Suppose that a hermit, thousands of years ago, mysteriously discovered the secret of flight and hid it from the world, being a selfish prick. And then he died. And no one cares about or remembers him. Now we uncover his remains, see what he did. What's the first thought? "Wow, what a prick." In the end, keeping his knowledge of flight did not deter humanity from progressing, but it sure would have been nice to have had that so early in our history.
I think one of the reasons people advocate altruism is to at the same time advocate against assholes. Pointing out that thinking someone an asshole is subjective doesn't change the matter of a person being an asshole, and if a huge number of people are in agreement over someone's status as an asshole, then that person probably is an asshole.
Altruism is, among other things, about not being an asshole. You, sir or madam, are an asshole if you discover the secrets of Cold Fusion, and then destroy them or keep them from humanity. Your actions fortunately do not cause irreparable harm, because eventually someone else will discover the secrets of Cold Fusion and release them, for the benefit of everyone. Most people aren't assholes, most don't want to be assholes, and in the event that an asshole discovers something first it's not a big deal because eventually a non-asshole will also discover it. We're all humans here, the distance between any two humans' intelligence isn't very great.
Part of not being an asshole is being nice. That's the fundamental character of altruism: holding doors open for old ladies, telling a stranger to duck if they're about to hit something, just being a good human to your fellow humans.
Where things get combative is when you start trying to extrapolate that niceness. How nice is nice enough? Should the government enforce niceness, and is it really niceness if it's enforced? Is letting someone suffer the "nice", "friendly" thing to do? (No.)
But one of the other common (though not necessary) ropes of altruism is an earnest desire to improve humanity, whether or not someone lives to see it. It is a recognition that humanity is more important than any single human, and if you don't believe this, you are brain damaged. How could it be otherwise? How can anyone seriously believe they are more important than every single other person on this planet, every single other possible life form in this universe, without having some fundamental brain problems? Most humans do not think this way for very good reasons. (I suspect we wouldn't be here to argue about it if it weren't the case.) Who's the real altruist: the person who sits around arguing for altruism all the time, or the person who actually goes out and makes the world a better place (or who holds doors open for people)? I aim to be the latter, even if I've done some of the former. Too many people sit around and do absolutely nothing. They're not improving the state of humanity, or the state of their small society, or even the state of themselves. It's hard to be around those people, sometimes.
But I digress. This is why I think it's pretty ridiculous when people say they're against Altruism, or against Selfishness, or against Socialism, or against Capitalism. No, you idiots, you're painting with too broad of strokes! Altruism: you're against the idea of holding doors open for old ladies, against the idea of niceness? Selfishness: you're against the idea of people giving a shit about themselves, of wanting to live? Socialism: you're against the idea of having a government be useful to the people, rather than just acting as a Big Daddy to slap misbehaving children who don't want to play by cut-throat competitive rules? Capitalism: you're against the idea of people finding what they're best at, doing it, and having a tool (money) to continue doing it as long as they like?
Narrow your thoughts, don't be stupid. What specifically are you against? Then don't go from there and try to apply an encompassing label around it that clearly holds many other concepts than the one you dislike. Don't do word-hijacking.
It saddens me to see people band around such broad words, for or against. It's not a good thing to do, especially because you leave yourself open to attack-by-addition. People will try to staple things onto your precious label that really shouldn't be there, so they can just attack the label. People will word-hijack, and only a constant game of Taboo will keep them from being successful.
Is this post guilty of it? Probably, a bit. There may be some altruists out there who don't agree with what I say about altruism. But generally, I like altruism. I think most people like altruism, because most people have the idea that altruism is about holding doors open for ladies, and about being nice and not an asshole. I'll probably have to move away from the term if it comes up during a debate, because it can be loaded and can be quite broad.
Posted on 2010-04-25 by Jach