Altruism Is a Myth

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"The measure of the state’s success is that the word ‘anarchy’ frightens people, while the word ‘state’ does not."

~ Joseph Sobran

A while back, this author wrote an essay on his disbelief in altruism that turned out to be one of his favorites. As well, it generated a fair amount of fan mail, both complimentary and condescending. (Who among us doesn't enjoy the occasional, "You're an idiot" reader response?) More recently, a thoughtful reader posed another question about the concept of altruism and this author's analysis of it. The respondent said:

I enjoyed reading your essay on why altruism does not exist. By and large I agree with it and think most compassionate and kind acts are related to [self-interest]. And I don’t think altruism is a necessary aspect of society either. However, I think I have an example of true altruism.

He went on:

My little brother is going to die. I have [the] choice of letting him die and inheriting his possessions, or I can sacrifice myself to save him. Let’s assume if I let him die no one will know that I could have saved him so no one will judge me about it. As an atheist, I do not believe in an afterlife and have no desire to die because I cease to exist at that point. [This] also means I don’t care about what people think of me once I’m dead. The only time it would be in my [self-interest] to die is if it ended unbearable suffering I was experiencing, which would not be true in this scenario. The only selfish aspect of sacrificing myself would be avoiding remorse I would experience if I let him die. Everything else being equal, I would rather live with that remorse than die. So we have countless major reasons why it would be in my [self-interest] to save myself, and only one smaller reason why it would be in my [self-interest] to save my brother. And yet I would sacrifice myself to save him. In this case the trade would not be in my favor. I attribute the reason why I would save him to altruism.

My respondent presents an interesting query, and one that would possibly attest to the existence of altruism except for several issues. Before continuing, let us, as was done in that previous essay, define altruism in two ways; both 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).

First, my respondent makes what is probably a rather common mistake: he conflates self-interest, which denotes the driving force for all actions and selfishness, which connotes a disregard for others. While similar, they are different. Self-interest is, in this case, a praxeological construct, an inescapable condition of being human and having no choice but to use the ways and means at one's disposal. Acting man — borrowing from Mises — acts, period. His actions logically and categorically reflect his assessment of the ways and means at his disposal to reach the conclusion — the future desired state that he must, given that his action was purposeful, be trying to reach. In other words, if you — and I mean you — act on purpose, the very fact of your action means that the outcome you sought (from that action, at that time) has a higher value to you than any other outcome, i.e., self-interest in full effect. The possibility that said action might also benefit others is irrelevant to the point being made in this analysis.

Secondly, my respondent makes the mistake of what might be termed creating a duplicate armchair valuation. He says, "Everything else being equal, I would rather live with that remorse than die." He also says, "…I would sacrifice myself to save him." Well, it can't be both. That is the point of the action axiom. The analysis of altruism offered in that first essay — and still held firm in this one — is not "about" what might happen. In other words, what this analysis of altruism offers, what it attempts to provide, is a way to view what actually happened, what that action must mean, according to praxeology, relative to the actor's motives. It does not concern an evaluation of what others might think about the action. The important factor is that purposeful actions necessarily reflect internal valuations of the available ways and means. Returning to that previous essay one last time, we have:

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.

Conclusion

As far as I can tell, we are left exactly where we were after that first essay. No altruism to be found. If you made a "sacrifice" it was, by direct virtue of your action, "worth it to you" (at the time of the action) or you would not have taken that action. It is really just that simple. (By the way, this does nothing the render the action more, or less noble, whichever the case may be in the eyes of an observer.) As a fellow anarchist buddy of mine puts it, "altruism is praxeologically impossible." Agreed, still.

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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