Monday, December 02, 2002

Altruistic Capitalism? Susanna Cornett points out this essay from Randian blogger Arthur Silber on altruism and capitalism. She gives a solid critique, but I've got to give a long-winded $0.02 on it.
A disastrous confusion in the minds of most people concerning the nature of altruism is the belief that altruism represents or derives from the principle of benevolence, good will and kindness toward others. Advocates of altruism take great pains to encourage this belief--to establish a "package-deal," as it were--so as to conceal from their victims the actual meaning of the altruist morality. Such a view of altruism is worse than mistaken: like the perversion entailed in the technique of the "Big Lie," it represents the exact opposite of the truth; altruism and benevolence are not merely different, they are mutually inimical and contradictory.
If one could move towards a perfect altruism, where the believer was totally sold-out and living as a street-person, giving away all his wealth to others, he’d have a case that the person is worse off than if he were a bit selfish. However, you don’t see too many such saints.
The literal philosophical meaning of altruism is: placing others above self. As an ethical principle, altruism holds that man must make the welfare of others his primary concern and must place their interests above his own; it holds that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the moral justification of his existence, that self-sacrifice is his foremost duty and highest virtue.
Let’s see how his straw man of altruism meshes with orthodox Christian thought.
(1) altruism holds that man must make the welfare of others his primary concern and must place their interests above his own.
The believer’s supposed to place God first, but from a naturalist viewpoint (ignoring the supernatural and ignoring God and His relationship with people), that will manifest itself as putting others first.
(2) man has no right to exist for his own sake
This runs counter to basic Christian doctrine, for each life is viewed as unique. This might be more true of Islamic doctrine, where individual lives are viewed as more dispensable, but Christian doctrine values each person as a child of God and to be treated with respect. This belief drives the pro-life movement to defend the unborn and the disabled from utilitarian deaths. If read tightly, the objectivist might argue that the Christian view is that we exist to glorify God rather than to enjoy life, and thus we don’t have a general right to exist. You don’t see mandated martyrdom, however.
(3) service to others is the moral justification of his existence
From a naturalistic viewpoint, yes. Faithfulness to God, and the service to others that flows from it, is our raison d’etre.
(4) self-sacrifice is his foremost duty and highest virtue.
From their naturalistic viewpoint, the duty of following Jesus’ commands would look that way.
The essence of altruism is the concept of self-sacrifice. It is the self that altruism regards as evil: selflessness is its moral ideal. Thus, it is an anti-self ethics--and this means: anti-man, anti-personal happiness, anti-individual rights.
The area where Silber’s thoughts run astray is that people don’t follow their faith to the extent where everyone tries to out-martyr each other. I think Buddhism would be a good fit for the altruism that he’s talking about. It’s been twenty years since my Buddhism class at CMU, but here’s my synopsis of classic Buddhism: Suffering is caused by wants; to minimize suffering, you need to minimize wants-“Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he will never be disappointed.” Nirvana is achieved by getting rid of all wants and thus all suffering, becoming the selfless altruist that Silber is ranting against. Ain’t gonna happen. We may come close to selflessness, but never quite get there. We retain a spark of self-centeredness that won’t go away. That self-centeredness offends God to the extent that we’re doing things He doesn’t like. Let’s see if Christianity matches up with his altruism.
(1) anti-man
Christianity is pro-man on a number of levels. First, each individual is a person of value in God’s eyes. Jefferson, although more of a Deist than a Christian, noted that the Creator gave us the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, which is about as pro-man as political philosophy gets. Secondly, God wants fellowship with each person, not mankind as a whole. Jesus died not for mankind in general, but each and every believer as a person. God values the individual, not just the herd. Thirdly, the Bible is speciesistic; mankind’s put in charge of managing God’s creation. We have dominion over nature, not the other way around. This puts Christianity a step ahead of much of Eastern theology and modern environmentalist thought that sees mankind as an smart animal rather than a special creation of God.
(2) anti-personal happiness
John 10:10 comes to mind “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Much of the proscriptions in the Bible are there to protect people from destructive short-term urges that will hurt them in the long haul.
(3)Anti individual rights
See anti-man, first paragraph. Secular philosophies have tended to be more communal in nature than religious ones, for once God is out of the picture, man is now an animal and the best interest of the herd becomes paramount. Secular man will lean more towards totalitarianism than towards libertarianism. Back to the piece
A morality that tells man that he is to regard himself as a sacrificial animal, is not an expression of benevolence or good will.
That’s not Christian thought, for the sacrifice was already taken care of on Golgotha. That might describe Hinduism or Buddhism, but not Christainity. There, man’s a companion of God, not a farm animal to be slaughtered.
By the nature of the altruist ethics, it can engender only fear and hostility among men: it forces men to accept the role of victim or executioner, as objects of sacrifice or profiteers on human sacrifices-- and leaves men no standard of justice, no way to know what they can demand and what they must surrender, what is theirs by right, what is theirs by favor, what is theirs by someone's sacrifice--thereby casting men into an amoral jungle. Contrary to the pretensions of altruism's advocates, it is human brotherhood and good will among men that altruism makes impossible.
We aren’t working in a hypothetical universe of a bunch of wanna-be monks living in anarchy but a real world with laws and customs. The Golden Rule serves as a guide for what can be asked for of ones fellow man and the civil reparations layed out in the Mosaic Law used as a guidepost for civil justice. Silber uses the metaphor of the sacrificial beast rather than of small mutual sacrifices. The altruistic-minded person will take pleasure in using his assets (or his time) himself, but will also take pleasure in having someone else use them. Putting a dollar in the Salvation Army bin may bring more pleasure than buying a bowl of chili to go with your lunch. However, such altruistic behavior has its limits; at some point, people’s selfishness will kick in and they will start closing the checkbook and start spending money on themselves.
Benevolence, good will and respect for the rights of others proceed from an opposite code of morality: from the principle that man the individual is not an object of sacrifice but an entity of supreme value; that each man exists for his own sake and is not a means to the ends of others; that no one has the right to sacrifice anyone.
Good paragraph, except that God is the one of supreme value. From a naturalistic vantage point, the respect for each other as children of God makes each individual valued. However, we exist both for ourselves and for each other. It is true that no one has the right to sacrifice anyone, but people can voluntarily sacrifice part of themselves (or all on rare occasions) for the greater good.
With regard to my post about capitalism and religion and why they are incompatible, I repeat this sentence of Branden's: "[Altruism] is an anti-self ethics -- and this means: anti-man, anti-personal happiness, anti-individual rights." (Emphasis added.) This is why any religion which relies on an ethics of altruism is incompatible with capitalism -- and to my knowledge, every religion (certainly, every major religion) depends on an ethics of altruism. I will have some additional details and implications to offer on this subject in a future post, but this is the essence of the issue.
The difference between Christianity and eastern religions is the idea that mankind isn’t perfectible. The theology of Hinduism and Buddhism stress selflessness as a way of achieving a divine state, either the Hindu a multi-life refining process where selfishness is striped away until union with the divine is achieved or the Buddhist selfless state of Nirvana (that might be more descriptive of Theravada than Mahayana) is achieved. However, Christian theology points out that man is sinful and can’t get to God on his own. Thus, the emphasis isn’t on hyper-orthopraxis but of a faith in Jesus’ substitutionary death for the believer. The good works that lean towards altruism are the result of a closer walk with God and doing things that are less selfish. However, a perfect altruism isn’t to be expected. On the personal level, we will give to others to the extent that we can overcome our desire to spend the money on ourselves, where we balance the pleasure we gain from spending (or saving for future spending and/or giving) with the pleasure we get from giving. We’re maximizing our personal well being, and as we get godlier, we’ll get more altruistic and weigh other people’s welfare higher than before. On the national level, a benevolent and altruistic macroeconomic policy will look to maximize the national well-being. This is consistent with a largely capitalist system in that while a socialist system might be good at sharing the wealth, it’s lousy at creating wealth. A altruistic fiscal policy will have the joy the needy person gets from the government spending weighed against the pain caused by the taxes needed to pay for the spending, both from the lost utility of the taxpayer and the slowing down of the economy from the higher taxes. I can defend that from a Christian perspective. We’re supposed to be altruistic and help the poor, but I also understand that people are sinful and fall short of being purely altruistic. In order to maximize the overall well being, we need to reward people for working and investing; taxing their gains discourages works and investment by making leisure and spending less costly. The trick then is to find that sweet spot that maximizes the commonweal; the well-off person should look to help the needy but the more-needy person should be too much of a burden on their society. This argues for something between anarchy and socialism. The altruistic parts leans one towards the socialist end, while the sin-nature argues for a free-market approach. This might sound a bit too much like “third way” neosocialism, but all but the hard-core libertarian or communist will agree to some mix of free-markets and government spending. The trick is to find what that proper mix is. American conservatives and libertarians think that sweet spot is to the lower-tax side of where we’re at. In the past, I’ve posited a Byron Curve that measures commonweal as a function of tax rates (and the resultant level of government that comes from those rates) as opposed to the Laffer Curve that’s measuring tax revenues as a function of tax rates. Like the supply siders of two decades ago pointed out that we’re on the right side of the peak of the Laffer Curve, I’d argue that we’re on the right side of the peak of the Byron Curve; smaller government and lower tax rates would improve the economy and the commonweal, helping the economy more than it hurts the people who will have their government largess reduced. At some point, we might find that left slope, where government might get too small and poverty and anarchic pathologies might overwhelm an otherwise thriving economy, but we’re not anywhere near that point. The American-style welfare capitalism might not be the minimalist libertarian state of the Randian dream, but avoids the stifling aspects of socialism. If capitalism=anarchy, then it might be argued that capitalism can’t be altruistic at the collective level, but I’d argue that a free-market, lower-taxed system is altruistic in that it creates a greater commonweal than socialism does. That’s consistent with both good theology and good economics

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