Charity vs. Sacrifice

Pure altruism fails as a moral philosophy—unless you elevate self-flagellation as your highest value. Pure greed also fails—unless you really like oligarchy and/or crony capitalism.

A more benevolent balance lies somewhere in between. Finding that balance is challenging. Spurious and contradictory definitions of greed and altruism pollute our mind space. Moreover, the very concept of balance implies another deception: a one-dimensional spectrum of choices.

We have at least two moral dimensions to explore. Self-sacrifice and benevolence are independent variables. Thomas Edison was both greedy and benevolent; he aspired to be a wealthy tycoon while giving us many wonderful inventions in the process. Conversely, many communists gave their lives to give us one-party dictatorships featuring poverty, starvation, reeducation camps and mass murder. Ayn Rand thus crafted a moral spectrum with Edison epitomizing rational self-interest and communists epitomizing “altruism.” [I use quotes here because her definition of altruism differs from the dictionary definition.]

The more collective-minded point to different moral epitomes. They represent good with figures like Mother Theresa, an ascetic who worked tirelessly for the poorest of the poor, or Mahatma Ghandi, another ascetic who pioneered modern nonviolent resistance to authority. They represent evil with plunders and exploiters. The Atlantic slave traders, who profited mightily from the misery of captive Africans, fit the bill.

Both models have some validity. Both are woefully incomplete. Where would you put Edison in the second model? In the center? As morally neutral? Where would you put Mother Theresa in the first model? Should she be lumped in with murderous communists? Where would you put the American founders who gave their lives for the cause?

It’s time to break out the graph paper and think holistically. Let us make self-interest the x axis. (Self-sacrifice is the negative of self-interest.) Let us make benevolence the y axis. (Malevolence is the negative of benevolence.) The Objectivist and Collectivist moral spectra show up as diagonals:

Moral Compass

Capitalism at its best fills the first quadrant: being good to self by being good to others. But it is an area, not a line! Some capitalists aspire to maximize profit with little regard to societal benefits. Think of the high-pressure salesmen, questionable financial products and crappy merchandise we encounter with sad regularity. Other capitalists focus on a social goal and treat profit as a tool to get resources for the cause. This is sometimes called Conscious Capitalism, and I’ll have more to say on the matter later. And we have capitalists who fall in between these two extremes, of course.

The second (upper-left) quadrant represents charity: benevolence to others at personal cost. Once again, this is an area. Some charities border on self-interest: social clubs who raise money as an excuse to party, donors to a disease foundation who have the disease themselves. Some charity borders on pure self-sacrifice: tithe money given to fill a quota with little concern for how much good it will do. And in the far upper-left we have heroes who give their lives for a truly worthy cause: patriots who defend their homeland from an evil empire, missionaries who lose their lives teaching a more benevolent religion to sick societies.

Quadrant 3 (lower-left) represents the most pure form of malevolence: evil towards others for its own sake. Vandals, suicide bombers, enviers and Stalinists fall in this quadrant. Then again, vengeance also can fall in this quadrant, so maybe even pure malevolence has its place.

But pure malevolence is not necessarily the most dangerous malevolence. Quadrant 4 contains those who inflict harm on others for profit: robbers, slave traders, crony capitalists, [some] lobbyists, spammers. Harm to others may not be their ultimate goal, but they do not care enough about others to avoid harming them when it makes them a buck. Once again, we have an area. The civil service unionist who lobbies for early retirement at the cost of the taxpayers is not in the same league as the slave trader. And we have a grey area between the first and fourth quadrants. Where do we put the fight promoter who profits from boxers who get their brains bruised? Are they exploiting or providing opportunity? And how about slumlords? Are they providers of cheap housing or negligent landlords? What of the providers of high priced payday loans?

C.S. Lewis and the Moral Compass

The graph above may or may not be original. I know not. The underlying ideas, however, definitely predate me. C.S. Lewis wrote eloquently on the subject, making clear the distinction between charity and self-sacrifice. He did so explicitly in The Screwtape Letters. From the 26th letter:

The grand problem is that of “Unselfishness.” Note, once again, the admirable work of our Philological Arm in substituting the negative Unselfishness for the Enemy’s positive Charity. Thanks to this you can, from the very outset, teach a man to surrender benefits not that others may be happy in having them but that he may be unselfish in forgoing them.

Or from the same letter:

A sensible human once said, “If people knew how much ill-feeling Unselfishness occasions, it would not be so often recommended from the pulpit”; and again, “She’s the sort of woman who lives for others – you can always tell the others by their hunted expressions.”

(For those not familiar with The Screwtape Letters, the writer is a senior devil, writing to his nephew tips on how to corrupt a mortal human. “The Enemy” is thus The Lord and “Our Father” is Satan in these letters.)

Lewis includes the theme is several other works. Indeed, That Hideous Strength, the third book in his science fiction trilogy, features villains which strongly resemble those in Atlas Shrugged. The heroes, however, are rather different. They are more spiritual, and more hedonistic(!) That’s right; C.S. Lewis was big on the idea of pleasure as inherently good. Once again, from 9th Screwtape letter:

Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is His invention, not ours. He made the pleasures: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one. All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden. Hence we always try to work away from the natural condition of any pleasure to that in which it is least natural, least redolent of its Maker, and least pleasurable. An ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula. It is more certain; and it’s better style. To get the man’s soul and give him nothing in return – that is what really gladdens Our Father’s heart.

This is a major theme of Perelandra, the second in his space trilogy. It also permeates his Narnia books (which I highly recommend, even for adults).

You libertarians trying to soften the hearts of drug warrior conservatives would do well to leave the Ayn Rand books at home and loan C.S. Lewis books instead. You’ll get further. But you will probably need to follow up with discussion since Lewis’ books are rich and cover many deep subjects. The conservative reader may overlook these important themes. So you will have read the books yourself. If you haven’t already, you are in for a treat.

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