Altruism: True or False?

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"Anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices." ~ Voltaire

As I continue this odyssey of libertarian philosophy, I often come up against a premise or belief or point of view that: a) has a long history in mainstream thought; b) carries with it a substantial amount of mystical cultural value; and c) tends to not be unanimously perceived even within libertarian circles.

Somewhat surprisingly, a belief in the existence of altruism seems to be such a concept. For the record, and despite any flak I might get for sounding like an objectivist, I posit that altruism does not exist. (Calling me an objectivist would be rather ironic, since I've not read enough Ayn Rand to have arrived at this conclusion via any Randian dogma.) Furthermore, I don't think we are any the worse if altruism does not exist. I suspect that the number of heroes in society or the amount of good works done via charity will remain unchanged no matter how we chose to characterize such behavior and no matter how much our culture wants to celebrate something that simply does not exist.

For the purposes of this discussion, I'll define altruism in two ways; both fully descriptive of the general consensus of what altruism would be if it existed.

Altruism: Selfless concern for the welfare of others; the commission of a selfless act in relation to another.

Or:

Altruism: The act of willingly, purposefully, exchanging one item of value (say, your own life) for another item of ostensibly less or at best equal value (say, the life of someone else).

To analyze altruism, and determine whether it exists or not, I will confine the discussion to a simple set of conditions. The only assumption I will make is that altruism is "about" action, that is, without purposeful action, altruism cannot exist via any rubric. The table below defines these simple conditions.

Did the Actor act?

Yes

No

Did the Actor have a choice?

Yes

No

If you didn't have a choice, your action can't be called altruistic. (Let us, for the time being, dispense with any circular, mind-bending, pseudo-nihilistic discussions of determinism and whether or not one ever has a choice!) Our base assumption rules out instinctive behavior, and with it, the behavior of animals. (How can we ascribe "selfless" action to instinctive behavior? That is, of course, a non-sequitur.)

It would seem as if our simple two-by-two table has been cut in half. The only cases of merit in our analysis are the ones where the actor had a choice and acted as well. Simply put, in order to be acting altruistically, an actor has to act when he has a choice not to act, and in doing so, offer in trade that which he believes is of greater value than that which he receives.

Basic Austrian Value Theory (AVT) posits that the perceived value received by the participants in an exchange cannot be determined a priori. That is, no one outside a transaction can determine what those involved in a transaction will want to spend or receive in exchange. Only the actor can make those decisions, generally at the time of action. Of course AVT is applying these insights to "goods" and the exchange of value — generally money — for them. In this essay, I extend this premise to include choices where no literal "good", i.e., object, is actually exchanged, but where value is obviously still derived. This is, in fact, the heart of my argument that altruism does not exist.

In the typical application of AVT it is taken as axiomatic that no one outside the transaction can determine a priori from viewing the transaction how much value a participant will place on a transaction. That is, any person voluntarily making an exchange must be assumed to be receiving at least a slightly greater value than that which he provides or he would not act. He may, in fact, be receiving a huge "bargain" in his view. Either way, only he can decide. Already we begin to see that an external observer is required to make a value judgment that flies directly in the face of praxeological truth in order to ascribe altruism to an action — we readily see this error — and as a result we should also begin to see the flaw in the larger concept.

Even with that simple analysis, I would be surprised if there did not continue to be more questions and beliefs about altruism, so let's take a bunch of hypothetical situations and categorize them as altruistic behavior or not, just to see where it takes us.

To start, let's assume that a bunch of us are walking down some trail in Iraq, "on patrol" or some such. At an unexpected moment, a grenade lands directly in front of us. Without question, this grenade's explosion will kill most of us, unless someone shields us from the blast with his body. (For the record, "Myth Busters" verified that this action will indeed, save people from the shrapnel of a grenade. I'll assume for the time being, that Discovery Channel is as good a reference as any!) With this as a backdrop, which of the following actions are examples of altruism, on the part of the "person" falling on the grenade only?

  1. One of our group members pushes someone onto the grenade, and that person's body saves us all.
  2. In the mad rush to get away, someone trips and falls onto the grenade, and that person's body saves us all.
  3. One of our group members [willingly, purposefully] jumps on the grenade, and uses his body to saves us all.
  4. Just after the grenade lands, a hunter nearby shoots a large bird. The bird falls onto the grenade and, in a miracle of physics, his body shields us from the blast.
  5. Unbeknownst to us, one of our group members is a Vulcan. The night before, he has mind-melded with one of our party and told him that if a grenade falls in front of us, he is to jump on it. At the appointed time, he does so, and his action saves us all.

Which of these situations provides an example of altruism? Based upon the assumptions and definitions already covered, we can strike items 1, 2, 4, and 5 immediately, since not one of them illustrates purposeful action by the savior. (Accidental behavior cannot be altruistic.) Clearly there is no purposeful action by our shrapnel-stopper in any of those cases.

Case 3, however, might be a little more problematic. In fact, I figure many folks would immediately suggest that our hero was acting with altruism. If he was a "believer" in the rhetoric which suggests that giving one's life for a cause is a worthy exploit, then of course he would be altruistic, right? No. Anyone who believes that the trade of his life is appropriate in exchange for some higher goal is, by definition, valuing that higher goal more than his life! This is Misesian splendor revealed. He acts, on purpose, to achieve more of what he likes, in exchange for less of what he does not. The trade is in his favor or he would not have taken the action. No other logical assessment is possible, unless he takes the action accidentally, or randomly, or unless we cannot predict that people follow praxeology with all purposeful actions. I agree with Mises.

Try though I may, I can find no scenario where similar logic does not hold. Unless people act randomly, without purpose — and if they do, then ascribing praise that should be reserved for a purposeful action seems specious — they cannot be thought to perform any action, even a "heroic" one, without regard to what they "receive" in exchange. I realize that conclusion carries with it the danger that many actions have, at their root, an ego component, albeit a possibly non-obvious one. So what? If I'm alive because a guy wanted to get on TV, thought he'd be rewarded in the afterlife, or wanted to impress his girlfriend, who cares? Am I not just as alive?

Conclusion

So there you have it, no altruism to be found. While that analysis was relatively straightforward, I have left for the conclusion the larger, and frankly, more important question. Why is the existence or lack thereof, of altruism a big deal? What's the danger? It is in the answer to this query that the Voltaire quote becomes germane. If people act randomly, without holding to the laws of praxeology, prediction becomes difficult. Furthermore, if people can be depended upon to act in "self-less" non-personally-interested ways, then a whole panorama of other conclusions follow. Civil servants who sacrifice of themselves for the benefit of the masses could be a reality. With these people at the helm, the awesome power of the state could be used for good! In fact, if is because of: a) the supposed unpredictability of human action; and, b) the ostensive existence of self-sacrificial souls that legitimizes the state's very existence.

Count me out. I'll take my chances with everyone operating in their own best interest, and the peaceful, predictable, dare I say it, "spontaneously-ordered" society it brings.

Wilt Alston [send him mail] lives in Rochester, NY, with his wife and three children. When he's not training for a marathon or furthering his part-time study of libertarian philosophy, he works as a principal research scientist in transportation safety, focusing primarily on the safety of subway and freight train control systems.

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