Pitfalls of Altruism: The Hidden Dangers of Selflessness

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After amassing a fortune of $45 million in real estate, American investor Zell Kravinsky proceeded to give almost all of it away towards charity. Still unsatisfied, he felt he still had more to give to humanity and gave away one of his kidneys to a total stranger by undergoing an undirected kidney donation. “The reasons for giving a little are the reasons for giving a lot. And the reasons for giving a lot are the reasons for giving more,” he explained (Parker, 2004). Kravinsky’s tale might appear noble, or even heroic. In truth, however, Kravinsky is merely meeting the demands of a philosophical doctrine which has silently tightened its grip on the subconscious of humanity. This doctrine is altruism.

Zell Kravinsky, who readily meets the demands of altruism.

The father of sociology Auguste Comte coined the term “altruism” and summed up its ethical doctrine with the phrase: “Live for others.” Essentially, altruism is the belief that one should always sacrifice their interests to fulfil the needs of others, and by extension fulfil the needs of humanity as a whole. A more general concept which carries the spirit of altruism is selflessness, which describes “a concern more with the needs and wishes of others than with one’s own” (Oxford Dictionary). An altruistic person is, therefore, a truly, wholly selfless person, who devotes his life to serve the interests of anyone but himself. The purpose of this analysis will be to challenge and question such notions which elevate selflessness and altruism as the ideal state which everyone should strive to achieve, and in the process highlight the dangers of altruism as a moral ideology.

Selflessness, of course, is in direct contrast with selfishness. In general, selfishness is understood as being concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself, and in the process disregarding the needs, feelings, or existence of others. The connotation carried by the term is a negative one – It is commonly viewed as immoral to be selfish. Children who refuse to share their toy with others are scolded; and if an adult is has a reputation for being selfish, he would be shunned by those around him for failing to show empathy towards his fellow man.

 

The Altruist’s Dogma


A dominant judgment of moral value that has been persistent throughout human history has been that to selflessly care for others is preferable than to be primarily concerned with oneself. Aristotle argued in Book VIII of his Nichomachean Ethics the importance of loving others for their own sake, instead of any self-interested motive (Aristotle and Ross, 1959).

Similar values can also be observed in various popular religious teachings. A study by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 84 percent of the 2010 world population are religiously affiliated. Most dominant religions endorse altruism in one way or another. The Christian Bible contains the popular teaching “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matt 22:39 King James Version). The Quran, too, praises the virtues of the altruist: “They give preference to them (others) over themselves – even concerning the things that they themselves urgently need” (Quran 59:9). Asoka, the Buddhist emperor of Maurya, tried to enforce altruism in more formal ways by reducing the slaughter of animals and fish in his empire and banned altogether the killing of various wild species within his empire (Gupta, 2013).

Ashoka, the altruist emperor.

In order to scrutinize the ideals of such a vague and general notion as altruism, one must first come upon its core values. A simple example of the manifestation of altruism is in the practice of taxation, in which wealth is collected by the government of a nation to fund various expenditures meant to further the needs of the nation as a whole, some of which consist of services which everyone who pays the tax can enjoy equally: law, order, national defense, and infrastructure come to mind. However, one could take this a few steps further, and this is where altruism comes into play.

The way “needs of the nation” is interpreted goes as follows: Some people have too much, while some people have too little. Because some people have greater needs than others, resources must be redistributed in such a way that those who have too much will hand over part of their wealth to those who need them. This might be in the form of welfare programs, free healthcare, and affirmative action policies intended to improve opportunities for those considered underprivileged. In effect, altruism allows for the government’s resources to be utilized in such a way which gives benefit to some people more than others.

 

Altruism vs. Human Rights

The conclusion to be drawn from the example above is that altruism is a principle in which actions are guided by needs. When a member of society has needs that other members can fulfil, it becomes an obligation for the other members to provide for these needs. This is in line with Comte’s vision of altruism; he posited that every person is born under a load of obligations towards every member of humanity (Comte, 1852). This is where the fundamental problem appears: this thinking goes directly against one of the basic moral values of modern civilization, which is the concept of human rights. Comte himself rejected the very idea of human rights, calling it “absurd” and “immoral”, as it is inconsistent with the premise that everyone should base their lives on duties which stem from obligations towards mankind (Comte, 1852). In essence, altruism, when taken to its most pure form, melds all of humanity into a single collective, with each member acting only as a component, serving the needs of the whole.

Modern civilization, due to the influence of Enlightenment-era Western thought, has long been embedded with the idea of human rights; that there are certain inalienable rights inherent in all human beings (Weston, 2014). John Locke, as one of the pioneers of the theory of human rights, believed in a natural right to life, liberty, and property, and that it is the responsibility of the government to protect these rights (Locke, 1689). This notion of fundamental rights has integrated itself into human civilization, starting with the West and spreading to other areas of the world, with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948.

Considering that human rights are built into the very foundation of modern civilization, it appears rather puzzling that the main principle of altruism goes directly against it. Human rights as conceptualized by Locke and his contemporaries (and as implemented by almost all nations in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) also explicitly stress the importance of liberty, i.e. the right of people to act as they deem in their interest, as long as they do not infringe upon the rights of others. In the face of this, altruism condones any action in which the needs of some parts of a collective is met by other parts of the collective. Evidently, this undermines the very notion of rights itself.

It is important to stress at this point, that a simply generous act of giving away one’s wealth to provide for the needs of others, as in the case of Zell Kravinsky, has no clash with the idea of human rights, as such an act is done voluntarily. It could even be argued that the person who gives away part of his wealth to the needy gains a certain amount of satisfaction, and in essence receives a net profit of satisfaction from the act, where he might not have attained such a level of satisfaction by simply hoarding his wealth. The problem is with the main principle of altruism, in which serving the needs of those who need it becomes a moral obligation.

 

Altruism vs. Human Nature

Another colossal stumbling block in the way of the altruistic vision is human nature itself. Throughout history, many philosophers have independently come to conclusions that man is inherently selfish. In his magnum opus Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes postulated that “man in the state of nature seeks nothing but his own selfish pleasure” (Hobbes, 1651). The advance of science has found overwhelming evidence to support this view of human nature – Richard Dawkins argues in the influential (albeit controversial) The Selfish Gene that ruthless selfishness is to be expected in a successful gene. This gene selfishness will then give rise to selfishness in individual behavior (Dawkins, 1976). Hence, the commonly accepted theory of evolutionary biology describes humans since time immemorial perpetually competing for survival, each acting in their own self-interest. While there is ample evidence of people cooperating and forming communities since prehistoric times, one could easily attribute this behavior to the fact that cooperation increases the chance of survival for each individual in these communities.

Meanwhile, for all the preaching by altruists of selflessness as the ideal state each person should strive to achieve, it would ironically seem that the major leaps and bounds achieved by mankind throughout history has been done in the name of selfishness. The impressive legacies of the Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Indian, Chinese, and Roman empires were not built on the basis of a desire to improve the well-being of their subjects, but of ambitious rulers who sought ever greater power and influence over an ever-expanding portion of the world. Indeed, an overwhelming bulk of people who lived in such empires were peasants and slaves, subjugated by an extremely small minority of nobles and aristocrats.

The modern world, too, owes its luxuries and benefits to selfishness. Yuval Noah Harari argues in Sapiens that western civilization succeeded in dominating the world because of two things: science and capitalism, which piggy-backed on the conquests of European empires such as the British, French, Dutch and Spanish, seeking to gain knowledge and prosperity. The advancement of scientific knowledge was initially done not for the good of humanity as a whole, but for the interests of Western empires who sought to find the most convenient way to conquer their colonies. Likewise, companies such as the Dutch VOC and British EIC sought spices to sell in Europe not to nourish the lives of Europeans, but to profit from the sales and satisfy their shareholders (Harari, 2014). To this day, most states throughout the world adopt some form of capitalism, which allows and even encourages people to act in their self-interest.

On the other hand, we have seen monumental failures of states which attempted to act on behalf of the collective good. It is estimated that 13 million died of hunger in the Soviet Union as a result of collectivization (Iodachi and Bauerkamper, 2014). Even more spectacular was the Great Chinese Famine of Maoist China from 1959 to 1961, in which a minimum of 45 million are estimated to have died of starvation (Dikotter, 2010). There is an overwhelming academic consensus that the tenets of communism, which prioritized the collective good of the nation in its policies, greatly contributed to these events. When the government dictates the needs of the people, incompetence and corruption seems to be inevitable, as the minority of rulers can never be as invested in the well-being of their citizens as the citizens are to themselves.

 

Conclusion

In a world where human rights are recognized and respected, any plea to self-sacrifice in the name of “society as a whole” are simply irrational. Yet, many are still plagued by the altruist’s dogma. The wealthy feel compelled to be philanthropists not to fulfil any personal desire to help others, but simply to avoid being labelled selfish or greedy. The poor feel compelled to give away as much as they can, often even at the expense of their own basic needs. Many politicians push for more and more control of their peoples’ wealth, as they believe they can redistribute it better than the people who own it, in the name of the “good of the nation”.

By keeping the dangers of altruism in mind, one would be better equipped to deal with demands to self-sacrifice for a “common good” and to always stand by his rights and liberties to which he is fully entitled. Additionally, one could always peer through the pages of history for examples in which those who tried to collectivize well-being has always found themselves defeated by the sheer will of every individual to benefit themselves. Thus, rulers and laymen alike would do well to keep in mind that no civilization, culture, religion, or ideology has ever managed to change human nature.

 

Written by: Miftah Rasheed Amir

Edited by: Sekar Sanding Kinanthi Joewono, Abraham Ivan Partomuan Pardede

References:

“Altruism”. Oxford Dictionaries 2018. Web. 15 Apr. 2018.

Aristotle. And Ross, W.D. The Nichomachean Ethics. 1959. London: Oxford University Press.

Comte, Auguste and Congreve, Richard. Catechism of Positive Religion. 1891. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.: London.

Constantin Iordachi; Arnd Bauerkamper (2014). The Collectivization of Agriculture in Communist Eastern Europe: Comparison and Entanglements. Central European University Press. p. 9.

Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene.

Dikötter, Frank. Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–62. Walker & Company, 2010. p. 333.

Gupta, Abhik. Altruism in Cross-Cultural Perspective. 2013. Internation and Cultural Psychology.

Harari, Y., Harari, Y., Purcell, J. and Watzman, H. (2014). Sapiens.

Hobbes, T., Tuck, R., Geuss, R. and Skinner, Q. (1996). Hobbes: “Leviathan”. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

“Human Rights”. Encyclopedia Britannica 2014. Web. 15 Apr. 2018

Kant, Immanuel and Gregor, Mary J. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. 1998. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Locke, John. And Ward, Lee. Two Treatises of Government. 2016. MA: Hackett Publishing Company, Incorporated.

Parker, Ian. “The Gift”: The New Yorker. 12 Aug. 2004. pp. 57-58

Schwartz, Peter. In Defense of Selfishness: Why the Code of Self-Sacrifice is Unjust and Destructive. 2015. London: St. Martin’s Press.

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