The philosophy of Objectivism (created by the philosopher and author Ayn Rand) includes the idea that all actions and choices are ultimately motivated by self-interest; people do things for their own benefit, whether they realize it or not. One problem I have with this idea is that it rules out the possibility of any actions that are altruistic (selfless, or purely for another’s benefit).

I recently attended a conference where the presenter, C. Bradley Thompson, defended the philosophy of Objectivism. During a question and answer session, someone asked him, “What single philosophical idea do you believe has caused the most damage to human society?” He responded immediately and confidently, “Altruism.” He argues that human beings consistently forgo actions that are in their best individual and collective interests for the sake of an unobtainable ideal that usually does more harm than good. Mutual exchange, based upon mutual self-interest, does for more good in the world than encouraging free-loaders and laziness by giving valuable time and resources to those unwilling or unable to reciprocate.

Psychologists and biologists continually debate whether true, genuine altruism is even possible in a species that is the product of biological evolution. Is it possible for a genetic trait to be passed on through the generations if this trait did not, in some way, improve the individual’s ability to reproduce? Even if this is possible, it would make the “trait” of altruism a genetic accident, an aberration in the normal course of evolution.

Most psychological paradigms treat altruism as a kind of selfishness in disguise. As Nathan Richardson explains, “[From the traditional psychological perspective], the main purpose or intent behind each action then becomes maximizing personal gain. There are two ways to do this: ignoring the desires of others, or giving space for others’ desires to increase the odds of obtaining your own desires.” In other words, we help others because doing so, in some way (either directly or indirectly), benefits us. Thus, from this perspective, altruism is simply a form of long-range self-interest. We love others because we ultimately love ourselves.

Turning the Debate Upside Down

It seems that the debate has always centered on two questions: Is genuine altruism even possible? If so, is it necessarily better than rational self-interest? Both questions, however, presume the existence of genuine self-interest. I would like to turn the debate on its head and ask a new question: Is genuine self-interest even possible?

To clarify, when I speak of self-interest, I question the possibility that the soul may be interested, focused, attentive to its own well-being to the exclusion of others. I do not dispute the fact that the self may have interests. For example, the self may pursue pleasure, enjoy music, or seek to help others, and all these things may be categorized as the “interests of the self.” However, I intend to argue that the self may not be the object of its own interests, and it is this kind of self-interest that I refer to. In a sense, it is psychological egoism that I critique.

Background: The Call of the Other

In order to lay some groundwork for why I ask this question, I’ll need to review some ideas I have previously written about. Earlier this year, I wrote a series of posts outlining Terry Warner’s ideas about self-deception and self-betrayal. These ideas are outlined in literature published by the Arbinger Institute and in Warner’s book, Bonds That Make Us Free. If you are not at all familiar with Arbinger’s work or with Warner’s ideas, I recommend that you read this series before continuing with this post. This series contains some anecdotal examples that I will reference in this post.

Simply put, Warner argues that we are constantly receiving signals from our fellow human beings about how we should treat them. In other words, we are constantly and inevitably aware of the humanity of those around us, and this humanity beckons us in general and often specific ways. These beckons present us with a choice: we can either respond to them, or we can resist them. When we resist the beckon of another person’s humanity, we do them wrong.

However, not only do we do them wrong, be we rewrite the world we see and react to in such a way that makes our wrongdoing seem right. We invent rationales and justifications for our wrongdoing, and by so doing create for ourselves a world in which our actions seem to us the only right course of action. These rationalizations often take the form ofaccusations. We often use the faults of those whom we are wronging (or we even invent faults for them) as an excuse for our wrongdoing. We cloak or mask the humanity we are resisting through accusations. For example, I recited the story of Marty, who resisted the call to help his wife by tending the baby. As he resisted this call, he also mentally and emotional accused his wife of wrongdoing towards him, citing her wrongdoing as a justification for his own.

Accusations are not the only rationalization for wronging others. Just as frequently, we cloak our wrongs in terms of self-interest. We cite our own needs as an excuse for not responding to the call of need of the Other. Again, in the story of Marty, he also determined that his own need for sleep outweighed the needs of his wife. The pressures of his job required him to sleep. I have numerous anecdotes from my own life where I have used my own needs as an excuse not to meet the needs of others. I have, for example, decided that getting to class on time was more important than holding the elevator door for someone. I have used homework as a rationale for not performing simple acts of service for roommates or friends. In every instance, I have put my own needs ahead of the needs of others, but I excused it by believing I was acting in my own best interest.

Consider: when we resist the call of the Other, either by masking the Face of the Other in an accusation or by placing our own needs ahead of the needs of the Other, we are doing them wrong. This isn’t just a passive sin of omission. When we neglect the call of the Other, we actively reinvent the world in order to justify doing it. Resisting the humanity of another person is an action, not a lack of action. An analogy is helpful here. When we push away the hand of someone who has offered a handshake, we aren’t simply neglecting to shake the person’s hand, we are actively pushing it away. According to Warner and Levinas, when the Face of the Other beckons, simple neglect is impossible. Failure to respond is active resistance.

I would like to attach a label to this wrongdoing: malice. When we actively resist the Face of the Other, we do the opposite of love: we experience malice towards the Other. Although the word is most frequently used in the passive tense (as something we experience), I mean it here in an active sense. In other words, when Faced by the Other, we have two real choices. We can either respond with love, or we can respond with malice. Simply ignoring the Face of the Other and doing neither is not an available option.

The Role of Reason in Our Lives

Emmanuel Levinas, the philosopher on whose writings many of Warner’s are based, argued that reason itself is a response to the Face of the Other. For example, to use Warner’s terminology we put our rational capacities to use in one of two ways: we can seek and discover ways to respond to the call of another’s humanity, or we can seek and invent ways to justify our resistance to the another’s humanity. Both possibilities use human reason, but for different purposes. In either case, reason was called into action in response to an obligation: either as a means of responding to it, or as a means of explaining it away.

If these are the only two responses to the call of another person’s humanity, then what of the third option, self-interest? If these are really the only two genuine options, then self-interest is simply the justification or rationale we invent for resisting the call of another person’s humanity. Simply put, altruism is not disguised self-interest. Rather, self-interest is disguised malice. It is putting reason to work in excusing our response to our fellow human beings.

In defense of this claim, I would like to recall another claim made by Warner: those who do no wrong need no rationale or justification for their actions. They need only to find the best way to do it. For example, when those who risk their lives to rescue a child from a busy street are asked why they did so, they most often respond, “Because it just felt like the right thing to do.” They certainly used reason to determine the speed of the cars on the road, how much time they had to rescue the child, or the fastest way back to the sidewalk. However, they did not use reason at all to invent a reason for their actions.

However, when someone is asked why did not help someone in need, they’ll almost always have a rationale for their inaction. Those who do wrong (and everyone fits in this category) constantly use reason to explain why they do the things they do. We invent reasons for our actions only when we feel the need to justify them. Self-interest is a reason for action. The pursuit of rational self-interest is a sophisticated, ancient philosophy that provides criteria for when we should or should not help other people, based upon the sophisticated calculus of long-term goals and desires. Those who genuinely do no wrong do not need any such sophisticated calculus to motivate their lives or to rationalize their behavior.

The Soul as a Flashlight

A standard flashlight can never shine light onto its own self. It can shine light outwards onto the surrounding environment, but it can never illuminate itself. I believe that the soul is much the same way: it can never be the object of its own attention, love, or interests. The soul can attend to things or people in the world around it, but never to itself. It can love things or people in the world around it, but never itself. It can be interested in things or people in the world around it, but never itself.

How then do we explain or describe self-love or self-image? James Faulconer, a respected philosopher and professor at BYU, explains, “Since by definition an image is not the real thing, the self placed at the center when one is concerned about self-image isn’t even a real self. … This is a corollary of the fact that love is necessarily of something other than ourselves: love of self is love of something that is not really our self.” In other words, love must be directed outwards, towards something in the outside world, something that is not the person who is doing the loving.

We can invent for ourselves an image of what we think we are, and direct our time and energies focusing on, fine-tuning, or serving the needs of this invented image of ourselves. By doing so, however, we are not actually focusing on our actual self, but only an image of ourselves that we have invented in our minds. We can never directly experience the presence of the self in the same way that we experience the presence of another person, and thus we can never experience an obligation to the self in the same way that we experience an obligation to another person.

In fact, I argue in this post that when we focus on serving the needs of this invented image, we are doing so as a rationale for resisting the Face of the Other. Even when we help others based upon a sophisticated calculus of self-interest, we are masking the face of the Other with an invented image of the self. And, since resistance is an active experience, not a passive one, and since resistance can best be categorized as malice, this kind of self-interest is simply a mild form of malice (although pernicious in its clever disguise). For this reason, I turn the traditional academic debate about altruism on its head and ask instead, “Is genuine self-interest even possible?”

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