Altruism Revisited

This time it's personal!


This paper is the sequel to an earlier paper, which attempted to present a case for altruism in abstract utilitarian terms. This paper finds a case from a more social (though ultimately utilitarian) perspective, and also attempts to reveal some of the implications of altruism on the person.

The love of which is allegedly the root of all evil, what?

It is valuable. We need it to obtain food, shelter, clothing. Without it we cannot live: it is a pre-requisite enabler of all things that make life worth living. Its absence (or merely its deficiency) causes great suffering. Two of the largest areas of suffering in the world - the lives of factory farmed animals, and the condition of the poor and starving of the world's human population [1] - are directly caused by the with-holding of it, and could be easily fixed if given a fair share of it. The answer, I assume you've guessed, is money; by the power it represents. Can we assume, therefore, that everyone knows its value, and spends it wisely? We cannot.

The children who won't grow up

One of the significant features of the transition from childhood to adulthood is the accepting of responsibility for (the consequences of) one's actions. We become careful, considerate, and reasonable. It appears to me that large numbers of people in society never make this transition - they spend their whole lives doing what feels "good", or "fun", or "likeable", or merely "nice". Of course, their socialization makes sure that sometimes these will be felt as a result of helping others - and visibly and intentionally harming others is made to feel "bad", "unpleasant", or as "guilt".

Having been given this version of morality, and finding it so conveniently co-incident with their own interests, they abstain from the search for the truth. Thus they never develop a reasoned system of ethics. Anything, it seems to them, that does not provoke their "moral" feelings [2] must therefore be a matter of preference - that is, their own preference.

The "ethics of fantasy"

The ethics advocated herein, those of equal consideration of interests [3], receive much criticism from various parties. Occasionally, they are criticized as being too lenient - giving insufficient protection to the (assumed) rights of the individual. More commonly, they are criticized as being "unrealistically demanding", and given the epithet shown in the above heading. They require that we not make arbitrary distinctions - to not discount others' interests, merely because of their separation from our own.

The immorality of waste

There are very few people who have the aim of causing suffering - yet there is an abundance of man-made suffering in the world, and suffering that could easily be reduced by the efforts of men: the starvation in one country with the food surplus in another; the homeless in one area, with buildings standing empty in another; disease in one area, yet cosmetic surgery in the next.

We could justify the continued existence of these problems, perhaps, if by declining to spend our resources on solving them, we had instead chosen to make many others ecstatically happy. We might assume, with the known power of money and the huge sums spent on entertainment, travel, convenience items etc, that this is what is being attempted. But failing, surely: where are all the ecstatics?

Since it has such great power to reduce suffering, how is it that the money is spent and the suffering continues? Where does the money, and its power, go?
It seems that, each time the well-off choose to spend money to increase their own happiness, rather than to decrease the suffering of others, its power is lessened - worn away by the hedonistic treadmill, reduced as of declining marginal utility (DMU). It is put to the task it is least able to achieve: to make the already well-off even happier. Greater interests of some are sacrificed to lesser interests of others. The cause of the evils is found.

The (Smiling) Face of Immorality

One of the major problems found then, is the "wasting" of money; that is, its sub-optimal usage. The slightest examination of the culture of our society shows how care-free and inconsiderate we are encouraged to be in the disposal of our money - and the power it represents. It is thought to be quite improper to minimize one's unnecessary expenditure: one might be called "tight-fisted", "cheap", or (less so in these days of "political correctness") even a "Jew". It is positively anti-social to refuse the cheerful invite to the pub, or out for a meal. Yet to someone of low (even by our society's standards) income, this can be a significant expense - to those in poorer areas, the cost of a few beers to us might be a week's wages to them. [4]

The acceptance and promotion of these things is wrong. We are sometimes encouraged in them by people whom we might think would know better: the moral agent but part-time; the one who gives some tiny fraction of their income to charity, and claims therefrom that they are "doing their bit"; the one who knows the world's problems and solutions, but insists on a "balance" between acting on behalf of others and themselves - which (they hope) justifies their experience of a significant amount of the excesses enjoyed by other members of their society [5]. But how, when given the choice of producing a small benefit for one's self, or a larger benefit for others who are less well-off, can it ever be said that in acting for ourselves we are producing "balance"? When does a small value on the one side balance with a large value on the other? When the scales have been rigged, or broken, and at no other times. We must be very careful of this artificial balance: it seems we can find it wherever we seek it. [6]

The need for altruists in childish society

It can be seen that the general tendency of justice is to create equality, because where there is inequality there is sub-optimal utility. Our position as amongst the wealthier beings on the planet (which I am assuming of this audience) means that by sacrificing some of the things we would otherwise have (a small cost), we can greatly help others (a large benefit). From DMU, we see that for as long as there's anyone worse-off than ourselves, prima facie we should give to them some of our things: if we halve our excess expenditure, we tend not to halve the benefit we derive from it - we have slightly more than half remaining. They, presumably, get a similar benefit as we: ie. slightly more than half the original. In that sense, the existence of such disparity of well-being is the potential for massive improvement; an opportunity it would be criminal for us not to take.

While the huge inequalities exist - while there is so much suffering, so much potential for improvement in the lives of the unfortunate - there is a need for altruists who will sacrifice their own interests for the benefit of others. [7] If the ethical character of society improves, we can allow our own interests to be served more - utilitarianism and altruism will separate, and our sacrifices will be unnecessary. Until then, we should practice...

Altruism in Thought, Word, and Deed

Words and deeds follow from thoughts. In order to act properly, we must therefore practice thinking properly. We must maintain good judgement.



This is linked by an observation that has been made elsewhere: that one of the more enjoyable pastimes is socializing, which is known to prejudice its participants in favour of conforming (in thought and deed) to the expectations of that society. The classic examples of prejudice (racism, sexism, speciesism) are the classic examples of prejudice caused by socialization: wherever (eg.) slavery was widespread, racism was effectively "taught" to the children. A member of that society - even a great thinker (eg. Aristotle in the case of racism, Bentham and Mill [and almost all other thinkers] in the case of speciesism) - cannot necessarily shake off their conditioned conformity of thought. We can, for those two reasons, make significant progress in clarity of thought by limiting our socialization.

It may be helpful to encourage a certain "world-view" - a way of looking at the world and our place in it. We can think of ourselves as "moral agents" or "tools" - "maximal utility vehicles". We can actively discourage certain thoughts, when they go against our principles. Such thoughts would include almost anything that we are not thinking of out of duty, or in accordance with duty (one's interests are intrinsically interesting, ie. distracting) - though duty, of course, requires a wide scope of knowledge and inquiry. We may become, to a certain extent, "self-less".

If we identify ourselves with these ethical ideas, then we can reasonably identify others with a different set. "Moral patient" may seem wrong when applied to a human, but it works - it implies the childish irresponsibility we see so much of. It contrast to ourselves, whom we shall judge mainly on our instrumental value, the patients will be good only for their intrinsic value - the pleasure they get from the lives they lead. It is likely therefore that it will be an indication of our virtue, that we keep ourselves separate and different from them.

Accepting Selflessness

It has been said, perhaps with an element of truth, that to become selfless is to die. [8] One person's happiness is, other things being equal, as good as our own; so we need not concern ourselves of the experiences we miss for the good of others - we are massively outnumbered by patients who can experience them for us. If we become selfless, most of the things we might wish to preserve - our appreciation of beauty, our valuation of experience etc - can be continued by them, who can surely do these things as well as us. Our truly distinguishing features, our ideas on ethics etc, can be preserved in writing and continued and re-enlivened by other agents and future generations.

We can decline the walk in the park on a sunny day with a pretty girl, when we should be working toward animal liberation, in the safe and secure knowledge that someone else will do such things for us.



In some disease-striken areas of Africa, people become blind for the want of a pill costing less than one USDollar (See SightSavers for details.) Factory farmed hens live their lives in agony to save the expense of free-range farming (which costs, at most, a few pence extra per egg). I choose not to mention other problems, eg. the closure of hospitals and schools because of insufficient funds, in the main text; they seem trivial in comparison.


Have you ever noticed how so much of what is thought of as "charity" is not actually motivated by concern for others? The promotion of guilt not being felt acceptable (for reasons unknown to me), the charity organisations have to make everything have a high "feel good" factor.

Adopt a humpback whale. Send 15 pounds and we'll send you

No kidding, this was a genuine offer. After they've spent all that money on this rubbish, how much will they have left to actually help save the whales? And for what purpose? So that people who adopt a whale can show the neighbours (remember the car sticker): "Look at me. Look what I've done. (Aren't I a good person?)"

Why do they give you a red nose when you donate to Comic Relief? [2a] Answer (the only one that makes sense): because otherwise fewer people would donate. So that people can say "hah, I donated, you didn't: I'm a better person than you". It comes down to image, one-up-manship, and egotism much more than anything resembling altruism.

And sponsored charity events: What on earth is that all about? I myself, as a child, have taken part in a sponsored cycle ride. I have heard of sponsored running, swimming, rafting, even sitting in a bath tub filled with baked beans (in tomato sauce). What is this to do with helping the needy? Why is it a funny or amusing thing which generates the money? Because people do not want to donate: what is called charity is not usually a gift of generosity; it is a deal, a bargain, an exchange: a fistful of small change for a sensation of self-righteousness.

Contrary to what you may have been told, it seems that:
"Justice need not be done, it need only be seen to be done."


Note to non-Brits: Comic Relief is a large and regular charity event on British television where entertainers put on a show and try to persuade the British public to donate money - which is mainly given to third-world countries. Its symbol is a red rubbery plastic ball (which they have to change the design of each time, to prevent people re-using old ones) you are expected to clip onto your nose and wear for the day ("Red Nose Day"). This year they raised many millions, which resulted in a great deal of back-patting and self-congratulation; the show was watched by many more millions: I seem to recall calculating the average donation per viewer was of the order of fifty pence - less than US$1 each.


as in Utilitarianism: see "Practical Ethics" by Peter Singer


In still wealthier areas, it is felt quite acceptable for individuals or families to have computers which they rarely use, or swimming pools in the gardens, or to have multiple cars etc. I choose not to focus on these more extravagant wastes because:

  1. they are fewer in number (though they are more wasteful individually)
  2. anyone so completely obsessed by themselves will be less likely to change (less likely to even read a paper with "altruism" in the title :-)
  3. it would be felt to act against the message I am trying to give - that even the poorer of us in developed countries are rich in comparison to those in the less developed, and we do waste what would, by almost any standards other than our own, be called a fortune.


Advice, to all those who've found themselves just described (it is expected to be the majority): we must improve ourselves.


Another way of looking at balance that works: if a large group is unbalanced one way, the only hope for balance over-all is for the others to unbalance themselves the other way. It is the corresponding reverse of "if everyone did a little, no-one would need to do a lot" (which is, of course, "if some won't do their share, the others must do their own shares AND make up the shortfall").


It must be said, at some point, that self-sacrifice in itself is not useful; only so when it tends to maximizing utility, which (in my opinion) is the general result. I am pointing out how this is achieved by practising utilitarianism with a conscious tendency to self-sacrifice, partly to counteract the natural tendency we have in the other direction; and also because, in being human, we are unlikely to suffer the worst fates which occur (subjects of "scientific" experiments, factory farming etc) - so just by our membership of the species we are likely to be better-off than many others, and in a better position to help them than they are themselves.


I remember it, Jamey Lee, even if you don't :-)

1995, 1999