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Altruism vs. America

[The following is an excerpt of from Craig Biddle’s article “The Creed of Sacrifice vs. The Land of Liberty.” Citations have been omitted here but are available in the article, which is accessible for free.]

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.”

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.”

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. . . .

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.”

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. . . .

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.” 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.”

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.” Contemporary political theorist Benjamin R. Barber advocates “a national service program, universal and mandatory.” And sociologist Charles Moskos explains that “[a]ny effective national service program will necessarily require coercion,” and he rebuffs those who “de-emphasize the role of the citizen duties in favor of a highly individualistic rights-based ethic.” We should, he says, “extend the concept of national youth service to include quasi-military civilian services . . . cast in terms of civic duty.”

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.” One advocate of the law hails it as the “quantum leap in community service that we’ve all been looking for.” Another exclaims: “The stars are aligned for national service.”

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.”

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]

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. . . . [Read the whole article.]


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