Altruism, Pragmatism and Moral Relativism

Man is faced with choices in every conscious moment. To make these choices, he needs a code of ethics – a morality. For his choices to be successful, his moral code must be based on the facts of reality (including his own nature). Properly, a code of ethics must be derived from the nature of existence and the nature of man (man has specific requirements for survival and has free will and the abilty to reason) with reference to an ultimate purpose. This is the motivation for studying philosophy. One must discover the nature of existence – existents have a specific identity and behave in accordance with it. This is the task of metaphysics. One must acquire knowledge of the world (including of man’s nature). To ensure that the knowledge is accurate, one must validate it. This is the task of epistemology.

The dominant morality today is that of altruism. Here is the dictionary meaning.
1 : unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others
2 : behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species

Altruism is a code that has “the welfare of others” as its ultimate purpose (note meaning 1 above) and sacrifice as its guiding principle (note meaning 2 above).

What altruism does by defining sacrifice as the guiding principle need not be elaborated here. The consequences are painfully apparent. By defining the ultimate purpose to be the welfare of others, altruism destroys the motivation to study philosophy. Without an explicit understanding of the nature of existence and the nature of knowledge, man is left in chronic doubt. He cannot be sure of what he knows or even whether he actually knows anything at all. Nevertheless, he knows that he has to make choices. He knows that he is not equipped to make them. What does he do? He adopts the principle “Do not decide any issue beyond the range of the moment”. He decides that he will only consider immediate concretes. He decides to reject principles on principle. This is how altruism leads to pragmatism.

Having rejected principles, man is left with no means to judge others. By considering concretes, he can still judge individual actions or situations to a limited extent. But he cannot judge others. Their motives and the long term consequences of their actions are not concretes. They can only be considered with reference to principles. Thus he adopts the principle “Do not judge people”. He decides that the concepts ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are neither absolute nor objective, but only have meaning in the range of the moment. This is how altruism leads to moral relativism.

Added on 29 April 2008 (In response to Scott Hughes’ comment):

Most religions prescribe altruistic ethical rules as absolutes, as a revelation from God. However those absolutes are of little help in the application of ethics to most real-life issues. Look at the Ten Commandments. How would they apply in formulating (or even evaluating) a company’s policy regarding employee benefits? Altruism has “the welfare of others” as its ultimate purpose. But what is this welfare? Altruism does not answer that. Without an explicit understanding of the nature of existence and the nature of knowledge, man is left with subjective (and inconsistent) emotions as the only means to an answer.


15 Responses

  1. I can see what you mean about practicing altruism leading a person to moral relativism and pragmatism. Although, altruism is also closely tied to many religions which then ground their belief in godly absolutism. Anyway, I recently wrote a short article exploring whether altruism is compatible with selfishness: Is selfishness compatible with altruism?

  2. Scott,
    “many religions ground their beliefs in godly absolutism”
    Good point. Thanks for raising it. I have added what would have been my reply to the original post itself.

  3. I agree that guiding principles derived from reason must come first. Otherwise all decisions, as you said, are subjective and temporary.

    The one problem I have with Objectivism’s critique of altruism is that it appears to outsiders as though Objectivism endorses selfishness. I know better, but I think it is important that we always point out that Objectivism is not against people helping other people or against voluntary charity.

  4. Yes Objectivism is not against helping other people or voluntary charity. In fact Objectivism holds that there can be no genuine conflict of interest among rational men.
    Objectivism does endorse selfishness (though not in the sense most people mean it). And it is very important to defend the use of that word. It is by the means of the implicit negative connotations associated with the word selfishness, that altruists sell undeserved guilt. That word must be reclaimed.

  5. I am not an Objectivist, though I lean strongly toward it. May I suggest that it is better to use Ayn Rand’s terminology of “rational self interest” rather than “selfishness”?

    Of course, you do what you think it best. You are entitled to your opinion.

  6. My grandma is the most altruistic woman I know and she loves to study philosophy. Disagree with you there.

  7. Tony,
    My point was that altruism removes the only practical motivation to study philosophy. Not all people are practical.

  8. Tony,
    Regarding your question about the article “What Is Individualism?”:
    I agree that the examples that the author gave were materialistic. The fundamental problem with altruism is that it gives primary importance to the beneficiary while leaving the concept of “value” undefined. Altruism says that the good is to benefit others. But what is “benefit”? A value is a value to someone and for something. That is it presupposes a valuer and a purpose. If I were to act in accordance with altruism, I would have to judge what is in the best interests of others. I would have to judge their purpose (as opposed to my purpose) to determine their interests. This is where sacrifice comes in. Altruism says that I must act to achieve other peoples purpose even if doing so hurts my purpose. Further, since every person must choose his own purpose, I will have to act on what I think other peoples purposes are (or should be). And finally altruism doesn’t answer why I should ignore my purpose and spend my life serving other peoples purposes (imagined or real).

    For a more detailed treatment of egoism, I would refer you to Ayn Rand’s essay “The Objectivist Ethics” in “The Virtue of Selfishness”

    Any comments or further discussion is always welcome.

  9. Thank you for your opinion, Ill post a response soon.

  10. If I may lend my perspective on altruism, there is no problem with altruism, as there is no problem with authentic love or generosity or kindness and support, but I do agree with you that there is a problem, but in how altruism is interpreted. The concept of value is defined through the situation at hand, in the moment, the nature of things as they happen. If you happen to fall down, I would help you to your feet. If you are sick, I will care for you. These are intangibles that aren’t limited to standards or a qualitative measurement. When you say One must judge what another person wants, your decision making in true altruism doesn’t come from a completely rational perspective as, according to strict rationalist, it would be of no benefit to assist someone when it takes away from your time, your resources, your energy etc. , unless your true objective is to invest in something, but that is not altruism. Your decision comes from the heart and soul with an expectation of nothing in return. Altruism perhaps carries another dimension to it, distinguishing itself from looking at it through a logical point of view. Love is difficult to rationalize as so many factors play a part in it, so many abstract qualities contribute to making this phenomenon that it would take the experience to fully understand it. I use love as an example as I believe altruism is a subsidiary of love. Altruism takes the experience to fully understand this concept. K.M. an altruistic person doesn’t say, “I have to help this person, even if it hurts my purpose.”In fact, I would be curious to see where you got that definition, if you could please cite that for me. That is not the case K.M. That is not altruism. You do it, because you want to, you don’t weight anything in balance as your brother lie there hungry, sad, in need of help. If one is healthy, happy and strong your giving doesn’t stop, as you do it because you exist and that ability to give comes from you. It is a sort of intutitive/instinctive action that has no need for thought, a kind of meditative frame of mind. If you have doubt and begin to rationalize the situation, then your heart does not speak for you and your love will be overshadowed by the mental. Love is also as such. If you love your brother you will not have doubt in helping them, regardless of your circumstances, because, on the contrary of what you said, an altruistic person’s PURPOSE is to help others, and from that attain their knowledge, growth and strength. Maybe you have this view of altruism, because you have not experienced an altruistic person in your life, someone who is willing to help you with no strings attached, no agenda, just because. Has anyone been like that to you, did you curse them for judging you for needing help or did you find comfort in the act of receiving itself? Perhaps altruism gets a “problem” slapped on it because we live in a society where its all about me, what do I need, what I want, what do I wish, it’s all a competition. Then the moment someone is giving but expects favors in return, we get discouraged with altruism, not even realizing that is not what altruism is. When you say altruism doesn’t answer why I should ignore my purpose, it is not altruism’s responsibility to answer this for you, as there is no doctrine or mandate from altruism, altruism is the act, the concern, the process, without law. An ideal altruistic society would have everybody naturally willing to help advance everyone else, so everybody would take of themselves, do not compare this to a communist philosophy as that involves a centralized power with people as subordinate, no, all of us are the combined central force. As I read this I ask myself are you admitting that your purpose K.M. is not to serve others? , Then we should ask the question, why serve yourself, Why are you so important? If you can admit that you need people in this world to function K.M. then ask yourself, what have I done for another? Not getting too much into that, defining our purpose through giving what we have, as a little as it may be to others makes you realize how much of an impact you can have with your fellow man and how much of an impact it has on you, we are as strong as our weakest link as they say, and if someone took the joy in caring for you, I would be sure to say that you wouldn’t call that a problem.

  11. Antonio,
    I appreciate the time you have taken to frame a response. There are several things in your response that I would object to. However I don’t think putting forth a counter argument to all of them in a single reply would help the debate. I believe the debate needs to begin at a fundamental level. So, I have decided to take this out into a separate entry intended as a debate. Please follow this link. to continue

  12. please is Pragmatism a Moral Theory ?

  13. Dayo,
    Pragmatism is the idea that it is never necessary to think in terms of principles. That even attempting to formulate principles is futile, since the world is too complex for anyones understanding.
    Pragmatism is not a moral theory. It claims that morality is unnecessary.

  14. is it altruism is just a form of egoism? please answer..thanks..

  15. jay,
    Let us begin by defining terms.

    1 : unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others
    2 : behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species

    1 a : a doctrine that individual self-interest is the actual motive of all conscious action
    b : a doctrine that individual self-interest is the valid end of all actions
    2 : excessive concern for oneself with or without exaggerated feelings of self-importance

    Egoism: 1 a is probably the reason for your question. This view is actually a psychological theory and not an ethical one. It is about what is rather than what should be. It is obviously a false doctrine. There definitely are people who make genuine sacrifices i.e, choose a lower value over a higher value in order to serve the interests of someone else. There are also hedonists who act to maximize their immediate pleasure with no regard for their actual interests. The only way to make this doctrine true is to hold that any freely chosen action is in one’s self-interest. That makes ‘interest’ an empty and useless concept. Interest is properly defined with respect to the actual (based on reality) requirements of man’s life. Not all men even take the trouble to discover what their ‘interests’ actually are.

    Egoism: 2 is a useless definition as there is no standard mentioned for what is excessive.

    I adopt Egoism: 1 a as the proper definition. Comparing with altruism and rephrasing it,
    Egoism is the doctrine that the actor is the proper beneficiary of his actions.
    Altruism is the doctrine that the proper beneficiary of actions is others.
    Clearly then, altruism is not a form of egoism but a rejection of egoism.

    I would recommend reading The Objectivist Ethics by Ayn Rand to understand what egoism (as a moral theory) is about.

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