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The Negative Side To Altruism

February 5, 2007

Knowledge related to consequences of mindsets (philosophy/psychology), and consequences of actions (science) are the key components to all morality, not altruism.  Altruism has these three consequences: a) idleness, b) Decisions made by the will of another, or c) An attempt to convince another that what you want is better than what they want.

I think altruism is typically overrated. I think they are both attempts to over-simplify the moral dilemmas which we all face.  Egoism and altruism, after I examined them, do not seem to help us.  Altruism (‘live to serve’) one another does not solve the problems we face.  Instead it seems to lead us to one of three things.

If there’s no one to be altruistic to, life goes to a halt.  I’ll talk about this under section ‘A. Idleness’.  Altruism has two other, much more common, forms as well.  Whenever you choose to serve someone, you can do one of two things.  You can a) Serve someone else and do whatever they want you to do.  or b) You can serve someone else, but do so by doing what you feel is best for them.

If someone asks you to go with them to aggravate the wild bears living in the nearby forest, you can a) go with them, and incontestably ‘serve’ them by being a tag along buddy, or b) try to convince them that bears are dangerous and the whole thing is a bad idea.

All three forms of altruism will be examined.  I will begin with idleness, then the other more common forms of altruism will be examined.

A. Idleness:  If everyone was completely altruistic all human action would stop

I gave the example just the other day of two altruistic brothers.  I’ll simply quote my past journal entry.

“One of the first stops begins at a home of two extreme altruists, who happen to be brothers.  Sitting across from each other in a small room, in a small home, one brother asks the other, “What would you like to do brother?”  His brother replies, “What I want is of no importance brother.  What would you like to do?”  To this his brother replies, “What I desire is of no importance.  What am I?  Why does it matter what I want?  What you want is much more important than what I want.  What would you like to do, brother?”

The main character walks in the room and marvels as the two brothers, for hours sit, wasting energy, in complete indecision.  The point to show is that altruism, in its most extreme state, leads to complete inactivity.  There’s no doubt these two men are morally virtuous, but if morals are taken to precede the purpose of morals (happiness, pleasure, etc), you seem to be left at a standstill.  Complete inactivity.  Only will and decision move action.”

A lot of people go to altruism because it is easy.  It’s easy just to say ‘serve others’ and ‘let others make your decisions’, believing their decisions will make you happy.  It’s another matter to say: “Happiness, peace, and prosperity of mankind is going to take lots of studying and work.  Every situation differs and no single principle serves much value when it comes to many forms of differing circumstances and differing desires.  Every set of circumstances must be studied and examined, consequences all laid before us, and each decision must be made on detailed observation and study of consequences.”

B. Decisions made by the will of another.  This happens when people altruistically do whatever someone else wants them to do.

Happiness seems to be a heavy responsibility that each individual must find on his own.  It requires work, study, and diligence.  Altruism seems too simple.

I think an example will help.  Imagine I, and three other guys, are the only individuals living on Earth.  Let’s say these individuals who accompany me on the Earth are three absolute morons.  They are the same type of guys who participate in MTV’s Jack-ass, beat on themselves, destroy the environment around them, and find this form of lifestyle enjoyable and funny.

I abhor such actions.  It’s not funny at all.  It’s ridiculous and I believe most of what plays on MTV to be mental poison.  Should I hang around such individuals?  Should I spend my time with such people who do such things?  I argue I should not.  I argue I should stand for a quality life and show that much greater pleasure is to be found by other means. (Ex: knowledge, science, art, literature, etc).

According to altruism, in one extreme form, I should completely forget about myself and ‘serve’ these morons.  I should let them hit me with a baseball bat, film it, and as I cough up my blood, find satisfaction as these idiots laugh at my injuries.  I refuse to do so.  I will not forget about myself.  They will not hit me with a baseball bat.  So what are my options?

Whenever I deal with people I do not find pleasurable, I have one of two options: (besides killing them, or locking them up in a cage, etc)
1. Forget about them.  Try to separate myself from them as far as possible.  (egoism)
2. Try to show them “the way”.  Try to show them that there are better ways to live. (another form of altruism)

C. An attempt to convince another that what you want is better than what they want.
Live to “Save” Altruism.

Forgetting those you dislike in the world (egoism) and trying to ignore them never works.  If a movement of idiocy grows too large, you’re going to find it invading your life one way or another.  We can’t just ignore problems and hope they go away.  One day, the three morons mentioned earlier, are going to get drunk and crash their car through the wall of your cabin, destroying your study.

So I’m left having to deal with them, but how am I to deal with them?  I seem to be only left with showing them that life can be lived in a better way.  In other words, I have to bring them to knowledge of a new ideal.   I have to, in one way or another, convert the morons, and teach them something better (ex: science, appreciation of art, the ecstasy of quality literature. etc).

This idea does not always work, however.  Not all people are like me; most are not the intellectual, philosopher type.
There are people who work with their hands, build buildings, work on cars, etc.  I’m not this type.  People who live and do such things are just fine.  In fact, they have their place, and I have mine.  I would be fine with the morons if they would apply themselves to something productive – such as masonry for example.

(By morons I’m referring to the delinquent fools, injuring themselves, destroying things, etc, and finding it funny and enjoyable).

Now how am I to show the morons masonry if I do not know it?  Also, what if the morons do not want to be masons.  What am I to do?  How in the world can I help these people?  How am I supposed to know what to do with the morons, or what would make them happy?

In short: there’s little I can do for them.  They have to find their own happiness, I can’t give it to them.  There’s something buried deep within them, deep in their inner frame, that will lead them to their life’s purpose, if they will only inspect themselves and pursue their bliss.  I can’t tell them what this bliss is.  I have no access to it. I can only tell them to pursue it, and recommend to them that jumping out of trees onto the ground below, breaking their legs, is not likely their bliss.  (Even this inner bliss conception could be contested, yet I don’t know of any other way around the issue).

D. Altruistic Conclusions

In conclusion, we’re back at square one.  Altruism did not solve anything.  We’re still left with people we do not like.  We’re still left serving and tolerating people who are destroying the quality of our lives.  We’re still left with a social life we’re not completely satisfied with:  This leaves:

a) I could change.  But what am I to change into?  What if I’d have to change into something worse to conform to the world around me? (Ex: become a moron like the morons)
b) I could attempt to change them into something more pleasant.  But what am I to change them into?  What if my ideal for what what others should be is worse than what they already are?

This altruism never helped anything.  We’re back at the initial problem – how are we to live?  What is the best way to live?  How can we get along with each other?  etc.

Now what happens typically?  People start to envision their ideals, come to feel their ideal is the panacea of all our world’s problems, and try to push their ideal on everyone.  These ideals come in every form:  philosophies, religions, political views, etc.

Not all views are equal.  Philosophies, religions, and political views all vary in quality.  Some are top-notch, lead to prosperity, goodness, etc.  Others lead to death, confusion, fear, etc.  There is also every gradation inbetween.  I believe truth is out there, and those who pursue it will find it.  You can study, and find a quality life to live.
Good motives and altruism are not enough, they are simply the beginning.  It’s going to take work.

I’ve noticed with life: nothing is ever easy.  If it was, it wouldn’t be worthwhile.  Whenever I hear some one-liner claiming to be the solution to all the world’s problems, I always stand back skeptical.  Altruism, and egoism, are both such one-liners. (not to mention justice and love).  Let’s not get discouraged, however.  The pursuit of knowledge is a very enjoyable experience.

D. The Darker Consequences of Altruism

Altruism can lead to wonderful things, but it can also be a deadly thing.  If the ideal conceived to change someone else into is a foolish one, you’re left with horrid things.  Most of us have studied history and can remember the Inquisition.  During this period of history the Christian church had the utmost power.  The church had the belief that those who did not accept Christianity were bound to experience eternal hell-fire.

Now this started a widespread movement against all other religions and beliefs toward death and the after-life.  The church believed they must eradicate all other religions promoting anything other than Jesus Christ.  Why?  It was for the good of the people.  If these false religions and philosophies were allowed to be propagated, the souls of the masses would be in jeopardy of eternal hell-fire.  They had to save this from happening, so, in order to do this, they had to kill off everyone who did not accept Christianity.

All the many murders you read about, done by the church, were all acts of altruism.  The people doing such tasks believed they were doing so for the best benefit of the people involved.  Burning innocent people at the stake, etc; the flames of the stake were to scare these people into repentance.

We could also take the Salem witch hunts as another example.  Believing these witches were possessed by demons, and made pacts with Satan, various horrid tests were devised to determine if they really were witches or not.

One such test was the witch pricker.  With a small knife, these trained “prickers” would stab accused witches all over their body searching for a particular spot where the demon resided.  Prick by prick they’d look for an insensitive area of the body where the witch could be stabbed and would not feel pain.  If no such spot was found, the witch could once again find good standing with the church.  Needless to say, the testing was not a pleasant procedure for the accused.

This was also an altruistic procedure.  It was for the good of the society.  If this witch really did make a pact with Satan, it was for the best interests of the society that such a thing be discovered.  The witch pricker was exhibiting the utmost virtue, selflessly enduring such horrid cutting on the nude women for the greater good of society.

You could argue such acts cannot be classified as altruistic, but who are we to judge the motives of someone else?  The armies of the Catholic church, as well as the witch prickers, could well have had good intentions when they were doing such acts. How can you know?

Motives do not determine whether an act comes out good or bad.  One of my favorite philosophers states this beautifully:

“We agree with those who say: the end justifies the means; but we add the indispensable corrective: it is the means which define the end.”
– Jean-Paul Sartre

The Christians may stand before Christ and tell him that they had good motives as they were killing innocent men, women, and children, but that does no good for us.  Good motives do not define what results end up happening; what you actually end up doing defines the end of the matter.  The step by step choices you make, the actual actions you do in your body, the things you say, etc.; these things determine the quality and result of the outcome, regardless of what you had planned.

If you didn’t know better, that doesn’t fix the issue.  People are hurt when you do something stupid.  People are killed, people are traumatized, people are mentally and emotionally damaged by your silly actions.

We all make mistakes, and none of us are all knowing.  All of us will do stupid things, but this does not give us an excuse to abandon our fellow man.  We can’t be satisfied with this as “the way it is” and give up on the social life. If we truly love one another, if we truly want peace, prosperity, and the good life for every man, we cannot settle for over-simplified philosophies, saying we must just live ‘right’, ‘love’ one another, treat each other with ‘justice’, etc.  We must stop throwing vague, all encompassing words, at each other that do not break down into the actual actions we must do to one another.  We must learn individual actions we can do to one another, actual things we can say to one another, things we can do for each other, etc., and learn the corresponding consequences of each action.

Such a road is not easy, and requires a lot of work, but that is why my room is filled with books by all the wisest men who have ever lived, who have made such things their pursuit.

Final thoughts on morals:  Knowledge is what’s missing from mankind and is what causes all our problems.  People don’t know the consequences of what they’re doing, and most of the time, people do awful things with the best of motives.  They even do so altruistically.  Not always, but most of the time.  Most people have good hearts, but that doesn’t lead to a quality life.  Only wisdom will solve our problems, not cheap one-liners, and escapes to over-simplified philosophies like egoism and altruism.

Pragmatism does not help either.  You can say that an act is morally right or wrong based on the outcome, but we do not know, typically, what the outcome will be for our actions ( especially in complex situations).  The purpose of any moral theory is to help guide our actions, and if it cannot tell us our actions until after we do them, I cannot say such a theory is of much use.  It fails to accomplish the very purpose it was designed to accommodate.

I think morals theories cannot be completely overarching, but will be situation specific.  There will be conversation morals, automobile driving morals, police enforcement morals, etc.  Not ‘love one another’.  People have many different conceptions on what actions constitute ‘love’.  I can’t find much use for ‘love your wife’ by itself, but I can understand love if you teach me female psychology and the desires of a woman.  If I know what she wants, then I can love her.  Otherwise, the option is not even available to me.  It has to break down into actions, not just a word or saying.  ‘Love your wife’ has meaning, but it is vague without knowledge as to positive consequences of actions you could to for your wife.

Every view, every mindset, and every action we do in the body has consequences.  The man who knows these consequences through intense study will most likely be a man capable of making quality moral decisions (at least in the area in which he has knowledge).  Knowledge adds capability, but the person can still choose to do the ‘evil’ thing.

Altruism is both good and bad, depending on the person’s beliefs and knowledge.  A wise man, who understands the world, and believes that education, quality living, and freedom are virtues worth realizing: his altruism will be useful.  A man filled with religious superstition: his altruism will cause things like the Inquisition.  It all depends on who is being altruistic.

Knowledge related to consequences of mindsets (philosophy/psychology), and consequences of actions (science) are the key components to all morality.  They lead to knowledge of the outcome of actions, and the more knowledge we know, the more capable we are to make a good, quality decision.


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