Altruism Can’t Work

You could have a system of ethics in which generosity, good will, and benevolence are virtues (at least conditional ones), but altruism—helping others without regard to any personal benefit—cannot be the universal and ultimate standard of good and bad, of right and wrong.

Imagine a circle of altruists.

Auguste is concerned only with his neighbor. So he asks Betty what she wants. Betty, being a good altruist, never acts for herself. She asks Carl what he wants. Carl too has no personal ambitions. He asks Doug, who turns to Evan, who asks Friedrich, and so on. Eventually, the question falls to Ziggy, who asks Auguste, who reminds Betty that he is still waiting for her to answer. In this community of altruists, there are no ambitions, no goals, no interests for anyone to serve. The injunction is to serve the interests of others, but no one has any interests. There are no standards of right and wrong. There is no code of ethics in a community of altruists.

That’s what happens if everyone is a committed altruist. Let’s say one isn’t. The question comes round to Friedrich, and Friedrich says, “This is nuts. The rest of you have no ambitions of your own, but I have some.” He answers the question, and before long, everyone has something to do, namely, serve the interests of the one man who acted selfishly, the one man who—by the altruist’s own standard—is evil.

So among altruists, being good means acting in support of evil. To be good means to help bad people do bad things. Argh!

Some religions recognize this absurdity, but want to preserve the principle that there is one universal standard of morality for everyone. So they name their god as the proper beneficiary of everyone’s action. The ultimate moral dictum becomes, “Serve God.” This creates new problems: How could the all-perfect being have any needs or wants? Could “Just because I want to see you obey me” be a fitting desire for a benevolent god? And how would this supernatural god communicate to the community of mortals? But problems aside, the religions do recognize an essential feature of altruism: The goals of a community of altruists must come from outside that community.

Nietzsche, of course, solved this problem by proposing that the übermensch would live by a different code. He’d tell people what to do. Plato said philosophers kings could do the job. Auguste Comte, coiner of the term “altruism,” volunteered himself to be the one—no surprise.

Couldn’t the philosopher king (or Comte) act altruistically? No. Trusting and acting on his own judgment would itself be selfish. But also, he has the same problem anyone in the kingless circle of altruists had. He can’t act for others’ interests, because no one in the community has any.

Remember that an altruist acts for the good of others without regard to any personal benefit. That includes even the benefit of going to heaven, even the benefit of just feeling good about being virtuous.

Let me now grant the community of altruists this one sin: They each have the personal ambition to be a good person. They are not going to accept that “Help the bad leader do bad things” is the way for them to achieve the personal pride they seek. They want a good leader, not an evil one.

You might propose that they vote for this leader; then the altruists could elect not a scoundrel but a virtuous man, someone they could (albeit selfishly) feel proud serving. But the problems multiply. The altruist cannot vote. He would need to make a value judgment about one candidate against another, but he has no standards by which to judge better and worse, and he can’t assert his own personal judgment against that of others. Auguste has to turn to Betty and ask, “Who will you vote for?” She turns to Carl. And so on.

Could Auguste break the altruists’ vicious cycle by saying that, although he has no personal ambitions and is unwilling to serve the evil desires of selfish men, he would support the interests of the group as a whole? Two more problems now: What would it mean for something to be in the group’s best interest if it is of no value to anyone in the group? And even if there could be such a thing, it would be selfish for anyone to insist that he knew what it was.

Or is none of this a problem, if—as Ayn Rand, for example, insiststhe interests of rational men do not conflict? Couldn’t Betty leave the decision to Carl and end up doing the same thing she’d have done were she to act selfishly?

This won’t work, since it presupposes that all the actors are fully rational. What if one isn’t? Altruism demands that you act without regard to personal benefit. So it would be immoral for you to prefer following the rational man instead of the irrational. You have no justification for following one who will help you instead of one who will hurt or even kill you. So you have to randomly follow men until you find the one who kills you. As an altruist, you cannot pass judgment. You cannot say killing you was wrong for him to do.

So we end up where everyone who thinks enough about altruism ends up: There can be no such thing as real altruism, that is, where the ultimate and universal standard of right and wrong is whether some act is in the best interest of a person or persons other than the actor, without regard to any benefits to that actor.

Many such thoughtful people then propose mixing opposites, mixing altruism with selfishness. They now have two new problems. First, they mistakenly equate altruism with helping others. But then altruism won’t be the opposite of selfishness, since there are innumerable cases of selfishly helping others, countless cases of win-win. If altruism is to be the opposite of selfishness, it needs to be helping others without regard to personal benefit.

Second, the proposer of mixing altruism with selfishness now needs a new standard of good, a new standard by which to judge the mix. Should the mix be 50-50? 60-40? 20-80? Unless some new standard is proposed, what is proposed isn’t a code of ethics at all.

Of course you should help other people. Life would be miserable if you didn’t. But which other people? And help them do what? Altruism says that, by its own standard, you should help bad people do bad things. That just cannot work as a moral system. There must be some other standard of right and wrong. It can’t be altruism.