Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It (Part 6 of 7)

by | Sep 20, 2005

Altruism, in both its religious and its secular forms, is crippling the lives of real men, women, and children every day.

Adapted from Chapter 1 of Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It by Craig Biddle.

Consciously or not, many people have accepted the ethics of social subjectivism. They believe that their own welfare and happiness are morally subordinate to the welfare and happiness of some group: a race, a class, a gender, a culture, a nation, or “others” in general. Taken straight, few people could swallow this notion. But it is rarely given straight. To make the sacrifice required by this creed more palatable, the altruistic pill is usually coated in hedonistic sugar and called “utilitarianism.”

In his book titled Utilitarianism, the British philosopher John Stuart Mill writes: “The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals ‘utility’ or ‘the greatest happiness principle’ holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” Importantly, however:

That standard is not the agent’s own greatest happiness, but the greatest amount of happiness altogether; and if it may possibly be doubted whether a noble character is always the happier for its nobleness, there can be no doubt that it makes other people happier, and that the world in general is immensely a gainer by it.[43]

Now, few people go so far as to ask themselves, “How can I act to make the whole world happy?” But, again, to the degree a person believes that he should selflessly serve others, his own happiness is thereby thwarted–one way or another.

Consider a young man who aspires to be a great classical pianist but cannot reconcile such a thoroughly self-interested career with his altruistic conviction that he is first and foremost a member of an ethnic group, and thus has a moral duty to live for “his people”–not for himself. Classical piano is not considered a part of the cultural heritage of “his people,” and his pursuit of it would not contribute to their “needs.” In fact, it would remove him from the community where most of them live; it would require that he leave them behind. If he chooses to pursue piano, he cannot be happy, because he will suffer from guilt and shame for abandoning his ethnic group. If, instead, he dutifully stays in his community and becomes a teacher, he still cannot be happy, for he will never hear the beautiful music he could have made. And if he compromises–if he pursues piano less seriously than his dream requires, and spends his “spare” time and energy performing some kind of community service–then the effect is predictable: a compromised, semi-guilty, semi-repressed sort of happiness. Like the dancer, he could have either sacrificed more to serve others or worked harder to achieve his dream. He could have been either more “moral” or more selfish.

The point is that if altruism is moral–if morality is a matter of self-sacrificially serving others–then morality is an impediment to your life and happiness: Being good is not good for you. Either life is a paradox in which it is neither practical to be moral nor moral to be practical, or self-interest is moral. It is one or the other.

Take another example. Consider a young girl who dreams of becoming a great physicist. Such a goal requires that she apply herself to her fullest potential in her studies. She must devote her time and effort to achieving the highest level of understanding possible; she has to earn her way into a top university; she needs to learn from the best minds in the field. She cannot compromise: If she does, she will not make it.

But suppose that one day a General, in his military uniform, visits the girl’s school and tells her and her classmates, as he is fond of telling children: “Listen, you’re going to be a real citizen in this country.”

“What do you mean?” asks the wide-eyed, ambitious little girl.

“You have to serve,” says the General, “you have to do something in service to your community.”

“Would you be more specific, sir? What do you mean? Exactly how must I serve?” asks the active-minded, curious child. “By tutoring younger children or working at a hospice or homeless center,” says the General.

“But why?” asks the persistent and brave young girl. “Why should I serve others at the expense of my own dream? What about my studies? What about the fact that I want to be a great physicist, not a social worker? If I am to succeed, I need to become an expert at math and science, not at ladling soup. And what about the basic principle of America? Don’t I have a right to my own life and the pursuit of my own happiness?”

“If you want to know what violated my rights,” quips the General, “it was integral calculus, not community service.”

Observe that the little girl has asked the General for a reason, but he has not given her one. She has asked him why she must serve others at the expense of her own dream, but he has not told her why. She has asked him to reconcile his position with the basic principle of America, but he has not done so. Instead, he has evaded her questions by resorting to sarcasm. Why? Why won’t he give her a straight answer? Because he can’t. There is no rational justification for what he says she must do; there is no rational justification for self-sacrifice.

There simply are no facts to support the claim that the little girl should spend some of her precious time and energy manning a ladle in a soup kitchen, or sponge bathing the elderly, or in some other way emulating Mother Teresa. The General can say that the little girl has to serve her community, but he cannot say why she has to do so. Hence his sarcasm: It is an attempt to avoid having to give a reason for his claim–a claim for which no reason can be given.

If the sarcasm doesn’t work, if the little girl continues to demand a reason why she should self-sacrificially serve others, the General might try appealing to an alleged authority–whether himself (“Because I said so”) or some “higher” authority such as “God” or “society.” And if that doesn’t work, if the little girl rejects those fallacious appeals, the General might try appealing to force; he might try making the child serve others against her will (as his altruistic allies in Maryland do). But whatever he does, he cannot appeal to reason, because there is no reason why the little girl should serve others at the expense of her own dream.

What if the General succeeds? What if his sarcasm works? What if he artfully dodges the little girl’s questions and badgers her into accepting the creed of self-sacrifice? To the extent she accepts it, like the dancer and the pianist, her life will be thwarted by moral guilt, compromise, and repression. What if the General appeals to authority and that works? What if he convinces the little girl that he or God or society just knows that she must sacrifice herself for others–but that no reason can be given, and that in order to understand, she must simply feel it or accept it on faith? Again, to the degree she accepts it, her life will be retarded by moral guilt, compromise, and repression. And what if the General appeals to force? What if (Maryland-style) he makes the little girl serve others against her will? To the extent he imposes such force on the child, her life will be impeded by, well, involuntary servitude–which, in principle, is slavery.

Whatever the means, if the General has his way, damage will be done. Every moment of life counts. Every amount of effort matters. Once time and energy are spent, they cannot be retrieved. Thus, if the little girl is convinced to sacrifice or forced to serve, she will not be able to make up her loss. That much of her dream will be out of her reach forever.

Now, what are we to make of an adult’s efforts to coerce or convince a little girl to serve others at the expense of her own long-range goal in life? Bear in mind: We are not talking here about an adult trying to guide a child to act in her own long-term best interest–that is precisely what the little girl in question is trying to do. Rather, we are talking about an adult’s attempt to thwart that process by persuading the child to put her time and effort elsewhere, by evading her questions as to why, by appealing to authority, or by using physical force.

I submit that for an adult to sacrifice himself is immoral–but for an adult to force or encourage the sacrifice of a child is evil. People live once. Ideas have consequences. Human sacrifices are being encouraged and performed as you read. Altruism, in both its religious and its secular forms, is crippling the lives of real men, women, and children every day. You probably know some of them. You may be one of them. I was.

This series of articles are adapted from Chapter 1 of Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It by Craig Biddle.

References:

[43] John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1979), pp. 7, 11, emphasis added. Cf. Immanuel Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Mary Gregor (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), esp. pp. 151–52, 156, 161, 227.

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Craig Biddle is the editor and publisher of The Objective Standard and the author of Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It.

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