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Are we altruistic?
Posted: 31 January 2010 11:40 AM   [ Ignore ]
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I’m relatively new here, so let me preface this with an apology if I’m kicking up old dirt. 

From what I understand, the objectivists (you know, the Randian ones) believe that we are in no way altruistic.  I would argue merely from the position of a father and husband that we are indeed altruistic.  Even a single person without children might push you out of the way of a falling brick, thereby putting themselves at risk to the benefit of a complete stranger.  Couldn’t other forms of species preservation be called altruistic?  Aren’t morals and ethics that are pervasive across cultures for the betterment of those around us (not stealing, trying to be truthful, sharing, etc.) altruistic in some way?

Any thoughts?

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Posted: 31 January 2010 03:07 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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I suppose the argument against altruism is that the most basic driving force is self-preservation or self-interest.  However, we serve our self interest more effectively, although not always as instantly, if we operate within and with a group.  The problem with discussions of this sort is that they can always be weasel-worded to fit the premise.  For example, our drive underlying self-preservation is maintenance of the species, so if we give our lives to protect our children or even some other person, it’s still self-interest because we are preserving the species. 

I think this is a dumb way of trying to fit concepts into our preconceived orientations.  They should just accept the common definition of altruism and go on to other topics.

Occam

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Posted: 31 January 2010 05:30 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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I think the Randian argument tends to stay closer to the individual. They’d say that so-called ‘self-sacrificing’ actions that are for the benefit of, say, your child or your spouse are not really self-sacrificing because you’re acting in the interest of something that matters immensely to you. Rand had a passage in one of her books that said something like, dying to save your spouse’s life (rather than have to live without them) is the most selfish act possible. I’m less clear how they answer the ‘complete stranger’ question ... at any rate they’d say the degree of risk you’d take for a stranger would be a lot lower than for family, close friends, etc. The goal would be self-interest, not species interest.

They don’t argue that no one does act altruisticly, though, do they? I thought they just argue that it’s wrong to do so. (Ethical egoism rather than psychological egoism)

I don’t doubt that people take altruistic actions, nor that people can come to believe that it is better to be altruistic. But are people, naturally or on the whole, altruistic? I don’t really have a sense of that ... I tend to be a bit suspicious of people’s motives. A lot of times, generous actions do have benefits in spite of their cost or risk to the actor.

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Posted: 31 January 2010 05:31 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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rcrase - 31 January 2010 11:40 AM

I’m relatively new here, so let me preface this with an apology if I’m kicking up old dirt. 

From what I understand, the objectivists (you know, the Randian ones) believe that we are in no way altruistic.  I would argue merely from the position of a father and husband that we are indeed altruistic.  Even a single person without children might push you out of the way of a falling brick, thereby putting themselves at risk to the benefit of a complete stranger.  Couldn’t other forms of species preservation be called altruistic?  Aren’t morals and ethics that are pervasive across cultures for the betterment of those around us (not stealing, trying to be truthful, sharing, etc.) altruistic in some way?

Any thoughts?

I think it is human nature to have certain degrees of altruism and selfishness within ourselves.  I think what is ridiculous is when someone says that if I want to keep my own money (or any fruit of my labor), I am being “selfish”, but yet, the people who want to take it, are not being selfish.  Also, if you have to coerce someone into doing for, or giving something to someone, then it isn’t altruism, it’s theft of something of value, something that belongs to another person.  I have an ultimate right to my body and the fruits of labor produced by my body, to be sold and/or bartered for, goods or services as I see fit.  You, nor the “government” (representing the “majority” or “common good”) have no claim against my body, my work, my fruits of labor, any more than you have a right to deny me suicide, or happiness, or the legal right to work, have an abortion, ingest drugs, or a host of other activities. 

Also note: 

When someone says “sacrifice”, someone else is there to receive the sacrifice.

When someone says “to serve” then someone is being “served”. 

When someone says “The people of the third world demand a better standard of living!”  Of whom do they make such a demand?  Me?  You?  Your children?

Altruism as defined by the religious right (most prominently) and the socially liberal, demands that a human being live for the sake of another.  In the case of the religious, it is for the sake of favor with a non-existent entity (that apparently cannot do it himself).  When the liberals demand “altruism” from those of us they describe as “selfish”, they make claims of the common good…as if that were a recognizable entity with any moral standing.  It isn’t, nor can it be defined uniformly. 

The ‘common good’ is most often described/defined by the majority (think South Carolina, 1861:  We vote you our slaves), or those with the guns.  More damage and murder (of the body and soul) have been done in the name of the “common good” than any other cause.  Show me a war where millions died, and I will show you a war where the antagonist said it was worthy for the common good and marched men off the cliff of disaster to prove his point.  Force is legitimate when used to defend against force (as in WW2).  Force when used to advance the “common good”, is most often against the defenseless who stand in the way of someone else’s belief system (Nazism, Fascism, Islam today). 

There is no supermajority as the common good that has any moral standing to make a claim upon the individual.  Each individual belongs to the smallest minority on the earth—a minority of one. 

If someone wants to participate in a collective,they are welcome to.  But if they choose not to, or any certain aspect (such as the draft, supporting the military, or welfare, etc) that is there right also.  Those things that people find have value, will be funded by those people.  Those wars that are believed to be ‘just’ will have volunteers. If something (like health care initiatives of late) are such a good deal, then why make it mandatory?  Or why fine someone for not participating?  We are told we must do something for the common good (altruism). 

But as we see here in the United States, we are constantly reminded that we must do something for the oft-described “poor”, or disadvantaged (which clearly is not even close to the poor of the rest of the world), who have no more of a legitimate claim to anything of yours, than I do, and if someone wants to give to them (as many do) they are welcome to do so, no one is stopping them.

There is no difference in a man who lays claim to 100 percent of the fruits of my labor, and one who lays claim to 1 percent of those fruits.  The only difference is in their current demand, not in their belief that I am indebted to another person, and that force can be used to extract that debt. 

Just my thoughts.  Flame on !

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Posted: 31 January 2010 06:32 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Arestelle - 31 January 2010 05:30 PM

They don’t argue that no one does act altruisticly, though, do they? I thought they just argue that it’s wrong to do so. (Ethical egoism rather than psychological egoism)

Great point Arestelle, I’ll have to look a bit deeper.

Occam, (please bear with me),  what do you mean by preconceived orientations?

UlsterScots, you lost me.

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Posted: 31 January 2010 06:52 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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rcrase - 31 January 2010 06:32 PM
Arestelle - 31 January 2010 05:30 PM

They don’t argue that no one does act altruisticly, though, do they? I thought they just argue that it’s wrong to do so. (Ethical egoism rather than psychological egoism)

Great point Arestelle, I’ll have to look a bit deeper.

Occam, (please bear with me),  what do you mean by preconceived orientations?

UlsterScots, you lost me.

 

I have no doubt of that smile

Altruism is a natural part of our personality—our make up, just as selfishness is, but it is no more virtuous than being selfish, it is less virtuous, because it demands that you, a man of your own, lie for the sake of another man.  A wife, a child, that is different.  One is a contract (wife), to which you owe a duty, the other was a choice to create a life (child), to which you owe a duty (at least thru childhood). 

Altruism would demand that you give to a child in Haiti from the resources you save for your own child…if you don’t, you are selfish.  Now, you can give if you choose to, but you are not wrong for not wanting to.  You are not being any more selfish in doing so (keeping the fruits of your labor) than the person making the demand (who did not earn the fruits of your labor).

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Posted: 31 January 2010 07:29 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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UlsterScots432 - 31 January 2010 06:52 PM
rcrase - 31 January 2010 06:32 PM
Arestelle - 31 January 2010 05:30 PM

 

I have no doubt of that smile

Altruism is a natural part of our personality—our make up, just as selfishness is, but it is no more virtuous than being selfish, it is less virtuous, because it demands that you, a man of your own, lie for the sake of another man.  A wife, a child, that is different.  One is a contract (wife), to which you owe a duty, the other was a choice to create a life (child), to which you owe a duty (at least thru childhood). 

Altruism would demand that you give to a child in Haiti from the resources you save for your own child…if you don’t, you are selfish.  Now, you can give if you choose to, but you are not wrong for not wanting to.  You are not being any more selfish in doing so (keeping the fruits of your labor) than the person making the demand (who did not earn the fruits of your labor).

Thank you.

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Posted: 31 January 2010 07:38 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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(Off-topic:) What’s going on with the quotes?

(On-topic:) There’s a website with tons of quotes from Rand’s books, if you’re interested in doing a little digging (and can read past the abrasive writing style). Looks like my memory exaggerated the husband/wife example - at least in the passage I was thinking of (from Virtue of Selfishness), Rand says spending a fortune to cure his wife is an action the husband takes for his own sake (and is right to do so), so it’s selfish rather than sacrifice. I think she’d agree with the way I put it above, though, if the husband would find life not worth living without his wife. Have to wonder if she’d consider that possible. Anywho…

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Posted: 31 January 2010 07:55 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Arestelle - 31 January 2010 07:38 PM

(Off-topic:) What’s going on with the quotes?

(On-topic:) There’s a website with tons of quotes from Rand’s books, if you’re interested in doing a little digging (and can read past the abrasive writing style). Looks like my memory exaggerated the husband/wife example - at least in the passage I was thinking of (from Virtue of Selfishness), Rand says spending a fortune to cure his wife is an action the husband takes for his own sake (and is right to do so), so it’s selfish rather than sacrifice. I think she’d agree with the way I put it above, though, if the husband would find life not worth living without his wife. Have to wonder if she’d consider that possible. Anywho…


Ya, not sure what’s up with the quotes.

Rand wasn’t right about everything, nor perfect in her own life (far from it).  I think the key principle of hers that I agree with, and most people live anyhow, is that there is nothing wrong with being “selfish”.  Most of the people that go around calling people selfish, are no less selfish themselves. 

Two parents were driving their child to an afternoon soccer game when she stared out the window and say a homeless man with a sign asking for money.  They were coming to the light and he clearly seemed to be in need.  The child was 11 and asked, “Dad, can you give him some money?”  The father, not believing that was worthy of his money, said, “no, but you can”.  She asked what she could do to help the man, who looked to be about 35, in relatively good shape and health.  Her mother suggested she could do some chores around the house (more than usual) and earn some money, based on an agreed upon wage.

Soon, she was working very hard to earn money, and hoping the homeless man would be there during the next soccer practice her parents were driving her to.  Sure enough, a week later, he was.  Her father paused at the red-light, she gave her dad the money and he handed the man $10.  The man muttered a thank you and turned to another car. 

The young girl did this for several weeks…asking her dad to show her how to mow the lawn (he said she was too young still), taking out extra trash, cleaning the basement bathroom…all so she could help the man.  With each bead of sweat she thought about him, and his needs.  Her mother even remarked:  “you sure are doing a lot for that homeless guy that you don’t know…but if it makes you feel good, then that’s good”.  The young girl bristled with pride, but felt a bit odd now, several weeks after working harder than ever to save just a few bucks, atop the money she wanted to save for herself. 

The following week as they approached the same redlight, the man stood there.  She pulled out a $10 bill and her father prepared to reach back and take the money to give to the stranger, who by now, recognized the family each time they approached. 

She hesitated, then told her dad to drive off…”He can clean someone’s bathroom, he can take out someone’s trash…he is old enough to mow lawns for goodness sake.”  She selfishly put the $10 bill back in her pocket and felt perfectly fine.

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Posted: 31 January 2010 09:05 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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UlsterScots432 - 31 January 2010 07:55 PM

Rand wasn’t right about everything, nor perfect in her own life (far from it).

I don’t know much about her as a person, but I agree with you on the first part. I don’t think she was wrong about everything, either; it’s too bad she didn’t seem to care if she came across as a cold, full-blown hedonist, because I think that’s part of why many people dismiss her writing outright.

I do appreciate her attention to the fact that, if you make a claim that someone has a positive right (like a right to decent shelter), you’re saying somebody else has a moral obligation to provide for that ‘right.’ Who’s supposed to pay, and why? Would someone be immoral who would be capable of earning six figures (and giving away all but a little of it), yet chooses for one or another reason a career that pays barely a living salary? Notions like that trouble me, and they don’t come up only in the demonized ‘altruism’ that Rand portrays (see consequentialism). But she exalts what she calls the ‘trader’ - someone who neither gives nor accepts the unearned - and apparently misses that there are things even her ideal ‘trader’ has that he cannot have earned (his intelligence, the background/family/society into which he was born,...) and cannot choose to decline. Do your best with the hand you were dealt, that’s fine; but you couldn’t have earned a stacked deck, whether it’s in your favor or against it.

Now this is getting off-topic…

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Posted: 01 February 2010 02:33 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Damn it, Ulster, learn how to use the quotation symbols.  When you hit the blue box, the entire post starts off with a bracketed quote and ends with a bracketed /quote.  Don’t start writing before that /quote.  If you have a problem with that, preview your reply and see if your contribution is outside the prior quotation.  If not, enter another bracketed /quote after the quotation and before your words.

“Preconceived orientations” - some people believe straight self-interest is basic to all humans.  Others believe that working together as a family, group or society is a basic human characteristic.  Whichever of those “orientations” one has, s/he will argue about the existence or non-existence of altruism within that rather than purely objectively.  that’s why I think such discussions are semantic lint picking and a waste of time.

Occam

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Posted: 01 February 2010 04:12 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Occam - 01 February 2010 02:33 PM

“Preconceived orientations” - some people believe straight self-interest is basic to all humans.  Others believe that working together as a family, group or society is a basic human characteristic.  Whichever of those “orientations” one has, s/he will argue about the existence or non-existence of altruism within that rather than purely objectively.  that’s why I think such discussions are semantic lint picking and a waste of time.

Occam

Thank you Occam, got it.

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Posted: 01 February 2010 04:32 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Arestelle - 31 January 2010 09:05 PM
UlsterScots432 - 31 January 2010 07:55 PM

Rand wasn’t right about everything, nor perfect in her own life (far from it).

I don’t know much about her as a person, but I agree with you on the first part. I don’t think she was wrong about everything, either; it’s too bad she didn’t seem to care if she came across as a cold, full-blown hedonist, because I think that’s part of why many people dismiss her writing outright.

I do appreciate her attention to the fact that, if you make a claim that someone has a positive right (like a right to decent shelter), you’re saying somebody else has a moral obligation to provide for that ‘right.’ Who’s supposed to pay, and why? Would someone be immoral who would be capable of earning six figures (and giving away all but a little of it), yet chooses for one or another reason a career that pays barely a living salary? Notions like that trouble me, and they don’t come up only in the demonized ‘altruism’ that Rand portrays (see consequentialism). But she exalts what she calls the ‘trader’ - someone who neither gives nor accepts the unearned - and apparently misses that there are things even her ideal ‘trader’ has that he cannot have earned (his intelligence, the background/family/society into which he was born,...) and cannot choose to decline. Do your best with the hand you were dealt, that’s fine; but you couldn’t have earned a stacked deck, whether it’s in your favor or against it.

Now this is getting off-topic…

Yes, she sounded a bit over the top, but very brilliant.  She definitely spread some new ideas never before written down, that I know of (some of them).  I think Atlas Shrugged has consistently rated by sales or impact, second to only the Bible (this was just noted on Stossel the other nite).

The problem I have with the background/family issue is, that’s how life is.  What are we supposed to do about it?  I think when people talk in the abstract about the “family and background” they tend to be thinking of Thurston Howell, wearing an argyle sweater, sipping a martini, going to Yale.  The reality is, many of us (myself and my wife included) are self-made, having come from what most consider “poor” and of course we are trying our best to transfer our wealth, education and knowledge to our children (we see that as our duty).  Did they “earn” that?  Not really, only by virtue of being my kids…some kids do something with it, some kids don’t (look at the rich hollywood kids).  But that’s part of life, and to see someone try to remedy that alleged “imbalance” thru altruistic acts, whether it be affirmative action, welfare, busing, special grants, etc…seems to defeat the purpose of setting goals for oneself and family.

An interesting debate, definitely.  I think one key that we can agree on in principle, is equality before the law, which protects people from outright acts of fraud, discrimination, etc.  But when you get into trying to settle up family difference, intelligence, etc, you really take away a lot of the natural incentive people have to achieve their best in life.

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Posted: 01 February 2010 07:23 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Well done, Ulster.  smile

Occam

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Posted: 02 February 2010 07:01 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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(On-topic:) There’s a website with tons of quotes from Rand’s books, if you’re interested in doing a little digging (and can read past the abrasive writing style).

Thanks for the link.  I gave it a look and I think I’ll find quite a few answers there.  I have no interest in trying to trudge through “Atlas Shrugged” or any of her other works merely to argue with my brother in law. wink  So the sight will serve me well.  I’ve done some more poking around here and there, and it seems any criticism of Ayn Rand is not taken well by the objectivists.  I have to say though, if I’m going to have to endure mind numbing conversations with my brother in law at family gatherings, which invariably I do, I would much rather it be about Ayn Rand and objectivism as opposed to Rush Limbaugh.  Yea, I have “one of those” brothers in law.

Thanks guys for the input, yet another example of why this forum is so likeable.  I know some of you don’t like being labeled “smart”, so I’ll spare you the patronizing, but I love the fact that no one is safe here.  In most threads I read, even like minded people demand reasonable explanations and call each other out when necessary.  I love it.  It’s teaching me how to communicate.

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Posted: 02 February 2010 01:13 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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UlsterScots432 - 01 February 2010 04:32 PM

The problem I have with the background/family issue is, that’s how life is.  What are we supposed to do about it?  I think when people talk in the abstract about the “family and background” they tend to be thinking of Thurston Howell, wearing an argyle sweater, sipping a martini, going to Yale.  The reality is, many of us (myself and my wife included) are self-made, having come from what most consider “poor” and of course we are trying our best to transfer our wealth, education and knowledge to our children (we see that as our duty).

I don’t know about people in general talking about family/background, but I was thinking of my dad buying my brothers and me Math Pentathlon and MindTrap rather than video games (we had those too, but we had to buy them ourselves), keeping an Encyclopaedia Britannica set in the living room, and bringing home copies of National Geographic when he was done with them at his office. He doesn’t wear argyle or sip martinis, the Ivy League was out of the question, and our family is lower-middle class. Money and social status are the least part of my point. They matter, but less so, I think.

I know “that’s how life is” - some families will encourage a person to use her brain, others will discourage it, some are born with high IQ, some with low, and it’s basically luck (from your perspective) which you get - but that’s my point. There are advantages that some people get without earning them and with no way to refuse them. I just wonder if there isn’t some responsibility to “pay back” such advantages in some way, to earn them in retrospect, since they can’t be earned in advance. That’s if the ‘trader’ is the moral ideal. But I also don’t really know what that would look like.

But that’s part of life, and to see someone try to remedy that alleged “imbalance” thru altruistic acts, whether it be affirmative action, welfare, busing, special grants, etc…seems to defeat the purpose of setting goals for oneself and family.

I’m not suggesting policy. I’m asking about possible moral responsibility. Not rules. Not law. Not enforcement. Why would that disincentivize making goals for oneself? I haven’t even speculated about the kinds of actions that would satisfy such a responsibility.

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