The Danger of Altruism

The idea that it is impossible to have a truly selfless action plagued me when I first encountered it. For some reason, I felt such a strong denial that it could be a true statement- dare I even say, ‘self-righteous’?  For, that statement stung me in the core of everything I had been taught about trying to live a selfless life; especially with growing up in the church, this statement seemed to blatantly oppose my belief system to the core. Wouldn’t Jesus want us to be altruistic? Now that I’m older, I’ve seen people persecuted and psychologically forced down because of the so-called altruism of others. I’ve also had time to make realizations about my own selfish nature that make me question whether selfishness really is strictly a bad, nasty thing to be avoided. I’d like to discuss how owning up to the fact that I do things for the sake of myself, and that others do things for the sakes of themselves, could provide a stepping stone to order and clarity.

Altruism is a trap in which humans are given this opportunity to help other humans- other humans who they may perceive need the help, because they are less than. I hope that this isn’t always the case, but in the perspective that we are naturally self-important (and perpetually in denial of it), there is a good chance that it is. When a poor human is perceived as less than, the “altruist” perceives himself as helping the person by giving him food or money. In doing this, he is reinforcing this idea within himself that he, the altruist, is the solution to the problem, and in that, denies the poor man the autonomy of self: that this poor man also makes decisions based upon his self-interest. Say the altruist decides that he wants to end poverty and has a perspective that those in poverty are less than himself: this can be a very slippery slope. Let’s talk about cats.

We got a cat shortly before the Covid lockdown. She was a craigslist cat, and her owners were so desperate to get rid of her that they almost forgot that they put her on the site for $20. We didn’t know their true reason for getting rid of her; they claimed it was because the dog was jealous, and we quickly learned that they lied. This cat was LOUD. She would scream all night, and she would go through phases of rubbing her lady bits on everything. We realized pretty quickly that she wasn’t spayed- or, I realized it- my boyfriend thought we got a dud. However, because it was lockdown, and getting a cat spayed is an elective procedure, we had to ride out the chaos. During this time, however, I began to really love this cat’s passion and vigor; she was the most annoying, but she was also adventurous, clever, strong, lean, friendly, and absolutely wild. She had this liberty that I hadn’t seen before in a pet; she wasn’t tame. And I became scared that if we got our cat spayed, it would take away that wild animal within her, and all of her beautiful selfishness. She would lose the fundamental biological reason of life, to meet some rugged tomcat out in the wilds, and to carry on her genetic code. She would lose her spirit.

And then my boyfriend got her spayed.

She’s still got her spirit, but her tiny frame has gotten a bit thicker, and she is definitely more domesticated. She doesn’t hold that same drive and passion. Cats eat birds and squirrels; they can be terrorists creeping through the thresholds between mankind and nature. Litters of kittens are vulnerable to snakes and coyotes or grow up to be strays without a human companion to protect them. Us humans don’t like seeing a dead cat on the side of the road or find out that the litter of kittens has been devoured, because we see cats as domesticated animals. We want them to be safe, so we stifle them. We spay and neuter them so they won’t produce babies, to save ourselves from the heartbreak of something bad happening, or to save ourselves from the natural desire to take in a litter of kittens and then place them, when the kittens shouldn’t be our responsibility any more than a nest of squirrels. We keep the cats locked inside when we know they’d be much happier to be let out, to explore the land, meet other humans, and fight the neighborhood cats.

Which brings me back to the altruist, who sees his life as better than that of the poor man and wishes to domesticate him. Not for the sake of the poor man but for the sake of the altruist. Had there never been a poor man to begin with, say, if the man’s mother decided not to have him, that would be even better, for the world would have one less man living in poverty. The altruist does not believe that the poor man can make decisions that will change his own life; he does not believe that the poor man is selfish and is capable to make his own decisions. The altruist would do much better for himself to acknowledge that he is being selfish; it would allow him more clarity within his actions, and it would allow him to see the poor man as selfish as well. This puts them at more of an equal standing.

Many of us know the metaphor of the good wolf and the bad wolf; you become the wolf that you feed. Each wolf is symbolic of one of our “selves”; whichever wolf we feed the most is determinant on how our character will develop. Self-consciousness is an aspect of selfishness: we must strive to be aware of how our decisions impact other selves and, should we listen to our conscience, we will have the guidance to direct us to have a self-interest that aligns itself earnestly to the good of others in respect to their autonomy. This also leads me to think of Ayn Rand’s novels- although there were many times in which I disagreed with her characters over matters of conscience (Dagny is a homewrecker), her point that a society of strong, autonomous selves fighting for their personal gain, while respecting the rights of others to do the same, is stronger than one where humans, even those who do not feel the call, are made to cater to those who’s self interest is not yet conductive in a beneficial way. Perhaps altruistic folk should back off and allow the needy to be self-reliant, then the needy would have the freedom to chose which wolf to feed. A person has no need to make this choice if both the wolves are getting fed for him. However, there are times when a person can’t fend for himself well enough to survive- let’s talk about cats.

Cats get hit by cars; should you be taking a walk and see a cat almost get hit, the beautifully selfish thing to do (if you love cats) would be to try to remove the cat from the situation. You might, so selfishly love this cat that you endanger yourself in the process, which would greatly hurt those who loved you, but also save the cat’s life. However, if you respect the cat, then you will acknowledge the cat’s autonomous self and understand that it is not then your responsibility to bring that cat home and keep him locked in your house as to never almost get hit again. That would ruin the cat’s life and would be feeding your bad wolf. Realizing that it is your selfish bad wolf (that wants the cat to be safe at no matter the cost to your home or the cat’s livelihood) that would be fed, instead of your selfish good wolf (that wants the cat to live), allows you to direct your selfish nature for what will truly be beneficial to itself, and for the cat’s selfish nature as well.

As for the religious bit: we are one human race; as we trace our ancestors back, it becomes more apparent that we are from the same family. To quote the Beatles will add a little clarifying color: “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.” Because of this, it benefits us to help one another out: in the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10, Jesus conveys to a Jewish lawyer that even if someone is of completely different ground than he is, is outside of his tribe, and completely disregards his traditions- that person is still his neighbor. This perspective teaches us that we shouldn’t view people’s status based on our arbitrary differences (whether a person is a millionaire or whether they only posses a few dollars in a can is an arbitrary difference in the eyes of God); we should view them as individual selves, and we should love them because they are our neighbor (as opposed to tossing them change because they are a needy bum). This is different than altruism because it acknowledges that we are designed to have relationships with one another in order to live a good life. We wish to have selves that reflect the image of God, and we understand and respect that God gave us free will and autonomy. A poor man has just as much power within himself to become whatever he would like to and the altruistic man has no legitimate reason to doubt the poor man’s ability. There should be no condescension in their relationship; should the richer man chose to feed his selfish good wolf, he will see the ability within the poor man and offer him a career. Should the poor man wish to feed his selfish good wolf, he will already be on a search for one of those, unless he has found deep purpose and meaning where he is at in present, for which the rich man would respect. They could, should they be seeing one another as neighbors instead of seeing one another in the arbitrary lens of social statuses, become friends and learn from one another, furthering their ability to see truth and feed their good wolves. God has designed us ‘selves’ that benefit directly from reflecting him; it is selfish to want him, and within this godly selfishness, our actions benefit other selves in a unifying way. But we’ve got to be selfish to do it!

I hope that this provides some sort of case for psychological egoism and I’m sorry for being super anti-altruism. The plight of a mother giving her last bit of food to her child appears altruistic, but is it not for love that she does this? Her return on investment is to continue to be able to fill her life, however long it is, with the ability to love her child. Without the child, she is alone; and unless her bad wolf has become more powerful than her biology, her loving drive to keep her child alive even for the sake of herself is a natural phenomenon. We even see this demonstrated in nature, where mother elephants defend their babies from lions. There has even been an instance of a baby elephant defending his mother from tourists, which seems to line up well with the natural urge to punch someone when they crack a particularly mean mom joke. Hopefully I’ve provided an adequate argument to support how, even outside of a religious context, being honest about our psychological egoism allows us the clarity to truly benefit our lives, and as a result of benefiting ourselves, others will benefit in return, so long as we are actively taking our wolves into account.

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