Sunday, February 03, 2008

Why Altruism is Prominent

Tibor R. Machan

The most popular ethical viewpoint clearly seems to be altruism. What does altruism amount to? As one philosopher, W. G. Maclagan, put it in an article in The Philosophical Quarterly several years ago, “‘Altruism’ [is] assuming a duty to relieve the distress and promote the happiness of our fellows....Altruism is to ... maintain quite simply that a man may and should discount altogether his own pleasure or happiness as such when he is deciding what course of action to pursue.” Altruism means selflessness, unselfishness, and self-sacrifice.

In most novels, movies, sermons, or political speeches, altruism is treated as virtually the same thing as morality or ethics. To be ethical is, as many who talk about ethics or depict ethical people, identical to being altruistic.

On the other hand, people are rarely altruistic in their daily lives. Sure, off and on they lend a hand to others, even to total strangers. This is usually in some emergency, when others are in dire straits or just could use a leg up. But in their normal doings most people concern themselves with getting ahead in their lives, with trying to benefit themselves and their intimates in their careers, family affairs, neighborhoods, and so forth. To all appearances people act more like moderate egoists; they are mostly focused on what will further their best interests. As they carry on at work, on the road, in the grocery store, and in the broader economy, most of them are not altruistic at all.

Does this mean there is a lot of hypocrisy afoot? Not necessarily. When most of us think about how other people should act, most of us quite naturally praise them when they do what helps us. We want others to be altruistic, naturally, since this promotes their care for us, or so it may appear.

Of course, most of us do not want others to meddle in our lives even as we praise them if they intend to help us out. But many also know that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, so it is also popular to insist that people take care of themselves and only help others when special needs arise.

What seems to mislead us into thinking that altruism is the dominant, even the correct, ethical position is that most discussions of how people should act concerns what they do in their interactions with others. And in these interactions what seems to matter most to whoever discusses ethics is what people do for other people.

Yet, as the late W. D. Falk, a philosopher from the University of North Carolina, pointed out in several of his writings on ethics, by focusing on how people talk about ethics we are mislead about what really concerns and guides them in their conduct. (See W. D. Falk, “Morality, self, and others,” eds. Hector-Neri Castaneda and George Nakhnikian, eds., Morality and the Language of Conduct, Wayne State University. 1963). Falk shows that while most of us voice views that are altruistic, we actually act much more egoistically, much more involved with how best to live our lives, to succeed as the people who we are.

Altruism is, so to speak, the more noisily championed moral stance. It is given a great deal of lip service and quite naturally because of what so many people often focus on when they discuss ethics with other people and in public forums, namely, on how others should act. But in their private and even social lives, where they have much greater influence and impact than elsewhere, most people are not altruists at all.

So there is a decisive and perhaps understandable disconnect between the ethics most people practice and the ethics they propound. As in most cases, such a disconnect between practice and theory is unhealthy. Unfortunately those who discuss morality and ethics professionally, namely, most philosophers and theologians, are fully complicit in perpetuating the disconnect. They promote altruism without making it clear that this could very well be a mistake, that a proper ethics for human beings does not require self-sacrifice, selflessness and so forth but a sensible focus on one’s own success in life as a human being.

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