Altruism: Coercion for the Common Good

April 12, 2017

“Altruism: Coercion for the Common Good”

“The actions of all group leaders throughout history have had one common element: altruism—common good of the collective.  Religious leaders and the ‘moral’ majority condemn the likes of Hitler, Stalin, etc., but their movements and foundations are alike.”

—Ayn Rand, Journals of Ayn Rand (1997)

Ayn Rand made it a point to distinguish between altruism and generosity, giving that is sacrificial and giving that is not.  In her mind, giving that is sacrificial, or harmful to the self, is evil, and the worst form of sacrifice is that which is coerced, involuntary, as in the case of the Soviet Union.  What’s more, the coercion of the USSR was effected in the name of the common good.  Altruism, or otherism, is the opposite of egoism.

I argue with her in more than one way.  While the abuses of totalitarian governments are monstrous, the common good of the collective and the specific good of the individual are not mutually exclusive.  It is possible to reconcile the two.  Nay, it is impossible to serve the individual and the collective separately.

And while sacrifice that harms the self is evil, generosity is not sacrifice, as she confirms.  Her real complaint is with the coerced nature of the generosity, which she assumes to be harmful on the basis that it is coerced, which is akin to saying that all laws are harmful because they are laws that must be obeyed whether we wish to obey them or not.  The man I met who told me the police do not have the right to cuff or cage him without his consent might agree with that proposition.  The rest of us understand “the consent of the governed”.  That we choose to live under, or with, a political system means we choose to abide by its policies and procedures.  That we are free to leave a political system shows it is not tyranny.  Tyrannies tend not to let citizens leave them.

So by confusing the issue, Rand skips over the principle “tyranny is bad” to equate all government with tyranny, excepting that government which she accepts—on the ground that she accepts it.  There really is no distinction in her argument which should allow any government whatever, except that she proclaims certain functions necessary and defines an impossible standard of “initiation of force”.  The ownership of property, to a Marxist, is the initiation of force.  Where do we draw the line, where she draws it?

The common good of the collective and the specific good of the individual are both good.  The tyrants she named were bad because they abused the trust of their peoples to commit evil in the name of good.  Religious leaders do indeed advocate the common good.  But religious leaders and I differ on what the common good entails, as they did with Rand.  (Rand and I agree on organized religion.)  Organized religion is certainly an intellectual tyranny that has shown itself fond of totalitarian government when given the chance to exercise it.  We have seen it in practice, all too often.

What we need is a foundation of mutual respect for the common good and the specific individual—balance—neither extreme.  My works Sisyphus Shrugged and Money’s Men have attempted to argue for this.