Altruism was defined by Auguste Comte. Objectivism has some issues with his perspective.
1 - An Introduction to Altruism
The Objective of Altruism
There are any number of complex issues within the concept of altruism, and it will be difficult indeed to cover them all, and yet it is my intent to bring some level of comprehension to a fascinating and controversial subject. While many individuals feel passionate about the ideal, and are determined and confident that they understand the fundamentals of the concept, I think it important to point out a few aspects that are not as simple as you might think.
To begin with, there is a fascinating dichotomy that needs to be addressed and articulated. There are two vastly differing perspectives on the concept of altruism, and it is imperative that they be defined and clarified. Like the objectivist definition of rational self-interest and the irrational self-interest counterpart, which is the ‘selfish’ interpretation that so many want to associate with objectivism, the reality of the matter is that they are as different as night and day, and to discuss and debate, to even have a conversation about them, there exists a need to make the distinction between them, and for anyone wishing to participate in a discussion of substance and reason, to also acknowledge that these differences exist, what they are, who supports or opposes each perspective, and of course, why. Without these things, the debate, or reasoned argument if you will, will never result in a legitimate exchange of ideas or insight into ideologies or philosophies. There will inevitably be no ‘sharing’, no comprehension, and no learning or growth about the fundamentals of our differences. For me, that is the objective, and there is no other.
The two primary ‘camps’ or points of view on altruism are fairly simple. One is the contemporary and conventional interpretation, where altruism runs the gamut from a desire to help those in need by acts of charity, generosity, possibly by donations to organizations that will help them, and even personal activity to engage and work with them to alleviate whatever misfortunes affect them, such as a simple lack of material items, be it food or clothing to some other things that are more complex to determine and to rectify, such as healthcare or housing, among others.
The ‘what’ is not really important in this context, but specificity is required to differentiate the simple perspective of altruism, with the somewhat more complex attributes that you will hear me refer to as the ‘actual’, the ‘originalist’ or the ‘historical’ definition or version. I realize that many do not interpret the concept with these characterizations, but I think that some background, primarily from the other essays within this series, will present a version consistent with the interpretations and expectations of Auguste Comte, a French philosopher who is recognized as the ‘Father of Sociology’, and was instrumental in defining the essence of Socialism as well as other collective ideologies, including the socialist liberal democrat that seems to be prevalent in the American political paradigm over the last fifty years.
The opposition to Comte’s positions and his philosophy of ‘Positivism’, for the most part, will consist of commentary from Ayn Rand, objectivism, and of course, myself. The point that needs to be made abundantly clear here is that this opposition is the ‘only’ reason for these essays to begin with. There was no intent to argue about the ‘vanilla’ version of altruism that is considered ‘legitimate’ by a large segment of social thought, and I am not here to contradict that particular set of positions. Actually, I have no argument with their perspectives on the issues, and readily accept and agree, and interestingly, promote their sentiments and viewpoints. The bottom line is that we (Rand, objectivism and myself) offer no argument on those watered-down variants that they present and champion. We could talk about specific aspects to clarify positions, the caveat being that if coercion, manipulation or oppression is ‘not’ present in whatever forms of altruism are under discussion then there is ‘no’ opposition, at least from us, to speak of.
I hope that my perspective is clear and unambiguous. Our conflict is with the definition and intent of altruism as created, developed and presented by August Comte. Multiple commentaries will be offered at times in all the essays on the subject, depending on the primary focus of the essay. At this point, this is meant to be little more than a primer or an introduction to the concepts that we will delve into afterwards. Suffice it to say we see Comte’s altruism as a threat to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, individualism and choice. I hope to be consistent and legitimate in my objections to his version of altruism, and I will let Rand and objectivism speak for themselves by way of their philosophy and ideology.
I think it imperative to make the point that both versions of altruism have an objective of thoughts and actions that are sensitive and of benefit to those that have fallen on hard times and are in true need of assistance. That has never been an issue, no matter what some may think of Rand and objectivism, wrongly I might add, as to intent and expectation.
The philosophy does ‘not’ say that people should not be helped, and she has made this an inarguable position many times over the years. This ‘assistance’ is completely appropriate but with yet another caveat. Only when it results from an undeniable voluntary decision and conclusion by the individual. Only when ‘they’ determine, and it is not the pressure of some outside influence, that they want to help others, and ‘only’ to those that they have established have legitimate ‘need’ and not just a truly selfish ‘want’ or desire. Also that they alone will determine not only who, but exactly what will be done, to what extent and for what duration. There are those that can ‘suggest’ but none that can coerce such determinations. If we wish to champion freedom, we would have to accept that others can discuss and make attempts to ‘persuade’ certain actions, but again, should be devoid of any use of force in any form in that persuasion. If it is truly the wish of the individual to do these things, then and only then is it a valid and legitimate action. This is the essence of the opposition to Comte’s altruism in this trilogy of Rand, objectivism, and myself.
The Issue of ‘Good’
The validity of altruism depends heavily on how we interpret another concept that we can characterize as ‘the good’. Superficially, it would seem that we would all agree on both the concept and its definition. But, as with altruism, the idea of selfishness and many others, we need to go deep below the surface to determine the fundamentals of the idea. Many believe that it simply means the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain. This is, of course, an almost completely subjective interpretation. We don’t want to supply those unfortunate individuals that need help simply with sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll, do we? No, we wish to help them with the necessities of life, the essentials if you will. While these things are the center of existence for many individuals, it seems unfair to expect the rest of society to be the source of what is possibly the things that brought them to this paradigm of an existence of need.
There is also the question of an altruist ‘doing good’ for others, even when they do not desire such activity, or their expectations are for something else entirely. Does this impact on the viability and validity of altruistic behaviour? Even with the objectivist perspective of a rational altruism (although we don’t like the use of the term altruism for the confusion it elicits when used out of context) the possibility of doing good for someone else that doesn’t want it is a real risk.
Now, there are those that believe that Rand and objectivism view others as nothing more than indistinct ‘pawns’, to do with what they wish, to their own advantage, and dismiss that they are individuals with a dynamic essence or uniqueness. But for those that have given even a modicum of time and effort into the exploration of Rand and objectivism, that is simply a misconception that is easily refuted by hundreds of comments that have been made within the philosophy and ideology, and reflected in numerous works of fiction, non-fiction, in the form of essays, interviews and a comprehensive library of serious work. Those that do not agree have that right, of course, no matter how misinformed they may be.
These same individuals believe that objectivism does not recognize the individual as a distinct person, and yet the philosophy is based on that individual, their freedom and the imperative of choice in every aspect of their lives. The idea of treating anyone without respect, ignoring their particular life experience, and not doing what they believe is essential to helping those in need, what many might call the ‘right thing to do’ is simply anathema to an objectivist. I think what many do not understand is that objectivism promotes and expects the individual to make these decisions on their own, by their own abilities and experiences, and on the merits of each unique event that is placed before them. Not on an ‘outside’ interpretation of the information at hand, and not on ‘mine’ either, but solely through their own efforts, with the only assistance being what they may ask for, and nothing else.
This would infer that they might not come to the same conclusions as you or I, which would suggest that the result is a difference of opinion and if no one asks why, then they can only fabricate their own perspective, which at times can be woefully incomplete and mistaken and simply wrong. Some believe that the objectivist acts in their own interests, to experience a certain degree of happiness, pleasure, or personal gain, and in one respect they would be right, and objectivism believes that every individual has the right to the ‘pursuit of happiness’ in this regard. Is this not a fundamental that is consistent with the whole concept of the American experience? Is it appropriate for you as an individual to pass judgment on the Great American experiment without question, without any reasoned argument to demonstrate legitimate opposition to go along with the statement?
The fact of the matter is, contrary to the belief of many who oppose (and don’t comprehend) objectivism, that they believe to do these things there will be an irrefutable ‘harm’ done to others, by design, when nothing could be further from the truth. Believe it or not, it ‘is’ possible to take care of yourself, and help others with no harm done to anyone in the equation. This, actually, is inarguable. It happens every day, by well-intentioned individuals that look at life with a different filter than others do. They have a well-developed morality, an articulate philosophy, and an integrity I can only wish was more prevalent in our societies around the world. There are those that do harm to others for their own pleasure and self-interests. Why? I have no idea, I have been trying to understand ‘why’ for more than fifty years, with no credible answer, so you would have to ask them for clarification. That’s not what I do, and that is not what objectivism promotes or suggests in any way, shape or form.
Everything and anything can be done for the right reasons, to the detriment of none, if there is a consistent and comprehensive philosophy from which the individual can derive their morality, their character, their ethical behaviour, and their integrity. This is without question the difference between the camps of altruism and objectivism. The objectivist thinks we have the potential to do the right thing all the time (not an absolute) while the altruist and the collectivist, in the guise of Socialism and liberal democracy, believe that everything has only two options, which are black or white, right or wrong, and they, of course, are the only arbiters that are capable of making those decisions (and that, unfortunately, ‘is’ an absolute).
To return to the issue of Rand specifically, since this is an attempt to bring her own perspective into the narrative, she has never made a statement about viewing others as pawns, and certainly never about using them as an advantage. I really must request that if someone truly believes this, they produce any credible evidence that she has ever made a comment to that end. Otherwise, I would have to admit the sentiment is spot on, and she does believe that we all have to do the ‘right’ thing, but that ‘we’, as individuals, have to determine and define, for ourselves, exactly what that right thing is. Many are perhaps somewhat confused as to how one can do the right thing for one’s own happiness and pleasure, which objectivism does support, but not for personal gain unless that is ‘without’ the need to harm or take advantage of another individual in any way.
To characterize Rand and objectivism in such a manner would be immature and irrational, and dishonest if I may say since she has made it clear, hundreds of times, exactly what it is that she believes, and yet there are those individuals that either refuse to accept or understand what was said. The burden is irrefutably on them, and not on Rand, since she has consistently and specifically addressed all of these issues that have been perverted and misrepresented, misconceived or misunderstood at best, and disingenuous and dishonest in essence.
I believe that Rand has been promoting, for decades, that relationships are dynamic, that one does things because the ‘individual’ thinks they are right, not by some outside influence that is normally motivated by ideology or politics or personal advantage and self-interests, ironically what she is often accused of herself. The accusation can easily be turned on the speaker if one so chooses. She talked in abstracts that many do not have the ability to comprehend without the investment of time and effort to achieve clarity. The criticisms are perpetually presented in this black-and-white construct that leaves no room for nuance or even for choice. The recriminations declare that either you do things for others or you do them for yourself when the reality is the Objectivist says you can do both at the same time, and that is what you should be aiming for. This point of view that it is one ‘or’ the other is just juvenile and ignorant. It’s really not that deep or complicated. The fact that many cannot comprehend the possibility does not change that ‘dynamic’.
Rand has also made the comment that when she does something ‘good’, it is a ‘spiritual payment in exchange for pleasure’. Interestingly, she receives criticism for that as well. I fail to see the problem with deriving pleasure (satisfaction, contentment, joy) from doing positive actions for others with no strings attached. No ‘exploitation’, no ‘taking advantage’, no ‘taking’ of anything but the knowledge that you did something ‘good’ and it was beneficial to another and you were glad to do it, and you might actually do it again because there was no negative fallout from the action except perhaps the opinion of supposedly disinterested ‘other’ parties.
I question why these ‘others’ feel the need to insert their presence and perspective into the equation. The initial act and interpretation is a personal derivative without the need for the input from the recipient of said actions, or some third party that believes their opinion deserves some kind of value or legitimacy when it does not. Charity, generosity, beneficence, all these things are intimate and personal interactions between individuals, with the only result being what ‘they’ conclude, on their own, without the need for criticism or judgments from others. I thought that this would be a prerequisite in our ‘woke’ paradigm that we enjoy today. Does that mean that we should be at the mercy and answer to those unrelated to our own personal actions and choices? Is this not a component of coercion that needs to be investigated and analyzed? Is it something that we desire to be an incessant aspect of our existence? I really don’t think so.
I have heard people complain that they never receive ‘pleasure’ from doing ‘good’. I find that curious and disturbing, and yet fascinating as well. If you gain no pleasure (do you experience pleasure in any form?) from doing something good (and what is the nature of good?) and for the right reasons, then why would you do it? Obligation? Duty? Legislation? Is that why we do nice things for people in need? Not because we want to but because we feel that we ‘have’ to. (there is that coercive element once again) They say that based on her comments, Rand simply exhibits a ‘superficial’ understanding of human motivation. As if that is a definitive statement. Human nature is as subjective and as diverse and unique as anything else any of us does, and to think any one particular individual has a greater comprehension of the concept is disturbing. That is the kind of person who criticizes and judges without ceasing about anything they do not understand, or refuse to try to do so.
As with many, if not most, references and quotes, I believe that it would be beneficial to put the comment into a more complete context, instead of parsing an abbreviated segment of a larger thought. This is more relevant when speaking on subjects that are complex and not easily understood. It is important to give a complete overview, with more being superior to less, with the intent being to reduce ambiguity and superficial interpretations. After contemplating the criticism about Ayn’s position on love and trade, I think it important to at least make the attempt to see her perspective, which I heartily endorse. Her insight into the true value of something such as love and relationships is poignant and profound.
“In spiritual issues—(by “spiritual” I mean: “pertaining to man’s consciousness”)—the currency or medium of exchange is different, but the principle is the same. Love, friendship, respect, admiration are the emotional response of one man to the virtues of another, the spiritual payment is given in exchange for the personal, selfish pleasure that one man derives from the virtues of another man’s character. Only a brute or an altruist would claim that the appreciation of another person’s virtues is an act of selflessness, that as far as one’s own selfish interest and pleasure are concerned, it makes no difference whether one deals with a genius or a fool, whether one meets a hero or a thug, whether one marries an ideal woman or a slut. In spiritual issues, a trader is a man who does not seek to be loved for his weaknesses or flaws, only for his virtues, and who does not grant his love to the weaknesses or the flaws of others, only to their virtues.”
Ayn Rand – The Objectivist Ethics (27-28) – (The Virtue of Selfishness)
To delve into Rand’s commentary, we see that, as usual, she always attempts to give some information that offers a bit of clarity when she speaks. She tells us that her ‘spirituality’ is based primarily on man’s consciousness and that in matters removed from economic and political philosophy, she continues to favor the concept of ‘trade’ in her relationships of the heart as well. The first time that I read her words, some fifty years ago, I immediately understood, at least to some degree, her intent and expectations. I profess to no real expertise as to what Ayn Rand thought, but only how it impacted a young man of perhaps fifteen years, through the fifty-odd years since then that brings us to today.
I am not an objectivist in the sense that I am a ‘follower’ of Rand and objectivism, although I do label myself at times as an objectivist, simply because it more closely resembles what I believe as opposed to any of the ideologies that exist in our society here in America or around the world. By her own words, she would probably not accept me as a true objectivist, since she has made it clear that;
“If you agree with some tenets of Objectivism, but disagree with others,
do not call yourself an Objectivist . . . .”
With that kind of a statement I can only say ‘mea culpa’, recognizing her right to say whatever she feels is appropriate, and yet it is ironic as well, since it was her own words, through objectivism, that made me think that it was up to the individual to identify and investigate the world around me, to make my own decisions and come to my own conclusions, and to make those things I determine to be as true and objective as my abilities allow, to adopt and insert those things I have learned into my own personal philosophy, eventually being an intrinsic aspect of my own morality, and inevitably my thoughts and my actions. So I guess that it may be wrong for me to identify with objectivism, but it really doesn’t matter, since I will continue to make those decisions and come to those conclusions that I deem appropriate and no one, not even Ayn, notwithstanding a return from the other side, can do anything about it, except to make an attempt to persuade me with reason, information, and reality to contemplate and entertain the possibility that I could be wrong and it would be in my own best interests to change or adjust my own positions and perspective.
I thank her for that, but I have never had the desire to be either a leader or a follower, so it was never an expectation of mine. Followers can be disappointed with ideologies and gurus, but if given the time and effort necessary, they can continue to respect themselves for their fundamental beliefs and inevitable thoughts and actions. This is all that I have ever wanted or needed. Objectivism has given me the opportunity to do exactly that. I tell people all the time, as they oppose and demean and criticize Ayn Rand for her work that they should at least make an attempt to realize that she is nothing more than the messenger, and the message is her philosophy, which independently demands and deserves open-minded investigation and respect for the time and effort and thought that was the essence of her work. Anything else is without merit in my world and is treated accordingly. Those that condemn Rand and objectivism hurt only themselves, and perhaps by extension, those around them, because they fail to achieve their potential as a rational intellect and an individual of character, with an integrity that defines and defends the epitome of the best person they could be. A shame really, but one that I cannot and will not accept responsibility for.
And we return once again to Rand and her concept of spiritual trade. As Comte correctly commented, our intellect often leads us to transgressions of digression, and I plead guilty time after time.
Love, friendship, respect, admiration are the emotional response of one man to the virtues of another, the spiritual payment given in exchange for the personal, selfish pleasure which one man derives from the virtues of another man’s character.
I find her insight to be refreshing and profound. In practice, it can be difficult at times, because so many simply cannot reach the levels necessary to ‘deserve’ that love and affection that she talks about. I cannot love someone that I cannot respect, but find it easy with those who exhibit attributes that I would be honored to share (and I try every day to do so) and would have difficulty with those whose thoughts and actions are not the embodiment of what I wish for myself. If it is not these things that I find of value, then I would have to question exactly what it is that attracts one individual to another.
It may not be a normative view as compared to our contemporary social environment, but there is so much that I see within that paradigm that intrigues and impresses me. It ‘is’ an endearing way to speak of emotion and a vindication for our attempts to act appropriately. It ‘is’ a beautiful way to speak of obligation as a sense of appreciation and acknowledgment of the best that others are able to display through their existence. I find it provocative and it rings of truth and legitimacy as I repeat the words. It is a proclamation of love, of like, and of respect and admiration for another human being. It is an exquisite and wonderful way to profess the emotions and recognition of the heart. In this, Comte is once again on the right track, if not in the correct direction. The heart is an absolute necessity to live a full life, but to subjugate the mind to the heart can be disastrous and destructive. Emotion is often not able to be directed. As they say ‘the heart wants what the heart wants’. The problem is that the heart rarely gets what it wants, and that can be an insurmountable paradox.
In spiritual issues, a trader is a man who does not seek to be loved for his weaknesses or flaws, only for his virtues, and who does not grant his love to the weaknesses or the flaws of others, only to their virtues.”
I find it difficult to find fault with any of her observations that she shares with us. I certainly want what she describes, and it is anathema to think that there are those that do not feel the same way. I find it difficult to envision anyone that wants anything different than that. I find the metaphor of a ‘trader’ to be insightful and profound. It is simple in context and legitimate in intent. I understand that everyone may not be able to be anything more than average in their abilities, but you may notice that Rand does not speak of absolutes and she does not speak of perfection. We need to strive to achieve a level that demonstrates who and what we are, and if we don’t like what we see, or others see, the beauty of the scenario is that it costs nothing but morality, ethics, character and integrity to make an attempt to change the paradigm.
It is not a matter of money or status or personal achievement or any network of contacts and influencers. It is only a matter of philosophy and a matter of intent and motivation. The only thing anyone needs to do is to be the best person that they can possibly be, and the rest is up to fate or destiny, for want of a better word. We normally attract who and what we are, so we need to be more attractive, on the inside moreso than on the outside. Only my opinion, but I have been with the same woman for fifty years now. We have always been soul-mates, and I am thankful that we both simply exhibited who we were, we found each other and the rest is, as they say, history.
I am lucky and thankful every day of my existence. I don’t question the why, only revel in what ‘is’ and wish nothing but the same for every other person on the planet. I passionately and aggressively believe that objectivism was at least a part of what happened so I can only ask all those others who condemn and degrade and vilify objectivism if they are doing so much better without it. If so, I wish you well, but if not, then perhaps you should spend a few minutes, open up that mind a bit more, and take a closer and objective look at what is available through other means. It just might surprise you.
So I digress from my digressions. Let’s take a short look at the man behind the concept of altruism. I am not going to make you do so, but he might.
I find a whole host of issues when it comes to the interpretation and conclusions that Auguste Comte seems to embrace with his altruism. He believes in a subjective reality as opposed to an objective one. He says as much when he makes the statement:
“The first condition of unity is a subjective principle; and this principle in the Positive system is the subordination of the intellect to the heart.”
His perspective seems to be one of subjectivity, with the objective, the mind or intellect, completely subservient to the heart, embodied by the concept of subjectivity. He often uses objectivity and intellect as a source of validation for his theory of Positivism but finds that they can only be a distraction in the larger sense, always being the source of inopportune questions and lines of investigation that do nothing to legitimize his philosophy, and therefore have become inconsequential. For me, that is overly superficial and simplistic. Not what one might call scientific, and yet he envisions his work as ‘the epitome of a rational and scientific social system rooted in the total subjugation of the individual to the collective’ (Pickering 1992).
The problem as I see it is that his interpretation of ‘science’ is only what goes to legitimize the comprehensive vision he holds for the future of his idealized humanity. Otherwise, he has relegated the rest of science as something that was useful in the past, but his work in sociology (he ‘is’ known as the ‘Father of Sociology’) now renders them basically a historical footnote. His perspective on his own work is clearly stated when he commented:
“In my System of Positive Philosophy both these objects were aimed at. I attempted, and in the opinion of the principal thinkers of our time successfully, to complete and at the same time co-ordinate Natural Philosophy, by establishing the general law of human development, social as well as intellectual. I shall not now enter into the discussion of this law, since its truth is no longer contested.”
I find his confidence quite mesmerizing and fascinating at times, and yet I have many questions as to his competence and sanity. He talks with a surety that few individuals can find in life, and all of this with literally no credible evidence whatsoever. I accept that he has the desire to be a part of a beneficial future for mankind but I see no persuasion being attempted, only diktats as to what is necessary with a complete inability to entertain the possibilities that he may be wrong, or that others may have something of value to offer in conjunction with his own speculations. There is no coordination or cooperation with others and that is disturbing and troubling. Add to this an almost radical acceptance of collectivism and his attempts at creating a ‘Religion of Humanity’ (that we will explore at length in another essay) and my skepticism is inarguably attentive. For these reasons and quite a few others, there is little reason to not understand why he is the focus of our discussion here today.
I am always fascinated by the insights and words of Rand. She contemplates and interprets the realities of life with a perspective that is independent and certainly unique. Her ‘spiritual payment in exchange for pleasure’ is intriguing to say the least. I was surprised, not long ago, when I saw a comment in a chat group where the person adamantly claimed that they did ‘not’ get any pleasure out of doing good things, whereas I do. It took a while to process. I questioned if some individuals actually are devoid of experiencing something positive when they perform positive actions, or was it just another mindless echo from those that live to reject and condemn Rand and objectivism. One of us is indeed irrational. You only need to determine which one that is. Human motivation is subjective and a matter of opinion in almost every sense. Objective perception works on the reality of the world outside of our own paradigm, but our inside environment, where the ‘self’ resides, tends to be a subjective reality.
What we interpret as objective in many cases is a matter of instruction and indoctrination through parents, education and politics. Much of what we accept as truth is simply that which we have been told during our entire childhood, perhaps our entire lives. Everything we do for others is good, while everything we do for ourselves is selfish and bad. It takes effort and motivation, and the presence of those, like Ayn Rand, that inspire us to question and to investigate, to speculate and come to our own conclusions, often conflicting with those accepted ‘truths’ that have been given to us.
Is it possible that the powers that be, the ones who create curriculum, the ones that created the babies, and the leaders, both religiously and politically, could have been wrong in some way? It often looks that way.
Many of our social ‘altruists’ think that ‘all’ moral agents have an ‘obligation’ to further the pleasures and alleviate the pains of others, but our problem is fundamentally that they do not discriminate and want to do this for any and all, even when there is no need. I have a great discomfort in speaking of pleasure since it can be such an exhaustive list of subjective terms as to almost make the term meaningless. So too with the concept of pain, since the number of physical, psychological (real or imagined) and economical possibilities infer an almost infinite list of painful contexts. It is entirely and inarguably irrational and impractical. (not to mention subjective).
A question that invariably surfaces when issues such as these are discussed is that if we listen to Comte and accept his creation of ‘altruism’, why does the individual have a moral obligation to others, while receiving none for himself, and with the admonition that they should not even experience ‘any’ kind of satisfaction, recognition or happiness for their own actions? You will see that Comte is quite adamant about this. It is one of the central tenets of his concept of altruism. This is irrefutable and cannot be dismissed easily. Now, that does not have any relevance with the vanilla altruist crowd. They don’t agree with Comte either, even though they are reluctant to admit such a thing, which is the reason we suffer through such frustration and confusion when they attempt to be a part of the discussion about Rand and altruism. Their version has no legitimacy or credibility within the argument. If they understood that, then perhaps they could come up with some alternatively interesting questions that would be insightful and relevant.
Philosopher W.G. Maclagan defines altruism as “a duty to relieve the distress and promote the happiness of our fellows” and he maintains that “a man may and should discount altogether his own pleasure or happiness as such when he is deciding what course of action to pursue”
This, of course, is an example of what we can call that vanilla interpretation of altruism. It has nothing whatsoever to do with Comte and an originalist perspective of the concept. I don’t think that many can or would argue his point, except perhaps his allusion to what anyone ‘should’ do in any circumstance. Who doesn’t wish to relieve the distress that others have to endure, for a myriad of reasons and under an endless list of circumstances? We all ‘promote’ both this and the desire that all individuals, no matter what their personal beliefs, culture, ideologies and life experiences, suffer as little discomfort and challenges as possible, for the benefit of all, or at least we ‘should’, but the moral questions are more if we are ‘obligated’ or ‘forced’ to do so. That seems to be what Comte obviously suggests and adamantly supports and champions in his philosophy, primarily through the original intent and definition of his concept of altruism.
It is difficult to not include the close relationship that altruism has with the ethical philosophy of utilitarianism. I find it hard to reject the objectives of the theory while disagreeing wholeheartedly with the concept of the ‘greater good’ it advocates and endorses. There is something insidious when such a concept is considered a primary, which can only demean and subjugate the individual, relegating their existence and well-being to something of a secondary importance, instead of focusing on the totality of society or humanity, to the benefit of all, with no sacrificial entities, as the proper or relevant objective.
I find the intent to maximize the happiness and well-being of ‘all’ people to be admirable and worthy of thought and action, and well in line with the philosophy of objectivism, but the ‘exploitation’ of the individual to achieve such an objective is totally unacceptable and counter-productive to the whole concept of existence that I have come to embrace and accept as appropriate. I find that the exploration of anything that improves the ‘collective’ morality of ‘humanity’ as Comte might have characterized it, is a positive and beneficial impulse, but the usage of individuals as the means to some (un)desirable ‘end’ is destructive to the existence of humanity itself.
I believe that the concept of morality trumps the idea of something akin to ‘altruism’ in every sense. If not done for the proper and reasonable intent, which is defined by morality and not altruism, the benefits are neither long-lasting nor of any philosophical consequence. Altruism is the act of being directed by others, while morality is, or should be, the direction offered by the ‘self’ in thought and action. That does not imply that the individual cannot choose to be an altruist, since that ‘is’ a matter of choice, but the insertion of coercion in any form into the equation is what negates any ‘good’ that may be accomplished.
But I posit that this issue is what the opposition of objectivism and reason to the concept of altruism is truly all about. This is not opposition or aversion to helping other individuals as many seem to insinuate or suggest, but only in the actions taken to achieve said objective. This is a point that seems to be lost in the debate, that objectivism supports the goals or ‘ends’, and yet can irrefutably be hostile and in conflict with the ‘means’ used to accomplish said goals. It is only the presence of an outside influence and source of coercion that negates an admirable desire to improve the human condition. It is about reason, about individuality, about freedom and choice, and about philosophy. Nothing else.
Utilitarianism is a symbiotic ally with objectivism in the sense that they both desire to maximize good consequences for the totality of society, while altruism wishes basically to do the same for everyone ‘except’ the supposed ‘moral actor’ themselves, treating them as an irrelevant tool to achieve some exalted but nebulous ‘end’ that is determined and defined by someone, anyone, other than oneself. While there are aspects that are intriguing and enticing, the actions necessary to achieve a beneficial result are irrational and immoral. Morality is one of the fundamental benchmarks of personality and philosophy and its importance cannot be understated. Without morality, there cannot be philosophy, there cannot be an existence of any consequence or legitimacy.
Seelig and Rosof (2001) investigated the differences between what they called ‘mature and healthy altruism’ and distinguished it from ‘pathological altruism’ which exemplifies the distinctions that I am attempting to clarify with this essay. The ‘healthy’ version is one where the individual has ‘the ability to experience sustained and relatively conflict-free pleasure from contributing to the welfare of others’ whereas the ‘pathological’ version is one where there exists ‘a need to sacrifice oneself for the benefit of others’, which sums up our argument here.
This exemplifies a paradigm on one hand that inevitably is of benefit to all of the players involved, especially the moral agent practicing altruism as well as the individual receiving some benefit, and by extension, all other individuals as well, irrespective if they are directly or indirectly involved on any level. This is opposed to a paradigm that in effect does much the same as to result, but the sole focus is on the benefit given, the recipient, and the act itself, with no attention or benefit given to the agent involved or anyone else for that matter. It is fraught with winners and losers, with an individual or a group directing all the players, irrespective of their actual wishes or needs. It is actually an intrinsically irrational and selfish set of circumstances, a dubious means, and end, with an arguably inferior long-range result since the agent involved will eventually be ‘used-up’ or surrendered to the intent and expectation of the concept, total self-abnegation and self-sacrifice.
Another perspective was offered by Bachner-Melman and Oakley (2016) when they defined pathological altruism as ‘the willingness of a person to irrationally place another’s perceived needs above his or her own in a way that causes self-harm’. This seems to confirm a position that this pathological version of altruism obviously creates harm, even if only to the moral agent who supposedly initiated this instance of altruism by his own volition, but who is someone that is psychologically damaged and would harm themselves, which is in conflict with the ulterior motive of altruism itself that is to help not only those in need but humanity in the larger sense. It is not rational, and that is one of the points I would always like to highlight, the lack both of reason and the ‘need’ to sacrifice anyone to some ‘greater good’ when it can be accomplished without the need to harm anyone. Comte’s altruism never explains why such a sacrifice is necessary in any form.
Considering that my comments are meant to be taken in the context of the refutation by Ayn Rand of Comte’s originalist rendition of the concept of altruism some have commented that it is ironic that the premises of Rand’s philosophical arguments against altruism are in many ways contradictory or in conflict with the romanticized behaviours of the protagonists in her novels. Her heroes are willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of defending the value of integrity and morality in an otherwise corrupt world paradigm.
This is a highly relevant point of view, and it exemplifies many of the misconceptions that some people have in relation to objectivism and altruism. There actually is no irony and no conflict whatsoever, and those that have studied objectivism, and tried to comprehend what is being said, have little difficulty in recognizing the consistency in their actions in relation to objectivism and the complete lack of conflict with altruism.
The fact is that there is no real sacrifice from Galt, Ragnar, or Francisco, and ultimately from the other leading characters. They are not offering themselves up in the stead of those that are being harmed by the society, they are simply following the imperative that exists within objectivism that compels the individual to ‘not’ compromise and acquiesce to the lack of value and agreement present in the existing social paradigm.
It is somewhat disappointing that it took so long for them to come to those conclusions that precipitated the ‘strike’ of the mind that they undertook, and why it took these heroic personalities that long to determine the harm being perpetrated against not only them but the entirety of the society. What does that say about our own ability to recognize and offer resistance in our own reality? I find it fascinating that many, if not most, of the opposition to Rand and objectivism are the same people who incessantly complain about government and the exploitation of the worker. Was this not exactly what these fictional characters were resisting and confronting with their actions? They did not promote a bloody revolution but a bloodless, or at least predominantly so, revolution of the mind, of the spirit. Is that not a more appropriate way to confront and engage with an illicit and inappropriate paradigm?
Was the story idealistic and somewhat irrational and impractical in essence? Yes, I would have to admit and agree that it was. Is that not what fiction is supposed to be? Was it not inspirational and motivational? Indeed it was, without question. One can speak of overthrowing the government, killing those we disagree with and causing an incomprehensible amount of pain and suffering and inevitably fixing nothing since the intrinsic source of the inequalities and inefficiencies are never even recognized much less rectified. Or we can do something about it. In this case, that something is to become more aware, not the ‘woke’ that the mindless mobs on the street embrace, but a real comprehension of what it will take to create demonstrable change. Perhaps not in one’s lifetime, but has that not been the struggle throughout history, the wanting of a better life for our children and their children? Was there not the desire for the eventual creation of an environment where people can determine and work towards their own vision for the future without the worry of bullies and criminals (unfortunately the definition of our own political representation) impacting and insinuating themselves into every facet of our lives, refusing to allow us to do just that?
This could have been an opportunity for such a diversity of perspectives to join forces to recognize and confront the enemy when it was simply used by those same oppressive forces to once again divide and disrupt any chance of such an occurrence. Perhaps if we were able to develop more individuals with reason and morality and integrity we could someday come to those conclusions, and come to a mutual agreement that results in mutual benefits. But not here, and not now. There is too much enmity, too much apathy, and way too much hatred for that to happen anytime soon. More is the pity, not just for me and mine, but for everyone, no matter who they are or what they hope to accomplish with their lives. We truly cannot see the forest for the trees. Some can, and they manipulate and control us with an expertise that is profound and despicable, the epitome of evil.
The debate that exists on this idea of altruism is challenging. There are so many nuanced and varied interpretations that have come to represent the concept. Unfortunately, the vast majority have simply determined a definition that is complimentary to their own preconceived notions of what it may have meant, but more likely only what they would desire it to be. So many individuals, so many different interpretations, all made by people that are sure that they understand its meaning, when in reality, their positions are more an emotional response than any substantial understanding of the concept or the ramifications and consequences of the action, at least according to the diktats of Comte himself. Everyone seems to sense what it means, but very few can produce a distinct and specific definition upon which to discuss and debate. Therein lies the crux of the problem with the sharing of ideas and the willingness to accept divergent perspectives as legitimate and deeply held. We will never comprehend the positions of others if we simply dismiss and demean those beliefs as insignificant or illegitimate.
Notwithstanding the fact that personal perspective may have nothing to do with the original intent of the word, which, while in many ways is understandable, is misguided and without legitimacy. Having said that, I think it reasonable, in every instance, to try and investigate the concept and at least understand the origins of the term before perverting it to one’s own expectations and advantage. It is disappointing that this is the reality, and yet it is the way of the world, perhaps only human nature, but probably why we have such a difficult time in actually being able to communicate with one another.
I too have my own distinct understanding of the term, and we will go into that in some detail as the narrative develops, but the point that needs to be made is that even if one’s own personal opinion strays from the original or legitimate definition when we make an attempt at a reasoned argument, we have to at least acknowledge that initial concept before we deviate upon our own philosophical perspectives. We need to recognize that others may not see reality in the same way that we do, they have their own opinions, and both sides of the conversation would do well to make their own positions as clear as possible so the discussion can be based on developed beliefs, and not just emotional and ideological rhetoric.
The concept of ‘altruism’ is inarguably one of the fundamental aspects of the philosophy of objectivism. Surprisingly, it is one of the most conflicting components for those that are trying to understand the ideology because of the inability, some might say refusal, of the opposition to Ayn Rand and objectivism, to define and agree as to what the concept actually represents. I myself have had difficulties over the decades in trying to offer what is, in essence, the actual argument (from my own perspective only) that Rand has tried to explain and clarify for others but seems to be completely ignored or dismissed by those that wish to insert an arbitrary perspective which inevitably results in little or no sharing or understanding. If we are to engage in a debate it should be within a conversation legitimately based on the well-documented words directly from the writings of both Ayn Rand and August Comte.
It was my intent to undertake something a little bit different with this presentation, randomly spending some time with the thoughts and teachings of Comte through his philosophy of ‘primitivism’ and the response of Rand, made directly and specifically to the actual words of Comte, of course requiring a translation from the original French texts.
The argument does not require input from myself or anyone else as to what they ‘think’ the concept of altruism depicts since that is not the issue. It is the perspectives of the two primary opponents in this philosophical debate that hold value in this instance. It is the conflict that Rand experienced with the idea of a ‘mandatory’ altruistic morality that should be the focus. We can make additional comments after we have been able to present what the two main players have had to say as we attempt to make the distinction between the interpretations of these two historical figures.
This is not even to judge who may or may not have been right, and my own position and interpretation are direct, confident, and unambiguous, as I believe Rand’s to be. Her position is compelling, consistent, and comprehensive. She talked about the issues involved with altruism throughout her life, as I guess Comte did as well. If we are to truly judge their points of view and come to a reasoned determination, we have to hear the intricacies of what they offer as evidence for their perspectives. We have to ‘accept’ their positions as valid and as deeply held philosophical beliefs. Once that is accomplished, we can actually discuss how they may be complementary or inconsistent with our own paradigms.
The concept of altruism is obviously at odds with the philosophy of objectivism, with the major conflicts relating to rational self-interest and the idea of volitional charity and generosity, and empathy, as well as the basic understanding of choice and self-determination. Altruism, at least as presented by Comte, speaks of some vague form of choice and admits to the probability that it might never be accomplished in the micro, but he also promotes and supports coercive tactics, by individuals and by government, to work towards the ultimate goal of the moral regeneration of humanity. No small task.
Objectivism rejects the initiation of the use of force, physically or psychologically, in our relations with other free and independent individuals. There is a fundamental belief that the theories of peace, freedom, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are an absolute intrinsic necessity in any form of morality envisioned for the future of humanity. Comte has no such misgivings and cares only for the ends, and little for the ‘means’ used. Altruism itself is anathema to all of these things, (did I mention that I am not a big fan of altruism?). Once you have heard the argument, especially the words of August Comte himself, I find it difficult to believe that you will not agree.
AUGUST COMTE 1798-1857
Cours de philosophie positive (1830–42)
Ironically, we start with the realization that Comte’s philosophy of positivism actually shares any number of intimate agreements and similarities with many issues that Rand and objectivism advocate. I have speculated that perhaps this was an aspect of why she was in conflict with Comte, not wanting to have those similarities used against her own philosophical positions by those that were calling the validity and credibility of her own ideology into question.
In any case, I include these comments only to acknowledge that they existed and I would not term them viral enemies because of some of the shared ideas between them. The fact that altruism exists at all is a damning contradiction of his theory of positivism since it is supposedly based exclusively on fact, science and empiricism, when the reality of altruism contains nothing even peripherally compatible with the other. It seems an inarguable conflict and contradiction in terms. The conflict is almost always reduced to that concept of oppression and coercion, otherwise, there could be room for agreement. With coercion, I find it impossible to even consider any common ground that could be reasonably argued.
I am not here to go into depth on the legitimacy of positivism, since I could well have shared values as well, but altruism would not be one of them. I want to offer Comte’s perspective on the fundamentals of his altruism. And discuss the refutation presented by Rand, with my own commentary as a corollary to that.
There seems to be an inexhaustible supply of individuals that believe that we ‘must’ help those in need. No argument. Now, I recognize that many probably do not mean that in a coercive context, and yet we must acknowledge that the word ‘must’ is inherently coercive terminology. I think that we can agree that helping is something that is desirable, but the question is to what extent do the rest of us have a responsibility as far as culpability is concerned, especially when there is no responsibility for the reality that exists? Any obligation that we may feel should be determined and accepted by the individual alone, without interference from outside entities. It is not a matter of ‘having’ to do something (usually the decision of someone other than oneself) but one of what we decide ‘should’ be done, through our own personal and intimate considerations of the circumstances, based on our own personal abilities, and others have to (yes, that is a coercive observation) allow each individual to come to their own conclusions based on their own experiences and belief systems. There should be no compulsion or diktat to do anything. It should be, specifically, a completely voluntary decision made without the need for intimidation or the inclusion of any type of force.
This does not negate the opportunity and right to make an attempt to influence another with a reasoned argument. That is the essence of education and knowledge. There can be a persuasive conversation where one presents any number of examples and possibilities, with a passionate and compelling reason why something should be considered, but never so aggressive as to be oppressive in nature and inappropriate in practice.
I readily admit that this is but my own personal opinion but that is the interpretation that I have embraced when it comes to any interaction with another individual, especially in the case of objectivism or capitalism. I am skeptical that the collectivist, primarily the Marxist, the communist, the socialist, or the liberal democrat can make the same claim. There is always a component with an intent to control, manipulate and direct not only the actions but the thoughts of others, and I reject that without reservation. I will accept that at times it is benign in essence and with an intent towards beneficence, and yet invariably with a negation of choice or discussion in the determination of the issue. I find that inappropriate and uncomfortable. I am an individualist at heart and will always champion the right of the individual to self-determination.
I find that the proper and relevant course of action is something similar to the words of Margaret Meade who said that ‘children must (and yet another possibly inadvertent coercive concept) be taught ‘how’ to think, not ‘what’ to think’. My own take on her comment would be that we should ‘allow’ everyone the opportunity to learn how to question and assimilate information and come to appropriate conclusions and actions, and refrain from indoctrination by cultural and ideological influences. I acknowledge that most children are not at an intellectual or philosophical level to understand these concepts, but the so-called adults certainly should be, and they should be restricted from educating our young (how does one do that) if they are unable to act as unbiased and open-minded individuals (who determines such a thing?), free from personal agendas and partisan intent (is that even possible?). This obsession with turning out mindless reproductions of ourselves simply should not be tolerated. It is self-defeating and self-destructive. It is probably the reason that mankind has produced such a paltry amount of progress in social maturity over the full existence of the species.
Allowing some degree of a natural development and evolution of the individual will give them the opportunity to not only equal their parents and teachers but to surpass them as they consider concepts and possibilities never even imagined by others. Is this something that is refutable? I don’t think so. Having said that, this will not work for everyone, and they may need more personal attention, but again, it should be without a need to control the outcome. Regimentation is something that almost never works, creates mindless robots, and takes the social community on a downward spiral that often ends in suffering and despair. I think history has shown us through the millennia that this is truer than we wish to acknowledge.
In any case, I think this is an appropriate basis for further discussion and debate, instead of what we see at all levels of our educational system today. It is reprehensible to the point of repugnant that so much time and effort is invested in creating a specific outcome, usually without benefit, instead of allowing the individual to develop into the best version of themselves imaginable.
I have a fundamental problem with (Comte’s) altruism in the fact that it attempts to completely remove the human aspect from the equation, which is ironic since he claims that the objective of his work is for that ‘moral regeneration of humanity’. If so, would it not be important to keep that tenuous connection between the (moral) donor and the recipient? It seems that he (Comte) wants to completely disassociate them from one another and I can’t comprehend a rational reason why. I assume that it is a matter of judgment and a desire to have the donor as a passionless, selfless, emotionally disconnected entity that would have no reason to question their own activity. I find this disturbing on multiple levels, not the least of which is the ability to become engaged with the target of altruism as well as the desire to get the donor to continue his behaviour well into the future, helping others in a similar manner. If some level of disinterest in anything significant within the exchange is the desired end result, why would the action hold any importance moving forward? It seems a contradictory way to encourage a continual interest in helping those unfortunate individuals that are the target of the altruism itself.
I think that those that believe themselves to be true altruists and yet deny anything but volitional agreement with their actions have to ask themselves what, if anything, distinguishes one form of altruism from the other, or from other similar behaviours, such as charity, generosity, kindness, and compassion.
Is the action of a mother buying food for her hungry child as opposed to a hat for herself an act of altruism? Is that a good example of a ‘sacrifice’? Is helping a friend or donating to a charity of your choice altruism, charity, or just goodwill? Where does the concept of ‘sacrifice’ fit into the scenario? If you die in the defense of your country is that altruism or a sacrifice, or can it be neither and just a decision based on morality and values? If one gives a dollar to a homeless individual is that sacrifice? What if we change that to $100 dollars, which they cannot afford, is that a sacrifice? Are they both not altruistic in nature? Is it ‘only’ altruism when someone is disadvantaged by the exchange? Is that not what we call selfish, the advantage of one precipitated by the disadvantage of another? Is that not ‘exploitation’? My desire for clarity is never assuaged.
Altruism is without argument based on the idea of helping ‘others’ since the word meaning is simply based on the French ‘autrui’ or ‘other people’. It doesn’t really mean putting other people’s interests above our own, it was Auguste Comte that made that determination and distinction. His word, his concept, his meaning. Not an unreasonable position.
It was Comte that provided the imperative where the concept demands that one live primarily for someone other than themselves to be considered moral. In fact, he made the intellectual (?) leap to say that if any action resulted in some form of pleasure or benefit for the donor it negated the action itself and created an ‘immoral’ act. He went so far as to claim that ‘anything’ that brought satisfaction or achievement to an individual in any way was immoral in essence and against the fundamental tenet of his Positivist philosophy. Nice guy, right?
It must be an undeniable joy to live in his reality, never a shred of joy or happiness or contentment, only a life of drudgery, living for others to make the world a better place. If all this were voluntary it might reflect some legitimacy but it doesn’t. The question also remains that if I, not just as a donor, but as an independent individual, is not allowed to experience anything akin to peace and tranquility, does that not infer that no one else can as well, or is that an antiquated notion? If the stated goal of altruism is to reduce the pain and suffering of the recipient and increase their happiness, I feel compelled to ask why the donor is allowed no ‘happiness’ of their own. So, out of all of humanity, is it just the recipients of altruism who are allowed at some point to experience any form of happiness, and only at the expense of the donor? Is that what the moral regeneration of humanity promises us? I am not so sure that I am on board with this paradigm.
But those ‘vanilla’ altruists respond that altruism is only a concern for other people, an ability to show compassion for others, with the knowledge that we are all struggling through this process we call life, so we try not to make it worse, and possibly better for others. Do you understand yet the natural conflict between the positions?
It is this alternate version of altruism that suggests that altruism is motivated by a desire to benefit someone other than oneself for that person’s sake. This particular kind of altruism that voices the concept of desire or sacrifice is never mentioned, which leads me to believe that they do not accept or recognize the concept as Comte presents or interprets it. It is therefore not pertinent to the argument between Comte and Rand. A benign altruism does not enflame the emotion or the intellect. It is the concept of coercion that is the culprit.
Generic altruism is not used as the contrary of ‘rational self-interest’, the (irrational) selfish point of view that is often used in the opposition to Rand and objectivism or anything even remotely related to the concept of ‘egoism’. These words are normally applied to behaviour that is motivated ‘solely’ by the desire to benefit oneself, and, at least in the case of Rand and objectivism, could not be further from the truth. Not only does objectivism neither accept nor promote behaviour that expects ‘only’ personal benefit to oneself, but encourages and advocates those actions that primarily benefit the individual, but are of ultimate value to everyone else in a larger sense. Positive action always results in useful outcomes even if simply the removal of some negative.
Many interpret rational self-interest as a malicious intent, meaning they believe it represents a desire to harm others, with a certain pleasure experienced by doing so. But it is objectivism that specifically suggests something quite contrary. It suggests the reality of the ‘trader’ who voluntarily interacts with other individuals only through mutual agreement to the mutual benefit of all involved, trading only value for value, and never at the expense or detriment of another individual. That negates the whole narrative of the opposition to objectivism.
There is an exception that exists here, on multiple levels. The statement has been made at times that ‘altruistic’ is described as a behaviour that is motivated by a desire to benefit someone other than oneself for that person’s sake. That is not true in the original context defined by August Comte since he is adamant that it ‘must’ be without regard to the original donor’s own interests even to the extent of a detrimental loss or disadvantage, including the loss of one’s own life, which in his perspective, is of little consequence. Without that caveat, the definition of altruism is nothing more than another version of charity or generosity, among others.
Many individuals have made the comment that ‘self-interested’, ‘selfish’, and ‘egoistic’, by definition, are those concepts that are motivated ‘solely’ by the desire to benefit oneself. Once again, a misrepresentation, inarguable and demonstrable. The definitions supplied by various sources distinguish between two specific descriptions. Admittedly, The first selfishness, or (Irrational) self-interest, would be exemplified as the most common usage of the term, but even a cursory examination of different sites that define words, self-interest is not the ‘only’ kind of selfishness that exists at the great expense of others and the taking advantage of anyone at any time and under pretty much any circumstances. This same terminology would include the originalist definition of self-interest by the originator of the term altruist itself, Auguste Comte, who felt it was not in the personal selfish self-interest that the individual would be involved but in the selfless self-interest in doing actions that benefit others less fortunate (he does not define the term in any meaningful way) but is self-interested in the fact that the action would benefit the society or community in its totality, which has also not been validated in any way, during the last two hundred years. The third aspect of self-interest, which Ayn Rand described as rational self-interest, does not suggest or dictate that any action would be taken against any other individual under any other circumstance that would bring them any kind of disadvantage or harm. This is superior to either of the first two examples, but would indeed be to the benefit of the individual exhibiting the rational self-interest itself, but only through extensive study, contemplation and varied considerations. Again, superior to either of the first two illustrations. Egoism is similar in relation to rational self-interest without the nuanced and developed philosophy behind the concept.
In any case, the point is that all these terms have multiple definitions irrespective of what the contemporary mainstream might interpret them to mean. A single snapshot of a single word does not create an ‘absolute’ definition by any means and should be acknowledged and remain an aspect of any kind of discussion or debate that may ensue. It is irresponsible not to do so.
A somewhat, and often overlooked aspect of altruism is the fact that these acts are not intended to ‘only’ offer some ‘good’ to the recipient, but undertaken to alleviate harm to them as well. I saw where an example is given of someone driving carefully in an area populated by children or even just a highly populated area, and being prudentially cautious, with this action being interpreted as altruistically motivated. The point was that they were trying to make sure the children (people) were not impacted in any negative way by her actions. I find this more a fabricated scenario and something that any moral and ethical individual would do under any circumstances. The point was made that it was altruistic primarily because they ‘genuinely cared’ about them. But Comte’s altruism rejects admiration, a selfish emotion such as caring or any benefit whatsoever, so the actual relation to his concept is non-existent and therefore irrelevant.
Is it not more realistic to think that the driver is being careful because it is the intellectual, emotional and philosophical thing to do, not to mention the legalities involved with the negligent action of driving a car without due diligence?
I am not saying that the person ‘could not’ be doing it for that motivation, but I find it difficult to believe it to be the case. Any number of rational self-interested (objectivism) reasons immediately come to mind, the least of which is the causing of harm to an innocent person, the preservation of my driving privileges, the avoidance of incarceration or a fine, the damage to my vehicle, the inconvenience and loss of time and effort in dealing with the situation, and the trauma for any of these things that were unnecessary and avoidable with the simple acquisition of the skill and ability to drive a car with confidence and competence.
The example paints a very specific picture that leaves out more than it presents to us. It is created to illustrate a specific point, which if I may say so, is a very self-interested action and could be called selfish, but could also be called altruistic ‘if’ your intent was to make people contemplate the reasoning behind our motivations with almost every event that we encounter on a daily basis. My point is that, with some focused thought invested, almost anything could be called either ‘altruistic’ or self-interested, depending on your point of view and the lesson that you wish to offer to your audience.
Considering every single individual on the face of the planet is unique and distinct from one another, it is next to impossible to come to any empirical conclusions under these conditions. I think the value is in the discussion of what may have been, and how we should prepare ourselves through philosophy and our own morality to anticipate possible negative actions and events and behave with the utmost character and integrity. Even then, bad things happen to good people, and in the scenario presented of an accident, both players would in fact be ‘victims’ in different ways.
I am skeptical that ‘their’ motivations are as presented, at least most of the time, and there is no evidence to say they constitute even a large segment of the public motivation, much less a majority.
I think it can be counter-productive to perpetually try to parse and balance the reality of what constitutes altruism, making almost anything attempted or accomplished ultimately an altruistic action. This is a good example of what I call ‘vanilla’ altruism. Anything goes, and everything is acceptable. I am not sure that helps the concept in any significant way. It certainly doesn’t complement the argument we are discussing between Auguste Comte and Ayn Rand. It makes it moot and rather irrelevant.
Do altruistic acts ‘need’ to include self-sacrifice? I would have to respond that yes, they do need that, and this narrative explains why. The ‘nature’ of the word and the concept is one where this self-sacrifice is actually a ‘requirement’. Read Auguste Comte’s work to discover what he intended by the term. The fact that this expectation has been watered down to where it is almost unrecognizable is unfortunate. Words have meanings, except perhaps when it comes to altruism. Since the originalist definition has been negated, what would you call something, today, that encompasses what Comte initially presented? If we leave the definition open-ended, as the ‘vanilla’ camp seems to do, then how do we express the intent and focus that was its fundamental objective? The reality is that you really can’t, without going into a great deal of explanation. It kind of defeats the whole concept of having words to begin with. Communication depends on words, and the consistency of language is what constitutes comprehension between individuals. I find it frustrating and disappointing when words are perverted. At times it seems that we are speaking different languages, which makes our attempts unproductive, spending more time determining meaning than in actual communication.
Is every action taken by any of us not a ‘mixture’ of motives? The human individual is infinitely complex and nuanced and therefore there are any number of considerations and motivations that goes into whatever decisions and conclusions we arrive at. They may be emotionally based or derived from a deeply rational perspective. We don’t ever really call this diversity, since it conflicts with the politically correct narrative trying to insinuate itself into our lives, but it is the definitive reality of the concept.
It is reasonable to expect that multiple perspectives will create a myriad of motives involved in any action taken, and the whole concept of whether they are altruistic in nature, or not, is hopelessly lost in the details. Can we really say that even if a single possible motive taken from what may be ten or twenty or a hundred alternatives, in the end, actually legitimizes the initial action as altruistic? I find that verging on the irrational, and again, removes any value or substance on the action itself.
One person’s ‘altruism’ is another’s common sense or morality or ethical behaviour or reasonable interpretation. There are no absolutes when it comes to altruism, but if there is nothing resembling sacrifice and coercion involved, then it cannot be a true example of originalist altruism. There are just too many other words that could explain the activity, while altruism was created to be specific and qualified. I don’t agree with the concept, and I don’t particularly like what it represents, but I recognize it as it was designed and intended.
Conventional wisdom says that self-interest and altruism are opposites and contradictory, but that does not insinuate that they cannot be symbiotic in the guise of personal individual contemplations and decisions. Human beings are unique and we exhibit a complexity and a multiplicity that is unequaled when compared to other life forms that inhabit this planet. This does not mean that it cannot encompass ignorance and irrationality, only that it can be obscure and convoluted at times, perhaps most of the time.
For those that are not particularly interested in the historical context of the true nature of altruism, there exists an extreme limitation in both context and scope. If one fails to mention the origins of altruism, much of which is still being promoted within the collectivist ideologies of communism and socialism as well as democratic liberalism, they lose the real meaning of the term and its relationship to the human condition. To say otherwise only gives the impression that there are specific and empirical aspects of altruism that can be (have been) determined and defined by some legitimate body of science today that gives greater weight to their ‘opinion’ than that of others, which is not the case.
I acknowledge that many think they need not be bothered by the fact that historically it just isn’t a legitimate position. The fact that many are rather apathetic and lazy when it comes to the understanding of words and concepts does not mean that we should perpetuate and disseminate a misleading and ignorant point of view. There is nothing to stop any individual from believing what they will, and I strongly support their right to do so, but I am more than a little distraught when people of science, or any individual for that matter, do little or nothing to add factual information to the discussion, which is the case in our conversation about altruism and self-interested actions.
What I hear from these ‘others’ in their narrative is more rhetoric than a legitimate and comprehensive example of a credible presentation. Perhaps it is an attempt to sound aloof and detached on the subject but it can sound elitist and biased and misrepresentative as well with all the information that is not being included and covered.
The Right Thing to Do
There is a concept that I hear people speak of quite often. It is the idea that there can be some action that is ‘the right thing to do’. They imply that this activity exists as some absolute when I think we should acknowledge that it is anything but. The conflicts that we see between individuals, groups, ideologies, political parties, regions, cultures and even nations invariably are subjective, dependent on many motivations and perceived implications, and deeply self-interested in whole or in part.
This ‘right thing’ is intrinsically linked to our own personal philosophy and the morality derived from that ideology. Our ethical behaviours are intimately linked, as is our inevitable personality or the basis for our integrity. The ‘right thing’ has as many definitions or interpretations as does, let us say, something such as ‘altruism’, self-interest, or morality itself.
I see individuals conflate this right thing to do with altruism and selfishness, not to mention selflessness. They are all independent aspects that ‘may’ exhibit a connection at times, but fundamentally there is no relative imperative. Many make some tenuous correlation between them such as wanting to ‘be happy’ so they decide to be ‘unselfish’ because it is the right thing to do, but there are no guarantees and one does not derive from the other, at times being the complete opposite. The problem is that attempting to be ‘happy’, even ‘wanting’ to do the right thing are inarguable examples of being selfish, or at least some form of rational self-interest, which negates the desire to be unselfish or selfless.
In any case, we should do whatever we determine is the right thing to do, but not try and impose that perspective on anyone else. Oh, and by the way, you need to understand that other people sometimes interpret and define selfishness in another manner, and it is not your purview or your authority to say otherwise. We can’t attempt to intimidate them or try to coerce them to our own way of thinking, since that is coercive in nature. This obsession and need to control and coerce others is probably the fundamental conflict that exists between originalist altruism and objectivism, and the reason for this exploration into the term presented to us by Auguste Comte.
Why exactly is something the right thing to do? Is it some objective measure that has been determined? If so, then by who and when was this done? I think there may be some difficulty in making such a determination. Ayn Rand would have suggested that it is an objective reality and able to be defined, much like reason and truth and morality, and yet these things are intimately personal and highly subjective. The fact that many individuals have similar interpretations of what the meanings of these concepts may be, I think it obvious that there is no ‘collective’ morality, only an approximate agreement or consensus. Possibly significant, but certainly ‘not’ an absolute. At some point we have to comprehend that different perspectives do not mean they are malignant or destructive in any way, just distinct and diverse, with a possibility that they are conceivably more legitimate than our own. When we do not allow for such possibilities to exist, we reveal personal attributes such as ignorance and bigotry which reflect badly on our own personal philosophies, morality and integrity. Just something to think about.
It is important to explore exactly what that ‘right thing’ actually is, we should strive to understand those around us and decide what ‘right’ denotes, and work to insert those qualities of right into our own lives and therefore into the experience of everyone else. We need to do our part to be a part of that change, and not the part that works towards the negation of that effort, and against the benefit that we all want for ourselves and everyone else.
How exactly does one ‘understand’ what that ‘right thing’ is? It takes a tremendous amount of thought and education to do that, and wait, once again, education is selfish in essence since it is all about you, even if the long-term intention or objective is to bring a benefit to yourself even to the point of the rest of humanity. Who knows the end result of our actions? Do you understand that by being selfless means you negate existence entirely? Who defines what that nebulous concept actually is? It all sounds selfish once again. Now, the Objectivist believes each individual makes all of these decisions through rational ‘self-interest’ but so many refuse to even acknowledge that, so what do you use to come to these conclusions? The use of knowledge, mind and experience are all selfish-based concepts and events. Rational self-interest is the embodiment of objectivism. Nothing you want to do or say can be accomplished without a selfish fundamental essence. I welcome any information that may compel me to question my own positions. I look forward to being shown just how wrong I am at times because it gives me an opportunity to ‘fix’ the weakness in my philosophy, and that can only result in a certain development or evolution if you will, which means a stronger philosophy and a more comprehensive morality, which will help sustain me as I take that next step forward along my own path.
You do comprehend that everyone in the world does not have the same ‘understanding’ that you have, don’t you? Do you think that you have the definitive answer to anything for anyone other than yourself? If you really want to talk about irrationality and selfishness, takes a few minutes, hours, or days to think about that for a while.
I have heard some individuals claim that Ayn Rand believes that the individual should find their own ‘sense’ of what is right, and I would comment that the insight and the significance of that kind of statement is yet another fundamental of objectivism and any other discipline of substance and legitimacy. She does indeed say something to that end, but not as a directive or a diktat. Objectivism suggests that every individual is ultimately responsible for their own conclusions in life and that it is a culmination of experience, education, investigation, and contemplation that leads us to these decisions about life, about self, and about the world around us. Objectivism offers even more suggestions as how to accomplish such a huge task, but it makes it quite clear that it is the individual that comes to these conclusions, and not a matter of taking directions from others, whether they be parents, friends, teachers, political leaders or even philosophical or ideological individuals or groups, especially within the guise of a religious and spiritual guide or mentor.
The point has also been made that Rand puts forward individualism as she puts down altruism, which is, of course, inarguable. But . . . . it cannot be repeated often enough that these things are valid ‘only’ when in the context that it is the altruism of Auguste Comte, and none other since she has little argument or concern with the ‘vanilla’ altruisms, and has said so on so many occasions. It is the element of the use of force that inspired her refutation of altruism to begin with. For those of you that are cognizant of what she actually said, you would know that she did not put ‘down’ altruism, but altruism that is of a coercive nature. It is true that she was against altruism, probably to a degree much more passionate than my own, but it was the inevitable inclusion of force that she was opposed to. If the inclusion of force is ultimately condemned within altruism, then perhaps there can be some kind of agreement as to the usage. She was not against the concept of altruism and has made that quite clear, but the presence of coercion and expectation when it was presented as an intrinsic aspect of whatever form. Are there really individuals that are invested in the use of force to ‘make’ people altruistic, or do we believe that it should be something organic, and the full and voluntary choice of the individual? That would go a long way to making a distinction between the competing views of what some actually believe and what Rand was against. Does anyone have a distinctive willingness to make the clarification?
If objectivism has any ‘soul’ to speak of, it would be the concept of ‘mutual benefit through mutual agreement’ and the abhorrence of the initiation of the use of force against anyone else for almost any reason. There are exceptions, of course, and probably more than she would have admitted, but the use of force in the use of repelling foreign invaders and the confrontation and removal of individuals that commit criminal activity against other individuals, unprovoked, would also be referenced, as well as arbitration between free individuals that cannot be resolved through their own efforts.
The claim is made that because of this, Rand is not saying ‘chose your own path’ but that she is demonstrably dictating that an individual should choose ‘this’ path, the path of objectivism, a path of her making, and not the individual. This is difficult to accept or embrace with the voluminous body of work that she has produced, without a single instance where she says anything specifically even peripherally related to such a claim.
She does say that to be an objectivist, and to call yourself one it is necessary to embrace the entirety of her philosophy, and I find that unfortunate, but not an obstacle that was difficult to address. Since I never wished to be a part of a ‘movement’, and since it was certainly not a ‘cult’ as some ignorant camps wish to believe, I simply took her at her word, studied and ‘adopted’ into my own philosophy whatever seemed of value and relevance, and continued on my way. This was the way I interpreted her philosophy to be from first blush anyway, so it was not any kind of hardship. And yet, it has been over fifty years that objectivism has played a part in my investigation of the world of philosophy, and I continue to call myself an objectivist of sorts. Since Ayn Rand is not here to argue her point, I find the conflict moot, to say the least.
The point being that since the fundamental essence of the philosophy of objectivism is that the final say of every aspect has to do with the abilities of the individual themselves which infers that Rand and objectivism have no role to play in any of the final conclusions drawn. They are both simply facilitators in my own sequence of evolution, and since neither can be questioned or debated, they have ceased to have any real input. They are simply a ‘source’ for my investigations. Hence, my deliberations and decisions are my own and will remain so. This may have been one of the most alluring aspects of the philosophy from the beginning. Autonomous development. The right of the individual to master themselves and to choose according to their own philosophy and resulting morality. The ability and opportunity to create their own ethical standards and their own comprehensive vision of reality, and to act in accordance with those parameters through an impeccable sense of integrity, to the best of their abilities. I really liked that, and still do.
I ‘never’ chose a path determined by another, but only one chosen directly by and for myself. That is, for me, the integrity of objectivism itself. If there is but a single demand made on the individual by way of the ideology, the philosophy, it is the expectation that the individual will determine their own path through their lifetime, and accept the responsibilities and obligations that come directly from their thoughts, their actions, and their philosophy. No blame is placed on someone else, and no credit was given to someone else either. It is always the individual. People hinder and help us all along our path through life, and we always have the alternative to agree or disagree, to listen or not, and to direct our own actions, or allow others to do it for us. Ultimately, it is our choice and our own culpability. It does ‘not’ take a village, since without the individual, there is no village at all.