Re: Selfishness vs Altruism; an outdated dicotomy?

Technotranscendence (
Wed, 17 Nov 1999 06:43:10 -0800

I thought this essay by Greg Johnson might be helpful in this thread. At least, it might clear up some issues before ditching the self concept.

For the record, I think the self concept works well and is based on reality. The human mind acts as a unity -- in as much as anything that we normally think of as a unity acts thus. I think improvements on it probably will too, but that remains to be seen.


Daniel Ust

From: Greg Johnson Sent: Monday, October 18, 1999 10:13 PM
Subject: OWL: Beyond Altruism and Egoism

> I wrote this little essay about 7 years ago to clarify my thinking. I
> it here because I think it is apropos of current discussions.
> "The Priority of the Good: Beyond Altruism and Egoism"
> One of Ayn Rand's genuine achievements as a moral philosopher
> --and one of the chief sources of her fame and notoriety--is her critique
> of altruism. But many Objectivists do not clearly understand her argument
> and its implications. I shall, therefore, restate Rand's critique of
> altruism. Furthermore, I shall draw out a surprising implication: that
> critique applies as much to egoism as it does to altruism.
> Rand's most concise argument against altruism is in the Introduction to
> THE VIRTUE OF SELFISHNESS. Rand assumes, uncontroversially, that the
> purpose of an ethical theory is to answer the question, "What is the
> She also assumes a very specific conception of altruism. For Rand, the
> altruist answer to the question of the Good is: "The Good is what is good
> for others, and the bad is what is good for oneself." Service to others is
> good; service to the self is bad. The best way, then, to do good and avoid
> evil is to serve others in a way that does not serve oneself, i.e., to
> practice self-sacrifice. Rand's argument does not, therefore, apply to
> ordinary senses of "altruism" as kindness, benevolence, and respect for
> others.
> Rand argues that altruism is not a viable theory of the Good, because to
> identify the Good with what is good for others does not tell us what the
> Good is. It simply tells us who should benefit from the Good. We are,
> however, still left wondering, "Yes, but what is the Good for others?"
> "What is the Good for oneself?" By defining the Good as the good for
> others, altruism amounts to an empty, circular definition of the Good.
> Rand's diagnosis of the source of this circularity is quite insightful:
> There are two moral questions which altruism lumps together . . . : (1)
> What are values? (2) Who should be the beneficiary of values? Altruism
> substitutes the second for the first; it evades the task of defining a
> of moral values, thus leaving man . . . without moral guidance." (VOS,
> paperback ed., p. viii.)
> Rand points out that the altruists have simply confused the question "What
> is the Good?" with the question "Who should benefit from the Good?" The
> questions, however, are distinct. Furthermore, the first question must be
> answered before the second one. One must know what the Good is before one
> can say who should benefit from it. The question of the Good has priority.
> Altruism is a circular account of the Good because it answers the second
> question, but ignores the first. Altruism thus defaults on the primary
> question of ethics. Furthermore, because altruism is not a definition of
> the Good, the altruist must, by default, simply accept uncritically
> whatever people think is good at any given time. Altruism then tells us:
> satisfy the desires of others; deny your own. It cannot tell us which
> desires are good or bad, noble or ignoble. Altruism, then, is not a moral
> theory so much as a failure to have a moral theory.
> At this point, a common error of Rand's readers is to conclude that, if
> altruism fails as an account of the Good, then egoism must be the right
> account. After all, Rand entitles her book THE VIRTUE OF SELFISHNESS: A
> CONCEPT OF EGOISM and is an advocate of self-interest and laissez-faire
> capitalism, isn't she? Egoism, these readers think, means making all moral
> decisions by calculating which options best serve one's interests. One
> chooses friends, lovers, careers, lifestyles, hobbies, entertainment, and
> habits by the standard of self-interest. When faced with any option, one
> asks, "What's in it for me?" The Good is what is good for me.
> This, however, is a mistake. To make all moral decisions by the standard
> of self-interest is, implicitly, to define the Good as what is good for
> one's self. But this account of the Good suffers from the same problems as
> the altruist account. Therefore, it is just as much subject to Rand's
> critique as altruism. Egoism does not really answer the question, "What is
> the Good?" It simply pushes it back. Now we have to ask, "Yes, but what is
> the Good for me?" Egoism, just as much as altruism, denies the priority
> the question "What is the Good?" and substitutes the question "Who should
> benefit from the [undefined] Good?" Because it does not define the Good,
> conventional egoism, like altruism, leads us to accept uncritically
> whatever preferences people happen to have at a given time. It then tells
> us to satisfy our own preferences first. Because it fails to define the
> Good, it cannot, however, tell us which desires are good and which are
> Egoism too, then, is not so much a moral theory as a default on moral
> Although Rand is widely known as an egoist, her actual position lies
> beyond altruism and egoism. Rand uncovers the common root of both altruism
> and egoism: the replacement of the question of the Good with the question
> of beneficiaries. By affirming the priority of the Good over
> Rand rejects both altruism and egoism at the root. Rand is just as little
> an egoist as she is an altruist.
> Now, I do not wish to deny that Rand is an egoist in some sense. Clearly
> she is. After having answered the question of the Good--the Good for man
> man's life qua man, i.e., human flourishing--Rand turns to the question of
> beneficiaries and argues that the individual should be the chief
> beneficiary of his own actions. But there is a reason that she subtitles
> VOS "A New Concept of Egoism." Rand's egoism is new and different because
> it affirms the priority of the question of the Good over the question of
> beneficiaries. Rand's egoism is a derivative principle, not a primary.
> This means that, although the individual should be the chief beneficiary
> of his own actions, the standard by which he determines which actions are
> good or bad cannot be self-interest. Rather, the standard must be the
> The standard cannot be self-interest, because the self and its interests
> cannot be treated as moral primaries which must be accepted uncritically
> and treated as the standard of what is good. This would default on the
> fundamental moral question: "Which desires and preferences are good?"
> question cannot be reduced to the question of self-interest, for it raises
> the question of whether one's self and one's interests are worthy of being
> satisfied in the first place. Some selves and some interests are simply
> corrupt and should not be served. They cannot, however, be judged corrupt
> by the standard of self-interest. They can be judged corrupt only by
> another, higher standard: the Good.
> Ethics, for Rand, is not a set of rules for pursuing self-interest
> regardless of the self or the interests involved. Rather, ethics for Rand
> is about what kind of selves and what kinds of interests are good.
> Rand seldom used the word and never discussed the concept, the central
> concern of the Objectivist ethics is character.
> It is important to appreciate the priority of the Good in Rand's thought,
> for many Objectivists--including Rand herself--are prone to adopting
> self-interest as the standard of what is good, especially when applying
> moral principles to particular situations. David Kelley, for instance, has
> recently claimed that the fact that respecting individual rights is good
> for man qua man is not sufficient reason to respect people's rights.
> Kelley writes that:
> Even if I understand that your freedom is good for you . . . I don't yet
> have a reason for regarding your freedom as a good for me. But this is
> precisely the point that must be established if we are going to validate
> rights on the basis of ethical egoism. ("Post-Randian Aristotelianism,"
> The root of Kelley's error is the claim that Objectivism validates
> rights "on the basis of ethical egoism." This, I have proven, is false.
> Rand, nothing is validated by the standard of self-interest. Rather, the
> self and its interests are validated by the standard of the Good.
> people's rights has been in the interests of many selves throughout
> mankind's long, bloody history. But, by the standard of the Good, these
> selves are corrupt and their interests should not be satisfied. It is,
> therefore, completely unecessary to demand a reason to respect the rights
> of others over and above the fact that it is good, i.e., that it is a
> requirement of man's life qua man.
> What is the source of the tendency for Objectivists to substitute
> self-interest for the Good as the standard of value? Here is one
> hypothesis. Although Rand rejects conventional egoism, she still employs
> its rhetoric. The clearest example of this is the title "The Virtue of
> Selfishness." If, however, one checks Rand's list of the virtues in "The
> Objectivist Ethics" selfishness does not actually appear there!
> But there is a danger to this rhetoric. Although language could not exist
> without human beings, it is not simply a human invention or tool; rather,
> it is an evolved, objective social phenomenon. The meanings of words were
> not, therefore, simply invented by fiat. Nor can they be redefined by
> Words come with ingrained connotations which are objective facts. And,
> just as it is difficult to work wood against the grain, it is difficult to
> use words in ways that contradict their settled connotations. Words, to be
> commanded, must be obeyed. Thus, although Rand is careful to speak of a
> "new" egoism, the inbuilt connotations of the word "egoism" pull thought
> a different direction, toward conventional egoism.
> How can one avoid this tendency? The first step is simply to become aware
> of the problem. Monitor oneself. Whenever one finds oneself asking,
> in it for me?" immediately counter by asking, "What's so good about me?"
> This is not a counsel of humility, but of pride, i.e., moral ambition. We
> can only improve ourselves morally by judging ourselves morally. And the
> greatest obstacle to self-improvement is that all too common Objectivist
> vice: smug and excessive self-esteem.
> Self-monitoring is important. But the only guaranteed way of avoiding
> conventional egoism is to drop the rhetoric of egoism altogether. The
> essence and standard of the Objectivist ethics is human flourishing, man's
> life qua man, the Good. Self-interest is neither the essence nor the
> standard of the Objectivist ethics. It follows, therefore, that one can
> communicate the essence of the Objectivist ethics without ever using the
> word "egoism."
> So why not do it? Leonard Peikoff has given one plausible objection. He
> claims that if one were to set out Objectivism without mentioning
> selfishness, the first objection would be, "But you're just advocating
> selfishness!" Since it is inevitable that selfishness will come up,
> Peikoff argues that we might as well be open about it from the beginning.
> I disagree. The rhetoric of egoism just muddies the waters. If one's
> interlocutor muddies the waters by bringing up the issue, then the proper
> response is not to pre-emptively muddy the waters, but to clear them up.
> One clears them up by offering the very arguments that I have offered
> above. One must show that identifying the Good with what is good for self
> or others simply defaults on the question of ethics. One must argue that
> the issue of beneficiaries is a secondary issue that is logically
> upon a prior answer to the question of the Good. One must then challenge
> one's interlocutor to turn from the shadowy but seductive pseudo-ethics of
> altruism and egoism toward the shining sovereignty of the Good.
> Gregory R. Johnson
> Athens, GA
> December 4th, 1992