A Few Notes on the Altruism vs. the Self Debate
by Michael Gilson De Lemos

Modern ideas of Altruism versus the Self have a lot to do with French Sociologist Auguste Comte, who in the 1800's theorized that in the perfect society humans would be like ants, and those who borrowed from his ideas. Enlightenment and semi-aristotelian views almost dissappeared as far as the self was concerned. Fanatics, Kings and social reformers zeroed in on the idea that if people would obey the societal will--i.e., them--everything would be wonderful. Anything that was unpopular was soon denounced as selfish, which became equated with brutish or inconsiderate.

Objectivism is the fourth construction of Aristotelian philosophy, after the Medieval Aristotelians and Baruch Spinoza. As such Rand put into modern terms Aristotle's idea that Ethics, literally the science of character, was about attaining selfish happiness through logical action based on rational contemplation, or having a great soul. The better one's self development, the better one understood others and appreciated them. Aristotle pointed out that people tended to create false dichotomies in Ethics-self versus others, brave versus courageous--through lack of thinking things through. The Stoics and Cicero picked this up and promoted it as the golden mean. There is no good of society in that view except as the selfish and rational good of each member to the best of his development. Objectivists and Ayn Rand advance this concept, Rand in her book The Virtue of Selfishness--a New Concept of Selfishness.

This concept of Selfish Rationality is also put forth by Chinese philosophers such as Lao and Mencius. Buddhism has a strong pro-self philosophy among many of its proponents.. Christ's proverbs are very reflective of the view of Aristotle's followers. Christ warns that if you gain the world but lose your self, you have nothing; criticizes people who have no sense of self-preservation (the parable of the talents); and counsels to love others "as yourself" which presumes you know how to love your self to begin with. Christians are often surprised to learn this, but the New Testament is generally mistranslated or words not placed in the meaning of the time. This was at variance from the Judaism of the time, which advocated obedience and selflessness, and the growing Roman demand of blind obedience and subordination to Rome for the good of all.

There is a lot to be said on the subject, but Rand knew she was bringing an important concept back into discussion after two centuries of neglect. 

Rand and Aristotle are talking about rational self interest as both a goal and a means, a heightened state of focused awareness and realism that comes with time. They never talk in terms of bare self-interest. The problem is developing rational alternatives, or as Aristotle says, at least reasonable ones until the rational solution is found. You focus on the self aspect alone you'll get paradoxes, get stuck on limited questions. Many things are arguably selfish, but truly rationally selfish is a different thing. One big issue is that you have to spend time defining your self, understanding why you do things, deciding what you want to be. Until then, there is just GIGO. If you wish to live like many people with the "selfish" impulsive ways and time-horizon of less than a dog, you don't need Rand and you wouldn't understand her point anyway.

That is the argument against altruism, by the way; it tells us nothing. By denying self it denies rationality as collateral damage. On a practical level it also corrodes the division of labor, constantly interrupting us to look after the affairs of others who are in a mess because they are busy watching out for someone else. It is as if we are on a highway trying to drive other's cars by remote control and hoping someone will drive ours. Why? It's nuts. But people confuse altruism with things such as forbearance, kindness, sharing, generosity, which are sometimes helpful and sometimes not and have to be assessed on their rationally selfish merits. It's pleasing to know your banker is a kindly fellow or your tenants are generous until they unexpectedly spend your mortgage payment and denounce you for being unselfish. To support that altruists tend to try and turn moral behavior into a set of commandments. 

On the selfishness issue, there do seem to be some subtleties, and Rand went a long way to getting people to realize we must clear up the vocabulary. People have a tendency to to tack on hidden emotional assumptions that are culturally driven, then forget what the original definition was and try and make deductions from their assumptions and emotional associations. Libertarians deal with that stuff all the time. That can actually help creativity, lead you to unexpected associations, but from time to time we need to make little reality checks.

That is how it works for me. And of course words sometimes even are formally defined as meaning there opposite, like sacn, or are applied to so many things that there meaning seems to corrode--look at the dictionary definition of "set"--in some its a page long. Russell tried to use it as a substitute for existence and did not realize it comes from indo-european meaning existence-- so he wrote 3 volumes of logical formulas where he had refuted himself on page 1.

Aristotle uses a term in greek, eudaimonia, which simultaneously means good spirit, practicality, awareness, selfishness, functionality and success. And when you think about it, these are indeed all connected, aspects of a deeper process we try and reduce Aristotle would say are whole culture is nuttier than his was, that selfishness is not complicated, that we made it so by separating components of our lives artificially and trying to stitch them back tigether and we get Frankenstein. Its as if we couldn't understand that if you say a chair has a bottom, you mean it has a top to the seat too.

Libertarian philosopher Jack Wheeler says somewhere that if we think "success" or "self-development" for selfish that might be clearer to some people, less emotional baggage. Other best books on the subject include: 

Art of Selfishness by David Seabury 
Positive Selfishness by Evan Porter 
Anatomy of Success by N. Darvas

Also the popular What Color is Your Parachute series for career concerns.(especially the Earlier editions, by a fellow called Crystal.) for positive and mutually supporting selfish interactions with people in a work environment, his whole way of thinking is very different but he shows you by steps.

Winning through Intimidation by Robert Ringer, about how people's altruism turns them into unconscious hypocrites and how to get past peoples intimidation tactics based on guilt trips.

Anthony Robbins has some very helpful tips on developing an environment that supports realistic personal goals. Wayne Dyer's Erroneous Zones is very practical. Harry Browne's How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World is a less-is-more approach that speaks to many people. If you are tryng to get your finances in order; Dominguez' Your Money or Your Life really shows how to think selfishly by realistic reasoning. Dominguez hated Rand, then after he wrote his book suddenly saw her in a new light, maybe she wasn't so crazy after all.

The NLP [Neuro-Linguistic Programming] writers like Bandler are heavier going but they have good techniques for highlighting and removing self-destructive habits.

Most of these people would not know Ayn Rand from I Rant but they have each formulated a practical philosophy of applied selfishness that not only throws light on the subject for everyday people but are filled with homely examples, worksheets, here's-how-i-did-it stories and even cartoons. They are not precise here and there but that is why you have people like Aristotle and Rand who are, and I believe you will take advantage of them better after having benefited from the everyday insights of these other writers.

The Hungarian Darvas is very, very good and writes in that vivid, funny and colorful way that Hungarians seem to do from birth and has a lot of step by step examples of not only why but how to develop your selfish goals in a positive way. He explains how he went from a good little self-destructive altruist to realizing how getting to the why of your actions and taking control of that a little bit every day is where it is at; it's like he is right in your mind.

Seabury is forgotten but he was once the most popular psychological writer in the world. His books, a librarian told me, are often simply removed by Libraries for ideological reasons and he is rarely taught in colleges. He started saying in the early century that altruism and its mirror twin of brutalism was the major psychological disease and moral scourge of civilization, accounting for a good part of everything from depression to orgasmic dysfunctions. He has a lot of specifics and really shows how to change your behavior and see things anew.

They use a very common sense terminology and helpful points in how to translate this stuff into daily career, romantic, priority decisions that many people find really clarifies this stuff. Rand and Spinoza for many people are like Newton, they address the crying need to feel confident of the foundations, have a lovely model, well and true, but are very broad on the practicalities for many people.

To make a comparison, I mean you can slog your way though Newton today and at the end say, yup, no doubt about it, an apple falls off the tree, it hits the ground, and using that principle you can explain all sorts of things, newton's a bloody genius for sure. But then how Newton helps you fix your lawnmower is another question. Try to use him without intermediating concepts and procedures and you begin to doubt again, get lost. By the same token, you fix your lawnmower a few times keeping Newton in mind, suddenly you start making connections, things click all over the place. You suddenly can explain Newton in your words, extend the ideas. We have to each respect our learning styles, and our need to work it out in a practice a bit and then it gets clear.

When I recommend Rand I say look at some of these other people too, notably Seabury, Dominguez, Darvas. And in the process Ive learned a bit on how to get clear on things in a natural way, too.

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Also see MG's "A Little Essay on Altruism" HERE

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