A big error has haunted humanity for centuries: it’s the equivocation between generosity and altruism.
Generosity is a virtue any decent human being will practice: it asks that one reach out to deserving others in times of dire need. Altruism is a policy of devoting oneself to benefiting others above all. The former is admirable; the latter is suicidal.
Sadly, the two are often confused in the minds of many folks who have forgotten their college ethics courses, in which these distinctions are usually discussed (when the professor isn’t using the course to advance an agenda in support of the confusion).
Aristotle knew that among the virtues human beings should practice, one is generosity (or liberality). Of course, he also included honesty, prudence, magnanimity, courage, and so on. Since Aristotle identified the purposes of practicing the virtues as human happiness–a virtue of a good-making attribute of a person, and for persons the highest good is happiness– clearly he was not championing altruism, which, as the philosopher W. G. Maclagan makes clear, amounts to “assuming a duty to relieve the distress and promote the happiness of our fellows….Altruism is to…maintain quite simply that a man may and should discount altogether his own pleasure or happiness as such when he is deciding what course of action to pursue.”
As ordinarily presented by ministers, priests, philosophers, or authors of fiction, altruism means ranking looking out for others first in one’s list of moral duties. Because for much of our modern-era prudence has been thought to be something we practice automatically—“everyone is selfish or self-interested”–the virtue has gone pretty much neglected. And since self-interested conduct was taken by many over the last four centuries to be innate, altruism is the doctrine that needed to be defended and practiced (almost in the sense of “rehearsed”). As if people really did pursue their own best interest as a matter of an innate drive!
Yet, what comprises one’s self-interest–real self-interest, not just what one would prefer or like–is not simple to ascertain. It requires understanding oneself not only as a human being but as a particular individual. What Plato said about this in the Phaedo is instructive:
Crito: When you are gone, Socrates, how can we best act to please you?
Socrates: Just follow my old recipe, my friend: do yourselves concern yourselves with your own true self-interest; then you will oblige me, and mine and yourself too.
Indeed in classical Greek ethics, doing the right thing is crucial and of benefit all around, helping oneself as well as others. But doing the right thing is something one must choose to do. It doesn’t happen automatically. As ethics is viewed by a great many thinkers today, whatever the right thing is will be done automatically–we are hardwired to do it. Doctrines are proposed in various fields–including the latest fashion, namely, neuroscience–as to how people and other living things are programmed by biological imperatives to serve others (or not). Never mind that ethics is actually about what people ought to choose to do, not about what their biological constitution arguably impels them to do.
Wouldn’t it be advantageous if everyone instinctively did do what is right!? All would be well with the world then, at least as far as human affairs are concerned! But in fact there is a lot of mischief taking place, and it is often due to bad choices people make. What would bad choices look like? The ancient Greeks had a good clue—bad choices are ones that thwart or undermine our human happiness. Even generosity was, for them, a virtue that enhances the life of the one who practices it.
Those who peddle altruism–often in ways that instill guilt in most of us who are quite normally seeking to benefit ourselves first and foremost–are in fact misanthropes.
G. Maclagan, “Self and Others: A Defense of Altruism,” Philosophical Quarterly 4 (1954).
Tibor R. Machan holds the R. C. Hoiles Chair at Chapman University and is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, both in California.