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Okay: Here’s What I Meant About Altruism

I’ve gotten a couple of very thoughtful emails about my dissing the idea of practical altruism, including a very long one.

Basically: They’re accusing of me of being a KANTIAN!  For a Kantian, anything done out of material self-interest–or in response to merely natural needs–isn’t dignified.  A free act isn’t in response to our the natural dimension of our beings;  it must be an act of freeom from nature or autonomy.  Although the word “altruism” isn’t used by Kant (or by any real philosopher, in my opinion), that’s what someome might mean by insisting that altruism be pure or selfless.

But for Kant, one of my critics rightly said, a dignified act isn’t selfless.  It’s one free self responding to another.  If altruism means selflessness, that ain’t it.

Here might be an example of a selfless act:  A mother instinctively defending her child without calculating for a moment about the consequences for her.  In that respect, she’s not acting as a free being but as a social animal that’s an unconscious part of nature.  She’s doing what a dolphin or dog mom would do.  Insofar as we act in what might be said to be a purely Darwinian way, we’re in fact selfless.  But when we speak of altruism, we don’t mean that animal response either.  No one praises an altruistic dog.  And talking about altruistic genes is either being imprecise for effect or just being silly.  But the act of the human mom can rarely, if ever, be reduced to an impersonal, animal response. It’s typically more personal or loving, and so actually less altruistic in any normal sense of that word’s meaning.

Because I think it’s natural for us to be personal, I’m no Kantian.  I reject the vulgar distinction between self-interest and altruism, because it’s based on misleading senses of the self.  We’re the personal animals, and that fact introduces “wholistic” complexities about our beings that can’t be done justice by the idea of altruism.

When we act as part of something greater than ourselves (to sound like John McCain for a moment), we aren’t being altruistic either.  The hero Senator McCain finds his personal significance in service to his country.  Patriotism is noble, but it’s not  altruistic self-surrender.  His personal identity remain in tact in his way of identifying with his nation, in his love of country (which I’m all for, to a point).  The citizen as citizen isn’t altruistic, at least these days.

The Christian virtue of charity isn’t altruistic either:  I love you–whom I don’t even know in the usual sense of knowing–out of love of God.  Because I know who God, the person, is, I know you, the lovable being He made in His image.  For Christians, we retain our personal identites in love with other persons.  We’re not all about the self-surrender; we’re not Buddhists.  But we can’t say Buddhist serenity is altruistic either, of course.

Insofar as love is personal, it’s not altruistic.  It’s better–including more real–than altruism.  Love is neither altruistic nor self-interested, but it’s real and rooted in the natures of beings such as ourselves.

So my mocking of practical altruism was really my objection to the very idea of altruism, and the misleading distinction between altruism and self-interest.  The weakness of the idea of altruism causes many libertarian economists to conclude that everything is self-interest.  But of course they have impoverished or reductionistic views of the self, and  so they don’t do justice to what our true “interests” are.

The idea of ALTRUISM is too UNEROTIC to be REAL. 


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