It is obvious why the morality of altruism is a tribal phenomenon. Prehistorical men were physically unable to survive without clinging to a tribe for leadership and protection against other tribes. The cause of altruism’s perpetuation into civilized eras is not physical, but psycho-epistemological: the men of self-arrested, perceptual mentality are unable to survive without tribal leadership and “protection” against reality. The doctrine of self-sacrifice does not offend them: they have no sense of self or of personal value-they do not know what it is that they are asked to sacrifice—they have no firsthand inkling of such things as intellectual integrity, love of truth, personally chosen values, or a passionate dedication to an idea. When they hear injunctions against “selfishness,” they believe that what they must renounce is the brute, mindless whim-worship of a tribal lone wolf.
While there is an element of truth in this analysis, it over-simplifies to the point of distortion. In the first place, Rand’s notion of “altruism” is itself problematic. Rand defines altruism as the view that “man has no right to exist for his own sake.” Yet we would be hard pressed to find many defenders of altruism willing to accept such a view without serious reservations. This means that Rand undercuts her case right from the start. Philosophers and ethicists define altruism in many ways, but few would go so far as to claim that human beings have no right to ever exist for their own sake. As the Oxford Companion to Philosophy puts it: “Nor … does the the possibility of altruism mean that it is a constant moral necessity: an altruist can allow that in most circumstances I can act far more effectively on my own behalf than can any other person.”
Rand’s main error here is to assume that altruism is a theory that can be logically applied. But this is not the case at all. Individuals whose desire to help the “poor and downtrodden” causes them to support harmful social policies are not motivated by some distinct ethical theory which they logically apply to social conditions. Their support for harmful social legislation is driven almost entirely by emotions, many of a strongly narcissistic cast. Nor are these emotions themselves a product of prior ideas or “premises,” as Rand would have us believe.
Rand comes much closer to the truth when she links altruism with tribalism. Altruistic sentiments probably have their origin in man’s tribal past (for the obvious evolutionary reasons). But Rand’s disgust with tribalism causes her to caricature it to the point of serious distortion. Contrary to what Rand claims, men of pre-historic times were not the mindless, fearful, self-sacrificing altruists she portrays them as being.
A more plausible theory of the psychology of humanitarianism was provided by Pareto in his Mind and Society. Pareto regards humanitarianism as a product of multiple sentiments. “In individuals sentiments are always more or less complex, sometimes very much so,” he warns. Humanitarianism may derive from several residues acting in concert. One such residue is that of “self-pity extended to others.” Pareto’s analysis goes as follows:
If people are unhappy and are inclined to lay the blame for their woes on the environment in which they live, on “society,” they are apt to view all who suffer with a benevolent eye. That is not logical reasoning; it is a sequence of sensations. If we try to state them in rational form we deprive them of the very thing that gave them force and efficacy—their indefiniteness. Bearing that in mind, one may, roughly, state the reasoning corresponding to such sensations as follows: “I am unhappy, and ‘society’ is to blame. So-and-so is unhappy, and so ‘society’ must also be to blame. We are comrades in misfortune, and for my comrade I have the indulgence that I should have for myself: he has my pity.”
Something more or less of the kind figures in the humanitarianism of our time. People in poor economic circumstances are convinced that “society” is to blame. By analogy, the crimes of thieves and murderers are also felt chargeable to “society.” So thieves and murderers come to look like comrades in misfortune worthy of benevolence and pity. “Intellectuals” are convinced that they are not playing a sufficiently important role in the social hierarchy; they envy people of wealth, army officers, prelates, in short all others of higher social rankings. They imagine that criminals and the poor are also victims of the same classes. They feel that in respect they are like them, and therefore feel benevolence and pity for them. [§1138-1139]
There are, to be sure, other residues, other sentiments, other psychological complexes that can lead to humanitarianism. Not only that, different motives may operate in different people. What is crucial to understand is that humanitarianism (or Rand’s “altruism”) is not the product of a reasoned-out theory. Refuting the theory of “altruism” (or the “theory” of humanitarianism) will have little, if any effect, on those who subscribe to these doctrines, for the simple reason, that strong emotions, many of them containing an innate component, are the primary causes of these pernicious psychological complexes.
Humanitarianism is worthless from the logico-experimental point of view [wrote Pareto], whether because it has no slightest intrinsic soundness of a scientific character, whether especially because even if, on an assumption devoid of any probability, it had some points of soundness, that fact would not help as regards spurring human beings to the requisite activities.... A similar judgment may be passed upon the work of our “intellectuals” as leading to few results that are beneficial and to many that are very bad; because, from the standpoint of sentiments, [intellectuals] shut their eyes to realities as the latter stand reflected in many sentiments that they condemn from failure to grasp their role in society; and because, from the standpoint of logico-experimental science, they reason not on facts but on derivations, and from the latter draw, by a logic inopportunely thorough-going, inferences altogether at war with facts.
This is precisely what Rand and her disciples are guilty of: they reason, not on facts, but on derivations (and distorted derivations, at that). The consequences is that, while there may be a grain of truth in Rand’s melodramatic denunciations of “altruism,” it is so vitiated with distortion and error that her analysis is much less valuable than otherwise would be the case. As Pareto concludes:
Some people now vainly imagine … that they can effectively check the progress of [the non-scientific, non-rational doctrine] they are fighting by refuting its derivations. Others find those theories so absurd that they disdain giving a thought to them…. But usually [these critics] are to be found adopting other derivations that are in no way better than the ones they reject [as Rand and her disciples do, in adopting the derivations of Objectivism]. It occurs to few, one might say none, to ignore derivations altogether and apply themselves exclusively to facts and the relations that obtain between them. [§1859]