In Defense of Selfishness
Why the Code of Self-Sacrifice is Unjust and Destructive
By Peter Schwartz
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2015 Peter Schwartz
All rights reserved.
Yes — I'm defending selfishness.
Let's first examine what I'm defending it against.
People disagree on a vast range of important issues. They argue over whether God exists, whether man has free will, whether capitalism is superior to socialism, whether rights pertain to fetuses. But one crucial question generates almost no debate: the question of whether self-sacrifice is morally good. Sacrificing yourself for the needs of others is universally seen as the essence of morality. The tenets of altruism are widely regarded not simply as true, but as practically self-evident. Acting for the benefit of others is deemed virtuous, while acting for your own benefit is not. People may, of course, choose not to behave ethically, but they take as incontrovertible the premise that if one does wish to be ethical one must be altruistic. Even questioning this premise is, to most people, equivalent to entertaining the notion that the earth is flat.
Altruism is commonly viewed as a proscription against preying on other people. It is taken as a demand that we refrain from acting like Attila the Hun — that we respect each other's rights and avoid victimizing anyone in pursuit of our goals. Altruism, it is held, keeps us from one another's throats, and leads to a benevolent, harmonious society.
But does it — or does it lead to the opposite?
Consider the doctrine's actual meaning. It tells you to subordinate yourself to other people. It tells you that in any choice you make, your own interests should be less important to you than those of someone else. It tells you that if others have less than you, you are duty-bound to provide for them. Thus, no matter how diligently you may have worked to earn your money, every time you spend it on yourself rather than on the needy — and there is always somebody, somewhere whose unfulfilled needs you can meet — you are acting immorally. To comply with the demands of altruism, you must sacrifice your wealth, your goals, your interests. If you have something people lack, you must grant them moral priority. You must be willing, that is, to serve others.
ALTRUISM AS SERVITUDE
Let's look at some real-life examples.
Suppose you are a serious, industrious high school student. You study hard to achieve good grades, you prepare to get into a top college, you work at part-time jobs to save money. But since many high schools now require students to spend significant time performing so-called community service in order to graduate, you may be informed that your single-minded concern with your own life is morally unacceptable. Only if you sacrifice that concern — only if you take time away from your studies and your future in favor of, say, cleaning bedpans in a hospital ward — will you be declared worthy of a diploma.
Or suppose you are a dentist at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Your patient informs you that she has the HIV virus. To protect yourself against possible infection, you offer to treat her in a hospital, rather than in your office. But she refuses. Instead, she sues you, arguing that the law requires "equal treatment" for those with disabilities, such as the HIV virus — and that if non-HIV patients are treated in your office, the same must be done for HIV patients. The courts rule in favor of the plaintiff. You are told that the needs of those deemed disabled take precedence over concerns about your own safety.
Or suppose you are a budding athlete. If your team wins some tournament, trophies will likely be given, not just to you and your teammates, but to all the players of all the teams equally, in the form of what are disingenuously called participation awards. The achievers of victory are deliberately not rewarded, in order to accommodate the needs of the non-achievers. Taking the idea of self-sacrifice further, one youth hockey league declares that if you are an excellent player you will be suspended if your team is not losing enough games. A team that is doing too well is barred by rule from competition unless it gets rid of its best player. According to a league official: "The spirit of the rule is every team in every organization wins and loses about the same number of games." That rule reflects the canon of altruism. It reflects, not the understandable desire for competitive matches, but the egalitarian hostility toward unequal outcomes. It orders you to give up what you personally value — the attainment of victory — and defer to the needs of those unable to win on their own merit. Because you have the ability to succeed, you must sacrifice for those who do not.
In your dealings with people, it is not generosity that altruism wants to elicit from you. Generosity is a gift. What altruism demands is the payment of a debt — an unchosen moral debt you owe to others.
If your neighbor's house is ravaged by fire, it is perfectly appropriate for you, as a non-altruist, to choose to help the victim by bringing him, say, a hot meal or a spare cot. Because you value your life, because you value the fact that you are a human being, you attach a certain value even to strangers, since they have the same fundamental nature as you and potentially share your basic values. In various situations, therefore, you may be willing to help people in a spirit of true, non-sacrificial goodwill. But your assistance is not prompted by any innate obligation you have toward others. Your premise is that it is your money and your time — which you generously decide you can spare, and for which the recipient should be grateful. You don't make yourself starve so that your neighbor can eat. You don't make your children go homeless so that his children can be sheltered. Nor do you provide help to someone undeserving of it, such as a habitual drunkard who, in an alcoholic stupor, has burned down his own house (and may burn down yours next).
Altruism, however, takes as its premise that your money and your time are not yours, but belong to anyone with an unmet need. Altruism wants you to spend money or time you cannot spare. "True charity" — according to an apocryphal statement, sometimes attributed to Gandhi — "is not just giving a man a dime when he is hungry. It is giving a man a dime when you are as hungry as he is and need the dime just as badly." Why is another's hunger more important than yours in determining how to spend your dime? Because — the altruist code contends — you have an intrinsic duty to serve others. That is, you must concede to them a right to your possessions and you must disregard your own well-being in favor of theirs.
Whatever adjectives characterize human relations under such a doctrine, "benevolent" and "harmonious" are surely not among them.
Under the mandate of self-sacrifice, need constitutes an unassailable claim, and you must surrender your values whenever that claim is presented against you. Consider some other real-life instances of altruism:
A business student, allegedly suffering from "dyscalculia" — an inability to solve mathematical problems — demands an exemption from a required math-related course. The college is ordered by the federal Department of Education to provide for the student's needs and to waive the requirement.
A law school graduate, asserting that a deficiency in reading skills made her fail the New York Bar exam three times, insists that she be allowed unlimited time to take the test and that she be given a stenographer to record her answers. A court rules that her needs entitle her to those accommodations, as well as to compensatory damages.
The president of the New York City Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind opposes the airlines' policy of keeping blind people from sitting in emergency-evacuation rows. He claims that such a policy "relegates[s] the blind to an inferior status in society." And a bill in the U.S. Senate seeks to enact his view into law. In other words, the blind have needs, which must supersede all other considerations, including the safety of a plane's passengers.
In all these cases, the assumption is that the demands of the needy must be met. Regardless of the suffering imposed upon you, you may not refuse those demands. Need — it is believed — is a moral absolute.
THE PERVERSE MEANING OF "NEED"
But, you might ask, if need is the overriding factor, what about your needs? Why is it right for you to fulfill the needs of someone else, but wrong to fulfill your own?
That is, the dental patient may feel a need to be dealt with as if she did not have the HIV virus — but what about the dentist's need to guard against a potentially dangerous disease? Why is that ignored by altruism? Some of the hockey league's athletes may feel a need to pretend that their victories are meaningful once the better players have been removed — but what about the need of the conscientious player, of whatever ability, to enjoy authentic competition in pursuit of authentic victories? A deficient student may feel a need to be granted special accommodations by his school — but what about the need of a capable student to obtain a degree unadulterated by the lowered standards? What about the need of the school to have its degree be an objective indicator of performance, rather than a token document? What about the need of prospective employers and clients to know the actual level of ability of a school's graduates? Why, in other words, are only some needs and not others granted the moral right-of-way?
The answer is that under altruism only one thing qualifies as a need: that which requires someone else's sacrifice to fulfill.
If your needs can be satisfied by your own effort, altruism dismisses them. If you take responsibility for your life and support it by your own work, if you deal with others through trade and offer them equal value in exchange for what they give you, altruism takes no cognizance of your needs. If, however, you fail to undertake that responsibility — if you wish to deal with others without offering them value for value, if you want a meal not by paying for it but by having someone give you his, if you seek to be sustained not by what you have produced but by what others have sacrificed for you — only then does altruism declare that you have needs, and that they are sacrosanct.
Think about the previous examples. The dentist is not asking for any sacrifice from the patient. Once the two cannot agree on a mutually beneficial exchange, he wants only to be left alone. He seeks nothing from her that he does not already have; his need to remain safe from infection does not require her to give him anything. She, however, does want a sacrifice. She demands the benefit of the knowledge he has acquired and the skills he has mastered, on terms he finds unacceptable. She wants him to give up what is his because she is in need. This is why her wishes carry moral weight, according to altruism, while his are irrelevant.
Similarly, the conscientious hockey player's need for an opportunity to compete, by doing his best and reaping the rewards of his work, does not require another's act of sacrifice. In normal, non-altruistic competition, the opponent is not sacrificing when he is fairly defeated — any more than you are sacrificing when you refrain from stealing your neighbor's car, since the car is not yours to give up. The loser is not entitled to victory, and so is not sacrificing it. The winning hockey team earns its triumph. This is why altruism has no concern for the superior player. But with respect to some inferior player's need to be handed an unearned victory — a victory based not on justice but on pity, a victory he obtains not by applying his talent and effort, but by having his opponents prohibited from applying theirs — altruism is eager to satisfy it, for it is a need that can be fulfilled only through an act of sacrifice. By whom? By those who are entitled to victory, and are being asked to give it up. Asked, by whom? By those who do not deserve it, but who need it.
This is the meaning of need, as enshrined by altruism.
Consequently, students who seek degrees they do not deserve, or blind passengers who seek exit-row seats they are not qualified to occupy, are regarded by the altruist as manifesting needs. Whereas competent students who want degrees that reflect their actual accomplishments, or airline passengers who have contracted for a safe flight and want the emergency-exit seats assigned to people able to facilitate urgent evacuations, are not asking for sacrifices and so are deemed to be exhibiting, not needs, but merely selfish desires.
Under altruism, therefore, society is divided into two classes: those who have needs, and those who are able — and thus required — to fulfill them.
It is not even that altruism pretends to somehow measure — impossible as that would be — one person's need against another's, with the larger need prevailing. It is not that altruism professes to calculate, say, that the patient's need to have a tooth fixed at one location rather than another is greater than the dentist's need to be shielded against a dangerous disease. Rather, the altruist maintains that the only real need is the patient's, since its fulfillment requires a sacrifice by the dentist. And since need is the paramount factor, whoever possesses something of value ought to surrender it to whoever lacks it.
Again, your perplexed reaction to this must be to ask: Why? Why is it a virtue to surrender what you've earned so that others might enjoy it, but a vice to keep it for your own pleasure? Why should the needs of others be the standard in ethics? Why should your ability to achieve something become a leash around your neck? Why should morality demand that you suffer for the sake of any non-you?
The issue is not whether to help someone in distress — that's window dressing. The sole issue is whether you have a moral duty to others. Is your life yours, or does anyone with a need have a claim to it? Do you have a right to live for your own sake, or is serving your fellow-man the moral purpose and justification of your existence?
When altruism instructs you to sacrifice for someone in need, it does not matter that you did not cause the other person's plight. It does not even matter if that person is himself the willful generator, and perpetuator, of his troubles. The sheer fact of need, regardless of its cause, is all that counts. If a food-stamp recipient spends his days studying the racing forms rather than the help-wanted ads, if a sixteen-year-old high school dropout demands rent for a new apartment because she is pregnant with her third child, if a homeless man regularly buys crack with the handouts he receives — you are still duty-bound to provide for them. The fact that you think they do not deserve your help only makes your assistance that much more of a sacrifice. And the greater the sacrifice being demanded of you, the greater must be the recipient's need and therefore the greater the imperative that you fulfill it.
The primary object of altruism's concern is not the innocent victim of some misfortune. To the contrary, it is the genuinely guilty — the person who deserves no sympathy whatever, but who desperately needs it — who becomes the poster child for the cause of altruism.
When the twenty-year-old daughter of Bob and Golden Bristol was savagely raped and strangled to death in California, the couple publicly embraced the convicted murderer by announcing: "We love this special person from the bottom of our hearts." When the judge who sentenced the perpetrator to life imprisonment described him as "the most vicious killer I have encountered in my career," the forgiving couple, faithfully practicing the code of altruism, said: "We view this person as one of value and worth ... not for what he did, but for what he can become." By the standard of justice and loyalty to the memory of their daughter, they should have condemned the creature who took a precious value away from them. Altruism, however, demanded something else. It demanded that they be concerned, not with their own values, but with the needs of the killer.
The less deserving the recipient, the more self-sacrificial your aid — and the more obligated you are to offer it. This altruistic principle is behind the Biblical injunctions to "turn the other cheek" and to "love thy enemy." To love a friend is in your interest. But to love an enemy — to love those who wish you harm — to welcome their harming you — that is a true act of altruism.
It is an act reflecting the primacy — and the tyranny — of need.
THE OMNIPRESENCE OF ALTRUISM
But do these illustrations represent only the exceptions? Don't most people reject altruism in their daily lives and instead pursue their own practical interests? Doesn't the abundance of wealth in this country attest to the fact that far more people want to be like Bill Gates than like Mother Teresa? Why then make such an issue about the oppressiveness of altruism? (Continues...)
Excerpted from In Defense of Selfishness by Peter Schwartz. Copyright © 2015 Peter Schwartz. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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