Altruism vs. Objectivism: Which Moral Imperative Better Promotes Mutual Cooperation and Common Respect in a Civil Society?

Select quotes from the Dalai Lama and Ayn Rand on the ethics of Altruism

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THE DALAI LAMA ON THE INTERDEPENDENCE OF HUMANITY

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

AYN RAND ON THE MORALITY OF SELF INTEREST 

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

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MY THOUGHTS ON THE MATTER

I tend to embrace the Dalai Lama’s vision of mutual cooperation over the Objectivist ideal of self-interest. However, my moral imperative would be that our primary purpose in life is to seek mutually beneficial arrangements with all members of society, to the best of our ability and that the individual mandate to seek one’s own happiness does not permit anyone to advance this agenda through the exploitation of another. I would go so far as to say that an individual who is found to have benefited through the intentional exploitation of an unsuspecting, or more vulnerable member of society, should be stripped of the fruits of their deceptive or coercive practices to recompense those that have been harmed by their behavior. If there is no profit to be gained from harming another, there is no motivation to do so.

As for charity, 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 help 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. Charity 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.

This does not mean that individual charity should be involuntarily imposed. Charity should be a voluntary act of compassion without judgment. If you feel taken advantage of, you should not give a cruel gift. It would be better not to receive at all than to be berated or dehumanized for having a need. I do not believe that the majority of humanity would ever voluntarily choose the subjugated status of dependence on another over the independence and self dignity that self sufficiency provides.

However, the rationale that individual acts of charity should be voluntary does not mean that society should be relieved from its collective duty to provide a safety net for their most vulnerable citizens. This is not a mandate for forced altruism, but rather a security precaution. A society which cruelly neglects its own poor and disenfranchised invites violence upon its own head, whether it comes in the form of crime or revolution. Thus, a society which acts unmercifully towards a segment of its own population has no expectation of peace. Suffering in silence is not a duty, but rather an act of mercy towards one’s oppressor. Once hope is extinguished by Society’s refusal to intervene, violence becomes a justifiable act of self defense to preserve one’s life.

I also believe the claim that we are the sole determiners of our own fortune is short sighted and verifiably invalid. I find it takes a great deal of vanity and hubris for anyone to believe that no-one else is deserving of any credit for the cultivation of their virtue and talent or the success of their ventures. No-one reaches the age of self-sufficiency or becomes educated in how to navigate society without a caretaker or mentor, and no-one builds a successful enterprise without the cooperation of individuals whom have granted them an opportunity or the efforts of those who have labored for their cause. I believe that most people recognize, on either a conscious or subconscious level, that the assertion of sole-sufficiency is simply a self-rationalization to assuage the mental discomfort caused by their neglecting the visible needs of others in favor of pursuing their own self-interested desires.

Furthermore, I believe that Rand misrepresents moral impetus behind Altruism to suit her argument. Altruism is not the logical outgrowth of the directive that it is better to give than to receive, but is rather the natural consequence of the call to treat others in the same way you desire to be treated. The moral deficiency in Rand’s society, which she fails to adequately address, is that it ignores the negative externalities of one’s own behavior. If one’s primary duty is to self-gratification, then there can be no expectation of another’s duty to care for your well-being.

This calls into question any moral duty to respect the rights of others. Laws prohibiting social harms such as, child neglect, rape, robbery, or murder would be coercive exercises of authority against my personal autonomy and self-determination. If my primary directive is self-fulfillment, I am justified in ignoring the harm my activities cause to another or in preying upon another’s more vulnerable condition for my personal benefit. Rand’s viewpoint is highly militaristic in natire; any individual who poses a threat to one’s expectation of joy or prosperity is forced to be dealt with, not as a co-equal with the same expectation of happiness, but as an obstacle to be overcome through sheer force and determination of will.

I trust that Rand would most likely rationalize away this kind of aggressive behavior as being deterred by one’s own instinct for self-preservation. No one should rationally encourage violence against themselves through overly cruel practices. That, however, does not reinforce her precept that our highest duty is to ourselves, but rather strengthens the moral assertion that we should treat one another as we wish to be treated.

Lawrence Christopher Skufca (2015)

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“If we desire respect for the law, we must first make the law respectable.” – U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis

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