A Critique of Pure Altruism

If Rand was wrong does that mean Kant was right? Far from it! While parts of Atlas Shrugged left me vaguely queasy upon first reading, Kant’s Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals produced instant indignation. Enjoy helping the poor? Not a moral act. Sacrifice yourself for the cause of the Third Reich? That is a moral act. Huh?? At least Kant is hard to read.

Because Kant is hard to read, I might have missed something. It is unclear to me that he meant his categorical imperative to be the sole basis for morality. Some asides indicate the contrary. So to be fair to Kant, I’ll salvage a bit of his reasoning in a future chapter (using some of C.S. Lewis’ arguments). That said, later moralists did take the categorical imperative as the sole foundation for morality. They deserve the derision dished out by Rand. A moral philosophy based purely upon altruism, or worse, self-sacrifice, is a dismal doctrine indeed.

The key word is “purely.” Altruism is usually laudable. Self-sacrifice is sometimes part of doing the right thing. Altruism always, though, is horrifically inefficient. And self-sacrifice as the sole metric of morality leads not to charity, but to self-flagellation.

What is Altruism?

I wrote “altruism is usually laudable” which may make some Objectivists in the audience wince. They have reason to wince given the many different definitions of “altruism” floating around their circles. Over the course of many discussions of moral philosophy with liberals and libertarians, I have come across many different definitions of altruism including:

  1. Active benevolence to others without regard to compensation.
  2. A moral philosophy that demands altruism as per Definition 1.
  3. A moral philosophy that demands only altruism as per Definition 1 and deprecates all acts of self-interest.
  4. A moral philosophy that deprecates all acts of self-interest and lauds acts of self-sacrifice.
  5. A political philosophy in which the government demands that all act altruistically as per Definition 1.
  6. A political philosophy which only works in practice if a significant number of people act altruistically as per Definition 1.
  7. A moral philosophy which demands altruism as per Definition 1 in order to further the interest of the respective philosopher.
  8. A moral philosophy which regards acts of self-sacrifice as the only moral acts.

My dictionary lists only the first definition. Ayn Rand used all of the above and more, and did so interchangeably. This is unfair sophistry! In her defense, many of the collectivists she loathed did the same thing in order to equate their respective political/moral philosophies with true altruism (that is, Definition 1 altruism). And said collectivists played similar games with greed as we shall explore later.

I, your mellow and harmonious holistic political philosopher, will attempt to avoid this ugly game and play fair. The definitions above are not equivalent. They are not even compatible.

It is possible to be a greedy capitalist and an altruist as per Definition 1. Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and Bill Gates all followed this path. As measured in good deeds done without compensation, these robber barons have outdone everything I have done, or anything I could conceivably do even if I adopted a monkish existence and gave everything beyond my basic survival needs to worthy causes. Altruism comes easier if you have a big pile of money. You cannot be Bruce Wayne without the big inheritance.

Definition 4 contradicts Definition 1. Truly altruistic acts benefit the recipients. As such they require the recipients to act immorally. To receive is to indulge in self-interest. A moral philosophy which demands only self-sacrifice is more hostile to charity than Objectivism! You can, however, run a death camp or torture chamber as long as you don’t enjoy it under such a philosophy.

Definition 3 is self-contradictory as it attempts to combine 1 and 4.

Definition 5 is also self-contradictory. You cannot force people to be truly altruistic. Good deeds done at gunpoint are acts of self-interest! Not going to the gulag is a form of payment, and quite valuable at that.

Definition 6 is not only possible, but it is probably necessary for any kind of benevolent society. Pure capitalism requires private charity on the part of a substantial minority to be benevolent. Communism requires either altruism on behalf of nearly everyone or a brutal secret police force in order to work. If we go with the secret police option, the secret police need to exercise altruistic restraint or things get brutal indeed. A modern welfare state requires less private charity but more restraint on the part of the governors: politicians, civil servants, corporations, unions, and voters in general are continually tempted loot the public coffers and do. Competitive government (anarcho-capitalism) has competition to restrain the “government” officials, but has a serious free rider problem for national defense. Without altruistic funding/participation in the militia(s), the anarchic area gets quickly conquered -- which is one reason why history is rather stingy with examples of anarcho-capitalism.

While altruism (Definition 1) is required to make any system of government work well, some require more than others. Communism requires way too much to be practical for anything other than a voluntary commune (such as a monastery or kibbutz) and even such pre-filtered-for-communists communities have had problems (cf. the Pilgrims). Since true altruism is a precious commodity, available in limited quantities, I favor a system which reserves altruism for where it is truly needed: something in between pure capitalism and the modern welfare state. The core case for capitalism is not so much “greed is good” but “greed is plentiful, so let’s make good use of it.”

While true altruism is always scarce, people do rise to the occasion under the right conditions. Communism can be good spiritual exercise for those who want the workout. But it can backfire if the community includes non-communists or slackers; spiritual pursuit gives way to finger pointing, bickering or worse. You will have slackers or non-communists in any community which has to be inclusive -- which is the case for a government unless it goes on a genocidal rampage -- so I abhor attempts to impose communism on large populations. And please note that you can get the spiritual exercise without going all the way. Community control over only a portion of the community’s resources can suffice. A college fraternity is a good example as is any church which disperses the responsibilities.

Definition 7 happens all too often. Whenever I see someone on the news crowing about altruism, sacrifice, the good of the community, etc. it is usually followed by some variation of, “Give me your money! Please!! I WANT YOUR MONEY!!!” Exceptions exist, but they are not the norm, alas. Both true altruists and Objectivists can join together in deploring this contradictory philosophy.

Definition 8 is Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative. It is not equivalent to Definition 4, though by itself has many of the same defects. Definition 4 decrees all acts of self-interest to be immoral. Kant’s categorical imperative declares them amoral. Kant’s categorical imperative is thus compatible with charity as well as pointless self-flagellation. However, charity which produces more satisfaction than pain on the part of the giver is just as amoral as rampant greed. Charity has to hurt to be moral. Under this definition I could be more “altruistic” than Bill Gates should I adopt that monkish existence.

As a free-standing moral philosophy Kant’s categorical imperative is seriously deficient. As a measure of the spirit under some other moral philosophy, it has possibilities, however. I’ll write it up after I have yet another look at Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, which, by the way, is truly a moral act under Kant’s categorical imperative. Talk about an unpleasant read requiring a great exercise of the will...