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Egoism and Altruism Considered

I WILL stake a guess that Mr. William T. Nicholas derived a lot of satisfaction from writing his criticism of me. He got more satisfaction when, later, he reflected on how nicely he had revealed Mr. Teller as a shocking little cynic, governed by self-centered interests; and when he sees his letter in print, he will get still more satisfaction.


And why shouldn't his letter give him satisfaction? Isn't self-gratification the prime mover in all we do? All the pretty talk about doing things for the good of others, about "love of humanity" and disinterested service is mere rubbish. Mr. Nicholas wrote his letter because it give him satisfaction.


Altruism, like the doctrine of free will, is a sheer delusion. Men are motivated in their behavior, whether good or bad, by the inexorable demands of self-interest. The kindest, the noblest act in the world, as well as the basest, springs from a desire for self-satisfaction. Why bedrape the fact with tinsel trappings about "our love of others"? Even our "self-sacrifices'' and "selt-denials" give us satisfaction.


I write for realists, not for those who crave sugary pap. My statement --"awful'' to Mr. Nicholas -- that I do things because they give me satisfaction, and not through altruistic motives, will be understood by everyone who appreciates the motivating factors that underlie behavior. Everything that gives me satisfaction is determined by my likes and dislikes; these, in turn, are determined by my whole conditioning. If writing for a Fundamentalist paper gave me greater satisfaction than writing for The Truth Seeker, I would probably be writing for the religious press. As it does not, and since I despise religion, I am doing what is natural in the case: writing for The Truth Seeker "as a matter of habit". And isn't Mr. Nicholas advocating his opinions as "a matter of habit"? Isn't his own conditioning responsible for everything he does?


Let us suppose that I, who am not an altruist, get satisfaction in helping a blind man cross the street. (Mr. Nicholas, for the sake of the argument, will have to assume that I sometimes do a good deed). The blind man reaches the other side, grateful for the assistance. Down the street, Mr. Nicholas assists another blind man cross the street. Mr. Nicholas, being an altruist, is sure that he does not do this for his own gratification, but for a burning love of mankind, a disinterested zeal for his fellow men. Isn't the result the same? Both blind men reach the other side, one through the assistance of.the low-minded, self-gratifying Mr. Teller, the other through the lofty, benevolent, "disinterested" Mr. Nicholas. And which of the blind men gives a care which of us helps him across as long as he reaches the other curb?


Can Mr. Nicholas think of a single kindly act of his that hasn't given him satisfaction? Can he recall a single act of his of any kind that, at the moment, wasn't governed by self-interest? Good or bad, wise or foolish, every act is grounded in satisfaction.


Here is Mr. Nicholas, with all the dignity of one delivering a baccalaureate sermon, telling us that self-interest will not do, that unless we perform acts above and beyond our personal gratification, everything will crack. Something must be done about it, says Mr. Nicholas. And mustn't we put a curb on Mr. Teller for teaching this cynical and debasing doctrine! How can freethought countenance his diabolical viewpoint? Maybe it is even high time "to dispense with the services of Mr. Teller".


Well, my work for freethought is a matter of public record. Such as it is, it is governed by pure egoism: my own gratification.. The years that have been spent (quite apart from my commercial pursuits) in the unremitting drudgery of research and writing have been repaid a thousandfold by a personal satisfaction that has outweighed all the blatant detractions and pious acrimonies which beset the militant freethinker. What is Mr. Nicholas' record? Have his highminded altruism and flamboyant love of mankind added anything to his own record of accomplishments in the field of rationalism? Have my self-centered activities for the advancement of culture been affected, one way or the other, by my narrow self-interests? Would my own activities for the furtherance of freethought be any better, or any worse, if they were accompanied by verbal embellishments and pyrotechnic dramatics about my great love and devotion for mankind!


Have I admiration for the abstraction called "Man"? I have not. Put that down, once and for all, in your mental note-book. The human race, as a whole, has been, for me, a contemptible species. Read human history, and the glimmer of decency you find is like a candle glowing in a blackout. I leave Mr. Nicholas to wax eloquent over his adoration of the Race. I find in five thousand years of history little else than a sickening picture of bipedal depravity.


If I can distil a basic thought from Mr. Nicholas' letter; it is that he wishes to be both an egoist and an altruist at one time; a sort of combination of both, or, as he himself puts it, an egoist-altruist. This, in the nature of the case, is logically impossible.


Egoism and altruism are antagonistic and incompatible doctrines. Each excludes and nullifies the other. One can no more believe in egoism and altruism at the same time than he can accept both determinism and free-will. An egoist-altruist is as, much of an anomaly as a theistic atheist.


Must I define the word "altruism"? This is a matter for the dictionary. My Funk and Wagnalls' defines the term as "Devotion to the interests of others; disinterested benevolence; opposed to egoism".


Altruism, therefore, in the standardized meaning of the term, is the direct opposite of egoism. Yet Mr. Nicholas ignores the accepted usage of the word and would introduce his own brand of "altruism", which, he says, includes self-interest. What kind of dialectical legerdemain is this that seeks to harmonize two conflicting and irreconcilable doctrines? Being an egoist, I marvel at the statement that "altruism" can include self-interest. This, to put it mildly, is a mere distortion of the issue, a misuse of words.


Mr. Nicholas contends that there are altruists and "pseudo" altruists. I do not draw any such distinction. To me, all who call themselves "altruists" are "pseudo", doing whatever they do, and behaving as they must, for the same reason I do things for self-gratification, though differing from me in their unwillingness to acknowledge the prime motivation responsible for their conduct. They think it sounds nobler and finer, and will merit greater respect, to say they are doing something for others than to admit that they are doing it for themselves.


Mr. Nicholas concedes that there is self-interest in all we do, but supposes that we are governed by degrees of self-interest. There is "relatively disinterested behavior", says he. This I deny. His endeavor, for example to show that his position is valid in this discussion is not limited to a partial self-interest. He is wholly self-interested in showing that egoism is wrong.


Mr. Nicholas states that he too, dislikes "the sentimental claptrap" and boasting of pseudo-altruists". He should. Their effusions are nauseating. They are, in fact, the chief cause of my criticism of the Humanist movement, which is constantly prating of its "love of mankind". Those who talk in this way talk like politicians on the eve of an election. Give me the men who never use these honeyed phrases and nine times out of ten they are doing more substantial good in the world than those who boast of their "altruistic" service.


I subscribe to the Hobbes school of thought rather than to that of Auguste Comte and the English Positivists, who formulated "altruism" "as a convenient antithesis to egoism", This "convenient antithesis" is a pure perversion of the facts that underlie behavior -- and I dislike perversions whether they are "convenient" or otherwise.


Altruism, therefore, is a false and pernicious doctrine: false because it ignores the basic facts that determine conduct; pernicious because it would have us love all mankind. This, by the nature of things, is impossible. He who says he loves all mankind is either soft in the head or a liar.


Ethically considered, altruism is a corroding and demoralizing doctrine. No one can love all mankind, or all men. We cannot love the child-beater, the swindler who defrauds his victims, the cruel Inquisitor, the Gestapo agent. We cannot love the hordes of human jackals that have reddened the pages of history or the billions of persons who have lived on the misery of others. Neither can we love those who pollute the world with tyranny and oppression. To say we do, is sheer hypocrisy.


Love is that feeling of tenderness and devotion which we bestow on those who are nearest and dearest to us and who give us our greatest satisfaction. It is an exalted gratification. As such, it is a limited and restricted emotion. To love all mankind is an impossibility. To claim to do so, is to act the hypocrite.


Hate is as imperative as love in the moral balancing of our lives. Unless one hates he cannot be a moral person. He must hate injustice, hate cruelty, hate those who injure and despoil others. Hate is the emotional urge by which men express their execration of the vile and their loathing of the vicious. Without hate, man vegetates. No one can help the world by pretending to love everybody. The altruistic Jesus who tells us to "love" our enemies talked twaddle.


Just: now there is a man in Germany who is hated in nearly every quarter of the globe and whom moral decency and right feeling are striving to exterminate by forceful means. Altruism is forgotten -- and rightfully so in the world-wide endeavor to crush "this evil man". It is a healthy "hate". And such a hate finds its finest summation in the battle-cry of Voltarire: "Crush the Infamous !"


That; we do not love, and cannot love all mankind, is shown by our daily acts. Back in the days of Charles II, Thomas Hobbes wrote:
"Does not a man when taking a journey, arm himself, and seek to go well accompanied? When going to sleep, does he not lock his doors? Nay, even in his own house, does he not lock his chests? Does he not accuse mankind by his action, as I do by my words?"


It is a long time since Hobbes put pen to parchment, but we are still in the same social mess. We instinctivety distrust our fellow men. We still put padlocks on our doors and keep our valuables in safes. We "bond" those whom we employ and consummate agreements with written contracts. For the most part, a man's word is his bond when it is put in writing.


Mr. Nicholas is interested in fine conduct. So am I. But what a man is and how he will behave under various circumstances, depends on numerous factors. These include his biological breeding, his cultural training, his environmental background. Yet these, one and all, are subordinate to the incessant urge of self-interest. Self-interest will dominate every act of his life. Whether he is noble or base, refined or vulgar merciful or cruel, generous or selfish, he is moved by self-interest.


And here is where the altruist is led astray. He thinks that in performing a good deed, he is actuated by something that is not governed by self-interest. He is ashamed or fearful to concede that he, and not the recipient of his kindness, is the center of his interest.


To be an altruist one would have to perform a deed behind which there is no self-interest. There is no such deed. He cannot escape the dominating urge for self-gratification. When a man's egoistic impulse confers a benefit on others, he is still an egoist. He could only be an "altruist" if he could perform an act independent of self-interest.


Altruism, then, is an escape, or an attempted escape, from realism. It seeks to hide the real cause of action, by pretending that an act of goodness springs only from a love of the one on whom the goodness is bestowed.


Are men guided by different motives? Of course they are. There is a vast difference between the assassin who sticks a knife in another man's stomach and, the surgeon who makes an abdominal incision. Both are egoists, but their motives are different. Each, however, is seeking self-satisfaction: the one by killing his victim; the other by saving the life of his patient. There is no "relative disinterestedness" here, merely two egoists bent on obtaining complete and unconditioned satisfaction.


While all men are governed by self-interest, their behavior will be different because their self-interests are different. Each will seek his gratification along the lines of his conditioning. The miser and the spend-thrift, the gentleman and the rowdy, are the products of their conditioning.


The superior man will be he who has reached a high level of biological breeding and cultural understanding. His egoism will give vent to the finer impulses of his heritage and training. The inferior man will be he who responds to the baser elements of his conditioning. They will both be egoists finding their self-gratification in different ways.


My chief point of emphasis is that altruism is a delusion. All men are egoists, whether they know it or not, and they do things for their own gratification rather than for a love of others.


The waiter who refuses a tip may look like an altruist, but back of his refusal is a motivation that yields him a greater satisfaction than the acceptance of the gratuity: the "good will" of the diner. This "good will" is a more important to him at the moment, or for later possibilities, than the acceptance of the money. Egoism again in all its barest simplicity.


There are, therefore, no altruists. Those who call themselves such are merely misguided or mistaken. In sum, their generous acts are as much the result of self interest as the acts of those who darken the world with their misdeeds.


Being a determinist, I realize that all men act the way they do because they cannot act otherwise. But this does not eliminate the forming of individual judgments. I praise or censure others, as others praise or censure me, on the basis of likes and dislikes. Each of us is a machine, the result of millions of years of biological evolution. Our responses to our biological mechanism are as mechanical as a plant's responses to air and moisture. And our judgments of others are as determined as the mechanistic responses of our eyes to light. Whatever we like we approve; whatever we dislike we condemn. We pat a beautiful dog and we destroy vermin. The cockroach is not responsible for being a cockroach -- but we kill it if we can. It is no more responsible for being what it is than we are for being ourselves. And men will judge men as long as the race lasts. "Judge not, that ye be not judged" is a silly teaching.

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