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Is Altruism Benevolent?
by Diana Mertz Hsieh

Date: 5 Dec 94
Forum: Washington University in St-Louis, Argumentation class
Copyright: Diana Mertz Hsieh

In discussions of ethics, philosophers and laymen alike often assume that the doctine of altruism is equivalent to helping others out and that egoism amounts to no more than stepping other people's necks for personal gain. These characterizations of altruism and egoism are overly simplistic and often obsecure the genuine philosophical issues. Is altruism really the benevolent ethical theory that it claims to be?

These are overly simplistic characterizations of the two theories, and so an examination of the ideas surrounding these characterization is in order. Because these issues have a profound effect upon an individual's actions and relationships to others, a slow and thorough investigation is necessary, and so here I will just examine the question of whether altruism is, on the whole, a benevolent doctrine.

Benevolence is a word often used in reference to God, to indicate the idea that He is all-good and merciful, and although this may provide us with some clues about the nature of benevolence, a more rigorous definition must be established for our purposes. Benevolence and its contrary, malevolence, do not generally refer to one specific idea or action, but rather to the general perspective on life that gives rise to ideas and actions. For example, the killing of innocent bystanders is not, in and of itself, usually considered malevolent; it is the idea that human life is disposable that is considered malevolent because it gives rise to the murder. In this respect, both benevolence and malevolence are world-views, or the sum of basic premises about man's relationship with the rest of the world. We can broadly categorize these world views according to their fundamental characteristic, which is whether they present a positive or a negative view of man in relation to the rest of the world. The world views that present a positive view of man, in which life and happiness are achievable goals, and the basic means to achieving those goals is compatible with human nature can be termed "benevolent," while those who deny life and happiness are "malevolent."

One method of ascertaining if a world-view is benevolent or malevolent is to ask whether happiness or misery is seen as the normal condition of life, whether life has meaning or is simply an exercise in futility, and whether the results of implementing the ideas would result in the furtherance or destruction of life. The examples of Original Sin and the Jeffersonian conception of individual rights will illustrate the meaning of "benevolence" and "malevolence," as well as the effectiveness of the methodology.

The Jeffersonian conception of individual rights, as illustrated in The Declaration of Independence and many of Jefferson's other works, regards human beings as free moral agents, responsible for themselves. The idea that individuals are responsible for their own happiness and survival indicates that such is possible, but is happiness, according to Jefferson, the normal state of human affairs? It is Jefferson's advocacy of revolting in order to establish a rights-respecting government that demonstrates his commitment to happiness as the normal condition of human life, for the rebellion would be futile if it only served to replace one form of misery with another. Thus Jefferson's world-view, which gave rise to many of his political ideas, is a benevolent one.

The Christian Doctrine of Original Sin, on the other hand, stems from a malevolent world-view. It states that humans are inherently sinful and corrupted due to the fall of Adam and Eve from the grace of God, condemns all people for the actions of two people who existed thousands of years ago (which often results in unearned guilt), and eliminates the possibility of happiness on earth due to God's punishment of Adam and Eve. Although there is an ideal, Eden, to serve as a background for Original Sin, it is one in which man's only means to survival, knowledge and understanding about the world in which he lives, is regarded as sinful. Thus the doctrine of Original Sin condemns humans to a life of misery, which they cannot escape but through their own death, and results in the destruction of life and happiness through unjust moral condemnation and guilt.

So, having evaluated what benevolence and malevolence is, the question of which world-view altruism fundamentally assumes arises. Yet, we first need to be clear to what exactly the word "altruism" refers, and what sort of broad similarities exist between moral theories.

Ethical theories can be compared and contrasted on many different point, but the fundamental split in ethical theory lies in who the focus of the theory is upon: oneself or others. Altruism holds that a person's primary moral obligation is to others and that others ought to be the primary beneficiaries of one's moral actions. On the other hand, egoism holds that one's primary obligation is to furthering one's own life and happiness and that one always ought to act in one's own self interest. To illustrate this distinction, imagine two high school girls going, as an after-school project, to an urban elementary school to tudor poor children in math and reading. The first girl simply goes because the kids are disadvantaged and need her help, and thus is acting out of altruistic motives. The second is going because she derives great joy and motive power from seeing the kids get excited about learning and succeed where they might not otherwise; because her focus is on the benefits that she will receive from tutoring the kids she is acting on egoistic motives.

One of the main reasons why altruism is equated with just helping people is because it is sometimes difficult to see how concern for others can arise from one's own self-interest. For example, romantic love is often cited as a "selfless" and "altruistic" act, yet people fall in love because, in sum, they see their partner as someone who adds something profoundly unique to their existence. They fall in love because the other person enhances their life and happiness, not in spite of it. If humans truly loved altruistically, they would be in love, not because they saw their partner as any sort of valuable element to their lives, but because their partner needed them. To be loved in such a manner would not be an honor, but an insult to one's character.

With this full conception of altruism in mind, we are now prepared to ask ourselves whether it is a benevolent ethical theory or not. Altruism's focus on the life and happiness of others diminishes the importance of one's own life and happiness, as well as puts a moral obligation upon individuals to sacrifice their lives for other people The idea that one's own existence is secondary to the lives of others is actually detrimental the lives of all individuals because each individual knows best what will further his own life and happiness, yet, under altruism, individuals are not able to pursue these values in a meaningful fashion.

In and of itself, the above is enough to rule out the idea that altruism is benevolent, but what of the consequences of implementing altruist theory? Altruism promotes dependency upon others for one's physical and psychological needs, for if individuals have a moral obligation to think of others before themselves, it is very possible that the beneficiaries will come to expect and depend upon such sacrifices. Also, if such sacrifices are not made, resentment is sure to crop up, because one's own needs become the responsibility of others to fulfill. Resentment will also spread among those who have to make sacrifices to others because so much of their time and energy is being drained away by people in need; helping others becomes a chore rather than the pleasant experience that it should be.

Finally, altruism, in declaring that one's primary moral obligation is to the needs of others, implicitly states that individuals are not capable of pursuing their own life and happiness in an efficacious manner. In doing this, it denies the possibility of real human happiness, for if individuals cannot provide for themselves, they surely cannot be expected to be capable of providing for others. All of these factors: the denial of the importance of the life and happiness of individuals, the promotion of dependence and resentment, and the notion that humans are incapable of providing for their own happiness, unequivocally prevent altruism from being classified as benevolent.

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