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Altruism in Auguste Comte and Ayn Rand (2006)


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#1 Robert Campbell

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Posted 23 July 2007 - 01:47 PM

Michael has graciously offered to convert my Spring 2006 article in the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies into an article on this board.

In the meantime, here's a link to a PDF:

http://hubcap.clemso...smrandcomte.pdf

Robert Campbell

#2 BaalChatzaf

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Posted 23 July 2007 - 02:23 PM

Michael has graciously offered to convert my Spring 2006 article in the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies into an article on this board.

In the meantime, here's a link to a PDF:

http://hubcap.clemso...smrandcomte.pdf

Robert Campbell


You are clearly a scholar who knows his material. I would like your opinion on the approach of R. Hillel to the issue of self visa a vie others as expressed in Perke Avot: (Sayings of the Fathers)

If I am not for my self who will be for me?
If I am only for my self what am I?
If not now, then when?

I think that Hillel captured the essence of the balancing act between self-interest and other-interest in his saying.

Thanking you in advance for your response.

Ba'al Chatzaf
אויב מיין באָבע האט בייצים זי וואָלט זיין מיין זיידע

#3 Dragonfly

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Posted 23 July 2007 - 03:39 PM

Now that's all well and fine, but the point remains that Rand uses the term altruism in a sense that practically no one else does. Her version is a caricature; that she copied the caricature from the inventor of the term, Comte, is not relevant. The etymology of a term does not necessarily determine its current meaning. I think Bass is correct in saying that Rand use of the term is a bait-and-switch. It is disingenuous to denounce every mention of altruism by silently equating it with Comte's altruism, and in cases where this would be too obvious, to use the term "benevolence" as a cop-out. What about the case of a mother who sacrifices her life to save that of her child, is that an evil deed while it is altruism in the sense of Comte or is it a case of “benevolence”? I think it's neither, it is a typical case of altruism in the modern sense. The joke is on the Objectivists of course: by using terms in a sense that no one else does, their failure to convince other people is guaranteed.

#4 Robert Campbell

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Posted 26 July 2007 - 08:03 PM

Bob,

I don't think you can state the balancing of self and other position more eloquently than Rabbi Hillel did:

If I am not for my self who will be for me?
If I am only for my self what am I?
If not now, then when?


But in asking "what am I?" Hillel seems to be saying that a person's identity is necessarily a function of his or her relationship with God (surely Hillel had that in mind, though not just that), with family, with tribe, and so on.

We humans are social beings. But are we internally related, not to just to (some) other individuals, but also to wider social groupings? ("Internally" related means that these relationships are constitutive of each of us. Without them we could not be who we are. Without any of them, would we end up not being anything at all?)

Robert Campbell

PS. See also my response to Dragonfly.

#5 Robert Campbell

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Posted 27 July 2007 - 02:52 PM

Dragonfly,

If Comte's understanding of altruism as "living for others" is to be rejected, on the grounds that his notion of it is a gross caricature, then altruism is different from the other major isms of the 19th century.

For instance, the terms "socialism" and "communism" were introduced by people who were in favor of those sociopolitical systems. The term "altruism" was introduced by someone who was in favor of that moral orientation, and of the sociopolitical system that he thought it led to. Why is that present-day uses of "socialism" and "communism" (including uses by those who oppose them) would still be broadly recognizable to those who first used those words, but present-day uses of "altruism" would often not be?

Such terms as "capitalism" and "individualism" were introduced by people who disapproved. Yet, again, today's usage would still be broadly recognizable to those who first used those words. Even usage by those who think that capitalism and individualism are good things would be broadly recognizable.

I think the reason that "altruism" ended up being handled differently is that human beings have been disagreeing, since ancient times, about what is good for me, what is good for you, and how much they overlap.

Book IX chapter 8 of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics asks who is the true "lover of self"--the person who goes out and grabs material goods and honors at the expense of others, or the person who cultivates courage and justice and the other virtues. Aristotle knew that he was bucking popular opinion when he argued that the guy who goes out and grabs isn't a true lover of self. In The Morality of Happiness (a book about ancient Greek ethics that I heartily recommend) Julia Annas has trouble with Book IX chapter 8, because on this issue Aristotle was purposely departing from majority opinion in his culture.

Much preferable to rhetoric about "egoism" and "altruism" is a specific account of what's good for me and why; what's good for you and why; and the extent to which these are compatible.

The problem with post-Millian moral senses of "altruism" is that they are all over the damn place. Everything from taking a moment to hold the door open for a stranger who is encumbered with packages to giving up your lifelong vocational ambitions to do charity work because you believe that it is morally obligatory can be considered "altruistic" by someone employing the "modern sense" of the word. Nancy Eisenberg, a fairly well known moral developmentalist, manages to treat both of these acts as altruistic, in different chapters of the same book.

The "biological senses" of egoism and altruism do something worse, in my opinion. They apply what were originally intended, and are still widely understood, as moral terms to organisms like Spencer's "infusorium, or other protozoon." A protozoan operates in a goal-directed way but it doesn't develop anything that faintly resembles a moral value. As for genes... Richard Dawkins got more public attention by titling his book The Selfish Gene, instead of Gene-Level Selection. But genes aren't goal-directed. So applying moral terms to them is absurd.

Robert Campbell

PS. I do agree with Robert Bass about one thing. Ayn Rand was not very careful about distinguishing altruism, as she understood it, from what is more accurately labeled impersonalism--the notion that moral standards or rules apply to essentially interchangeable human actors, so your own projects aren't allowed to matter any more to you than other people's projects would. I wouldn't call Immanuel Kant an altruist; he was a deontologist and an impersonalist. (In one phase of his career, Leonard Peikoff was a lot more careful about this particular issue than Rand was. But that seems like a long long time ago.) Mill was a different sort of impersonalist. And so on.

#6 Neil Parille

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Posted 27 July 2007 - 05:45 PM

I think Rand was trying to distinguish between two approaches to ethics: the claim that people should primarily (or exclusively) serve their own self-interest; and that people should primarily (or exclusively) serve the self-interest of others. There really aren't good terms for these approaches, so she settled on the rather ham-handed terms "selfishness" and "altruism." There are certain problems with these words, but I'm not sure if there are any better ones.

I do think there is a problem that Rand tries to shoe-horn certain behavior that most of us would consider altruistic into the "benevolent" or "selfish" categories. For example, if I fight for my country knowing that I will die, I find it hard to call that selfish. Likewise, in The Ethics of Emergencies Rand said one is morally obligated to save a drowning stranger if doing so doesn't pose great risk.

#7 Brant Gaede

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Posted 27 July 2007 - 08:32 PM

I think Rand was trying to distinguish between two approaches to ethics: the claim that people should primarily (or exclusively) serve their own self-interest; and that people should primarily (or exclusively) serve the self-interest of others. There really aren't good terms for these approaches, so she settled on the rather ham-handed terms "selfishness" and "altruism." There are certain problems with these words, but I'm not sure if there are any better ones.

I do think there is a problem that Rand tries to shoe-horn certain behavior that most of us would consider altruistic into the "benevolent" or "selfish" categories. For example, if I fight for my country knowing that I will die, I find it hard to call that selfish. Likewise, in The Ethics of Emergencies Rand said one is morally obligated to save a drowning stranger if doing so doesn't pose great risk.


AR said "morally proper," not "obligated." However, a little later she states "It is only in emergency situations that one should volunteer to help strangers."

It is kind of distressing to reread some of these old essays and remember the lack of intellectual knowledge and rigor I had to deal with them over 40 years ago. I am more convinced than ever that she broke with John Hospers to be free to write the way she did, but not consciously. I don't hold it against her in the least that she wasn't a scholar--an academic--and as philosophy these essays are good enough to get us going. They belong to the world of "Atlas Shrugged."

--Brant

Edited by Brant Gaede, 27 July 2007 - 09:04 PM.

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#8 Neil Parille

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Posted 28 July 2007 - 05:18 AM

Brant,

I was paraphrasing from memory. Rand does say around three times that one "should" help people in emergency situations, so I assume she means something close to "morally obligatory".

#9 BaalChatzaf

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Posted 28 July 2007 - 07:21 AM

Brant,

I was paraphrasing from memory. Rand does say around three times that one "should" help people in emergency situations, so I assume she means something close to "morally obligatory".


In addition to moral obligations which are really contractual obligations (in the wider sense) there are also personal needs. Maybe one needs to help another who embodies his highest values. Why did Hank Reardon save Fransisco when they were stopping up a run-away furnace? Sometimes love is a good reason for helping others.

One of the things I do is help prepare audio books for the blind and dyslexic. Why do I do it? Partly because it is a useful thing. Better that than sitting and watching t.v.. Partly because I might need the service myself one day (I hope not) or a family member or friend might need the service one day (I hope not). That is hardly an "emergency".

Part of being human is having cordial and useful relations with other like minded decent folks. It is a way of keeping warm. Very few people I know want to be atomic or isolated. They -need- to have beneficial and healthy relationships with other people. I doubt whether there are a million truly isolated humans alive now in this world in which over six billion people live. What was it that Charles Lamb said of friendship? A friend is another I.

Ba'al Chatzaf
אויב מיין באָבע האט בייצים זי וואָלט זיין מיין זיידע

#10 Brant Gaede

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Posted 28 July 2007 - 08:41 AM

I question "The Ethics of Emergencies." It implies that "The Objectivist Ethics" as such are incomplete and need addenda. They are and do. To get better integration more completeness is needed. This means a reference to people as they are, not just as they should or ought to be. "Should or ought to be" is a moral imperative to grow up, individuate, be responsible. Investigating the "are" finds the means for people who want the means. But all this is for individual consumption and use. If it is imposed it will turn out to be wrong and totalitarian, even genocidal, as per the historical record.

--Brant

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#11 Neil Parille

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Posted 28 July 2007 - 09:11 AM

It's difficult to come to a firm conclusion on the question of whether or not Rand supported charity. She did say it was ok to help your starving neighbor who was down on his luck and she did support a group in Holywood that helped struggling artists. But whether she thought it was OK to send a check to starving people in Asia is unclear.

I do think Rand was right to stress a couple things: the tendency for altruism to spin out of control and the primacy of production.

#12 Dragonfly

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Posted 28 July 2007 - 11:38 AM

If Comte's understanding of altruism as "living for others" is to be rejected, on the grounds that his notion of it is a gross caricature, then altruism is different from the other major isms of the 19th century.

For instance, the terms "socialism" and "communism" were introduced by people who were in favor of those sociopolitical systems. The term "altruism" was introduced by someone who was in favor of that moral orientation, and of the sociopolitical system that he thought it led to. Why is that present-day uses of "socialism" and "communism" (including uses by those who oppose them) would still be broadly recognizable to those who first used those words, but present-day uses of "altruism" would often not be?

Such terms as "capitalism" and "individualism" were introduced by people who disapproved. Yet, again, today's usage would still be broadly recognizable to those who first used those words. Even usage by those who think that capitalism and individualism are good things would be broadly recognizable.

Well, so what? It may perhaps for some people be interesting to analyze why the meaning of some isms hasn't changed much in the course of time, while the meaning of other isms has. However, the point is that the meaning has changed. When today someone who is not an Objectivist talks about altruism, he does not mean the term in the Comtean sense. Now of course Objectivists may maintain that their definition is the only "correct" one (suggesting that a word must have one single, unalterable meaning, curiously enough always the meaning Rand used), but then they shouldn't be suprised that not many people take their rants against altruism seriously.

The "biological senses" of egoism and altruism do something worse, in my opinion. They apply what were originally intended, and are still widely understood, as moral terms to organisms like Spencer's "infusorium, or other protozoon." A protozoan operates in a goal-directed way but it doesn't develop anything that faintly resembles a moral value. As for genes... Richard Dawkins got more public attention by titling his book The Selfish Gene, instead of Gene-Level Selection. But genes aren't goal-directed. So applying moral terms to them is absurd.

Not at all. That some of these terms may have their origin in human behavior, with all the moral implications, does not mean that they couldn't be used in a wider context. We can very well separate the functional aspect of such a term from its moral implications (in the case of human behavior). Just like humans, animals can sacrifice themselves, kill their offspring or other members of their own species, etc. In that context the terms altruism and egoism are perfectly valid and well-defined, even if there is no moral dimension in the case of non-human animals. The advantage is also that our behavior can be seen in the wider context of our animal heritage and not as something that is completely detached from our biological origins (eh, Michael?). A typical characteristic of science is its integrating power, whereby all kinds of particular phenomena can be seen as specific instances of a more general system.

#13 Michael Stuart Kelly

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Posted 28 July 2007 - 01:24 PM

Well, so what? It may perhaps for some people be interesting to analyze why the meaning of some isms hasn't changed much in the course of time, while the meaning of other isms has. However, the point is that the meaning has changed. When today someone who is not an Objectivist talks about altruism, he does not mean the term in the Comtean sense.

Dragonfly,

"Someone who is not an Objectivist" is an awful lot of people. Since I call myself an Objectivist, I take this kind of observation seriously enough to look. I Googled "altruism" and came up with 17,200 hits in 0.05 seconds. On going through the first part of them, I uncovered several instances of non-Objectivists using the term in the original sense. I won't bother wasting my time listing them. Anyone can Google the term and find them if they have nothing better to do.

What is wrong with a word having more than one meaning that is used by the general public? All one has to do is open any dictionary and see this is a normal linguistic practice.

And what is wrong with defining terms? Rand was not evasive or misleading at all about what she meant by altruism.

Michael

Know thyself...


#14 Neil Parille

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Posted 28 July 2007 - 01:36 PM

Michael,

I don't have a problem with Rand using a word in a way she believes is better or more precise. I think she should have advised her readers that her use was somewhat non-traditional.

#15 Dragonfly

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Posted 28 July 2007 - 05:46 PM

"Someone who is not an Objectivist" is an awful lot of people. Since I call myself an Objectivist, I take this kind of observation seriously enough to look. I Googled "altruism" and came up with 17,200 hits in 0.05 seconds. On going through the first part of them, I uncovered several instances of non-Objectivists using the term in the original sense. I won't bother wasting my time listing them. Anyone can Google the term and find them if they have nothing better to do.

I did so, and the only thing I found was that on the first pages there were mostly definitions, and it isn't surprising that in many of those the etymology (Comte) was mentioned. That doesn't imply that this is the current meaning. I suggest the following test: perhaps some day you'll meet someone who is not an Objectivist. Ask him or her to define "altruism"; give then Rand's definition in full. Note the reactions.

What is wrong with a word having more than one meaning that is used by the general public? All one has to do is open any dictionary and see this is a normal linguistic practice.

Well, I just looked it up in a dictionary:
Altruism: 1. Unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness.
2. Zoology: Instinctive cooperative behavior that is detrimental to the individual but contributes to the survival of the species.

And what is wrong with defining terms? Rand was not evasive or misleading at all about what she meant by altruism.

Her method is perfectly suited to create a straw man and shoot it down. I just wanted to give well-meant advice, but you're of course free to ignore it.

#16 Michael Stuart Kelly

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Posted 28 July 2007 - 06:25 PM

I normally agree that Rand has some personal meanings of words ("selfish" is one). I do not agree with bashing her in the case of altruism. I do agree with the following: Rand does not use the term in the meaning the majority of people use it, but her definition is within the grasp and knowledge of general usage—so much so that it is easily seen in a Google search.

I see no real reason to restrict Compte's meaning of his own term to Objectivists. Are they the only people on earth familiar with Compte? Hardly. Dislike of Rand is one thing, but this notion is overkill.

Michael

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#17 Wolf DeVoon

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Posted 29 July 2007 - 08:52 PM

I question "The Ethics of Emergencies." It implies that "The Objectivist Ethics" as such are incomplete and need addenda. They are and do. To get better integration more completeness is needed. This means a reference to people as they are, not just as they should or ought to be. "Should or ought to be" is a moral imperative to grow up, individuate, be responsible. Investigating the "are" finds the means for people who want the means. But all this is for individual consumption and use. If it is imposed it will turn out to be wrong and totalitarian, even genocidal, as per the historical record.

--Brant


Jeez, Brant, a tour de force! Bump.

W.
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#18 Brant Gaede

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Posted 30 July 2007 - 12:44 AM


I question "The Ethics of Emergencies." It implies that "The Objectivist Ethics" as such are incomplete and need addenda. They are and do. To get better integration more completeness is needed. This means a reference to people as they are, not just as they should or ought to be. "Should or ought to be" is a moral imperative to grow up, individuate, be responsible. Investigating the "are" finds the means for people who want the means. But all this is for individual consumption and use. If it is imposed it will turn out to be wrong and totalitarian, even genocidal, as per the historical record.

--Brant


Jeez, Brant, a tour de force! Bump.

W.


Thx. Mucho apprecianti! (Sic?!) Now, consider the political implications. Things get messy all around, but messy is life itself.

--Brant

Rational Individualist, Rational self-interest, Individual Rights--limited government libertarian heavily influenced by Objectivism


#19 Brant Gaede

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Posted 30 July 2007 - 01:00 AM

Consider some facets of Objectivism as per Ayn Rand:

--Man is perfect or perfectible. [No, he isn't. But he can move toward that (or pretend).]

--Man is "the rational animal." [Sometimes. He is the conceptual animal. (The "perfect" man is the perfect man as long as he is "rational").]

--Society can be perfect. [No. But it can be moved toward that, as a political principle.]

--Brant

Edited by Brant Gaede, 30 July 2007 - 01:08 AM.

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