Altruism and Egoism
Posted by Jerry on September 20, 2007
Colin McGinn, the philosopher who claimed to have refuted egoism in a few brief remarks, holds a very willy-nilly concept of altruism, but is adamant that egoism can only be defined as the “maximization of one’s own interest.” According to McGinn, an altruist can properly behave in self-interested actions occassionally; but an egoist–on principle–can never act against his own interests, which includes not dirtying your clothes to jump in to save a drowning baby.
Clearly, McGinn and altruists like him wish to claim sole proprietorship over concepts of kindness, benevolence, and charity.
Let’s be very clear about what we mean by altruism:
The word “altruism” (French, altruisme, from autrui: “other people”, derived from Latin alter: “other”) was coined by Auguste Comte, the French founder of positivism, in order to describe the ethical doctrine he supported. He believed that individuals had a moral obligation to renounce self-interest and live for others. Comte says, in his Catechisme Positiviste, that “[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.”
The Catholic Encyclopedia says that for Comte’s altruism, “The first principle of morality…is the regulative supremacy of social sympathy over the self-regarding instincts.”Author Gabriel Moran, (professor in the department of Humanities and the Social Sciences, New York University) says “The law and duty of life in altruism [for Comte] was summed up in the phrase: Live for others.”
More recent reformulations of the word altruism have served up a watered down principle of a general lovey-durvy, fluffy-feely sense of kindness and benevolence toward others to make the principle seem more palatable to most people’s sensibilities. Note how it is better to have a phantasmic notion of altruism than to even permit the possibility of egoism (self-interest) as a plausible moral principle for people to live by.
It stands to reason that no one can adhere to the principle of altruism strictly and consistently in their lives: it is a contradiction at the most fundamental level. To live is to act in self-preservation; to live is to engage in self-sustaining action. One cannot live by selfless action, unless one wishes to die. The proper and consistent act for an altruist would be to give up his life in an ultimate sacrifice for others (like Jesus did; now, the conundrum that the recipient of the sacrifice has to himself be sacrificed to someone else’s interests and so on with every individual on earth is another thorny matter of its own).
At best, altruism can only be practised inconsistently, whimsically, and often out of guilt.
Since altruism–as a moral principle–cannot be practised consistently, philosophers like McGinn have injected doses of self-interested pursuits and common sense motivations into the principle of altruism. By doing this, altruists have appropriated the notions of kindness, charity, and benevolence, while vociferously denying that these notions are fully and logically compatible with the ethic of egoism.
Egoism is the principle of purusing one’s own rational self-interest with your life as your standard of value. Properly speaking, “life as a standard of value” is a redundant elaboration of the principle of rational self-interest. Only life can provide a context for the existence of a self and for the pursuit of interests; only human life can provide the standard of rational behavior and meaning to rationality. Nevertheless, the redundancy is necessary because altruists are committed to caricaturing egoism as everything that it is not: hedonism, subjectivism, self-destruction, malice, etc.
Egoism–that is, the principle of rational self-interest–is the only principle that can be practised consistently by every individual without leaving behind a trail of mutilated, self-sacrificed corpses. Only egoism makes it possible to have a society of individuals where acts of benevolence, kindness, and charity are performed without contradiction, without conflicts of interest, and without any sacrifice.