Altruism

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Altruism, like the core humanism value compassion,  is a state of caring for another person’s  well being (applies to animal’s and sometimes even things or places  too). Altruism, however, goes one step further and says that our compassion should also involve self sacrifice. In fact, altruism goes so far as to say that people have a moral obligation to place other people’s interest above their own. According to altruism it’s also important that our self sacrifice be done without any desire for praise or reward. This kind of selfless giving to others is held by many as the highest form of compassion.

Auguste Comte is credited with first creating the idea, or at least making it popular.

“The sacred formula of positivism: love as a principle, the order as a foundation, and progress as a goal.” ― Auguste Comte

Comte felt we are actually born with this obligation. Altruist’s, generally speaking, envision a utopian society where everyone selflessly makes sacrifices to help each other achieve health and happiness.

Questions like what constitutes self sacrifice? When does your self-sacrifice obligate others to, in turn, help you and is it moral to obligate them in such a manner? What if someone doesn’t want or need help? and so on have been discussed at length. In fact altruism has had it’s fair share of critics:

Nietzsche: Nietzsche argued that altruism is detrimental to the self. He felt that wanting to sacrifice yourself meant you had no self worth (you don’t want to help yourself). He thought it to be nothing more then a glorified type of pity:

Pity is the practice of nihilism. To repeat: this depressive and contagious instinct crosses those instincts which aim at the preservation of life and at the enhancement of its value. It multiplies misery and conserves all that is miserable, and is thus a prime instrument of the advancement of decadence: pity persuades men to nothingness!
— Nietzsche, The Antichrist

Ayn Rand: Rand also felt that self sacrifice for the sake of others was connected to low self-worth. She said that altruism violates a person’s right to self-direction and robs us of the feeling of accomplishment that goes with accomplishing one’s own goals.

“Altruism permits no concept of a self-respecting, self-supporting man—a man who supports his own life by his own effort and neither sacrifices himself nor others…it permits no concept of benevolent co-existence among men…it permits no concept of justice”

These criticisms are indeed valid. If one sacrifices themselves to the detriment of themselves then, in an altruistic society, others would have to help them. Critics of altruism rightfully state that when we help ourselves, if we are good people, others around us benefit. For example, if I made more money I would be able to give more to charity and be more be sure my children have everything they need. Or when I make myself healthier I am less of a burden of the health care system and my loved ones won’t have to worry about me as much.

True altruism is also unrealistic. Humanity, in it’s present form, is not prepared for a truly altruistic society. Bad people would take this for granted, sometimes with disastrous results. Some one could, for example, use their charm to convince an altruistic person do things with no intention of also doing things for someone else. It then becomes a matter of the selfish abusing the altruistic, robbing them of hard earned money or time. In extreme cases the altruistic person could end up in financial trouble or their personal lives in shambles from neglecting their own responsibilities.  Thus altruism, like many things, must be used in moderation or risk abuse and ruin at the hands of the selfish and unethical.

In summary altruism is indeed the ideal form of compassion and in many cases a noble characteristic but would cause suffering at the hands of the dark side of humanity. Altruism  is also a danger to autonomy and self-direction. Thus this blog rejects altruism except in cases where sound judgement is used (is this a danger to me? Is this person taking me for granted?…etc).

More reading/Sources:

http://www.philosophybasics.com/branch_altruism.html

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/altruism/

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