Sunday, July 15, 2018

Reply Responses to QUORA *: ‘Is Ayn Rand wrong about altruism?’

I received several comments to my QUORA answer to Is Ayn Rand wrong about altruism?

From Steven Johnston

one can have degrees of altruism. It is not undermining one's indivuality to help others out from time to time. We are a Social species after all. Even other primates display degrees of altruism within their groups. (sic)

My reply:


Of course one’s individuality needn’t be undermined by helping others out from time to time. Helping out implies doing what one can afford for someone one values, whom one believes deserves it, who appreciates the help but does not “take the help for granted,” within the context of fitting the effort within one’s own more important hierarchy of priorities.

But that is beside the point. Altruism is not about helping others out from time to time. Altruism is giving an unconditional benefit regardless of personal harm or pain to oneself, even for the sole advantage of an unappreciative jerk who has no regard for the giver’s well-being because he thinks one unconditionally owes it to him. The question is not, to paraphrase Rand, whether one should or should not “help others out from time to time.” The issue is, does one have the moral right not to help out in any given circumstance? Common decency and respect answers yes, one does. Altruism answers no, one has no such right. That is the wickedness of altruism. One must conceptually distinguish between the two.

True, one can practice altruism (self-sacrifice) some of the time, as a token nod to one’s “duty” to be moral, and then go about his normal self-interested way (essentially cheating on one’s accepted morals). But there are no degrees of altruism, in that every individual act of altruism is an act of a specific nature--an act that by definition involves a sacrifice. (“Sacrifice,” properly understood, does not mean simply giving up a value in exchange for another, as in a trade. It means basically making one’s own life worse off by giving up a value and in return getting something you value less, not at all, or at the price of literal self-harmful.)

As to “other primates,” they are irrelevant to the moral issue. They do not have the uniquely human capacity for reason and free will, and thus no need or use for a moral code, let alone the capacity to even understand it. Human beings are not other primates. Other primates have their own unique identities and requirements for survival. We are human beings, and we have our own unique identities and requirements. You cannot discover a moral code suitable to human life by studying the instinctive habits of jungle animals.

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