Friday, February 5, 2010

Altruism's False Alternatives

David Brooks, who seems to thrive on routinely demonstrating his lack of original thinking, does so once again in a piece titled "A new selflessness can be the geezers' new crusade". Brooks tells us:
Seniors who perform service for the young have more positive lives and better marriages than those who don't. As [George] Vaillant writes in his book Aging Well, “Biology flows downhill.” We are naturally inclined to serve those who come after and thrive when performing that role.
Brooks laments the fact that seniors are not serving the young in the political sphere:

The odd thing is that when you turn to political life, we are living in an age of reverse generativity. Far from serving the young, the old are now taking from them. First, they are taking money...

Second, they are taking freedom...

Third, they are taking opportunity.
This should not be surprising, for it represents the two false alternatives presented by altruism. According to altruism, our choice is to self-sacrificially serve others, or force others to self-sacrificially serve us. We must eat others, or allow others to eat us. The possibility that life does not require sacrifice escapes Brooks.

The apostles of altruism count on this false alternative. They count on us believing that life is a perpetual conflict between the wealthy and the poor, between whites and blacks, between men and women, between gays and straights. And the only way one individual (or group) can achieve his values is by trampling on others. Left to our own devices, life would be a brutal battle as each of us seeks to fulfill our own selfish desires at the expense of others.

To "solve" this alleged nightmare, altruism posits that peace and harmony can be achieved only if we each put aside our own interests in the name of the "common good". Our well-being as individuals, altruism holds, can only be achieved by renouncing the values that constitute our well-being.

But altruism goes beyond just suggesting that we self-sacrificially serve others. Altruism holds that we must do so, that morality imposes this obligation upon us. Those who refuse may properly be forced to do so in order to fulfill their moral obligations. Consider this quote from Auguste Comte, who coined the term altruism:
[The] social point of view cannot tolerate the notion of rights, for such notion rests on individualism. We are born under a load of obligations of every kind, to our predecessors, to our successors, to our contemporaries. After our birth these obligations increase or accumulate, for it is some time before we can return any service.... This ["to live for others"], the definitive formula of human morality, gives a direct sanction exclusively to our instincts of benevolence, the common source of happiness and duty. [Man must serve] Humanity, whose we are entirely. [entire quote is from Wikipedia]
The seniors (and indeed anyone) who are taking money, freedom, and opportunity from younger citizens are simply acting as altruism demands. They do not recognize the rights of others. They are imposing altruism's dictates upon younger generations. According to altruism, those who do not want to sacrifice their money, freedom, and opportunity are simply being immorally selfish, for no individual has a moral right to his own life, property, or happiness.

Brooks doesn't like the fact that "geezers" are practicing exactly what he preaches. Perhaps he should try preaching something different, like rational egoism.


Mr. Moderate said...

Of course, there are those who find fulfillment through helping others, and there's nothing wrong with that - we each serve our own needs in different ways. However, such altruism should be through choice, not force. I applaud those who choose to give their fortunes to help others, but have little more than scorn for those who tell me I must do the same, despite the fact I don't have enough wealth accumulated yet to ensure my own survival.

Brian Phillips said...

Compelling you to help others is the ultimate result of altruism. If you don't like being forced to sacrifice your money, then you must reject altruism and defend your moral right to your own life, liberty, property, and pursuit of happiness.