Rebirth of Reason


Altruist Guilt
by Francois Tremblay

Altruism is considered a noble, humane alternative to egoism, which is perceived as a necessary evil at best. Yet Objectivists propose the exact contrary: that egoism is the only life-affirming ethical viewpoint, and that altruism is an unnecessary evil, a mindset held by people who are too ignorant to know better.

With a firm understanding of Objectivism, one of the insights that we gain about false ideologies is that they are impossible to follow consistently - and even if you don't go to extremes, reality will sometimes catch up with you. This is really a derivate of the fact that we deduce optimal patterns of thinking and action - if Objectivism is an optimal path, then necessarily any other alternative is non-optimal.

Take the primacy of consciousness. Is it possible to hold this premise consistently? Well, no. No one would throw himself off a tenth floor because he thinks he can will himself to fly, except perhaps a mentally ill fan of Superman. Trying to escape from reality through drugs, religion or Amway will tend not to be very good either.

Altruist ethical systems are no exception to this rule. There are many absurd and obviously false situations which can arise from them. I propose that a consequence of this absurdity is a profound sense of guilt.

My favourite, for its sheer extremeness, is what I call the Organ Harvesting Paradox (OHP). The OHP is a situation where you are faced with the possible choice of having yourself killed, so that your organs can be used to save the lives of a number of individuals. This is of course a hypothetical construct, but we may imagine very well a situation where we are sure that OHP obtains.

In such a case, what would be the best action ? To an Objectivist, it is not possible that OHP is positive. In fact, it is not possible for any finite positive result to justify the OHP, because the value of volitional life in Objectivist ethics is infinite. Given an ethical profit P, the equation is simple:

|(-infinity)| > |P|, for all finite values of P.

To a utilitarian, however, the equation is different, since it takes into account the net gain of others:

|(-infinity)| < |(infinity + infinity +infinity +infinity...)|

Rule utilitarianism does not solve this problem, since it does not change the desirable result, only its application. The optimal course of action in rule utilitarianism as regards to OHP would depend on whenever it is "better" for the organ harvesting to be spread out (thus leaving many people without an organ, but with few deaths), or to kill a small number of people.

The inevitable result is that it is better, for a utilitarian, to choose sacrifice rather than life. Yet no utilitarian acts on this fact. In academic ethics this is a big paradox only because the result is unacceptable. The only viable solution is to modify utilitarianism to become more objective, in which case it is no longer useful as a separate idea.

It is possible to fiddle with altruist systems in order to cut the Gordian knot of this paradox. Religions are more robust than academic systems and thus tend to have more pragmatic safeguards. For example, most religions tend to forbid suicide and murder, at least in words (not always in deed). But the consequence is that such a solution to all possible paradoxes looks more like someone to fill holes with ad hoc excuses than real thinking. In the end, such a piecemeal leak-plugging attitude is not consistent, and only heightens the dependence of the believer's mind on doctrine for all situations of life.

How does this all relate to guilt, you ask? Good question. It is impossible to live completely on sacrifice and duty, unless one is completely psychotic. Furthermore, there seems to be another paradox involved, in that altruist believers tend to act in self-gratification more than most, while claiming the most self-righteousness. For example, statistics indicate that Christians are more likely to take drugs and participate in hate crimes, and born-agains are more likely to drive intoxicated or have illicit sex (for more statistics about religion and morality , read my article Religion's Devils).

Likewise, many people would praise the kind of sacrifice proposed by OHP, and promote it. An example of this is the ending of the movie "Jesus of Montreal", where "Jesus" dies in a fit of religious fervour and his organs are harvested to save lives. Yet no one would ever do such a thing: it is an action so absurd and twisted that we can only imagine a messiah doing it.

My hypothesis is that the cognitive dissonance forced by the impossibility of altruism forces a defense mechanism of projecting the responsibility of duty on others, while using a superficial form of self-righteousness to reject it for oneself. I will admit readily that this is little more than vile psychological analysis based on my observations, nothing more, but it seems to explain some phenomena.

We observe many examples of this projection in politics. One example is "voluntarism", a terminally stupid term used in politics to designate forcing people to do charity in the name of moral duty. This forced charity is hypocrite by its very nature. If the lawmaker saw charity as a positive action, he would not find the need to enforce it upon other people.

Thus, instead of the traditional progression from ethics to politics, duty-based ethics has come down to us by way of collectivism.

And the people who promote this kind of corrupt lawmaking, such as politicians or public figures, are naturally impervious to these laws, and never obey them themselves. Thus we are treated to the curious and twistedly dishonest spectacle of gun control advocates hiring armed bodyguards, and anti-vouchers politicians sending their children to private schools.

The root principle behind this is that people expect the government to control everyone else, but in the manner *they* want. But politics does not work this way, and you seldom get what you want. Furthermore, since everything is interrelated, one is likely to get affected from any measure. For example, minimum wage laws affect not only employers, but also people living in poverty. The latter are the ones most likely to be affected by the lower demand inherent to floor prices, and see more unemployment, a result which is confirmed statistically.

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