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Altruism: The Morality of Logical Fallacies

[This post is an excerpt from my lecture “Atlas Shrugged and Ayn Rand’s Morality of Egoism,” an introduction to the Objectivist ethics. —CB]

Despite its destructive nature, altruism is accepted to some extent by almost everyone today. Of course, no one upholds it consistently—at least not for long. Rather, most people accept it as true—and then cheat on it.

All the major religions—Christianity, Judaism, Islam—advocate altruism; their holy books demand it. All so-called “secular humanist” philosophies—utilitarianism, postmodernism, egalitarianism—call for altruism as well. (Note that “secular humanists” do not call themselves “secular egoists” or “secular individualists.”)

“Alter” is Latin for “other”; “altruism” means “other-ism”; it holds that you should sacrifice for others. From the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim points of view, the significant “others” are “God” and “the poor”; in the Old Testament, for instance, God says: “I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:11). From the utilitarian point of view, the “other” is “everyone in general”; the utilitarian principle is “the greatest good for the greatest number.” From the postmodern and egalitarian points of view, the “other” is anyone with less wealth or opportunity than you have; in other words, the better off you are, the more you should sacrifice for others—the worse off you are, the more others should sacrifice for you.

Sacrifice. Sacrifice. Sacrifice. Everyone believes it is the moral thing to do. And no philosopher has been willing to challenge this idea.

Except Ayn Rand:

[T]here is one word—a single word—which can blast the morality of altruism out of existence and which it cannot withstand—the word: “Why?Why must man live for the sake of others? Why must he be a sacrificial animal? Why is that the good? There is no earthly reason for it—and, ladies and gentlemen, in the whole history of philosophy no earthly reason has ever been given.

On examination, this is true. No reason has ever been given as to why people should sacrifice for others. Of course, alleged reasons have been given, but not legitimate ones. So let’s consider the alleged reasons—of which there are approximately six—each of which involves a logical fallacy.

1. “You should sacrifice because God (or some other voice from another dimension) says so.” This is not a reason—certainly not an earthly one. At best, it is an appeal to authority—that is, to the “authorities” who claim to speak for God. Just because a preacher or a book makes a claim does not mean the claim is true. The Bible claims, among other things, that a bush spoke. More fundamentally, this non-reason is an arbitrary claim because there is no evidence for the existence of a god. But even those who believe in a god can recognize the fallacy of appealing to an authority.

2. “You should sacrifice because that’s the general consensus.” This is not a reason but an appeal to the masses. Matters of truth and morality are not determined by consensus. That slavery should be legal used to be the general consensus in America, and is still the consensus in parts of Africa. That did not and does not make it so. Nor does consensus legitimize the notion that you or anyone else should sacrifice or be sacrificed.

3. “You should sacrifice because other people need the benefit of your sacrifice.” This is an appeal to pity. Even if other people did need the benefit of your sacrifice, it would not follow that this is a reason to sacrifice. More importantly, however, the notion that people need the benefit of your sacrifice is false. What people need is to produce values and to trade them with others who produce values. And to do so, they and others must be free to produce and trade according to their own judgment. This, not human sacrifice, is what human life requires. (I’ll touch on the relationship between freedom and egoism a little later.)

4. “You should sacrifice because if you don’t, you will be beaten, or fined, or thrown in jail, or in some other way physically assaulted.” The threat of force is not a reason; it is the opposite of a reason. If the force wielders could offer a reason why you should sacrifice, then they would not have to use force; they could use persuasion instead of coercion.

5. “You should sacrifice because, well, when you grow up or wise up you’ll see that you should.” This is not a reason, but a personal attack and an insult. It says, in effect, “If you don’t see the virtue of sacrifice, then you’re childish or stupid”—as if demanding a reason in support of a moral conviction could indicate a lack of maturity or intelligence.

6. “You should sacrifice because only a miscreant or a scoundrel would challenge this established fact.” This kind of claim assumes that you regard others’ opinions of you as more important than your own judgment of truth. It is also an example of what Ayn Rand called “The Argument from Intimidation”: the attempt to substitute psychological pressure for rational argument. Like the personal attack, it is an attempt to avoid having to present a rational case for a position for which no rational case can be made.

That’s it. Such are the “reasons” offered in support of the claim that you should sacrifice. Don’t take my word for it; ask around. Ask your philosophy professors. Ask a priest or rabbi. You will find that all the “reasons” offered are variants of these—each of which, so far from being a “reason,” is a textbook logical fallacy.

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