Despite the positive connotations of benevolence and kindness that most people hold for altruism, that is not what this moral code means. The Encyclopedia of Ethics gives this definition (under ‘Theories of the Good’): “altruism is the policy of always denying oneself for the sake of others.” In other words, every time you attempt to achieve a value—food, a job, a promotion, a gold medal, profit, you must give it up for someone else who needs it more than you do. As per altruism, there are always people needier than you.

But most people do not grasp this true meaning of altruism as principled self-sacrifice. For them, altruism means benevolence and kindness toward others in which we should engage to make the world better. This view is pervasive. A business professor colleague recently told me that a little bit of altruism is good—because otherwise we would not consider other people at all, making the social atmosphere and relationships unpleasant. She was shocked when I said that that a little bit of altruism is like a little bit of cyanide: very destructive. I explained that every act of self-sacrifice (giving up one’s values for the sake of others) is harmful, not only to us but also to the recipients of our sacrifice. Why?

Life requires gaining values, not losing them. If we always deny ourselves, we would die. And even if we followed my colleague’s advice, practicing altruism not on principle but self-sacrificing only occasionally, it would still damage our ability to survive and flourish. Declining a job offer for your dream job only sometimes, or passing up the promotion every now and then, may not literally kill you like consistent self-sacrifice—giving up every value—would. But it is harmful to your achieving your values and happiness nevertheless. It also harms the recipients of your sacrifice. If you give up values for the sake of others, you would be less productive, and fewer values would be created overall—which is others’ loss also.

Some of my business ethics students also have difficulty grasping the true meaning of self-sacrifice and self-interest. Some persistently hold onto the idea that only altruism makes benevolence, kindness, and collaboration possible. They have been taught all their lives (many MBA students are mature adults) that altruism is good and self-interest is bad. So they make comments such as: “Only those who subscribe to altruism would consider or help others, or contribute to charity. If a neighbor’s barn burns down, only altruists would help re-build it.”

What these students and my colleague fail to see that it is the morality of self-interest, not self -sacrifice, that makes benevolence possible. The prevailing morality of altruism imposes a duty to be our brothers’ keeper (and government reinforces it by “redistributing” our income). This hardly has induced benevolence toward others. Studies show that in countries where the government imposes altruism through highly progressive income taxes and other taxation schemes, people’s benevolence, measured as charitable donations relative to income and the rate of volunteerism, is the lowest. (Many European countries belong to this category). The reverse is also true: in countries where altruism is less imposed (where taxes and government welfare programs are the lowest), the rates of charitable giving relative to income and volunteering is the highest. (The United States is the leader in this group).

The ruling principle of human interaction should not be self-sacrifice but trade. Only when people are free to trade value for value for mutual benefit by mutual consent, true benevolence among men is possible, as historical evidence from the 19th century America shows. When government protects the right to liberty, including the freedom to trade with whomever and however we wish, benevolence (manifested as private charity, mutual aid societies, etc.) grows. Government violating our rights and redistributing our income has the opposite effect: resentment or lower productivity.

Benevolence does not require self-sacrifice. It is completely consistent with self-interest to help others, to give to charity, or to volunteer one’s time—as long as it does not entail self-sacrifice. When the people we help or the causes to which we contribute are values to us and we can afford to help, there is no self-sacrifice. This applies also to business. Producing and trading material values for profit is the primary purpose of business, but self-interested charitable giving to causes that help the local community thrive or that enhances the company’s reputation, is moral.

Altruism means self-sacrifice and is destructive. All forms and amounts of it, even “a little bit,” should be rejected.

 

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Jaana Woiceshyn teaches business ethics and competitive strategy at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary, Canada. She has lectured and conducted seminars on business ethics to undergraduate, MBA and Executive MBA students, and to various corporate audiences for over 20 years both in Canada and abroad. Before earning her Ph.D. from the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, she helped turn around a small business in Finland and worked for a consulting firm in Canada. Jaana’s research on technological change and innovation, value creation by business, executive decision-making, and business ethics has been published in various academic and professional journals and books. “How to Be Profitable and Moral” is her first solo-authored book. Visit her website at profitableandmoral.com.

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