Re: Selfishness vs Altruism; an outdated dicotomy?
Sun, 21 Nov 1999 23:28:27 EST

In a message dated 99-11-21 17:06:26 EST, James wrote:

<<I've been meaning to reply to this for some time. I have had a number of similar ideas, and what I think amounts to a serious critique of standard objectivist ethics. I acknowledges the absolute necessity for treating people as individuals but still come up with an ethical impulse to service to others.>>

I would say an impulse toward service to all (myself included), but I'm with you.

<<I think about ethics in terms of time scales. On the shortest
possible time scale, the moment of the perceived now, i.e. the period long enough for my brain to signal my body electro-chemically to do something, take the action and receive the sensory feedback, I can only do what I want to do. After all, we each act through our own bodies, so in some sense it makes sense in those moments only to analyze our own goals. This corresponds well I think with Ayn Rand's selfishness: free of coercion, we each follow our own values.>>

I would agree in general with the most local and fastest events being focused primarily on yourself, though I think this also applies to those if very close proximity.

<<As you broaden the timescale, and consider the hierarchy of meta goals
(e.g. I move my legs because I want to walk, I want to walk because I want to go to work, I want to go to work because I want to do my job, I want to do my job for money, pride, fun, etc.) you find a greater and greater admixture of other peoples' concerns in the desiderata.>>

Too true. As long as there are two or more people in existence, our concerns almost certainly will have to interact.

<<This makes sense, because serving the interests of other sentient
beings in a cooperative way is the only method I know to allow for peaceful, mutually beneficial existence among them.>>

Again, the main difference I would have here is to expand service to all sentient beings (including myself). And by cooperating to acheive a better life for all concerned, we are able to do more than any one could do singly.

<<If one refused to consider the interests of others, one would have nothing
to offer them, i.e. no goods or services to exchange. It's possible one could become a completely self-sufficient hermit, a la the unabomber in his shack, but in so doing one would be deliberately choosing a path of eventual impoverishment, in every sense -- material, mental, and ethical -- relative to the mass of humanity who enjoy benefit from constructive engagement with their peers. No sort of greatness or glory could be attained that way. Even a great mind that did seek isolation would hope to bring back her or his ideas to the public and thus would serve and engage with the mass of humanity in a substantial way.>>

This also is true to a certain extent. But are greatness and glory things to be sought? They can be kind of nice, but I think of them more as by-products. I would find a person who annonymously makes contributions to the betterment of people would be making as great a contribution as those who do so publicly (this annonymity need not be selfless; the person may just value privacy and peace).

<<In fact, I most respect those whose value other selves so highly that
on the longest scale they plan to contribute to the good of all humankind or mindkind, to employ Anders Sandberg's coinage.>>

Yes, I think the longest scale is the one that shows the maximal path to good for all. Mostly because I believe a good life is cumulative, so the longer you live a decent life, the better. And if we all are pledged to aiding one another to that goal, then hopefully all it will take is one sentient being acheiving eternity, who can then bring the rest of us through if we can't do so ourselves.

<<On that scale, one doesn't need to think of oneself at all, since if one
properly planned for one's one productive work, care, and self-preservation in the short and medium term, one can trust to one's labor to earn the means in the future to go on doing so. So in the long run others and their desires are paramount in my scheme.>>

I'd say the desires of others are important, but that my own are paramount from my perspective (if for no other reason then I have the most say in those desires and their acheivement).

<<Another way to phrase this is that my ethical system begins with total
respect for the individual's rights and absolute dominion over himself or herself, but, strangely, finds its telos in service to others. So while the instant principle of action is self-interest, my values are utterly philanthropic. I think the standard objectivist ethics lacks any discussion of this ethical telos, though I may simply not yet have read enough.>>

Absolute dominion over one's self may not be the best course (though near dominance is close). What about those who are incapable of making rational decisions through accident or disease? What of those who have willingly accepted responsibilities, but then decide they do not wish to fulfill them? I would agree that when working with a functional mind and making decisions that do not strongly impact on others, then unfettered autonomy is the best course. However, it is rare that our own actions do not have an effect on another. This must be carefully weighed. Sometimes self interest simply conflicts with philanthropy (or even other self interests). I agree that objectivist thinking (specifically Rand) comes across as being focused on the self to the virtual exclusion of all others. I prefer a more balanced approach that acknowledges both the objective and subjective aspects of my life. I am one of many subjective universes built from and interacting with an objective one (as well as each other).

<<Still another way to look at this would be to acknowledge that we all
face the world from within our own skins. Therefore, we are obliged to nurture and protect ourselves from moment to moment. But on a longer time scale, when our goals may direct the arc of our whole lives, my values drive me to recognize that there's a lot more good to gain from considering and working for the good of others, rather than ourselves, since there is so much more to the world of other people than there is to any individual.

James Wetterau >>

I agree that we are obliged to nurture and protect ourselves, but disagree that there is more to the world of other people than there is to any individual. Going back to my acknowledgement of the subjective aspect of life, each and every person is a subjective universe, derived from the objective universe in which we live. Though the actual contents of any one subjective universe may be limited, it is still precious, and I do not believe you can successfully quantize how precious. Each person is of inestimable value (to me if to nobody else), thus I am as valuable as any other person, and they are as valuable as me. I chose between the needs of myself and others more in terms of practicality than any sense of one being more important than the other. Often, it is my own needs that are the most practical for me to meet (and also the most necessary, as if I am to be of any good to others, it usually means I need to take good care of myself). But again, I would say there is no more nor less to the world of others than there is to my own.

Thanks for the comments, James. They certainly helped me further examine my own ideas on this subject.

Glen Finney