What are “egoism” and “altruism”, according to Mr. Schwartz?

“Sacrificing yourself for the needs of others is universally seen as the essence of morality. The tenets of altruism are widely regarded not simply as true, but as practically self-evident. …the doctrine… tells you to subordinate yourself to other people. It tells you that in any choice you make, your own interests should be less important to you than those of someone else.”

So described, “altruism” is the claim that you must sacrifice yourself, or your interests, to others, others’ needs, or others’ interests. Now, what are these needs for which we’re supposed to be making sacrifices? “…under altruism only one thing qualifies as a need: that which requires someone else’s sacrifice to fulfill.”

On this account, altruism tells us to sacrifice for the sake of having sacrificed. No one else has to benefit. That is of course not “subordinating yourself to other people” or sacrificing your interests for others’ interests. So altruism seems to be two very different doctrines. One kind of altruism would be self-destruction for its own sake. The other would be self-destruction for the sake of the well-being of other people. So let’s distinguish:

Altruism-1: the destruction of one’s interests

Altruism-2: the pursuit of others’ interests

Altruism-1 has never been held by anyone, ever, under any circumstances. What Rand and Mr. Schwartz are talking about is not a theory, but an alleged psychological condition. People with this (hypothetical) syndrome need clarification and guidance, not refutation and very definitely not condemnation.

Egoism, on the other hand, is supposed to prescribe “selfishness” which is “a concern with one’s own interests”. The two different kinds of altruism would then be two different ways of not being an egoist. So we have egoists who pursue their own interests, altruists who pursue others’ interests, and altruists who pursue no one’s interests.

Egoism (so described) contrasts with the two kinds of altruism in different ways. Altruism-1 is the negation of egoism. Egoism says to pursue interests; altruism-1 says to destroy them. That makes altruism-1 just a parasitic perversion of egoism. Egoism and altruism-1 would agree about what our interests are; they would just disagree about what to do about those interests.

Altruism-2, however, would have a more complicated relationship with egoism. Egoism tells me to pursue my own interests, and altruism-2 tells me to pursue others’ interests. Why can’t I just do both? Mr. Schwartz would rapidly point out that altruism is supposed to tell us to pursue others’ interests by way of destroying our own. But can I actually achieve anyone’s interests by destroying my own? Not really; other people benefit substantially more from my pursuit of my own interests than they would from my self-destruction. If altruism-2 demands that I destroy my own interests to pursue others’, which is doomed to fail, it’s just telling me to destroy my own interests, and would collapse into altruism-1.

Egoism and altruism-2 contradict one another only on the assumption that there are conflicts of interests. If there are no conflicts of interests between people, then, when I pursue my own interests, I am achieving others’ interests, and when I pursue others’ interests, I’m achieving my own. If there are no conflicts of interest, then there is no question for either egoism or altruism to answer. But Mr. Schwartz follows Rand in denying that there are conflicts of interests: “Among rational individuals, there are no conflicts of interest.” Why is the word ‘rational’ in there? Your interests are your interests; whether you’re rational or not has nothing to do with it. A rational person is liable to correctly identify his interests and an irrational person is liable to be wrong about them, but our interests don’t rely on our knowing about them. If there are no conflicts of interest, then egoism and altruism will always give the same advice. It’s hard to see what all of the fuss is about, then.

However, according to Mr. Schwartz, altruism creates conflicts: “It is altruism, by replacing desert with need, that generates continual conflicts.” That’s as may be, but those are conflicts between people, not interests. Our interests are our interests; neither egoism nor altruism has any answer to the question of what our interests are. They are supposed to be answers to the question of whose interests to pursue. If our interests are in accord, then there is no such question: pursuing the interests of either self or others would consist in exactly the same actions and so no decision must be made about whom to benefit.

Another peculiarity of Mr. Schwartz’s contrast between egoism and altruism has to do with the objectivity, or otherwise, of interests. “Under the code of egoism, the good is determined by what is objectively necessary for sustaining man’s life.” However, “By an altruistic standard, if your neighbor expresses an irrational desire, you should accommodate it; saying no would be selfish on your part.” In this case, ‘selfish’ is supposed to mean “non-self-destructive”. But altruism construed as the doctrine that I must pursue others’ interests is incompatible with altruism construed as the doctrine that I must serve others’ whims; others’ whims no more correlate with their actual interests than my whims correlate with mine.

The underlying problem is that Mr. Schwartz uses the word ‘interest’ ambiguously. When he defines egoism and altruism, he takes interests to be given independent of moral theories. Egoism is the pursuit of one’s independently-specified interests; altruism-1 is the destruction of one’s independently-specified interests; altruism-2 is the pursuit of others’ independently-specified interests.But when he claims that altruism creates conflict, he takes interests to be dependent on our beliefs about our interests. That’s because rational people’s interests can’t conflict, but irrational people’s can. That makes one’s rationality affect what one’s interests are. You can’t believe that interests are both independent of one’s (rationally accepted) moral theory and also dependent on one’s rationality (and the moral convictions that it leads one to adopt).

This is only one expression of Rand’s general failure to grasp the difference between the valued and the valuable, but more about that in another place.

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