Jach's personal blog

(Largely containing a mind-dump to myselves: past, present, and future)
Current favorite quote: "Supposedly smart people are weirdly ignorant of Bayes' Rule." William B Vogt, 2010

Does altruism need justification? Really?

I'm quite certain it doesn't. Ah well. At the very least, I think I'll clarify what I mean by altruism--what most people mean by altruism.

Helping others is a good thing, even at no benefit to yourself. That's all altruism is. Idiots take it to the extreme and point at insects who will sacrifice themselves for the good of the hive. Altruism doesn't require you to do that. But notice the insects are actually sacrificing themselves for the good of the hive! It works!

Altruism is simply about helping those around you with whatever means you can afford at the time. Only a fool would live in poverty to help a few others out of poverty; better to use your full potential and money-making abilities and help when you can without degrading yourself.

Of course, sometimes sacrifices have to be made. Self-sacrificing one's life is just a special case of altruism, by the way; altruists would prefer it to never have to happen. Evolution built into us brotherly love, one of the simplest forms of altruism, though the genes are always selfish (even in the self-destructing insects). Most people would feel compelled to take action, even at the risk of their own life, to save a sibling. Thanks to kin selection, a squirrel with family nearby will, upon seeing a predator, give a warning cry, even though that is almost certain death for the individual squirrel. Its siblings carry many of its genes, though, and for novel genes it's about 1/2 of siblings, and so the sacrificial gene can flourish. And indeed, I think that in a moral perspective saving a family of squirrels is better than saving a single squirrel. Hey, evolution did something right in its blindness.

Altruism for kin is a pretty good thing, though if I were designing humans I'd make it be indiscriminate for humans. We'd be better off. Unfortunately humans were not designed that way, and so indiscriminate altruism is sometimes a forced decision one has to make consciously, similar to decisions of suppressing sexual feelings. Like many things, though, when you get used to it it's no longer such a stretch of willpower to maintain.

Are 10 humans better than 1 human? Selected randomly, yes. Are 2 humans better than 1 human? Selected randomly, yes. What about when it's not selected randomly? I think an Archimedes is worth more than 10 randomly selected humans. I think I'm worth more than 10 randomly selected humans; there's a lot of humans with much less status than me who aren't likely to move up no matter how much they're helped with current technology.

What's the cutoff line? It depends, it's a murky situation. Moral conundrums which require one to make a choice--kill person A, kill person B; kill yourself, kill a group; kill a dictator, kill the pope--have no broad general answer that fits all cases. The best we can do is say that in general, more lives saved are better than fewer lives saved. To save an individual is to save a world; to save 1000 people is to save 1000 worlds. Of course there are certain cases where it's better to save the lower number of people. Humans are very similar, but we aren't similar enough to warrant everyone having equal value. All men are not created equal, unfortunately, and the inequality becomes more apparent as people age. I honestly think discovering and weighing the total sums of value involved is the only way to resolve these. It's cold and calculating, but in the end: greater utility beats out lesser utility. It'd be nice if the situation allowed for the even greater utility of no one having to die.

Again, altruism is fundamentally simple, good, and shouldn't require any justification. If you're able, help people just to help them. Being an altruist is actually a fuzzy label; there are degrees of altruism. On one end you have someone who donates semi-frequently to various causes (even their Favorite Causes), on the other end you have people working to save the near-7 billion lives of humanity. We can't all work at that far end, but the world will indeed be a better place if we just help each other.

Posted on 2009-12-28 by Jach

Tags: altruism


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Amaroq December 28, 2009 06:56:24 AM Even though you proclaim that altruism doesn't need justification, you provide the benefit of the human race as justification for it.

From a utilitarian and/or collectivist standpoint, it's a justification so obvious that one would take it for granted, since the betterment of the whole is already the goal. But from an egoistic standpoint, it isn't a conclusion arrived at so easily.

From an individualistic perspective, can altruism beyond helping those you care about selfishly be justified? (Whether selfish desire to do it invalidates it as altruism is something to argue over another time.)
Amaroq December 28, 2009 07:15:14 AM I also should add a really elegant position Rand took on the subject. On a television interview, the host asked her "Well, what if I want to help everyone? What if it makes me feel good to help people?"

She answered (and this probably isn't the exact quote), "If that's what you want to do, fine. But don't go telling anyone else that they should too."
Jach December 28, 2009 07:53:46 AM Rand should take her own advice. Besides, it's just false selfishness when you spend your days trying to make people more selfish.
Jach December 28, 2009 08:56:33 AM In the spirit of debate, I guess I'll ask you a question. What part of bettering humanity don't you like?

There's an argument from several sources (including game theory) that altruism with cooperation produces a better winning (read: rational) strategy for individuals, and for groups, which implies being altruistic is the rational means to seek the end of a bettered humanity (and oneself). So I present you another challenge of showing how it's actually more rational (read: a better winning solution) for people to be selfish all the time. Note: you have to refute well-established game theory, which is all about finding the rational decisions; I don't think you're intellectually capable of such a thing.
Amaroq December 29, 2009 05:00:28 AM I actually don't have a problem with the bettering of humanity. What I can't accept is a moral code that decrees, "You should help your fellow man, or you are evil."

If you are selfish and you only help those you want to help, I don't think you have anything to be ashamed of. I mean people who you have a selfish interest in helping, like friends and loved ones. Though that doesn't necessarily exclude strangers who you think may prove beneficial to help. Altruism, to me, is helping those who you don't necessarily want to help, without getting anything in return for your services. Acts of selflessness basically.

A person should be morally free to choose who they want to or don't want to help, and should not feel shame if they do what is practical for their own life. It's an altruistic morality that has created a dichotomy between morality and practicality in today's society.

You've got altruists saying "I'd rather be moral than practical" and businessmen saying "I'd rather be practical than moral". Neither side knows that the proper moral code is practical and that their dichotomy is false.

I'll have to familiarize myself with the game theory thing. You're invoking the prisoner's dilemma, aren't you? If I remember the name correctly. I don't think it's all that useful, since life isn't as constrained as a lifeboat situation like that.
Amaroq December 29, 2009 05:06:05 AM And I don't think making people selfish is falsely selfish.

What if you think that an individual has potential to be a person you could value, maybe even admire, and you believe that selfishness will help them become that kind of person? You'd want to help them cast aside the chains of selflessness that are holding them back. You would have a selfish interest in making them selfish.

Or were you talking about Rand? She created something people wanted, literature, and profited from it.
Jach December 29, 2009 06:54:08 PM You clearly have no idea what game theory is about, and no I'm not referencing the prisoner's dilemma.

Your main problem is seeing selfishness vs. altruism as a strictly moral thing, as well as having a black and white view of the matter. (You're either selfish or altruistic.) That's not the case. I don't consider people who are moderately selfish to be evil, either. I also argue that altruism is better practically as well as rationally, but the argument that altruism is better morally is separate and, at least for altruism at the level of certain insects, completely unjustified.

Wanting to make people selfish is false selfishness. Better that they're selfless and continue to benefit you without you having to do anything for them. A truly selfish person will exploit. I think you have some moral qualms with exploitation, but exploitation follows naturally from being selfish, so you say "Ah, but what I really mean is 'rational selfishness'". You then fail to understand what rational means, and fail to see it's also perfectly rational to exploit people. Separate your morality from your stance on selfishness and altruism. Then when you see the non-morality-related sides of each, I think you will find that lying further on the altruistic side of the scale will feel better morally. There's a reason calling someone "selfish" is used with the connotation of calling them "immoral": real selfishness contains aspects of it that people find morally uncomfortable, such as exploitation.
Amaroq January 09, 2010 04:38:44 AM I don't just see selfishness vs altruism as a moral issue, I see it as a practical issue as well. Why do you think I went on that schpeal about false-dichotomies between the moral and the practical? Objectivist ethics were arrived at by Rand because they are practical. (You remember the six virtues and one vice in Oist ethics, right?)

In a really basic nutshell, Good is what which furthers your life, Evil is that which hinders it. But that's leaving it way too open to interpretation. The ethics Rand put forth are a guideline on how best to further your life, and each one has a selfish, practical reason why you should follow it.

I stand by my position that spreading selfishness is a selfish thing to do. If you're an exploiter, you're weakening people. The longer it goes on, the less usefulness there'll be out there in the population for you to prey on. If you're convincing people to be selfish, they'll start furthering their own lives. The more skilled and prosperous they make themselves, the more they'll have to offer you in trade.

I look at it in black and white because, if white is your goal, you should be consistently white. Every shade of gray is farther away from white and closer to black. With every shade grayer you get, you allow more black into your life.

Here's a fun thought. Let's reexamine the undiluted extremes. Undiluted altruism: You sacrifice yourself to death. Undiluted egoism: You build yourself up and become a winner! And it's about time I correct the assertion you've been making that "the human race be damned" in your selfish pursuits. You, selfishly, have much to gain from other willing, productive humans. If you have the intelligence to see beyond the moment, even if you're 100% selfish, you will not be an exploiter.

Though you were just asking me to separate selfishness from morality, I can't help but remember your view on the branches of philosophy: That they should be interchangeable modules. I'm sure you remember how Objectivism was constructed: Starting with metaphysics, Rand logically arrived at her epistemology, ethics, and politics, in that order, each building off of the last. I don't remember what Peikoff wrote about the Aesthetics well enough to say whether Rand kept going to arrive at the Aesthetics, or whether the Aesthetics is less connected to the others before it. But anyway...

You once asked me to start at Objectivism's Axioms and arrive at its economic recommendation, laissez-faire capitalism. (I don't feel like trying that again. You can read OPAR, since Peikoff already did it for me.) Here's a fun mental exercise you can do when you've got some free time. It might even make a good entry for this blog. Start at your metaphysics, and derive your epistemology, your ethics, and your politics, in that order. Can you arrive at the metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and politics you already hold with no contradictions between them? Your philosophy is a contextual whole, and the conclusions you've accepted for each branch should not contradict the other branches. (No matter how interchangeable you think they should be.)
Jach January 09, 2010 07:20:05 AM Your ideas of practical selfishness/altruism are horribly misplaced. You think altruistic people can't be successful, even more successful than selfish people? I can name a large number of people far more successful than you, and far more successful than Rand, who were not "selfish" in your views. There's plenty of people to exploit, and not doing so is irrational (should selfishness be your goal). Trust me, you're not going to run out any time soon, and even if you somehow did you can always switch strategies later.

Black and white are infinities, and I actually haven't seen any infinities in real life. It's not just one color of grey that you are, it's many shades, and even if you think yourself pure white or others as pure black you're just deluded.

I like how you lack the mental ability to summarize what Peikoff wrote, and also the mental ability to put it forth in a logical structure with actual logical syntax of A => B and so forth. You challenge me to do what Rand did, but here's the problem: I see what Rand did as an exercise in futility. It's worthless, irrelevant, and totally not needed.
Anonymous June 14, 2015 06:31:35 AM Is exploitation justified by altruism?I worked for a charitable organization. I observed nothing but exploitation. Morally I am at a loss for my next move. I have quite, my urge is to expose and injure the charity. I am not asking for advice but placing my question in context. I agree with you altruism needs no justification qq
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