Monday, August 24, 2009

Altruism and the Health Care Police

Altruism--the dominant morality of our culture--holds that we are our brother's keeper, that the individual must place the welfare of others before his own, that we must sacrifice for the benefit of others. We see this manifested in the political arena in a multitude of ways--welfare, social security, public education, and public health care programs are but a few examples. Each of these is justified on the basis of need, and some individuals are forced to provide for the needs and welfare of others.

A less obvious consequence of altruism often lurks just below the surface of these, and other issues. Take the growing concern with obesity for example.

The obvious connection between altruism and obesity is publicly supported health care. If the taxpayer is forced to pay for the health care of others, and our desire is to reduce health care costs, then it is proper to take measures to reduce obesity. But altruism demands meddling in the dietary and lifestyle choices of individuals for other reasons.

If concern for the welfare of others is a moral duty, then we must do more than simply pay for the health care of the needy. We must also take steps to improve their overall health. In other words, we should not only take care of their illness, but we should also try to prevent that illness. Since obesity is one of the primary health risks that is relatively easy to correct, we--meaning government--have a moral responsibility to combat obesity. After all, it is for the good of the obese, whether they know it or not. We--meaning government--must look out for them, and even more so when they lack the willpower or desire to act responsibly. We--meaning government--are their keeper, and they obviously have a need for more control over their actions. We--meaning government--must exercise that control.

The demands of altruism go deeper than just our actions. Our actions are determined by our ideas and conclusions. We act on the basis of what we believe to be true. But if we must place the welfare and interests of others before our own, our own ideas and conclusions are irrelevant. Altruism demands that we act, not on the basis of the contents of our own mind, but on the basis of what others declare to be a need. In the physical realm we must place the interests and values of others before our own; in the intellectual realm we must also place the thoughts and ideas of others before our own.

In every aspect of our lives, altruism demands that we cast aside our own desires and our own judgment. Altruism demands that we deny our self, that we become selfless.

The growing calls for controls and restrictions on trans fats, sodas, and other "bad" foods are a logical consequence of altruism. And since virtually every action we take has some impact on our health, it doesn't stop with what we put in our mouth. It is no coincidence that health care "reform" also includes calls for more emphasis on exercise. It will not be long before mandatory exercise programs will be discussed, and a sedentary lifestyle will possibly become a crime.

So long as altruism is accepted as the standard of morality, this is the direction we are going. So long as the needs and interests of others supersede your own, logic demands that government expand its control over your life. If you want to sit on the couch watching Oprah and eating potato chips all day long, you must put aside your own "selfish" desires and go to the gym--or jail.

You are not your brother's keeper. You are responsible for nobody but yourself (and those you voluntarily choose to help and support). Until you accept that, and everything it implies, you should not be surprised when government dictates what you eat. You should not be surprised that government demands that you practice what you preach.


Paul Hsieh said...

Thank you, Brian, for pointing out this connection between altruism and statist control over people's lives.

Too few on the political right understand this (because they themselves are not opposed in principle to this sort of control).

For more on this, please see my OpEd from the Christian Science Monitor, "Universal Healthcare and the Waistline Police":

Brian Phillips said...

Thank you Paul, for all you have done on this very important issue.

Robert Bumbalough said...

Hello and Greetings from Robert Bumbalough. I'm pleased to meet you and make your acquaintance over the internet. You present a good summation. However, you failed to address the whys.

Why is it the case that Altruism is not a valid moral principle?

Why are human beings not their brother's keeper given that universal common descent is a fact of reality?

Since all humans are actually genetically related, then are we not all actually family?

If we are then all family, are we not then obligated to assist each other in the sense of all for one and one for all?

Besides blood is thicker than water, isn't it?

What is it about human beings or human cognition that indicates there is not a categorical imperative to selflessness as the highest morality?

Why would'nt it be good to compel those of our lazy brothers to exercise and eat properly?

You stated "You are not your brother's keeper. You are responsible for nobody but yourself (and those you voluntarily choose to help and support).", but you failed to make any supporting argument for this position. Why is that?

Please do not take these questions as any sort of ad hominem attack or Argumentum ad Vericundium wherein I hold myself as authority. Be assured I like you and am pleased to be able to communicate with you. I am a neophyte objectivist follower of Rand and Peikoff. As such I echo Rand's assertion that "The objective theory holds that the good is neither an attribute of “things in themselves” nor of man’s emotional states, but an evaluation of the facts of reality by man’s consciousness according to a rational standard of value." This then means that no emotional state such as that provoked by inconvenience of being forced to exercise or quite smoking or using salt can be evil or good. By way of playing devil's advocate, I then ask for an argument against altruism and selflessness as moral prescriptions that can overcome the objections I mentioned above.

Thanks for your hard work and good solid reasoning.

Robert Bumbalough

Brian Phillips said...

You are correct--I did not address the whys. The reason is quite simple: it was beyond the theme of this particular post.

My theme is that altruism has implications beyond the obvious--that it has both physical and intellectual implications.

It is impossible to address every possible objection, nuance, implication, etc. in about 600 words, which is my general goal for a post. Therefore, I must delimit what I address.

I appreciate the questions and good luck in your study of Objectivism.