This article is from The Objective Standard, Vol. 4, No. 3.
The proper purpose of government, wrote Thomas Jefferson, is to “guarantee to everyone the free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it.”1 The government “shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government.”2
In accordance with this view of the purpose of government, the founders established a republic in which the government was constitutionally limited to the protection of individual rights—the rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. In this new republic, men were free to think, to produce, and to trade in accordance with their own best judgment; thus, they were free to thrive in accordance with their intelligence, their ability, their initiative. The result was astounding.
Nineteenth-century America was a land of unparalleled innovation and prosperity—and further political achievement. In addition to countless inventions that sprang up—including the steamboat, the cotton gin, vulcanized rubber, the telephone, the incandescent light, the electric power plant, the skyscraper, and the safety elevator—and in addition to the vital industries that arose or were revolutionized—such as the railroad, oil, and steel industries—19th-century America witnessed the end of slavery, which was recognized as a violation of the basic principle of the land.
Between the end of the Civil War and the turn of the century, America came as close to being a fully rights-respecting society as any country has ever come. Men were essentially free to live their own lives, by their own judgment, for their own sake.
Unfortunately, although the Land of Liberty was a great success, it would not and could not last.
The founders established America on the principle of individual rights, but neither they nor the thinkers who followed them identified the deeper philosophic foundation on which this principle depends, namely, the morality of egoism—the idea that being moral consists in pursuing the values on which one’s life and happiness depend. In the absence of this foundation, Americans have embraced philosophical ideas that are contrary to individual rights.
Over the past century, Americans have increasingly accepted the morality of altruism—the notion that being moral consists in self-sacrificially serving others—and they have increasingly applied this morality to the realm of politics. Consequently, our government is no longer committed to “restrain men from injuring one another [and] leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement.” Rather, our government regularly—and increasingly—“take[s] from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned” and redistributes that bread to those who have not earned it.
Consider just a few of the countless altruistically motivated, wealth-redistributing laws and institutions that have been enacted or established over the past hundred years: The Federal Reserve violates the rights of Americans by (among other things) printing fiat money—thus debasing citizens’ savings—in order to finance welfare programs, bail out failed banks, “rescue” bankrupt car companies, and the like. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) violates the rights of taxpayers by forcing them to insure the bank deposits of strangers. Social Security violates the rights of younger Americans by forcing them to fund the retirements of older Americans. The National Labor Relations Act (aka the Wagner Act) violates the rights of automakers (and other businessmen) by forcing them to “contract” with labor unions on terms that are detrimental to their businesses. Medicare and Medicaid violate the rights of taxpaying Americans by forcing them to fund the health care of the aged and the (allegedly) destitute. The Community Reinvestment Act violates the rights of bankers by forcing them to provide loans to people whom they regard as too risky for business. The Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) violates the rights of taxpayers by forcing them to purchase bad debt from failing financial institutions. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) violates the rights of Americans by expanding the extent to which they are forced to fund welfare programs, unemployment benefits, government-run education, and the health care of others. Of course, federal, state, and municipal governments violate Americans’ rights in thousands of other ways as well, but the foregoing indicates the enormity of the problem.
The explicit “justification” for all such rights-violating laws and institutions—the principle behind all of them—is altruism: the notion that we have a moral duty to serve others, whether “the poor” or “the public interest” or “society” or “the common good.” As Theodore Roosevelt put it, the government must “regulate the use of wealth in the public interest” and “regulate the terms and conditions of labor, which is the chief element of wealth, directly in the interest of the common good”;3 or as Franklin D. Roosevelt put it, the government must seek “the greater good of the greater number of Americans”;4 or as John F. Kennedy put it, the individual must “weigh his rights and comforts against his obligations to the common good”;5 or as Bill Clinton put it, the individual must “give something back” on behalf of “the common good”;6 or as George W. Bush put it, we must “seek a common good beyond our comfort”; or as Barack Obama puts it, we must heed the “call to sacrifice” and uphold our “core ethical and moral obligation” to “look out for one another” and to “be unified in service to a greater good.”7
A government animated by this principle will increasingly force citizens to serve the so-called “common good”—and with each political success, the government will get bolder and more aggressive in its enforcement of this principle. This is why the U.S. government has graduated over decades from the mere redistribution of wealth via taxation and inflation . . . to the establishment of wealth-redistributing institutions and hubs such as Social Security, Medicare, and TARP . . . to the outright nationalization of businesses, such as American International Group (AIG), General Motors (GM), and Citigroup . . . and to the nullification of private contracts that stand in its way (e.g., employment contracts in the case of AIG bonuses, investment contracts in the case of Chrysler’s senior-secured creditors).
Under such expanding government control, explains an article in the New York Times:
Businesses and private property . . . become not an instrument of private “egoism” but “functions of the people.” They remain private wherever and so long as they fulfill their “functions.” Wherever and whenever they fall down, the State steps in and either forces them to fulfill the functions or takes them over entirely.8
That description of what we have witnessed recently, however, was not written recently; it was written in 1938. Nor was the author describing conditions in the United States; he was describing conditions in Germany under the then-burgeoning National Socialist Party.
The basic economic principle of National Socialism—which was a mixture of socialism and fascism—is that the government must control all property. Under socialism, the government openly claims ownership of all property; under fascism, the government grants nominal ownership to individuals and businesses but retains control of all property; and under a hybrid of these statist systems, the government does some of each. “I will now explain my social programme,” said Adolf Hitler in 1931. “That programme demands the nationalisation of all public companies, in other words, socialisation or what is known here as socialism.”
It does not mean that all these concerns must necessarily be socialised, merely that they can be socialised if they transgress against the interests of the nation. So long as they do not do that, it would, of course, be criminal to upset the economy. . . . I want everyone to keep what he has earned subject to the principle that the good of the community takes priority over that of the individual. But the State should retain control; every owner should feel himself to be an agent of the State; it is his duty not to misuse his possessions to the detriment of the State or the interests of his fellow-countrymen. That is the overriding point. The [State] will always retain the right to control property owners. . . . For us the supreme law of the constitution is: whatever serves the vital interests of the nation is legal.9
The parallels between National Socialism and American politics today are a consequence of the identical morality underlying each. “The common interests before self-interest,” insisted Hitler.10
This state of mind, which subordinates the interests of the ego to the conservation of the community, is really the first premise for every truly human culture. . . . The basic attitude from which such activity arises, we call—to distinguish it from egoism and selfishness—idealism. By this we understand only the individual’s capacity to make sacrifices for the community, for his fellow men.11
The call to sacrifice is not unique to National Socialism; it is part and parcel of every statist regime in history: Benito Mussolini urged Italians to embrace “a life in which the individual, through the denial of himself, through the sacrifice of his own private interests . . . realizes that completely spiritual existence in which his value as a man lies.”12 Under fascism, explained Mussolini’s minister of justice, the State is
an organism distinct from the citizens who at any given time compose it, and has its own life and its ends higher than those of individuals, to which those of individuals must be subordinated. . . . For Fascism, society is the end, individuals the means, and its whole life consists in using individuals as instruments for its social ends.13
Under communism or socialism, said Karl Marx, the principle is: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”14 And under the burgeoning American hybrid of socialism and fascism, the principle is, as Obama puts it, that Americans must heed the “call to sacrifice”; we “need to think in terms of ‘thou’ and not just ‘I’”;15 we must “reaffirm that fundamental belief—I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper—that makes us one people, and one nation.”16
The correlation between the morality of sacrifice and the violation of rights is no accident. It is a causal relationship. To see why, we must zero in on the little-understood essence of altruism.
Altruism is not about moral obligation as such; it is about a specific kind of moral obligation. Altruism does not call for a person to serve others if he has made an agreement or a commitment to do so—as in the case of a doctor who contracts to provide a patient with medical care in exchange for payment, or an employer who contracts to pay an employee in exchange for his work. Such obligations are chosen obligations, obligations stemming from mutually beneficial agreements, agreements in which both parties gain a life-serving value. Altruism is not about chosen obligations. It is about “unchosen” obligations or “duties.”
As the altruist philosopher John Rawls explains, whereas regular obligations “arise as a result of our voluntary acts,” duties “apply to us without regard to our voluntary acts.” We have a duty “to help another, whether or not we have committed ourselves to [doing so]. It is no defense or excuse to say that we have made no promise . . . to come to another’s aid.”17
A “duty” is non-optional; it is something you must do regardless of what you want, regardless of what you think is in your interest, regardless of what you would choose to do if you had a choice in the matter. In the words of the foremost advocate of this idea, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, “duty is a necessitation to an unwillingly adopted end,” and its “specific mark” is “the renunciation of all interest.”18
Altruism is the morality of “unchosen” obligations—obligations you must honor regardless of your values, desires, interests. This fact points to why altruism not only calls for self-sacrifice but also necessitates the initiation of physical force. British philosopher John Stuart Mill explains:
It is a part of the notion of duty in every one of its forms that a person may rightfully be compelled to fulfill it. Duty is a thing which may be exacted from a person, as one exacts a debt. Unless we think that it may be exacted from him, we do not call it his duty. . . . There are other things, on the contrary, which we wish that people should do, which we like or admire them for doing, perhaps dislike or despise them for not doing, but yet admit that they are not bound to do. . . .19
Observe what this means in regard to the relationship of “duties” and rights. Whereas a “duty” is an (alleged) obligation that one has apart from one’s choices or interests and that one “may rightfully be compelled to fulfill,” a right is a prerogative to act in accordance with one’s choices and interests so long as one does not violate the same rights of others. In other words, “duties” and rights are utterly incompatible. They are mutually exclusive. A person can have one or the other—but not both.
The French philosopher Auguste Comte (who coined the term “altruism”) puts this clearly: Because “to live for others” is “for all of us a constant duty” and “the definitive formula of human morality,” it follows that “[a]ll honest and sensible men, of whatever party, should agree, by a common consent, to eliminate the doctrine of rights.” Altruism, explained Comte, “cannot tolerate the notion of rights, for such notion rests on individualism.” On the premise of altruism, “[rights] are as absurd as they are immoral. . . . The whole notion, then, must be completely put away.”20
The morality of altruism is incompatible with the principle of rights, and the theoreticians of altruism are clear on this point. In order to “completely put away” the concept of rights in America, however, the pushers of altruism will have to convince Americans to abandon their love of liberty—which is easier said than done.
Historically, Americans have been profoundly attached to liberty. Their country, after all, was founded on the right to liberty. They have even called their country the “Land of Liberty.” Putting away this principle will require persuading Americans to accept altruism fully, consistently, as a matter of principle. How do the opponents of rights propose to accomplish this goal? By taking their cue from John Stuart Mill, who explained precisely how to do it. “[T]he direct cultivation of altruism, and the subordination of egoism to it,” wrote Mill, “should be one of the chief aims of education, both individual and collective.”
Nor can any pains taken be too great, to form the habit, and develop the desire, of being useful to others and to the world . . . independently of reward and of every personal consideration. . . . [E]very person who lives by any useful work, should be habituated to regard himself not as an individual working for his private benefit, but as a public functionary; and his wages, of whatever sort, not as the remuneration or purchase-money of his labour, which should be given freely, but as the provision made by society to enable him to carry it on. . . .21
American intellectuals and politicians have taken Mill’s advice. Over the past century, intellectuals have advocated altruism and condemned egoism at every turn. They have sought to habituate Americans to regard themselves not as individuals but as public functionaries. They have tried to sap the American spirit of individualism and to instill the altruistic spirit of collectivism. And they have done so to great effect. The American philosopher John Dewey, for instance, called for “saturating [students] with the spirit of service” and making “each one of our schools an embryonic community life, active with the types of occupations that reflect the life of the larger society.”22 To those who contend that schools should instead teach children the facts of history, science, literature, and the like, Dewey replied: “The mere absorbing of facts and truths is so exclusively individual an affair that it tends very naturally to pass into selfishness. There is no obvious social motive for the acquirement of mere learning, there is no clear social gain in success thereat.”23
Dewey’s philosophy launched the “progressive education” movement, which has dominated American schools and saturated students with the spirit of service for almost a century. Given the wild success of this movement, is it any wonder that so many Americans today accept the propriety of sacrificial service to the community as an unquestionable absolute?
And while Dewey and company have focused on “educating” students for sacrificial service, other intellectuals—led by the American philosopher William James—have focused directly on forcing youth to do their “duty.”
James called for “a conscription of the whole youthful population,” which he appropriately called a “blood tax.”24 Contemporary political theorist Benjamin R. Barber advocates “a national service program, universal and mandatory.”25 And sociologist Charles Moskos explains that “[a]ny effective national service program will necessarily require coercion,”26 and he rebuffs those who “de-emphasize the role of the citizen duties in favor of a highly individualistic rights-based ethic.”27 We should, he says, “extend the concept of national youth service to include quasi-military civilian services . . . cast in terms of civic duty.”28
Such educational and political efforts have given rise to an increasingly pliable citizenry, a steady stream of service-oriented legislation, and the establishment of numerous altruistically motivated institutions, from the Peace Corps, to Volunteers in Service to America (aka AmeriCorps), to Learn and Serve America, to the Corporation for National and Community Service, to the President’s Council on Service and Civic Participation, to the recent efforts by Congress and the Obama administration—which, if successful, will eclipse all preceding efforts combined.
The purpose of the $5.7 billion Serve America Act, recently passed by Congress and signed into law by Obama, is “to integrate service into education,” to encourage “many more Americans to give a year” of their lives, and to “increase service early in life” because “service early in life will put more and more youth on a path to a lifetime of service.”29 One advocate of the law hails it as the “quantum leap in community service that we’ve all been looking for.”30 Another exclaims: “The stars are aligned for national service.”31
It seems that they are.
Following the lead of the state of Maryland—which, in 1993, became the first state in America to require community service as a condition of high school graduation—hundreds of school districts across America have established similar policies. And, today, pressure is growing not only for all students to be required to serve, but for everyone in general to be required to serve.
The Congressional Commission on Civic Service Act, a bill introduced on March 11, 2009, reads, in part: “The social fabric of the United States is stronger if individuals in the United States are committed to protecting and serving our Nation by utilizing national service and volunteerism.” The goal of this bill is, in part, to “improve the ability of individuals in the United States to serve others”; and, in part, to identify the “issues that deter volunteerism and national service, particularly among young people, and how the identified issues can be overcome.” Toward these ends, the bill calls for Congress to consider “[w]hether a workable, fair, and reasonable mandatory service requirement for all able young people could be developed,” and “[t]he effect on the Nation, on those who serve, and on the families of those who serve, if all individuals in the United States were expected to perform national service or were required to perform a certain amount of national service.”32
Such is the state of the Land of Liberty today: The government is passing and enforcing an ever-increasing number of laws and regulations that violate our rights. It is nationalizing private corporations and nullifying private contracts. It is mandating community service for students and investigating the possibility of mandatory service for everyone. And—as if the foregoing were not enough to cause alarm—the government is now asking Americans to inform on fellow citizens who oppose the government’s statist measures.
On August 4, 2009, the following request was posted to the blog of the White House Briefing Room:
There is a lot of disinformation about health insurance reform out there, spanning from control of personal finances to end of life care. These rumors often travel just below the surface via chain emails or through casual conversation. Since we can’t keep track of all of them here at the White House, we’re asking for your help. If you get an email or see something on the web about health insurance reform that seems fishy, send it to [email protected]33
In light of all the evidence above—which barely scratches the surface of the mounting government power over the lives of Americans—the unavoidable conclusion is that the Land of Liberty is slipping down the slope to tyranny. The fundamental cause of this slide—the basic reason it is happening—is the widespread and increasing acceptance of the morality of altruism.
By accepting the morality of altruism, Americans accept the notion that they have a “duty” to serve “the common good”; and by accepting this “duty,” they thereby reject the basic principle of America: individual rights. The two are mutually exclusive. It is altruism or America. Indeed, it is altruism vs. America. And altruism is winning.
If Americans want to reverse this trend, they will have to challenge the creed of sacrifice at its root, which will require intellectual independence and substantial courage because the philosophic root of altruism is: religion.
Although attempts have been made to defend altruism on secular grounds (and we will address them shortly), the primary source of the notion that sacrifice is good is the Bible. Both the Old and New Testaments are riddled with calls for sacrifice. In the Old Testament, for example, God (through Moses) says, “I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land”;34 and God (through Isaiah) warns, “Woe unto those who . . . turn aside the needy.”35 And in the New Testament, Jesus says, “Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you . . . do not demand it back”; “Sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor”; “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”36 The Bible contains scores of commandments demanding the redistribution of wealth and property from those who created it to those who did not.
Perhaps the most illuminating story on this count is that of Ananias and Sapphira. As told in Acts 4–5, a group of believers addressed God: “Grant to Your servants that with all boldness they may speak Your word . . . and that signs and wonders may be done through the name of Your holy Servant Jesus.” The believers then proceeded to pray, and when they were through,
the place where they were assembled together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the word of God with boldness.
Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common. And with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And great grace was upon them all. Nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles’ feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need. . . .
But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession. And he kept back part of the proceeds, his wife also being aware of it, and brought a certain part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself? While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control? Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.”
Then Ananias, hearing these words, fell down and breathed his last. So great fear came upon all those who heard these things. And the young men arose and wrapped him up, carried him out, and buried him.
Now it was about three hours later when his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. And Peter [said to] her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much?” She said, “Yes, for so much.”
Then Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” Then immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. And the young men came in and found her dead, and carrying her out, buried her by her husband. So great fear came upon all the church and upon all who heard these things.37
The moral of this story (and of countless other stories in the Bible) is that we have a divinely ordained “duty”—an “unchosen obligation”—to serve “the common good”; we must sacrifice for our brothers, our neighbors, the “needy,” the “poor,” the “community.” Although Karl Marx famously said “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” he did not originate this creed; nor did any of his communist predecessors. This principle is rooted in religion. Its origin is the Bible.
As theologian Nels Ferre explains, according to the Bible, “All property is God’s for the common good. It belongs, therefore, first of all to God and then equally to society and the individual. When the individual has what the society needs and can profitably use, it is not his, but belongs to society, by divine right.”38 Saint Thomas Aquinas writes that “men should not treat things as exclusively theirs but use them for the good of all, ready to share them with those in need.”39 And theologian Charles Lincoln Taylor Jr. explains that biblical “codes of law forbid selfishness. . . . No man is to arrogate to himself that which should contribute to the honor and welfare of his neighbor.”40
Given the clearly altruistic-socialistic nature of the Bible, it should come as no surprise that during his presidential campaign Senator Obama made clear that his statist agenda was biblically grounded. He frequently preached that we must “reaffirm that fundamental belief—I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper.” He mocked the religious right for its hypocrisy in advocating both biblical ethics and property rights: “The Christian Coalition determined that its number one legislative priority was tax cuts for the rich. I don’t know what Bible they’re reading, but it doesn’t jibe with my version.”41 He made clear that his version of the Bible would accompany him to the White House: “My faith teaches me that I can sit in church and pray all I want, but I won’t be fulfilling God’s will unless I go out and do the Lord’s work.”42 He said we should “spread the wealth around” because “it’s good for everybody.”43 He said, “I can be an instrument of God” and “we can create a Kingdom right here on Earth.”44 And, preempting the charge that his plans would breach the wall between church and state, Obama said forthrightly, “Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square”45—“Our values should express themselves not just through our churches or synagogues, temples or mosques; they should express themselves through our government.”46
Since Obama has been in office, he has striven to uphold that biblical mandate and to express religious values through our government. Not only has he pushed for a government-run health-care system by reminding Americans of the “core ethical and moral obligation . . . that we look out for one another” and admonishing, “In the wealthiest nation on earth, we are neglecting to live up to that call.”47 He has also sought to institutionalize the religious virtue of self-sacrifice under the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships—the purpose of which is, in Obama’s own words, to see to it that Americans “give something of ourselves for the benefit of others” and “promote a greater good.” “This is not only our call as people of faith, but our duty as citizens of America. . . . For it is only through common struggle and common effort, as brothers and sisters, that we fulfill our highest purpose as beloved children of God.”48
As part of this effort, Obama has established a “Faith Advisory Council” consisting of twenty-five religious leaders who “will formulate proposals for achieving the office’s policy goals.” Jim Wallis, who sits on the Council, explains, “This administration has taken it to a different level in terms of real input from the faith community on policy.” Jim Towey, who directed George W. Bush’s faith-based office, exclaimed, “We would have gotten killed for doing that.”49
Why can the religious left get away with such blatant violations of the separation of church and state while the religious right cannot (yet) do so? The answer is instructive: The primary aspect of religion that the left seeks to blend with government is the aspect of religion that no one—neither religious nor secular, neither right nor left—is willing to challenge: the ethics of altruism, the creed of sacrifice.
Given what the Bible actually says and calls for—given the undeniable fact that religion demands altruism—how can anyone who embraces religion possibly argue against the moral validity of expressing altruism through government? What, according to religion, is more sacred, more important, more binding: the politics of individual rights or the ethics of self-sacrifice; the U.S. Constitution or biblical scripture; the words of James Madison or those of God?
In order to steer America back in the direction of liberty, Americans must challenge the religious call to sacrifice. And to do so, they must understand just how empty the religious argument for sacrifice is.
Why, according to religion, should people sacrifice themselves for others? What reason is there to do so? Unsurprisingly, given that religion is anchored not in reason but in faith, religion provides no reason as to why people should sacrifice. As Rabbi Abraham Heschel explains:
The force that inspires readiness for self-sacrifice, the thoughts that breed humility within and behind the mind, are not identical with the logician’s craftsmanship. . . . Nobody can explain rationally why he should sacrifice his life and happiness. . . . The conviction that we must obey [sacrificial] imperatives is not derived from logical arguments. It originates in an intuitive certitude, in a certitude of faith.50
This answer, of course, raises the follow-up question: Why should one accept an idea on faith? What reason is there to do so? To which Heschel answers, “Reason is not the measure of all things, not the all-controlling power in the life of man, not the father of all assertions.”51 Thomas Aquinas answers this way: “[One] ought to believe matters of faith, not because of human reasoning, but because of the divine authority.” And if one deigns to ask why one should accept divine authority—or why one should accept even the existence of a “divine being”—Aquinas answers, “[I]n order that men might have knowledge of God, free of doubt and uncertainty, it was necessary for divine truths to be delivered to them by way of faith, being told to them, as it were, by God Himself who cannot lie.”52
Here, in a nutshell, is the religious argument for why people should sacrifice: God exists and He wants you to sacrifice. Although there is no reason to accept this idea, you should accept it on faith; in so doing, you can be sure that the propriety of sacrifice is true because such an idea accepted on faith is actually delivered by God, who always tells the truth.
That is not a valid argument.
Let us now turn to the “secular” arguments for sacrifice.
Whereas religionists contend that we should sacrifice because God said so, secular advocates of altruism claim to derive the propriety of sacrifice by means of reason. The most celebrated and “rigorous” secular advocate of sacrifice is Immanuel Kant.53
Kant argued that man should sacrifice because nature, by giving man reason and free will, enabled man to act against his own interests. If nature had wanted man to pursue his interests and be happy, said Kant, she would not have given him reason and will; she would have given him only “instinct” through which he would automatically act in a manner that is conducive to his preservation and happiness. But nature gave man reason and will, which enable him to act against his interests; thus, nature must have intended for man to act against his interests. As Kant put it,
[I]n a being that has reason and will, if the proper end of nature were its preservation, its welfare, in a word its happiness, then nature would have hit upon a very bad arrangement in selecting the reason of the creature to carry out this purpose. For all the actions that the creature has to perform for this purpose, and the whole rule of its conduct, would be marked out for it far more accurately by instinct. . . . [If the proper end of nature were man’s happiness], Nature would have taken upon itself the choice not only of ends, but also of means and, with wise foresight, would have entrusted them both simply to instinct.54
That is the heart of Kant’s allegedly secular argument for the virtue of sacrifice. I say allegedly secular, because Kant’s argument is not secular; it entails an implicit appeal to God. The idea here is that “nature” has an intentional goal (i.e., “purpose”), and that nature gave man reason and free will so that he could use these capacities in the way in which nature intended. This is nothing more than a thinly veiled version of the traditional religious claim that God has a grand plan and gave man free will so that he could sacrifice according to God’s wishes. Although Kant claims to be making a rational, secular argument for the morality of sacrifice, he actually presents the age-old religious claim that we should sacrifice because God wants us to sacrifice. He merely replaces “God” with “nature” and God’s “plan” with nature’s “purpose.”55
If that implicit appeal to God is not clear enough, Kant makes up for it elsewhere with his explicit appeals not only to God but also to an afterlife in which God rewards man for sacrificing in this life.
Kant was well aware that the morality of sacrifice leads to misery on earth. As he put it, “[T]he moral law [i.e., the requirement of self-sacrifice] as a ground of determination of the will, by thwarting all our inclinations, must produce a feeling which can be called pain.”56 He also knew that in order for people willingly to inflict pain upon themselves consistently—as a matter of principle—they need to believe that they will somehow be compensated for their lifetime of suffering. It follows, said Kant, that “it is morally necessary to assume the existence of God” and an afterlife.57 “God and a future life are two postulates which . . . are inseparable from the obligation [to sacrifice]”—because if one upholds the principle of sacrifice in this life, then happiness can be seen as possible only in another life, “under a wise Author and Ruler.”
Such a Ruler, together with life in such a world, which we must regard as a future world, reason finds itself constrained to assume; otherwise it would have to regard the moral laws [i.e., imperatives to sacrifice] as empty fragments of the brain, since without this postulate the necessary consequence which it itself connects with these laws could not follow. Hence also everyone regards the moral laws as commands; and this the moral laws could not be if they did not connect . . . suitable consequences with their rules, and thus carry with them promises and threats. But this again they could not do, if they did not reside in a necessary being [i.e., God], as the supreme good, which alone can make such a purposive unity possible.58
This is the traditional religious argument for the self-interested nature of self-sacrifice. “Self-sacrifice will lead to happiness,” the argument goes, “not on Earth but in the next life, where God dispenses justice to those who obey the moral imperative to sacrifice.” So say the priests—and so said Kant.
As to the fundamental problem facing all such claims—namely, the fact that there is no evidence for the existence of God (let alone divine imperatives)—this, says Kant, is not a problem but a blessing. Lack of evidence for the existence of God does not invalidate the morality of self-sacrifice but rather bolsters it:
Our faith is not scientific knowledge, and thank heaven it is not! For God’s wisdom is apparent in the very fact that we do not know that God exists, but should believe that God exists. [If we could] attain . . . scientific knowledge of God’s existence, through our experience or in some other way . . . our morality [of sacrifice] would break down. . . . [Our] hope for reward and fear of punishment [i.e., selfish motives] would take the place of moral [i.e., selfless] motives. Man would be virtuous out of [selfish] impulses.59
Although Kant claimed to have proven the propriety of self-sacrifice on secular grounds, he did no such thing. Kant’s arguments—along with all those that piggyback his arguments—presuppose and depend on the existence of a supernatural being: a being for whose existence there is no evidence.
Apparently sensing the specious nature of his arguments for sacrifice, Kant put forth another “argument”—this one designed to shame people out of denying the “moral faith” on which all his earlier arguments rest: Anyone who denies this “moral faith,” said Kant, “would have to be a scoundrel.”60
There you have it. The greatest, most revered “secular” argument ever offered for the propriety of self-sacrifice boils down to this: If you do not accept the creed of sacrifice, you are a scoundrel.
There is no valid argument in support of the notion that people should sacrifice for others—which is why no one has ever offered such an argument. There is no evidence in support of the creed of sacrifice—there is no logic behind altruism—and the professional advocates of this creed are well aware of this fact. It is high time for Americans to discover it.
Altruism is killing America. We who want to save America must repudiate this killer, root and branch. We must understand and explain to others that the acceptance of altruism necessitates the violation of individual rights, which is why Americans are increasingly supporting rights-violating policies, institutions, and politicians. And we must understand and explain to others that the arguments for altruism are baseless, which is why the pushers of altruism must appeal to a supernatural being and attempt to intimidate those who challenge their creed.
On the positive side, we must embrace and advocate a rational, life-sustaining, rights-supporting, and thus pro-America morality: rational egoism—the morality defined and developed by the American philosopher Ayn Rand. According to rational egoism, being moral consists not in sacrificing oneself for others, nor in sacrificing others for oneself, but in pursuing life-serving values and respecting the rights of others to do the same. Because rational egoism holds that each individual morally should pursue his own life serving values, it also holds that each individual should be politically free to do so—as long as he does not interfere with the same freedom of others. (For a detailed presentation of rational egoism, see Ayn Rand’s book The Virtue of Selfishness, my book Loving Life: the Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It, or Tara Smith’s book Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist.)
If we want to reinstate America as a republic in which the only purpose of government is, as Thomas Jefferson put it, to “guarantee to everyone the free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it,” to “restrain men from injuring one another,” to “leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and . . . not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned”—then we must reject the creed of sacrifice; we must embrace the morality of self-interest; and we must encourage our fellow Americans to do the same. Nothing less will save the Land of Liberty.