The following is a guest submission by Jordan McGillis, a graduate student at Seton Hall University’s Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations.
In his January 31st essay “It’s the Free Market… Really,” David Deerson claims, “no one does anything selflessly.” This bold assertion, as the author should understand, denies not the efficacy of selflessness, but rather its very existence. To be sure, Deerson states, “Ayn Rand called altruism evil; I am calling it fictional.” Such a denial is not only greatly flawed, it is profoundly dangerous.
A discussion of this gravity requires precision, so I shall first define my terms. Altruism is an ethical code purporting that each individual has a moral obligation to serve others. It maintains the benefit of others as the standard of value and self-sacrifice as the pinnacle of virtue. According to this code, man exists not for his own sake, but for the sake of other men. Contrary to Mr. Deerson’s contention, altruism is far from fiction. It is real, and it is a dominant cultural force.
Each Sunday, millions of Americans drop bills by the handful into their congregations’ collection plates. These collections can benefit any number of “good causes.” Perhaps this Sunday’s will fund a group outing to an urban soup kitchen. Or maybe it will finance a women’s shelter in Bangladesh. Or possibly it will simply pay for some good ol’ church upkeep. Indubitably, however, the “good cause” will not be to the benefit of the parishioners asked to contribute to it. Nevertheless, come Sunday, millions of Americans will do so. They will do so because they embrace the ethical code of altruism.
David Deerson denies the existence of altruism. He argues that parishioners give money because it brings them fulfillment. Such an argument is incorrect. To postulate fulfillment as motivation unto itself is willfully ignorant. To do so is to embrace an effect, while disregarding its cause. Fulfillment is the psychological response to the attainment of values. Thus, if one holds the welfare of others as the standard of value, actions toward that end result in the psychological response of fulfillment. The root of actions such as sacrificing one’s money to the poor is not fulfillment as such, but rather it is the pursuit of values. And the value system that precipitates such actions, the ethical code that holds anyone else’s benefit above one’s own, is altruism.
Altruism not only exists, it exists and it is a societal scourge. Indeed it is altruism, the code of ethics demanding that man sacrifice his life to others, which unites the secular left and the religious right in their joint effort to stymie the rights of the individual. At this point, a systematic dismantling of the supposed merits of altruism would be customary, but with this essay I seek only to illustrate its presence and highlight the hazard that denying it creates. To see just how deeply altruism resonates in American society, one need look no further than the recent National Prayer Breakfast. At the gathering, President Barack Obama defended his proposed tax increases on the grounds that they are written in accordance with the altruistic ethics of the Christian faith. “For me, as a Christian,” Obama declared, “it also coincides with Jesus’s teaching that ‘for unto whom much is given, much shall be required,’” The vast, vast majority of Americans agrees with President Obama and considers altruism the ethical ideal. It is a cultural force to be reckoned with. To deny this misanthropic philosophical position’s existence is to tacitly allow it to seep through the culture unchecked. Altruism is salient, it is pervasive, and it must be addressed.
Despite the good-natured tone of Deerson’s essay, his content reveals something far more sinister than a misunderstanding of altruism. The author’s claim that “giving to charity is very simply an act of satisfying your desires” amounts to a denial of man’s rational faculty and in fact a denial of free will itself. If giving to charity is “simply an act of satisfying your desires,” the implication, whether intended or not, is that all of our other actions are as well. According to this skewed line of thinking, man is nothing more than an automaton at the mercy of his amorphous desires, the source of which Deerson tellingly omits.
Man is no automaton. He is a being of volition, naturally endowed with the faculty of reason and thus, necessarily, the ability to choose. When the collection plate reaches his pew, when the Salvation Army raps at his door, and when the beggar extends his hand man has the ability to choose. When faced with these choices the majority of people will choose to sacrifice themselves to others. They will do this because they know but one ethical code. It is the code that has demanded self-sacrifice since their earliest memory. It is the code of altruism.