Altruism: The Morality of Logical Fallacies

by | Jun 5, 2006

Sacrifice--Sacrifice--Sacrifice. Everyone believes it is the moral thing to do. And no philosopher has been willing to challenge this idea. Except Ayn Rand.

Altruism holds that being moral consists in self-sacrificially serving others. Despite its self-destructive nature, altruism is accepted to some extent by almost everyone today. Of course, no one upholds it consistently–at least not for long. Rather, most people accept it as true–and then cheat on it.

All religionists–Christians, Jews, and Muslims–are altruists. Their holy books demand it. All so-called “Secular Humanists”–Utilitarians, Postmodernists, and Egalitarians–are altruists. Their philosophies demand it.

From the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim points of view, the significant “others” are “God” and “the poor.” They are the “others” for whom you should sacrifice. From the Utilitarian point of view, the “other” is “everyone in general” (the Utilitarian principle is “the greatest good for the greatest number”). From the Postmodern and Egalitarian points of view, the “other” is “anyone with less wealth or opportunity than you have”; in other words, “the better off you are, the more you should sacrifice for others–the worse off you are, the more others should sacrifice for you.”

Sacrifice–Sacrifice–Sacrifice. Everyone believes it is the moral thing to do. And no philosopher has been willing to challenge this idea.

Except Ayn Rand. Quote:

[T]here is one word–a single word–which can blast the morality of altruism out of existence and which it cannot withstand–the word: ‘Why?’ Why must man live for the sake of others? Why must he be a sacrificial animal? Why is that the good? There is no earthly reason for it–and, ladies and gentlemen, in the whole history of philosophy no earthly reason has ever been given. [Philosophy: Who Needs It, pp. 61–62]

On examination, this is true. No reason has ever been given as to why people should sacrifice for others. Of course, alleged reasons have been given, but not legitimate ones. Let’s consider the alleged reasons–of which there are approximately six–each of which involves a logical fallacy.

1. “You should sacrifice because God says so.” This is not a reason–certainly not an earthly one. At best it is an appeal to authority–that is: to the “authorities” who claim to speak for God. (More fundamentally, it is an arbitrary claim, since there is no evidence for the existence of God. But for our purposes here, suffice it to say that it is an appeal to authority.) Just because some preacher or some book makes a claim does not mean that the claim is true. Among other things, the Bible claims that a bush spoke.

2. “You should sacrifice because Society says so.” This is not a reason, either. It is an appeal to the masses. Matters of truth and morality are not determined by what society or a group of people say. American society used to say that slavery should be legal; some societies still do. That did not, and does not, make it so.

3. “You should sacrifice because other people need the benefits of your sacrifice.” That is an appeal to pity. Even if one person’s sacrifice could produce benefits for another person (which it cannot–a subject for another post), it would not follow that this is a reason to sacrifice. If it were a reason to sacrifice, then anyone could walk up to anyone else at any time and demand anything: his money, his time, his effort, his property, his wife, or his life. Everyone has needs. I need a bigger house. Should other people give me one? Does my need constitute a moral claim on their time, their money, their effort?

4. “You should sacrifice because if you don’t, you will be beaten, or fined, or thrown in jail, or in some other way physically assaulted.” The threat of force is not a reason; it is the opposite of a reason. If the force-wielders could offer a reason for why you should sacrifice, then they wouldn’t have to use force; they could use persuasion instead of coercion.

5. “You should sacrifice because, well, when you grow up you’ll see that you should.” This is not a reason, but a personal attack and an insult. It says, in effect, “You’re immature” or “You’re stupid”–as if demanding a reason in support of a moral conviction could indicate a lack of maturity or intelligence.

6. “You should sacrifice because only an evil person would challenge this established fact.” This kind of claim assumes that you regard others’ opinions of you as more important than your own judgment of truth. It is also an example of what Ayn Rand called “the argument from intimidation”: the attempt to substitute psychological pressure for rational argument. Like the personal attack, it is an attempt to avoid having to present a rational case for a position for which no rational case can be made.

That’s it. Such are the “reasons” offered in support of the claim that you should sacrifice for others. Don’t take my word for it: Try to think of another reason. Ask around. Ask a priest or rabbi. Ask a philosophy professor. Email this post to your friends, and see if they can think of another reason. You will find that all the “reasons” offered are variants of these–each of which, so far from being a “reason,” is a textbook logical fallacy. Most even have fancy Latin names.

This article is an adapted excerpt from my lecture “Ayn Rand’s Morality of Selfishness,” a ninety-minute introduction to the Objectivist ethics.

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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.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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