ‘allowed’ to contemplate and conclude their own future path, or are there ‘other’ individuals, even if completely correct in their understanding of the situation, that has the moral authority to use whatever force necessary to do what ‘they’ believe to be that ‘right thing’? I see a horrible paradigm on the future horizon if it is not already here. Actually, it looks quite a bit like the last ten thousand years, with nothing but pain and suffering and death, as the very ‘few’ feast on the corpse of the ‘many’ which illustrates the concept of the ‘greater good’ in its stark reality.
Which one are you in this scenario? Do you wish or expect to be the master, or are you resigned and deserving of being the slave? Either way, it does not reflect well upon anyone that would allow and accept such an eventuality to take place. Can’t we come up with a better alternative? When does that ‘greater good’ exist for the rest of us and actually kick in?
There exists a tremendous diversity (yes, you can use that word in a non-political context) of definitions when it comes to the concept of sacrifice. Perhaps as varied as any other word I have researched, and it shows, first of all, a majority of perspective that does not even acknowledge the collectivist and altruist version. An overwhelming consensus defines sacrifice as:
‘the act of giving up something that is valuable to you in order to help someone else:
The versions for this viewpoint are many but not particularly revealing. They show an intent to help others in a non-specific way. Admirable in their own context, but vague and generic. I am not really sure why it has to be something of value since I would think that the important aspect is that it is of assistance and possible value to the recipient. Wouldn’t it be acceptable if we could solve the problem just by giving away stuff we don’t even want anymore? Does it all have to be in new, unopened boxes, or is it the thought and intent that has value?
the fact of giving up something important or valuable to you in order to get or do
something that seems more important; something that you give up in this way
something useful or important that you choose not to do or have,
in order to have something that is more important:
the act of giving up something for something else considered more important:
These examples are starting to get away from ‘value’ and I guess that is a step in the right direction. The objective intent comes across as caring but you will notice that none of them here, and none that I found anywhere, speak of doing this ‘sacrifice’ thing simply because it is the right thing to do. I wonder why that is. I guess the ‘more important’ thing can simply be helping others. In any case, praiseworthy, and no mention of anyone getting hurt in the exercise of sacrificing. It would seem most people would like to help but to do so in a rational (there’s that word again) manner that does not cause any undue harm to themselves, the recipient, or anyone else. Sounds reasonable.
I think the important point to be made here is that if there are no negative consequences, does that not incentivize the need and desire to do this activity again and again? If there is a price to be paid, as per Comte’s altruism, does it not lose its luster at some point and become oppressive and a burden? Does that not inevitably destroy the whole concept, or is the expectation that they will never run out of sacrificial personalities? Do those that ‘burn out’ simply then cross over to be recipients in the future? Kind of defeats the whole purpose if you ask me.
And we continue:
To trade (a value of higher worth) for something of lesser worth in order to gain
something else valued more,
The act of giving up something highly valued for the sake of something else
considered to have a greater value or claim:
This begins to sound intrinsically selfish, if truth be told. Not real altruism in any sense. One is ‘not’ supposed to be expecting to make a ‘profit’ in any way. There is no supposed value to be gained unless it be one of a spiritual or cerebral variety. Of course, according to Comte, there can be absolutely ‘no’ gain, benefit, pleasure, or satisfaction in the act of altruism, and he suffers no exceptions. Non-negotiable. Actually, it sounds like the complete opposite of either ‘vanilla’ altruism or the historically accurate Comte altruism. I am not really sure what to call it. Perhaps opportunistic or exploitative altruism? In any case, it sounds distasteful to me.
The act of giving up ones own happiness for the sake of others who may
or may not be worth it or appreciate it, often the latter.
From an evolutionary perspective, self-sacrifice takes two broad forms.
Altruism reduces the lifetime fitness of the actor
and increases that of the recipients.
This is more in line with the position of Comte when it comes to altruism. Unfortunately, these examples are firmly in the minority. Almost two hundred years of his perspective have done little to bring about the intrinsic changes necessary within humanity to give his theory of ‘positivism’ and altruism any chance of becoming mainstream. Since he was the ‘Father of Sociology’ and an initial source of thought for the formation of Socialism itself, it is not unexpected that his influence remains high in those circles. Not so much in communism except perhaps as fodder for the anticipated ‘revolution’. Collectivism does not embrace the concept of altruism and sacrifice except maybe in theory and within their rhetoric. And yet here we are, well involved in the subject, with quite a bit more to come.
Something that the dictionaries are reluctant to include in their determinations is the concept of the ‘why’ of wanting to sacrifice for others. I know, I know, they care and they want to help those that have less than they do, but that doesn’t really answer the question why or the question why there are so many that need that attention and assistance. Many would like you to believe that it is the spectre of that horrible ‘capitalism’ that has caused this disparity in the world, but all the information that I have seen points to capitalism, as a primary element in the reduction of those in poverty from a level just before the industrial revolution of something like 95% to todays levels of 10% or even less. That would seem to be a real achievement, and yet many simply don’t agree. Why? I have no idea. I listen. I want to learn. I hear so little of substance that it gets more than a little frustrating at times. It seems more an issue of ideology and control than any real intent at evolution.
It is inarguable that there are quite a number of what we call wealthy individuals out there, and some of them are indeed not nice people, but their numbers, in context, are not unexpected when you think of the selfish and corrupt governments around the world that are the epitome of what I call inappropriate players that do nothing to solve problems while actually being the essence of the problem themselves. But we are not here to talk of capitalism, although it should be noted that between government and business and capitalism, it is only capitalism that has delivered anything even resembling success.
When we speak of the ‘why’ people are willing to get involved with the sacrifice we inevitably come face to face with yet another concept that I touched on previously. The issue of the ‘good’, and this idea of the ‘right thing to do’. It would seem that this may be the primary driving force behind the whole issue of altruism, notwithstanding Auguste Comte and his closest adherents. Interestingly enough, I agree completely with those that have the desire to help others and live a full and moral life, often getting involved with the plight of those that are either not capable of fending for themselves or have given up the fight, and there are fewer things in life that are more disheartening and disturbing than those realities.
But for those that have come to some conclusions about what ‘good’ means, and have at least some level of morality, ethics, character, and integrity and an intent and compulsion derived from these things to ‘do the right thing’ it is literally inevitable that at some point they will want to be involved in those things that need attention, effort, resources and for want of a better word, altruism.
You see, my biggest conflict and consideration with altruism is that we don’t really need the ideal at all. We have more than enough concepts within our language, and I assume other languages are as well stocked with their own versions of charity, generosity, kindness, caring, beneficence, philanthropy, compassion, empathy, and so many more fundamental aspect of being human, at least for most of us, that I find little reason to have this concept of altruism, especially when so few comprehend or accept the original meaning and waste time arguing over something that is for all intent and purpose irrelevant.
Is there anything within the concept of altruism that is not contained and cannot be exhibited through our behaviour with any or all of these other terms I introduced? The only thing that I know of that makes altruism unique and individual and independent is this element of force or coercion or oppression that exists in the original intent and expectation of the theory of altruism. Without that, it is nothing more than a synonym. With it, it is a horrible concept, destructive and the source of pain and suffering that only a collectivist could envision and create an attempt to implement in not just his own little sphere of influence, but in the entirety of humanity. Megalomania at its worst (or is that its best?).
Contrary to the context given to us by Comte, many believe that the compulsion to sacrifice is actually a selfish behaviour since it is normally based on something that you ‘want’ to do, of your own accord, for your own reasons, and in your own way. Not only is that an interesting take, but it is also what objectivism suggests. Not to do what some outside influence demands or expects you to do, but what you decide for yourself is appropriately derived directly from one’s own personal philosophy. Not only does this address the inner conflict that may exist when one is being directed by others to do something that may or may not be in line with their own perspective, but it ensures or at least allows for the incentive to engage in such activity again in the future, over and over again.
If an individual gives his last ten dollars to a homeless person on the street it may well be altruism, but it is selfish in the respect that they desired to help that person, they decided it was the right thing to do, and they made the decision to do it. The true altruist would do so for reasons that are still not completely clear to me, basically without any consideration for themselves and no desire or expectation of deriving anything such as pleasure or satisfaction or recognition by others. I am not saying that these things are absolute necessities within the act, but only the fact that feeling good about actually helping others is something that should be encouraged and not frowned upon, as the positive reinforcement is instrumental in creating this ‘altruism’ as a normal and repetitive action in the future, a habit if you will.
I don’t understand the need for an expectation of ‘nothingness’, devoid of any personal connection to the act itself for the donor when personal happiness is one of our objectives in life. Perhaps this is not an aspect of Comte and the reality in which he exists, but here in America, our founders came up with the idea of life, liberty, and the pursuit of ‘happiness’ and I see no rational reason to reject and condemn the experience. I find it counter-productive and self-destructive to live for the negation, since, is it not the goal of ‘good’ deeds to bring comfort and happiness to those in need? Do we supply this commodity (happiness) to others but reject the same for ourselves? It is an irrational expectation. But that is what Comte teaches, and what Rand rails against when she says:
“The irreducible primary of altruism, the basic absolute, is self-sacrifice
—which means; self-immolation, self-abnegation, self-denial, self-destruction
— which means: the self as a standard of evil, the selfless as a standard of the good.”
Is this not what we are discussing? Is this not what Comte and altruism suggest for us all? At least he is ‘honest’ enough to admit his position, even if he does not articulate it in quite the same way that Rand does. The problem is that this is what he says, and I find it difficult to accept any concept that embraces such a negative perspective of life and the individual. But that is a primary concern of Comte and collectivism, to delegitimize the reality of the individual, and the intent to remove the concept from the social narrative.
Now, if that homeless person gives that gift to someone else that is starving, it can be both altruistic and selfish, which actually all acts of generosity and benevolence are, in essence. Even though he needs the money, he recognizes that there are those that may need it more, so he acts because he believes it to be the right thing to do. While from my perspective this is not true altruism, it certainly is admirable and charitable and caring and kind.
What is it exactly we are attempting to accomplish with this altruism? Is it a matter of helping others or an issue of coercion and oppression? Do we want them to act from a position of confidence in themselves and their own actions, or simply an act of obeisance, obligation, and obedience? If so, I find the action abhorrent and completely inappropriate, even though the end result may be perceived as beneficial to someone at some point.
When we do things because we are confident that it is the right thing to do, not only do we help someone right now, but there is no reason to not do so again in the future, as soon as possible, because it makes one feel good to help someone that needs it. Those that think objectivists do not believe in helping others, or that objectivism actually preaches against it are an example of the worst kind of human being imaginable. There is nothing that brings more pleasure than helping others, but it absolutely must be through a personal decision to do so, without coercion or intimidation. When it becomes a habit, there is nothing that can compare or compete with the consequences of such actions. That is the world I want, and the society I dreamed was possible. Not the nastiness I see on the street, the corruption I see everywhere else, and individuals with the worst human attributes imaginable. I am not swayed by ignorance and hatred. Truth is often elusive, but in this case, it is glaringly obvious.
There is a point that comes to mind while we are speaking of altruistic action. Comte was not just interested in individual actions, his vision was set much higher. His objective was idealistic in nature, and that is totally understandable. I believe that progress is often intrinsically based on the idealism of individuals and communities that search for and discover possibilities and initiate an attempt to make them realities. His vision was not for you and me but for all of us, within the concept of humanity itself. Fairly lofty intentions.
Auguste Comte wanted to be a part of the ‘moral regeneration’ for all of humanity, and he saw the individual as inconsequential in and of itself, but an imperative prerequisite to that objective. Unfortunately, he understood its impracticality and therefore spoke in terms of the necessity of the ‘state’ (I thought collectivists abhorred the state) to create, direct and implement his vision, never accepting the will of the people or even the ‘will’ of the state itself. He never explained how ‘his’ version would remain the only alternative, but that is not really surprising. The hubris of the megalomanian perspective is without equal.
While I do not acknowledge the legitimacy of his vision, I agree with the intent and effort to regenerate that morality that was in decline during his lifetime, as I interpret it to be today. Many individuals do not accept that a single individual can ‘sacrifice’ themselves for something so much larger than themselves, such as humanity or any large group of other individuals to the tune of millions. I would tend to disagree. But they can and they do, and history shows us the willingness to ‘sacrifice’ oneself for everything from family to nation, so why not humanity itself?
There are those that feel this is nonsense, but is it? They say it is irrational, but is not offering one’s most intimate and personal ‘gift’, their life, in the hopes of ‘rescuing’ something that is much bigger than themselves, a decision to be made by the individual, even if the act is perhaps hopelessly insignificant even if desirable? Most believe that the objectivist would never accept such an alternative. I understand the confusion and the misinformation. We again return to the concept of the individual making their own decisions, coming to their own conclusions, not having to acquiesce to some higher power other than reason and intellect, and personal morality.
Objectivism does not dictate what the individual needs to do, it only facilitates in understanding and self-determination. The Objectivist is free to act as they see fit, and I can see why some would even equate these action with anarchy or some such, and it is to some degree, but based on that same reason, intellect, and morality. It is completely and totally legitimate for an objectivist to come to conclusions that might be questioned by yet another objectivist. That is what I passionately embrace and appreciate. The decision is mine, and no one else. Not objectivism in the macro, and not any individual, including Ayn Rand herself, in the micro. Objectivism is truly a personal philosophy based on the individual and the self. I wouldn’t want it any other way. I wouldn’t embrace the ideology if it wasn’t.
I am a passionate believer in the Objectivist perspective on self-sacrifice. Having said that, it is not irrational to ‘value’ not only a million other individuals, but mankind itself in its entirety. Legitimacy has nothing to do with it. We make our own decisions. It does not really matter if others agree with our own life perspectives. Martyrs have changed history and impacted civilizations, so the reality is that one person indeed can influence larger issues.
Of course, a man can sacrifice his life for another. I would do so without a second thought for someone I love, and possibly even for someone I simply highly respect. History is replete with the act of self-sacrifice. They may not intend to die at times, but they certainly are willing to pay the price. I find it hard to understand that this can be an alien concept. I would possibly not do so for some random stranger, not through animosity or even simple fear, and I would probably feel bad if they died, but if not directly connected to that love that I hold for another, I am not sure I would be willing or it would be my intent to replace my life for that of another. Is this not the decision of the individual in every case?
There are those that will make the point that random individuals will sacrifice many things, including their lives, for irrational goals every day. They posit that it is ‘irrational’ to sacrifice one’s life, and can only do so if they hold no values upon which to base their decision. I find that to be a bit simplistic and irrational in and of itself since one individual cannot speak for another, does not know the circumstances and perspective of that ‘other’, and does not have the life experience nor the morality, not to mention any knowledge of that person's philosophy and fundamental belief system to make such a judgment.
Having said that, it may well be that the action is irrational in nature, I just question whether someone with no intrinsic information can come to a ‘rational’ conclusion on their own. Why is it necessary to judge at all? The issue is what determines the action and not if it occurs. The issue is if a self-determined decision to self-sacrifice is different from being coerced into an action against one’s will and whether we agree or support such actions.
An individual will probably end up having a more difficult time trying to define ‘rational’ than to prove the irrationality of self-sacrifice. In almost all cases you have no information to offer for either. Rationality is such a subjective issue, that it simply cannot be determined. It’s really irrelevant. Reason, rationality, and self-sacrifice, are all deeply personal and intimate personal constructs, and one person cannot force an entire species to behave according to a single ambiguous opinion. If legitimate information exists that can explain these views, it would be invaluable in such a discussion as we are attempting here today.
Another small diversion before we address the specifics of rational versus altruistic sacrifice. There is an issue of selflessness, where the individual rejects the self, and attempts to act without regard for themselves in any respect. I personally find that hard to believe is possible in any circumstance, and Rand has a similar perspective. I have never been able to accept or possibly simply understand how someone can do that and continue to make an effort, at least a tangible effort, to exist at all.
The concept of acting, not against one’s best interests, including life itself, as in altruism, but having no interest in the self in any regard reeks of an irrational and seemingly insane basic concept. Why would anyone do anything at all, ever, if that decision, and conclusion, had been made? Why eat, why sleep, why would one talk if there were no self? Many collectivists talk about such an issue in the abstract, and always in generalities, never taking the time to explain in detail the motivations and incentives of how wanting to live can be disregarded, and the individual not cease to exist in short order.
I would suggest that objectivism believes that everything attempted or accomplished by any individual is, to a large degree, motivated by personal self-interest. Not selfishness as many would like to characterize it, but a rational reason why they do whatever act they ultimately attempt. Pleasure, satisfaction, obligation, it really doesn’t matter. Something incentivizes the individual to act, and they derive some level of achievement when they do. The only exceptions are when we are not in control of our psychological or physical selves, primarily due to some defect or disease within ourselves, or when we are forcibly made to do something against our will or at least against our wishes. If we are completely honest with ourselves, I would suggest that there has never been any action that did not have a personal intent associated with it, no matter how benign, self-interested, or beneficial to others in some way.
Selflessness would take a level of self-discipline that, personally, I have never seen from another human being in the entirety of my existence. If there is no reason to do something for oneself, I fail to recognize the motivation to do anything for someone else. I interpret selflessness as a lack of respect for the known self, which seems to preclude the ability to respect any aspect of an unknown self. As always, a simple opinion of an individual only, based on a lifetime of thought and experience, and investigation.
Altruistic vs Rational Sacrifice
I have seen any number of individuals comment over the years on the conflict of rational self-interest versus some nebulous moral obligation to sacrifice arbitrarily for an inexplicable altruism. of course, many have yet to understand the concept of rational self-sacrifice to begin with, and the concept of self-sacrificing to an indefinable morality, and worse yet, for completely arbitrary reasons is even more difficult to define or clarify to any degree due to the personal basis of the information each individual has to derive these conclusions. It is not just difficult, it is next to impossible.
If one can truly not make the distinction between the two, then I, unfortunately, have to believe that the individual needs to invest whatever time and effort is necessary to investigate and discover the demonstrable conflicts between the two perspectives. There are any number of interpretations of the concepts, and most are quite passionate and deliberative in coming to their positions. Those that have no viewpoint will find it difficult to engage in reasoned debate on the subjects. I would also like to venture the observation that if one is selfless, how does one come to an opinion or a position, which is ultimately based on the ‘personal’ or ‘self’ by way of education, experience, and philosophy? Why would the selfless individual care at all?
Perhaps this is one of the primary reasons that there is so much conflict with much of what Rand and objectivism have to say. At times, the individual is not willing to devote the time required to achieve comprehension of the issues and relies more on ‘intuition’, ‘emotion’, and the determination of others to fulfill the requirement of understanding. This is true for many that wish to achieve some level of competence within the philosophy of objectivism, or any other discipline or segment of knowledge that exists. Philosophy is not for the faint of heart or those inclined towards apathy and passive indifference.
The two opposing perspectives of altruism and rational self-interest are as different as night and day. One embraces and supports the use of coercion, especially since it rarely derives from an actual deliberative choice, while the other rejects coercion without exception in any form and believes passionately in an absolute individual right in relation to choice and self-determination.
I think it would be appropriate to expand on this point a bit. I believe there may be a caveat here. The reality is that there could be very little difference between the two concepts of rational self-interest and the moral obligation of altruism if that morality is mine and mine alone. You have to understand that when people speak of some vague concept of a moral obligation to sacrifice arbitrarily for the benefit of ‘others’, That they are of a consistent mindset where ‘they’ speak for the ‘greater good’, another concept more than a little vague, and that my own perspective is of no real consequence or validity.
They attempt to dictate what the appropriate ‘morality’ is, and that is the determining factor in what ‘everyone’ is expected to embrace, support, and display as a ‘community’. The issue of coercion is never removed from their thoughts and never far from their words. It will never be appropriate for the individual to take their own counsel in the determination of what sacrifice entails, or those who may deserve that sacrifice, to what degree it will be implemented, and even where and when, and this consensus will never depend on what ‘your’ own choice may have been.
The whole concept of ‘arbitrariness’ is of great concern since that infers that there is little concern for anything specific, leaving those making those determinations with the freedom to involve the individual in a sacrifice for pretty much anything they ‘feel’ is appropriate. They may well save a murderer, a rapist, or heaven forbid, an objectivist who deserves your altruism as opposed to your own baby or your brother or your mother, or anyone else you might love or admire.
Is this what is envisioned when the concept of altruism is promoted? Is this what you think is appropriate? The point I am making is that I have what I consider a well-developed and comprehensive philosophy of my own and I would like to have the primary input on where my time, my effort, and my resources will be put to use. I don’t believe that this is something that could be considered unreasonable, impractical or inappropriate.
If, by chance, I decided that I disagree with any conclusions by these others, I would suggest that someone more inclined can offer their own altruism towards that end. I see no conflict with anything but the coercion used to direct me to actions that are against my most cherished and passionate thoughts and beliefs. Those who wish to invest in the flotsam and jetsam of humanity should do so, but I am of a different mindset. I bow to your right to choose and wish you well. Unfortunately, I see a distinct difference and reason to make a deliberative and legitimate choice in the matter. What is the problem with some form of freedom of choice? I thought that was the politically correct thing to do.
I have a comment here from someone a number of years ago that was struggling with whether Ayn Rand was abstractly ‘wrong’ in her belief that there was an immorality in requiring certain individuals to sacrifice ‘value’ for the benefit of others, and they were thinking in direct relation to income distribution.
I realize that many have great difficulty in making the distinction between things that perhaps ‘should’ be done, although that word is also coercive in nature, at least to me. I would suggest they talk of things that ‘could’ be done, and the only issue is ‘who’ is going to do it. It is not the intent of objectivism to say that something should not be done, and whatever that something is may well be beneficial for that unfortunate individual that needs assistance, but the conflict arises when one person, or group of people, decide that they are the ones that have a superior grasp of the problem and believe that they have some infallible ‘right’ to impose that position on others, with or without their consent. It always comes down to the same thing, or pretty much. The coercive directive, or ‘diktat’ if you will, and the negation of choice. The complete dismissal of personal choice and never the consideration that there may be a possibility that this other individual may have something of value to offer in the decision-making process.
I am reluctant to engage in political theoreticals, but income distribution is almost identical in nature. The government is not mandated with the supply of welfare of government-backed altruistic activity in any way, it is simply something that they believed was the ‘right thing’ to do, and they proceeded to institutionalize the behaviour. This exemplifies the problem with democracy and the oppressive and coercive inclinations of those with unbridled power and authority with no obligation in regard to intellect and morality and especially accountability and culpability.
This is the fundamental reason that objectivism promotes a minimalist form of government which cannot simply act on whim and desire, but only protect the most basic interests of those things that affect ‘every’ single citizen. When something only affects a specific segment (‘special interest’) of that society, from welfare to banking, it should be up to some grass-roots form of action that should take preference in the resolution of issues. Otherwise, what we have is a demonstrably discriminatory behaviour.
The issue of redistribution is something quite a bit more complex. It is connected to the whole concept of taxes, and in most cases, I would probably be against both, depending on circumstance, but the reality is that taxes are here to stay, and the government is going to do what it wants, even if the people are not on board. Of course, how can you expect the 50% of those receiving ‘distributed’ wealth from elsewhere to vote against their own ‘self-interests’, which brings up an interesting point?
Does this not mean that these people on the receiving end are the ‘selfish’ ones since they are enriching themselves at the expense of another and that is irrespective if they ‘need’ the assistance or not. So in a democracy, it will only take 1 out of the other 50% that agree with them to create a decisive mandate? I don’t believe that was how it was supposed to work. If the government was here to ‘help’ those who needed and wanted help, to enrich and elevate their abilities and expectations for the future, and no cash changed hands, the vote may well be quite a bit different, but we don’t need to talk of such alternatives, they are well beyond reach anymore.
The key word in this comment is the use of the term ‘required’. If it was a matter of choice there would be no conflict. It certainly ‘is’ immoral to ‘force’ people to give up something of value to someone else, for whatever reason. Is that not the definition of theft? If not, then I would ask why don’t ‘they’ do it. Why is it always me, or someone like me? I will never acquiesce to force. It will always remain a deal-breaker.
The objectivist often tries to discuss the issues involved with the simple concept of the survival of the individual, and the fact that it is necessary to define the absolute values that are required to ensure the life of that individual. This insinuates that the morality of said individual may well be the only way that this can be achieved. It is up to the individual to determine and implement those things necessary for survival, irrespective of what others may deem of importance.
Some say that there is no rational justification for any moral implications outside of this determination of what is fundamentally relevant to that survival. Morality is a guide for living life, and not particularly a rationalization for sacrifice, but inevitably, any decisions made are through that very same morality.
Even Kant eventually confessed that the concept of sacrifice was irrational. It is interesting to note that even with all of his protestations to the contrary, Auguste Comte found little support for his form of altruistic sacrifice even from those that strongly advocated and endorsed his ‘positivism’ and his theory of sociology. I find that fascinating and telling as to the efficacy of his vision for self-sacrifice. Time has not been kind to his vision, and it is difficult for me to feel any sympathy or empathy for such a self-destructive concept. I believe that it has received attention, been addressed, and found wanting, as it should. And yet it still exists as a force within the collectivist paradigm. What does that tell you? Is it an invitation to think that it is the failure it seems to be or to continue and wait for an opportunity when the masses may well be amenable to such a disastrous alternative?
I was more than a little intrigued and interested because if the reference to Kant was indeed true I would think that this would cause some conflict within the socialistic arguments for the sacrifice of the individual to the collective which is an important central tenet to the philosophy of their ideology. It would be fascinating to hear a collectivist speak on the issue.
A short detour into this comment seems to show that it is a mistaken perspective. I find no mention of Kant characterizing sacrifice as irrational. In fact, his disdain for the individual was quite adamant, as had been my interpretation to this point, and the destruction of the individual was held as a progressive step in the evolution of mankind, at least within the collective. He made it quite clear with his comment “The individual is merely fodder for nature’s goal”, as Kant put it in his ‘Review of Herder’. It seems quite clear that the sacrifice of any single individual is actually a positive action, in his mind. He thought that “their suffering is of no account in the light of nature’s ultimate end”. He was an unabashed collectivist who rejected reason and knowledge itself. A very sick man, irrational and delusional, and an appropriate mentor to the socialist mindset.
NOTE: Recent (certain) ethical thinkers have specific characteristic answers to these kinds of questions. The only real gift, they claim, is one that expects no counter-gift in return. Unless a gift is in this fashion sacrificial—the giving up of something—it is argued, a gift reduces to a hidden contractual agreement, governed by a principle of self-interest; and actions out of self-interest, as Kant pointed out, are not pure gifts. This is certainly well in line with the positions of Comte and his concept of altruism, which is what we attempt today to discuss and understand, and refute.
A particularly interesting point has been made that Ayn Rand (objectivism) would posit that any money spent, or any help given, in whatever guise, to a loved one or a friend, would not constitute what is being defined as a ‘sacrifice’. But if the observation is made by someone not directly involved with the donor or recipient it may well be interpreted as a legitimate sacrifice.
My response to this would be to say that it is a matter of perspective, and many that argue these points are not willing to allow the existence of multiple points of view when discussing some of these issues. The caveat in this instance is that ‘you’, as an observer, are free to think whatever you wish in relation to my actions within my own family or even within some greater concept of society. I have no wish to do anything to prevent you from doing so, as long as you do not attempt to impede my freely determined intent to action in any way.
Does this not sound imminently reasonable and rational to any other observer? I would never think to make the attempt unless my own freedom and right to self-determination were threatened in some fashion. I would think this inarguable and irrefutable, and yet I wonder. There is no coercion from my perspective, and I think that is the fundamental difference between the objectivist perspective and that of the Comte altruist or the Socialist ‘greater-good’ adherent.
The idea that my actions or those promoted and advanced by Rand are possibly not in agreement with those other ideologies are less than relevant from my interpretation of what life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness actually represent. I am not looking for agreement or validation from these ‘others’ but only the opportunity to make my own decisions based on my own abilities, experience, and existing set of beliefs exemplified in my own personal philosophy and morality. I expect nothing less and grant them the same freedoms that I envision for myself. Whether anyone thinks this to be a ‘sacrifice’ or not is irrelevant, as long as one is free to follow their own decisions, and I am allowed to do the same. This is really not that complicated. It is fundamental, and it is a no-brainer.
When Rand ever talks of ‘not’ helping these unfortunates, I am fairly certain it is always with respect to the common treasury being used to fulfill the expectations of outside influences and ideologies, while completely ignoring hers. That is not an equitable environment, and why objectivism promotes the position that the government is not tasked, or mandated, with getting involved in these kinds of issues.
I find it confusing that so many are so concerned with the importance of controlling the actions of other individuals, for whatever reasons. Why does anyone care about the way that you or I interpret their actions? The opportunity always exists to discuss and debate our perspectives, and perhaps such a conversation could help to define and comprehend the other reasons why they think the way they do. If we do not insinuate any coercion to impact each other’s actions I fail to see any issue. Whether I think your actions are prudent, ‘respectful’, or even rational is beside the point.
This should not be about your beliefs and if my positions cause your feelings to get hurt. I may well respect your actions and yet disagree on some point. I appreciate every individual that helps another, and I do so when I am convinced it is the right thing to do. It is a necessity for us all to do what we can when we can for those that are in need, and truly deserve consideration. It is only the issue of force that separates us and I would argue that the government is undeniably ‘not’ the correct venue to correct life’s wrongs. I know it is very easy to look to government for resolution, but reality and history tell us that this is impractical and irrefutably an improper usage of government to begin with. It is simply the wrong way of fixing things better left to other avenues resulting in successful outcomes.