Posted by: L | June 2, 2007

Sobran on altruism…..

From Sobran’s:
atheism and evolution “Two years ago, after foot surgery, I started walking with a cane. The ankle has healed, but I’ve kept the cane. I like it. It helps my balance, it’s funny, and it strengthens my faith.

atheism and evolutionIn this allegedly Darwinian world, where life is a ruthless competition for survival, my cane is magic. It causes young people, fitter than I am for physical existence, to call me “sir” and hold doors and show me a respect I’ve never enjoyed before. Nobody ever told me a stick of wood could exert such spiritual power. I think I’ll keep it.

atheism and evolutionAdmit it, you atheists: the sight of an old geezer with a cane brings out something sweet in you that, according to Darwin, can’t be there. The truth is that love for others is a profound instinct, a powerful atavism so to speak, harder to resist than hate.

atheism and evolutionOf course we all want to survive. But we want just as strongly for others to survive too. Darwinism can’t explain the environmentalist movement (though I think it’s misguided). Nor can it explain why we write wills giving all we can to those who outlive us. Nor the Bill Gates foundation. Nor the sacrifices of parents who give their lives for their children. Nor the willingness of some people to suffer so that other people won’t kill unborn children. Nor nuns and priests who consecrate themselves to God in lives of charity and chastity (the pay isn’t all that good). Nor a hundred other forms of altruism.

atheism and  evolutionAltruism sticks in the craws of the reductionists who think man is, and ought to be, selfish. Ayn Rand tried in vain to persuade us that Moses and Jesus were wrong, that altruism is bad, and that selfishness is a virtue. She failed to make much of a dent in the popularity of St. Francis of Assisi.”

My Comment:

Well, I’m not convinced by Ayn Rand either and never have been, although I think her fiction of ideas can be compelling. But Sobran rather caricatures her position here. Of course, I’d like to know first what he calls altruism.

The word is used in so many different ways to refer to different things that we would have to sort those questions out first to make any headway.

Rand – I think – is coming from a Nietzschean perspective, at least in some places, but it’s been a while since I read anything by her and don’t want to claim more than that. The Nietzschean case against altruism is really a very complex one that Sobran evades. One part of Nitezsche’s gripe is that altruism is often the inability to see suffering of any kind without feeling it ourselves – which has its good side, but also its bad. How so? Because suffering is sometimes (not always) imposed by nature, by natural limits, by the community or by an individual’s own conscience…as the fruit of actions. So, if I injure someone and am tormented by guilt, and an onlooker were to intervene to relieve me of my suffering without taking into consideration the suffering of my victim and his loved ones, the onlooker might have been merciful but it’s not clear that she has been just. And, ultimately, if my intervention allows the object of my sympathy to injure again, it will not have been merciful either. To the new victim or even to the perpetrator – condemning him, as it does, to another bout of guilt.

You could prove in this way that not all acts of altruism were either moral or even efficacious. Rand – if I recall her right – overstated her case. But Sobran’s overstates his too.

Which doesn’t mean I object – either in theory or principle – to holding open a door for anyone when they’re limping or being at the receiving end of their door-holding in my turn.
But I object to door-holding being imposed on me as the indispensible center of my existence. I refuse to love my neighbor better than myself. (Not that most of us are in danger of that…)
And, some of my neighbors I insist on loving better than others — if they have a greater claim to my love.
But, of course, my language is already very confused here because there are many loves – at least four, according to C.S. Lewis – and probably more, I am sure.

And which of them to apply, when and how, would require elaborations that a short blog post, this warm, lazy Saturday afternoon and a very nice chicken tikka masala lunch cannot possibly sustain…..


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