The Demanding Altruist

 Posted by on 13 July 2009 at 11:01 pm  Ethics
Jul 132009

I was pretty floored by this letter in a recent Miss Manners column:

Dear Miss Manners:

Several years ago, I volunteered at an elementary school and became friendly with a mother and son who both taught there. My health has since deteriorated to the point where I am in a wheelchair. I left my volunteer job and the mother and son moved on.

In the eight years since we worked together, the mother has sent me jokes and prayers through e-mail, but seldom a personal message. I have not heard from the son in at least four years. Nothing at all until I received his wedding invitation.

I sent my regrets, and a note saying I would send a gift when I was out of the hospital. That day, I was cleared for surgery, and I spent three days in a hospital and four weeks in a rehab facility.

While I was unable to get my e-mail, the mother of the groom sent me four e-mails reminding me to send her son “something to honor his special day.” I then received a group e-mail with a few wedding pictures, so everyone she sent it to was able to read her message that I could finally get her son a gift, and how was surgery? I could also see that she had abased another recipient.

I finally wrote her that I’d had enough. They claim to be devout Christians, yet they are hounding me for a gift. I explained that being in a wheelchair, it is difficult to get out, and I was sorry I didn’t go shopping.

Then her son took over. He ignored my physical limitations and went on and on about how he gave me two months and I should have had plenty of time to buy him something. I have not heard from the man in four years, and then I receive an invitation to his wedding. Do I owe him a gift?

Miss Manners, as expected, responded quite reasonably, writing the following:

As a symbol of your affectionate relationship? The next step in such a campaign is to threaten to break your knees. When this happens, Miss Manners recommends involving the police. In the meantime, she suggests blocking or deleting their e-mail.

That’s right, but it doesn’t speak to the kind of vicious moral psychology underlying the actions of this young man and his mother.

I’m not the slightest bit surprised that these people are “devout Christians.” In fact, even apart from that claim, I would have bet $100 that they were serious advocates of altruism. They are not hypocrites, either, as most people would suppose. They practice what they preach — even in this instance. How so?

The altruist denies the value of his own existence. He regards the welfare of others as of greater moral significance than his own: he regards himself as morally obliged to sacrifice his concerns, his values, and even his life for the sake of others. (That’s the definition of altruism: it’s other-ism.) He does not hold that view due to some particular imperfection or degradation unique to himself. Instead, he denigrates the self as such: he regards every person as obliged to do the same. (That’s ultimately incoherent, but I’ll leave that aside for now.) Consequently, the serious altruist will develop the most disgusting kind of contempt for other people. He values them as little as he values himself — meaning: not at all. So if another person pursues his own values rather than sacrificing himself as demanded, that person must be condemned as immoral. Morality requires every person to forgo his own values for the sake of others. And so you have the strange phenomena of committed altruists demanding sacrifices from other people to satisfy their most petty whims — and condemning them as selfish for failing to do. That’s not hypocrisy: it’s the twisted logic of altruism.

In contrast, the rational egoist knows the value of his own life — and his own responsibility for achieving his happiness. He knows that every other person can and ought to take the same perspective on his own life. He knows that he only profits from interacting with others to the extent that they do so. He wants other people to act as rational egoists in pursuit of their own personal values. Consequently, he treats other people with respect for doing so — never as his personal serfs.

It is the egoist, not the altruist, who values other people.

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