Altruism: A Loaded Word

Altruism. We all know what it means. Or at least, we think we do. But this word carries far more weight in philosophical circles than it does in our everyday lives. The extent to which you rely on the literal definition of the word impacts whether you believe that altruism is inherently positive or negative. Curious how altruism could be considered negative? Read on!

What is altruism?

Altruism is the belief in, or practice of, selfless concern for the well-being of others.

In normal practice, and under the usual interpretation of the word, altruism is noble. By naming this site the Altruistic Dragon, I aim to promote altruism through philanthropy. Clearly, I am about giving to others.

But I also promote having and building a hoard. I promote the use of tax minimization strategies, which fundamentally reduce the amount of money that goes to others (via the government). Is that altruistic?

Those who practice Deep Effective Altruism don’t think so. They believe that in order to call yourself an altruist you must be willing to forgo all of your material wealth (and time!) in the service and name of others. Some religious orders also believe this; notably the Buddhist monks and Catholic nuns (there are many others). Do you believe this?

Furthermore, in his book “In Defense of Selfishness: Why Self-Sacrifice is Unjust and Destructive” Peter Schwartz of the Ayn Rand Institute argues that altruism can result in the prioritization of others above the self, to the actual detriment of society. He has a 200+ page argument about why altruism is a terrible thing. Whoa.

Is Altruism Good or Bad?

So which is it? To some extent it doesn’t matter, of course. It’s just about the word.

But there are two fundamentally different world views associated with the word and I think that is worth addressing. Just like calling yourself a “liberal” can evoke a slew of assumptions, so can calling yourself an “altruist”.

Both world views are concerned with creating the best outcomes for all people, even if that seems unlikely at first glance. (Note that I am excluding the religious orders here as they are forgoing their wealth, at least partially, in favor of enlightenment and spiritual progress and that is not the point of this post). The Deep Effective Altruists believe in directly sharing wealth; returning all wealth to those who have less than you. The Objectivists (those who follow Ayn Rand’s philosophy) believe that creating MORE wealth via pure capitalism will result in greater gains for all people; a rising tide lifts all ships.

But wait! Before you assign political elements to this, consider that the Deep Effective Altruists also believe that if you have the skills and capability to generate massive wealth then you are morally obligated to do so – so that you can give it away. Think about that for a minute; they are actually saying that following a capitalist agenda is the most effective way to give to others – provided you are doing it for selfless reasons.

So, surprisingly, while the Deep Effective Altruists view “altruism” as positive and the Objectivists view it as negative… they actually have significant common ground! Both movements believe in using your skills to generate wealth in the aim of bettering society. Both movements actually want you to make more money.

This is fascinating! And this is great news for the Dragon and her hoard! Because the Dragon subscribes to the middle view – that we have moral obligation to be selfless, but that we can be selfless by using our individual gifts to create value and wealth that we can, in turn, give to others. I do not believe we are called to wander shirtless in the desert in the service of our selflessness. And I believe that each individual or family is entitled to their own version of having “enough”. For some of us, that means having two or more cars. For some of us, that means taking the bus. Your sacrifices are of your own choosing; how much you choose to embrace the spirit of altruism is for you alone to decide.

What do you think? Do you consider yourself an altruist?

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