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The Social Worker and The President

President_George_W_BushA social worker recently told me why I should support government programs that bring money to people in need. Isn’t it good, she asked, to live in town that is prosperous, with neighbors who are not desperate for the basics of life? By giving to them, I make my own life better. This is really in my own self-interest, she said.

She is, in a sense, right. It is better to live in such a town. Prosperous people rarely mug others, and their prosperity goes hand in hand with a healthy business climate. That is good for me. But, her proposal is altruistic through and through, because the prime beneficiary of the argument—and its purpose—is “others first.”

Academic philosophers and nuns aside, few people today argue for overt sacrifice. They have to claim that the sacrifices are really for one’s own good, in order to draw supporters who would recoil if told there was nothing but losses in it for them. It is a rationalization to claim that I can benefit myself by sacrificing to others. A rationalization here is a pseudo-argument, used to support a predetermined conclusion that has been reached emotionally and not rationally.

A similar appeal is made by President Bush, on behalf of his “Forward Strategy of Freedom,” which claims that we can defend our own freedom by sacrificing for others overseas. A “strategy” is a plan of action, a means to achieve a goal. Bush notes that free nations do not attack others. He then sets the freedom of others as the goal of the war, which, he says, protects our own. He then sends young men to die for Iraqis, hamstringing them from defeating our own enemies while stealing the prestige of a staunch defender of America.In every particular action in Iraq, the primary question to be asked is: is it good for the Iraqis?

Each of these cases is altruistic through and through. This is true even if the parties involved really believe that they are acting for their own self-interest. Their intentions do not change the facts: each is giving up values for others, making others the prime motive for their own actions, and then trying to justify it as “self-interest” in their own minds and the minds of others.

For both the social worker and the President, our self-interest is equated with doing good for others. Can anyone think of a better way of effacing the legitimate concept of self-interest in the minds of Americans, than by replacing it with this?

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John David Lewis

John David Lewis was a contributing editor to TOS from the journal’s second issue, in 2006, until his death, on January 3, 2012. He was a visiting associate professor in the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics Program at Duke University. He held a PhD in classics from the University of Cambridge and taught at the University of London. He had also been a senior research scholar in history and classics at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center, Bowling Green State University, and a fellow of the Foundation for Objectivist Scholarship. He published in journals such as Journal of Business Ethics, Social Philosophy and Policy, Polis, Dike, and Bryn Mawr Classical Review, and lectured on classics, military history, and contemporary political issues at numerous universities and for private groups. His research interests were in ancient Greek and Roman thought, military history, and their connections to the modern day. His books are Solon the Thinker: Political Thought in Archaic Athens (Duckworth, 2006), Early Greek Lawgivers (Bristol Classical Press, August, 2007), and Nothing Less than Victory: Decisive Wars and the Lessons of History (Princeton,2010). Dr. Lewis also wrote for Capitalism Magazine. His website is www.JohnDavidLewis.com.


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