Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Ayn Rand Uses the Term 'Altruism' With the Same Definition As the Man Who Coined It

Stuart K. Hayashi

A charge commonly leveled against Ayn Rand, especially by conservatives and libertarians, is that she uses the term altruism inaccurately.  Ayn Rand says she opposes altruism because the idea behind it implicitly -- when not doing so explicitly -- calls for the individual's peaceable right to survival and happiness to be subordinated to the ostensive well-being of "others."  No, say the conservatives and libertarians, altruism simply means being beneficial to parties other than yourself.  After all, following the lead of game theorist Robert L. Trivers, evolutionary psychologists like Richard Dawkins frequently speak of "reciprocal altruism," sometimes even referring to commercial exchange as one form of it.

Here is an example.  John A. Allison IV, the former president of BB and T bank, went on libertarian Russell Robert's EconTalk podcast in 2007.  As Allison is influenced by Ayn Rand, he explained his opposition to the altruist doctrine.  Every time Allison did this, Russell Roberts insisted on "correcting" Allison: "That's not altruism."

But if the person who coins a term has a role in deciding its definition, then altruism is indeed about demotion of the self to others.

The ideas of self-sacrifice and social collectivism are ancient -- possibly going back to the era of hunter-gatherer clans -- but the expression altruism is relatively new.  The philosopher Auguste Comte coined it in the 1800s to describe his collectivist “Positivism” ethical theory. Altruism, he explained, is about the committed subordination of the self to Society as a whole, abiding by the motto “Live for Others.” As Comte articulates in System of Positive Polity,

Standing in direct connection with the fundamental principle of [Comte's] Positive synthesis [of ethical philosophy], the doctrine of innate altruism alone enables us to establish a systematic morality...  
Thus we see how the altruistic discipline gives completeness and system to the [moral] purification of human nature, begun under the egoistic [that is, primitive humans start off as egoistic and therefore immoral, and then evolve into truly moral beings: altruistic beings]. . . .  
It follows that, from every point of view, the ultimate systematisation of human life must consist above all in the development of altruism.   

Precisely, Comte says that altruism is the general principle that a perfectly moral society would work towards, and social Positivism is his name for the set of specific rules that must be implemented to achieve that.  He is for altruism in general and Positivism in particular. Note that despite his making a rather technical distinction between the terms altruism and Positivism, for the most part, in a more general context, those terms can be used interchangeably for Comte's theory of what constitutes a moral system of society (which Comte would say is definitely not a laissez-faire commercial society).

Comte’s associate, John Stuart Mill, was one of the first persons (if not the first person) to introduce altruism to English-speaking readers. When Mill explained Comte's philosophy to his readers, he wrote very approvingly of it and exhorted his readers to be altruistic in the manner that Comte demanded. Herbert Spencer, who knew Mill but not Comte, also adopted altruism, but was one of the first writers (if not the first writer) to conflate altruism with anything you do that benefits parties other than yourself. Despite their many avowals that they reject Spencer's philosophy -- when it is all too clear they didn't read him first-hand for comprehension -- it was Spencer who paved the way for evolutionary psychologists to  be able to get away with saying that reciprocal exchanges can be exercises in "altruism."

Ironically, the majority of writers who mention Spencer only know him from secondhand sources that stigmatize him as a “social Darwinist,” and thus inaccurately denounce Spencer for rejecting altruist ethics. As an example, this is from Michael Shermer's book The Mind of the Market:
Yet the single most common myth found in objections to both the theory of evolution and free market economies is based on the presumption that animals and humans are inherently selfish and the economy is like Tennyson's memorable description of nature: "red in tooth and claw." After the Origin of Species was published, the British philosopher Herbert Spencer immortalized natural selection in the phrase "survival of the fittest," one of the most misleading descriptions in the history of science and one that has been embraced by social Darwinists ever since, who apply it inappropriately to racial theory, national politics, and economic doctrines. . . . 
It is a matter of balancing these dual currents of selfishness and selflessness, competition and cooperation, greed and generosity, mutual struggle and mutual aid. That this view of life [which Michael Shermer says is the correct view, in contrast to Spencer's] was eclipsed by that of Spencer and [Thomas Henry] Huxley probably has to do with where they were developed: the more competitive economy of the United Kingdom versus the more egalitarian economy of Russia [in which Spencer opponent Petr Kropotkin grew up].
From what Shermer wrote of Spencer, one would get the false impression that Spencer condoned the idea of people being "selfish" and not altruistic. Anyone who bothers to read Volume 2 of Spencer's Principles of Ethics will see Spencer repeatedly exhort the reader to practice "altruism" (using that exact term) and his condemnation of "selfishness" (the exact word Spencer uses). Shermer's mischaracterization of Spencer is deeply puzzling and troubling to me, as Shermer got his Ph.D. by writing about the philosophy of Alfred Russel Wallace, who was strongly influenced by Herbert Spencer (Wallace even named one of his sons Herbert Spencer Wallace).  An accurate understanding of Wallace's philosophy ought to imply an accurate understanding of Spencer's.

Speaking for himself, Comte said that his altruist ethics -- which he formally called Positivism -- precluded any hope for “reciprocity.” Reciprocity is the term that Richard Congreve used in his English translation of Comte. Had Comte heard evolutionary psychologists speak of “reciprocal altruism,” this would have confused and likely angered him, especially when “reciprocal altruism” is used to refer to commercial transactions.

Again, note that when Comte says Positivism, it has the same general meaning as altruismFrom Congreve's translation of Comte's Catechism of Positive Religion:

All honest and sensible men, of whatever party, should agree, by a common consent, to eliminate the doctrine of rights.

Positivism only recognizes duties, duties of all to all. Placing itself, as it does, at the social point of view, it cannot tolerate the notion of rights, for such notion rests on individualism. We are born under a load of obligations of every kind, to our predecessors, to our successors, to our contemporaries. After our birth these obligations increase or accumulate, for it is some time before we can return any service. Where then, in the case of man, is the foundation on which we are to rest the idea of rights? That idea, properly viewed, implies some previous efficiency. However great our efforts, the longest life, well employed, will never enable us to pay back more than a scarcely perceptible part of what we received. And yet only to our condition of complete payment could we be authorized to require reciprocity of services. Rights then, in the case of man, are as absurd as they are immoral [italics are from the Congreve translation of Comte; the boldface is mine].

Congreve's is not a loose translation of Comte. Laure Olmedo, a philosophy student in France, found the original French text for me. In the original French, it says "réciprocité [reciprocity] des [of] nouveaux [new] services." That is, in the original French text, Comte says réciprocité, the close French equivalent to the English reciprocity. Comte stated, in the original French, that one cannot expect réciprocité if one is trying to be altruistic.

Laure Olmedo took this screen shot and highlighted "réciprocité des nouveaux services" -- "reciprocity of new services."

According to what he wrote in A General View of Positivism, had Comte been alive today he would especially object to those who say that voluntary trades constitute "altruism" -- "reciprocal" or otherwise:

Morally, the contrast between the [proletarian] workman and the capitalist is even more striking.  Proud as most men are of worldly success, the degree of moral or mental excellence implied in the acquisition of wealth or power, even when the means used have been strictly legitimate, is hardly such as to justify that pride.  . . .  
The life of the [proletarian] workman, on the other hand, is far more favourable to the development of the nobler instincts.  ...it is in the exercise of the higher feelings that the moral superiority of the working class is most observable. . . . It will hardly be disputed that there are more remarkable instances of prompt and unostentatious self-sacrifice at the call of a great public necessity in this class [the working class] than any in any other [italics mine]. 

As far as Comte is concerned, altruism cannot be reciprocal; it consists of services that must be performed unilaterally.  That does not mean that other people may not provide their own services to you; you need not reject every gift.  But it is to say that for your actions to be altruistic, you must serve others without any expectation or yearning for them to return your favors.  Hence, in Comte's writings, "altruism," "Positivism," "morality," and "self-sacrifice" go together.

By Comte's standards, Ayn Rand is using the word correctly -- Comte's writings demonstrate that he intended for the idea of altruism to be associated with self-sacrifice, and that that is what Comte considered the moral ideal. If the person who coined a term has any say in what its definition is, then “altruism” precludes a desire for reciprocity. For Comte, "reciprocal altruism" is a contradiction in terms.

Yes, what scientists such as Dawkins call "reciprocal altruism" is a very real phenomenon. It commences not only between separate human beings but also in the wilderness among separate species.  One instance is of large predatory fish allowing much smaller "cleaner shrimp" to go into their gaping mouths and pick off parasites.  The large fish could easily close its mouth and swallow the shrimp.  But in terms of cost-benefit, it is more to the large fish's benefit, health-wise, to allow the cleaner shrimp to live, and that is what happens most often.  Both the cleaner shrimp and the predatory fish receive a net gain from this relationship.  But given that Comte's use of altruism placed the emphasis on self-sacrifice, a more accurate term for these natural exchanges is not reciprocal altruism but one that Ayn Rand employed: mutual profit.

Cleaner shrimp working on the mouth of a moray eel; image from Wikimedia Commons.

On June 20 and June 21, 2017, I continued revising this piece subsequent to publishing it, including the block quotation in the beginning where Comte says "...the ultimate systematisation of human life must consist above all in the development of altruism." On June 21, 2017, I added the part about the original French text and I added Laure Olmedo's screen shot of it. On June 21, 2017, I also added the section about cleaner shrimp and "reciprocal altruism" in the wilderness.  On September 18, 2017, I corrected some grammatical mistakes and linked to my post about evolutionary psychologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy misrepresenting Herbert Spencer.