Who Pays?

 Posted by on 16 December 2005 at 9:21 pm  Uncategorized
Dec 162005

A while back, I listened to Gary Hull’s five hour introductory seminar on Objectivism. (It’s available for free from ARI’s web site.) Although I obviously wasn’t its intended audience, I listened to it because I like to see the approach taken in these introductory presentations.

I was struck by one interesting tidbit on egoism versus altruism in the second lecture. It’s an obvious point in retrospect, but I just never thought of it in such terms. Here’s my summary of Hull’s basic point, with some additions from me.

The basic contrast between egoism and altruism concerns the beneficiary of action. The egoist aims to benefit himself, whereas the altruist aims to benefit others. However, it’s not merely self-made benefits that are morally significant, but also self-made costs.

Under egoism, if a person makes a mistake (innocent or not), then he ought to pay for it, clean it up, make it right. Each individual person is responsible for his own life, including remedying his errors. So if egoist John mismanages his finances, then it’s entirely just and proper for him to lose his house or car to pay his creditors.

In contrast, if a person makes a mistake (innocent or not) under altruism, then others ought to pay for it, clean it up, make it right. Other people are morally obliged to help those in need, even if that need is due to the person’s own ignorance, poor judgment, or outright vice. So if altruist John mismanages his finances, then the rest of us ought to forgive his debts, donate to charity to help him, pay taxes for his welfare benefits, and so on.

In other words, altruism does not merely forbid a person from enjoying the tasty fruits of his own success, but also requires him to eat the rotten fruits of others’ failures!

At least for me, this perspective on altruism versus egoism clearly highlights altruism’s utter rejection of the virtue of justice. Another person’s need is all that counts in altruism, regardless of the source of that need. His moral character is completely irrelevant to our supposed obligations to serve him. That’s why the whole distinction between the worthy and unworthy poor is treated with such contempt by altruists. (I remember not understanding the presumed wrongness of that differentiation in high school history discussions of early government welfare programs.) Moral judgment is an impediment to altruistic virtue, so it is deemed a sin. Volition is similarly undermined, since the serious altruists are determined to go a step further by denying that people are responsible for the course of their lives at all. They leap upon all manner of silly varieties of determinism (e.g. that his genes or mother or culture or friends made him do it) to hide the fact that a vicious person is morally responsible for his crappy life.

I wonder how much other bad philosophy is little more than a rationalization for altruism.

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