Altruism and Religion

Citizen Tom has a series of posts discussing altruism (as seen by Ayn Rand) and Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. I’m in the odd position of largely agreeing with him, and with Ayn Rand — despite his objecting to Rand’s writings.  He describes well the dangers of enforced “altruism”:

What Communism, Fascism, and autocratic Theocratic religions all involve is the worship of man by man. Such systems insist upon “altruism” because the individual is by definition either subordinate to the great collective or to the great leader.

When we as a people speak of altruism, we each put our own altruism in the context of our love for our fellow man. When we speak of altruistic behavior, we speak of a voluntary sacrifice. Consider an example. If they knew the origin of the term”altruism,” can you imagine the folks who wrote this article, The Problem of Goodness, using the term?

By insisting upon a government role and tempting us with promises of wealth from the rich or the enemies of the state, political leaders pervert the voluntary nature of true charity or altruism. Thus, we end up with Communism, Fascism, Theocracy and other forms of tyranny that are supposedly based upon altruism. In reality, such systems are simply abuses of power justified by a lie. In his fable about The Wolf and the Lamb, Aesop explained the technique long ago.

But religion gets involved in the discussion, in a way that seems to me a bit of a side issue or even a distraction. In that debate response just posted, Citizen Tom writes:

What Communism, Fascism, and autocratic Theocratic religions all involve is the worship of man by man.

First, this isn’t at all obvious to me.  I have a sense of what “worship” means, and I don’t see evidence of this in the totalitarian systems invoked here.  Generally, they elevate (in principle) the State to a level demanding obeisance and sacrifice, and sometimes forced worship — but this generally devolves into a cult of personality in which a person is “worshiping” (sort of) himself and forcing others to go through the motions at (often literal) gunpoint.  That doesn’t seem like “worship” in the normal sense to me.

Second, it is the state-centered aspect, not the lack of Christianity (which as Citizen Tom implies isn’t always absent), that marks such systems … and marks them for failure as measured by the human misery created.  By turning this into a religious issue, it seems to me that the risk is high of overlooking or downplaying the real problem with statism.  Some statist systems are religious, many are not, but these are merely the external trappings of implementation, not the essential (and essentially evil) core of statism.  Of course, the statists in control generally do not believe in altruism in any sense, except as a means of obtaining and preserving power over others.

Oddly, it does seem that Rand’s “mistake” is to have approximately the same opinion on the topic of altruism that Citizen Tom does: that personally deciding to help others is an acceptable exercise of your own will and discretion, but being forced into it is bad.  Wouldn’t you agree?

Ayn Rand was reluctant to say good things about altruism, due perhaps to the risk of fuzzing the narrow definition of compelled altruism she was trying to use.  But she had no problem with giving to others, as long as this was not compelled.  To a certain extent, society’s compulsion was immoral to her, but the statists’ use of altruism as justification for socialism in all its forms, including communism, was particularly heinous.

We are used to thinking of altruism in a modern sense of voluntary personal giving, and read into Rand’s words a bitter opposition to this. She did, sometimes, sound this way in her objection to societal compulsion. But she also maintained that as acts of free will such things were perfectly fine.

What she calls altruism is the logical extension of “if it’s good you must be forced (by society or government) to do it.”  Many aspects of today’s governments, sadly including the US, seem to be heading in this direction — with looters outnumbering the makers and thus being able to vote themselves into what they perceive will be the receiving end of this process.  That has never lasted, but such people are not big on learning from history.

It occurs to me that Ayn Rand could have been a deeply devout Christian, and still conceived of and developed Objectivism. In fact, it would be little changed from what she actually did develop, except for the absence of hostility to religion.  It would no longer be a “godless philosophy” — but despite how little it would differ, it would then be much more palatable to those of faith.

People tend to seize upon her use of provocative words and phrases, and the focus on her larger support for the essence of free enterprise and individual self-reliance and self-government gets lost.  I can easily imagine her, today, writing in support of the Tea Party movement, just as Citizen Tom does.

And as I do.

===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle