Altruism vs. Self-Interest: What is the Proper Balance?

Camden Civil Rights Project

by L. Christopher Skufca

Where should self-interest yield to self-sacrifice in promoting mutual cooperation and common dignity in a civil society? Is there an implied social contract which produces a civic or moral responsibility to provide a safety net for society’s most vulnerable citizens or does this place an unfair economic burden upon self sufficient individuals? I will attempt to navigate this minefield with the help of the Dalai Lama and Ayn Rand.


download (19)Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.

From the moment of birth, every human being wants happiness and does not want suffering. From the very core of our being, we simply desire contentment. I don’t know whether the universe, with its countless galaxies, stars and planets, has a deeper meaning or not, but at the very least, it is clear that we humans who live on this earth face the task of making a happy life for ourselves.

From my own limited experience I have found that the greatest degree of inner tranquility comes from the development of love and compassion.

Ultimately, the reason why love and compassion bring the greatest happiness is simply that our nature cherishes them above all else. The need for love lies at the very foundation of human existence. It results from the profound interdependence we all share with one another.

Inter-dependence, of course, is a fundamental law of nature. Not only higher forms of life but also many of the smallest insects are social beings who, without any religion, law or education, survive by mutual cooperation based on an innate recognition of their interconnectedness.

It is because our own human existence is so dependent on the help of others that our need for love lies at the very foundation of our existence. Therefore we need a genuine sense of responsibility and a sincere concern for the welfare of others.

However capable and skillful an individual may be, left alone, he or she will not survive. However vigorous and independent one may feel during the most prosperous periods of life, when one is sick or very young or very old, one must depend on the support of others.

The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater our own sense of well-being becomes. Cultivating a close, warm-hearted feeling for others automatically puts the mind at ease. This helps remove whatever fears or insecurities we may have and gives us the strength to cope with any obstacles we encounter. It is the ultimate source of success in life.

– Dalai Lama



The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value.

My views on charity are very simple. I do not consider it a major virtue and, above all, I do not consider it a moral duty. There is nothing wrong in helping other people, if and when they are worthy of the help and you can afford to help them. I regard charity as a marginal issue. What I am fighting is the idea that charity is a moral duty and a primary virtue.

Do not confuse altruism with kindness, good will or respect for the rights of others. These are not primaries, but consequences, which, in fact, altruism makes impossible. The irreducible primary of altruism, the basic absolute, is self-sacrifice—which means; self-immolation, self-abnegation, self-denial, self-destruction—which means: the self as a standard of evil, the selfless as a standard of the good.

Do not hide behind such superficialities as whether you should or should not give a dime to a beggar. That is not the issue. The issue is whether you do or do not have the right to exist without giving him that dime. The issue is whether you must keep buying your life, dime by dime, from any beggar who might choose to approach you. The issue is whether the need of others is the first mortgage on your life and the moral purpose of your existence. The issue is whether man is to be regarded as a sacrificial animal.

It is altruism that has corrupted and perverted human benevolence by regarding the giver as an object of immolation, and the receiver as a helplessly miserable object of pity who holds a mortgage on the lives of others—a doctrine which is extremely offensive to both parties, leaving men no choice but the roles of sacrificial victim or moral cannibal.

Even though altruism declares that “it is more blessed to give than to receive,” it does not work that way in practice. The givers are never blessed; the more they give, the more is demanded of them; complaints, reproaches and insults are the only response they get for practicing altruism’s virtues (or for their actual virtues). Altruism cannot permit a recognition of virtue; it cannot permit self-esteem or moral innocence. Guilt is altruism’s stock in trade, and the inducing of guilt is its only means of self-perpetuation. If the giver is not kept under a torrent of degrading, demeaning accusations, he might take a look around and put an end to the self-sacrificing. Altruists are concerned only with those who suffer—not with those who provide relief from suffering, not even enough to care whether they are able to survive. When no actual suffering can be found, the altruists are compelled to invent or manufacture it.

Such is the secret core of your creed, the other half of your double standard: it is immoral to live by your own effort, but moral to live by the effort of others—it is immoral to consume your own product, but moral to consume the products of others—it is immoral to earn, but moral to mooch—it is the parasites who are the moral justification for the existence of the producers, but the existence of the parasites is an end in itself—it is evil to profit by achievement, but good to profit by sacrifice—it is evil to create your own happiness, but good to enjoy it at the price of the blood of others.

– Ayn Rand



admin-ajax-ConvertImageI tend to embrace the Dalai Lama’s message of mutual cooperation over the Objectivist appeal to uninhibited self-interest. My personal moral imperative would be that, so much as it is within our personal control, our primary purpose in life should be to seek mutually beneficial social and economic arrangements.

The Dalai Lama’s assertion that our own human existence is dependent on the help of others is undeniable. Most intellectually honest individuals recognize that any assertion of sole-sufficiency is over-exaggerated and that success, or failure, is highly dependent on the cooperation of others. I believe It takes a tremendous amount of self-deception for anyone to believe that no one else deserves credit for the cultivation of their virtue and talent or the potential success of their ventures. No person has ever reached the age of self-sufficiency without a caretaker or become educated in how to navigate the waters of society without a mentor. And no-one has ever engaged in a successful enterprise without the cooperation of those whom have either granted them an opportunity, or tirelessly labored for their cause.

As for altruism, I believe that if there is a legitimate need, and you have the ability to alleviate another’s pain and suffering, then you should provide what charity you can afford. Charity is a mercy shown to another premised on the mutual experience and understanding, that at one point in our lives, our own well-being was dependent on the kindness or goodwill of another. On a societal level, it is simply sowing the seeds of compassion with the hope, but not the expectation, that if you or a loved one ever fall on misfortune, someone will return the kindness. It should be a voluntary act of compassion without judgment.

As Rand contends, this does not mean that individual acts of charity should be involuntarily imposed. If you feel put out or taken advantage of, you should not give a cruel gift. It would be a kinder act not to give at all than to berate or dehumanize another human being for having a need. If given the choice, I do not believe that the vast majority of humanity would ever voluntarily choose the subjugated status of dependence over the independence and self dignity that self-sufficiency provides.


In terms of societal well-being, Rand’s portrayal of altruism as a social harm stands on less solid ground. The moral impetus behind altruism is the ethic of reciprocity: you should treat others as you wish to be treated. To make her appeal to self interest more palatable, Rand prefers to attack the lesser maxim that it is better to give than receive, on the grounds that it promotes “self-sacrifice—which means; self-immolation, self-abnegation, self-denial, self-destruction.”  By framing the argument in this way, Rand avoids the more repugnant task of having to question the moral sufficiency of the precept that each member of a society is required to provide the same level of respect and common dignity which they presume for themselves.

My main criticism of Objectivism is that, more often than not, it is employed as an oversimplified moral justification for rationalizing away the negative externalities caused by a dominant class’s social and economic interactions with the more vulnerable class. On the macro level, the self sacrifice demanded by Altruism is more aptly characterized as political compromise. It represents the voluntary submission of an individual’s claim to uninhibited wealth and privilege in exchange for a benefit or security which the existing social arrangement provides.

The moral deficiency of an egocentric society is in the claim that the individual duty to ensure the equitable treatment of its less fortunate members only extends so far as the transaction does not personally inconvenience an individual’s life. This is a very debilitating policy, insofar as it undermines the very existence of any express or implied social agreement amongst members of society to engage in mutual cooperation or to cultivate a common respect for one another. What develops is a highly militaristic attitude against individuals who seek a more equitable distribution of material resources. Reforms are challenged as a threat to one’s social status and competition is perceived as an adversary to be overcome, rather than a mutual entitlement to seek financial independence.

Moreover, the rationale that individual acts of charity should be voluntary does not easily translate into the moral proposition that society has no collective duty to provide an economic safety net for its most vulnerable citizens. In any civilized nation, there should sensibly be a preferential option for assisting the poor and disenfranchised. Subsidizing existing wealth at the expense of society’s less fortunate individuals tends to promote instability and crisis. A society which cruelly neglects its most vulnerable members invites violence upon its own head, whether it manifests itself in the form of rising crime rates or seditious revolution. Thus, a society which shows deliberate indifference towards a persecuted segment of its own population has no reasonable expectation of domestic tranquility.

The less a society strives for Egalitarian ideals, the more turbulent the political climate becomes. A segment of the population which is economically exploited by the existing social arrangements is not morally bound to suffer in silence. To do so would be an irrational act of preserving one’s own undignified state of existence. The calculated choice to peacefully redress one’s grievances is a magnanimous act designed to bring attention to an injustice in the hope of invoking Society’s notions of equity and fair play. However, once an affected population’s faith in peaceful reform is extinguished by the dominant society’s refusal to redress their social grievances, violence is embraced as a justifiable and necessary act to ensure one’s own self-determination. As former president John F. Kennedy warned, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” This model of economic tyranny being met with violent insurrection has unfailingly repeated itself throughout the course of human history. As such, no society should ever rationally encourage domestic insurgency through deliberate indifference or institutionalized cruelty.

The preservation of a civil society ultimately rests upon its maintaining an acceptable level of altruism. The competing claims made by interdependence and individuality can only be reconciled through a self-imposed moral restraint which permits members of society the freedom to determine the course of their own lives, while ensuring they do not violate the personal autonomy or self-dignity of others in the process. Objectivism undermines this civic ethic with its abolition of a moral duty to protect the most vulnerable members of society. As a result, it inflicts a greater social injustice than it initially sets out to correct

Lawrence Christopher Skufca (2015)

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