MonoRealism Philosophy Site

The Science of Ethics

Part B: Altruism

Part A concluded with the observation that Shermer's "science of good and evil" is a misnomer. While science might tell us something about why humans do what they do, that in itself tells us nothing about what is right and wrong.


To the degree that Shermer literally means good and evil, then, he is simply assuming that altruism (defined to include cooperation and kindness) is good while selfishness (defined as good for us and bad for them) is evil.

And therein lies the flaw and the clue. That is a philosophical judgment, not a scientific one. But it is a poor trade to replace religious morality accepted on faith with a secular morality that takes altruism on faith – merely a faith directly in an ethical precept instead of in a god who prescribes it.

But a truly secular morality requires a morality based on reason applied to observable reality, not unconfessed faith in a principle. So this leads us to the question: is altruism moral?

First we need to identify the essence of altruism. We cannot blithely lump together kindness, cooperation and love under its banner. These can (and indeed should be) profoundly selfish, and so altruism is not needed. Indeed, while people often assume those things are selfless and use them as reasons why one should be altruistic, the actual ethical prescriptions altruism leads to show its true essence: as its name indicates, it is the theory that the moral good is defined by what is good for others. In its most consistent application, this means what is good for others independent of and if necessary in contradiction to what is good for you. That is why the demands of altruists – and the laws they self-righteously impose – have slowly grown from robbing Peter to pay his neighbour Paul, to robbing Peter and Paul to pay the poor in a far country, to despoiling all of them for the sake of swamps and deserts. And none object on moral grounds, for how can one object to selflessness?

But if you are going to sacrifice your interests on the altar of a moral precept, you need to be sure it is moral. So why is altruism moral? One cannot merely assert it. What facts in reality make it good? As Ayn Rand observed, "this is a question to which there is no earthly answer – and no earthly answer has ever been given." That would be sufficient to damn it, for if something has no basis in reality, then it is a lie and, as life depends on consistency with reality, anti-life.

In contrast, an objective, secular morality looks at the nature of reality, including and specifically the nature of man, and draws its conclusions accordingly. This is the kind of morality first developed consistently and in detail by Ayn Rand and on which Philosophical Reflections converged. What it finds is that your own life, being conditional on your actions, is the foundation of morality and links what is (the nature of man and reality) with what ought to be (ethics) – the critical linkage specifically absent from attempts to base ethics on science. What it then finds is that our fundamental tool of survival is our mind. From that follows a morality of rational selfishness, where the good is what advances your life, and what advances your life is identified by your mind, at all levels from the broadest abstractions to concrete decisions. The result is a view and prescription of human beings as independent, sovereign beings who must deal with each other by reason not force or fraud, in honesty and justice. Then, one's proper attitude to others is as neither slaves who exist for your pleasure (the traditional meaning of "selfishness") nor masters for whose happiness you exist (the actual meaning of altruism): but as independent people you trade with in things of matter and spirit, to mutual benefit or not at all.

Where proponents of altruism attempt to show that it benefits you, they at least recognise a key truth, that your own good is fundamental to you. But they don't approve of that, and so such arguments are just the start: camouflage for making the unsupported and unsupportable jump that therefore you should be altruistic even where it is not in your own interests, because somehow it "really" is.


It can be seen from the foregoing that an objective morality cuts right through the dichotomy of "good and evil" Shermer presents.

Is cooperation good? Yes, not because it was required by ancestral tribes beset by bears and starvation, but for the reason it was: other people, to the extent that they are thinking beings acting in their own best interests, are productive beings. So it is in all our interests to live by trading value for value, including working together for shared goals. Is love and friendship good? Yes, not because it provided social cohesion on a savannah, but for the reason behind that: because when other people are good, they enhance your own life. Thus love and friendship are the natural and proper response to the values of character in other people that match your own values and goals. Is kindness good? Yes, in context, because helping people you value or who otherwise deserve your kindness serves your own real values and therefore your own life.

Is love and kindness to everyone, irrespective of their nature or their value to you (especially relative to the other things you can spend your time or money on), good? No. There is no justification in reality for betraying your own values. Anyone who demands that from you, by the very act shows their moral unworthiness to receive your help.

Is xenophobia bad? Yes, if it is based on irrational prejudice – because then you are betraying your most fundamental value, your reason, and consequently all your other values. No, if it is based on objective reality (e.g., they're out to rob or kill you). Are rape, pillage and murder wrong? Yes, because all are manifestations of the initiation of physical force against others. By its nature, that is an attempt to steal values while destroying that which makes values possible (e.g., instead of producing yourself, stealing from those you are relying on to do the producing). Is war bad? Again, it depends. A war of conquest whose goal is theft or murder is wrong but to fight in defence of liberty (objectively defined) is good.

Thus self interest is not the rapacious monster painted by the acolytes of altruism. That picture assumes a particularly pernicious view of man: that our interests are in fact, in reality served by violence, rape and robbery. But the only person whose character you have direct and intimate knowledge of is yourself. So prima facie, anybody who thinks that way is basing it on their assessment of their own character – and you should run a mile. On the contrary, man is by nature a thinking being and our interests are served by dealing with each other as thinking beings – in reason, in justice, in peace and in honesty. That achieves all the supposed aims of altruists – except their true aim, seizing from those who produce for the sake of those who do not.

Certainly there may be reasons to help someone who is down and out, depending on why they are down and out and how helping them fits in with your other values. There is a prima facie case for helping a stranger in trouble, where that help can be given without sacrificing your greater values: where other people are attempting to live as rational beings, they are a benefit (actual or potential) to your own life. But that is the criterion, the sole criterion, for helping others – in an objective morality. It is not their need that gives them a claim: it is their character, and whether helping them serves your own life and values. But to found any such help in altruism is a reversal of morality (and an insult to those who deserve your help): it is to put failure and absence of value as a higher value than success and production. Thus it attempts to reverse cause and effect (values cannot exist without those who createthem) and to reward failure because it is failure. As life depends on production, justice and rights that is profoundly anti-life and should be rejected root and branch.

Philosophical Reflections

Thus deriving a secular, objective morality is a noble pursuit, but attempts to find it in science are misguided. Science can find the facts of reality – but it cannot itself evaluate them. And you do not need a microscope to find the facts of reality required to develop an objective ethics.

One cannot criticise past ages too much for the apparent dichotomy in morality between existing by trade on the one hand and casual cruelty on the other. There was no other way to live. Philosophy is an act of induction from the facts of reality, and the facts of reality then were rather grim.

But the rise of science and industrialisation has shone a light on what was always true, only harder to see: that the mind is our tool of survival, and its use requires freedom from force initiated by others. And not only has it shown this truth, it has shown us that there are no limits. The world is not a fixed pie, doomed to warfare over limited resources. For uncounted millennia, the world's population crept along in the millions, slowly increasing as new advances from the mind increased productivity and allowed more people to live: but for all those millennia the Malthusian limits were never far away, and "us or them" was an inevitably recurring theme.

Yet now, with a world population over 6 billion and control of birthrate both easily achievable and personally desirable, with advances in genetic and physical technology showing promise of easily feeding all those people and with outer space itself soon within reach, the old limits no longer apply. Other people are not a threat, can never be a threat – unless they choose to be, by living as animals rather than men. Potentially they are all rational people who are a value to us in the myriad ways only people living their own lives for their own sakes can be. When men realize that the good is living their own life for their own sake and that requires no victims, only trade for mutual benefit, then that potential becomes reality.

That is the kind of high-level integration that is the province of philosophy, and requires no specialised equipment to acquire, just the use of your eyes and reason. That is why science, for all its power, may advise philosophy, but will never make it redundant. Indeed, philosophy informs the conclusions even of those who deny its power, whether or not they acknowledge or even know it.

© 2008 Robin Craig: first published in TableAus.