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.

Photo of Friedrich Nietzsche

By [Creative Commons], via Wikimedia Commons

Someone will need to say, “I stand outside this code of good and 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 philosopher-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.

Portrait of Auguste Comte

By [Creative Commons], via Wikimedia Commons

The inventor of altruism, Auguste Comte, rejected Christian “Do unto others,” because its reference is the self.

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, insists—the 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.

Photo of a balance scale

© Hans Splinter -

If you propose to mix selfishness and altruism, how will you know what the morally proper mix is?

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.

Kennon Gilson
Heh-heh–was that Auguste Auguste Compte?
In my Ethics class I made the argument that anti-self/reason altruism is an unrecognized logical fallacy. Got an A!

Alexander Dietz
You define altruism as ‘helping others without any regard to personal benefit’, and by ‘helping others’ you seem to mean something like ‘helping others get what they want’. Using this definition, you claim that a community of altruists would have nothing to do, since each would want only to help the others get what they want. But even if our *actions* are aimed only at helping others get what they want, this doesn’t mean our only *desires* must be so aimed. We can want plenty of things that have nothing to do with how we act. For example, I want the Patriots to win the Super Bowl, but there’s nothing I can do to make that happen. I can also want for the pain in my foot to go away, even if I believe that that has no bearing on what I should do.

Next, we might also define altruism as ‘*benefitting* others without regard to personal benefit’. On this definition, I claim, there could be plenty for a community of altruists to do, even if they all did desire only to help others get what they want. They could benefit each other by making each other happy, for example, even if none of them desired her own happiness. You might reply: ‘Benefitting others is just a matter of fulfilling their desires.’ But that’s a controversial view. If I hate myself, and only want to make myself suffer, would you be benefitting me by torturing me? If all I want is for the city of Athens, Georgia to burn to the ground thirty years after I die, would your arson make me better off?

John P. McCaskey, reply to Alexander Dietz
You are still stuck. You propose that altruism apply only to actions, i.e., that committed altruists could be allowed to have selfish desires, as long as they did nothing to fulfill them. They couldn’t trade favors. They could not tell others about their desires. They could merely pray that someone guesses and then fulfills these secret desires, while they are busy guessing other people’s desires. Such wholesale emotional repression is a recipe for everyone going insane.

You write, “there could be plenty for a community of altruists to do, even if they all did desire only to help others get what they want.” But all anyone desires is to help others get what those others desire. You are right back to the circle-of-altruists problem (unless maybe you are proposing that “want” and “desire” have different meanings). I don’t see how changing from “helping others” to “benefiting others” got you out of the vicious circle.

(By the way, I definitely would not say that benefitting others is just a matter of fulfilling their desires. Emotions, including desires, are not fail-safe indicators of what is beneficial.)

Alexander Dietz, reply to John P. McCaskey
On the first point: Suppose that in addition to wanting to fulfill others’ desires, I happen to have the non-altruistic desire to be rid of the pain in my foot. I know that you also want to fulfill others’ desires, and that you could easily relieve my pain by giving me a shot. My altruistic principle of action would then direct me to tell you about my desire to be rid of my pain, not in order to fulfill this desire, but in order to fulfill your desire to fulfill my desires.

On the second point: Whoops, I meant to write ‘even if they did desire only to benefit others.’ If we define altruism in terms of benefitting others rather than fulfilling their desires, then your altruistic principle of action would direct you to give me the shot when you see me writhing in pain. Regardless of whether I have the non-altruistic desire to be rid of my pain, it’s plausible that I would be (at least in one way) better off if I were rid of it.

John P. McCaskey, reply to Alexander Dietz
So you express the desire and then wait to see if your neighbor decides that your desire will be one he fulfills. That’s definitely a recipe for insanity. You must hold in your mind a contradiction: You desire something, but at the same time don’t care whether that desire is fulfilled.

But even in the time before everyone goes insane, nothing gets done.

Everyone puts their desires out on the table. Now people in the community must decide which to fulfill. Auguste says, “I have no reason to rank one higher than another (except to exclude my own, of course). Betty, which will you pick?” “I too shouldn’t say. I’ll ask Carl.” Carl says he wouldn’t be so selfish as to demand people use his metric. And so here we go again.

This is definitely sounding like the Twentieth Century Motor Company in Atlas Shrugged.

Eric Gastfriend
As a member of a community of altruists, I can say that altruism can and does work. If you define altruism as having zero concern for your own well-being, then certainly the argument in this article makes sense and altruism is self-defeating. But if you consider the “opposite of selfishness” to be caring about your own interests on an equal basis with anyone else’s interests, i.e. giving no additional weight to your own preferences, then altruism is philosophically tenable and this reduction ad absurdum argument no longer applies.

James Rothering, reply to Eric Gastfriend
Actually, I think you still have the problem. Because August can’t make a decision — can’t break the tie, so to speak — with all the other interests, and the same goes for every other member of the vicious circle. Only when someone violates the standard and places an interest on a non-equal basis can the problem be resolved. But, then, it is the violation of the principle, and thus an instance of evil that makes the decision possible. I don’t see how you can have equality of caring for all interests indifferently combined with a basis for selection without depending on smuggling in a principle violation or resignation to no action.

John P. McCaskey, reply to Eric Gastfriend
Yes, if you define altruism other than how the term’s inventor (Comte) did, the reductio argument I present might not apply.

But if you define altruism as you propose, you have utilitarianism and a whole different set of (well-known) problems. Without addressing those, you can’t yet say your new kind of “altruism” is tenable.

Of course, trying to address those problems may be a waste of time, since if the community has enough people that your own interests become insignificant, you are back at Comtean altruism.

Eric Gastfriend, reply to John P. McCaskey
Thanks for the reply. Comte wrote, “[Man must serve] Humanity, whose we are entirely.” It’s not clear to me whether he thought you should include yourself as part of Humanity or not. At any rate, in modern usage there are a few ways to define the word altruism.
I don’t think it’s worth debating the problems of utilitarianism here, but it’s not clear to me why you couldn’t have a deontological approach to altruism, although I haven’t thought about it too carefully.
Also if you have a community of altruists who use the definition of treating their needs equally to those of others, why would it matter how many of them there were?

John P. McCaskey, reply to Eric Gastfriend
For Comte’s views on this, see his Catechism, especially Conversations 10 and 11, on public and private life. He definitely says altruism means “live for others.” He often italicized the clause, and the actor is not included in “others.” Comte rejected “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” because he recognized these as selfish; the point of reference is still the self. Even the “instinct of nutrition,” Comte writes, must be curbed: “Eating is the most entirely personal of all our acts. When we exceed the amount required for our support, we are cultivating . . . egoism at the expense of altruism.”

I figure the number of utilitarians (not the number of altruists) matters because I assume an equal prorating of interests. In a community of two, the actor’s interest accounts for 50% of the community’s; in a community of 100, it accounts for 1%; in a community of 100,000, just 1/1000 of 1%. At some point, any individual actor’s interests are insignificant. But yes, if the utilitarian calculation does not use equal weighting—and, say, gives you Eric a majority share because of your superior intelligence—then yes, the size of the community might not matter to you.

I did mention that one could try a different definition of altruism. “Helping others” has been tried. But then altruism isn’t the opposite of selfishness, since so very many human interactions are win-win. They are selfish, and they help others.

Altruism would lead to either one of this type of man depending upon whether you sincerely follow it or you use this to enslave others and you remain to be the master: Li’l Abner comic strip, that went around seeking to be eaten by
somebody or Ellsworth Toohey, the villain in The Fountainhead.

I like it. Now if we could only get a few million people to read it. Maybe push it through their iphone on a text message.

John P. McCaskey, reply to trimmerman
Tell everyone you know!

Interesting. I haven’t seen the concept of altruism discussed in this way before. Thank you.

One thought on “Altruism Can’t Work

  • Jul 30, 2016 at 10:12 pm

    As a Christian Libertarian, my belief is that God wants you to make the personnel choice to obey him so that you can be happy and be like him. He also wants you to have personal tastes and abilities, and loves everyone infinitely and individually. And he communicates through personal revelation to all who seek it. I’m not expecting you to believe it, I’m just showing you it is not contradictory.


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