Despite the positive connotations of benevolence and kindness that most people hold for altruism, that is not what this moral code means. The Encyclopedia of Ethics gives this definition (under ‘Theories of the Good’): “altruism is the policy of always denying oneself for the sake of others.” In other words, every time you attempt to achieve a value—food, a job, a promotion, a gold medal, profit, you must give it up for someone else who needs it more than you do. As per altruism, there are always people needier than you.

But most people do not grasp this true meaning of altruism as principled self-sacrifice. For them, altruism means benevolence and kindness toward others in which we should engage to make the world better. This view is pervasive. A business professor colleague recently told me that a little bit of altruism is good—because otherwise we would not consider other people at all, making the social atmosphere and relationships unpleasant. She was shocked when I said that that a little bit of altruism is like a little bit of cyanide: very destructive. I explained that every act of self-sacrifice (giving up one’s values for the sake of others) is harmful, not only to us but also to the recipients of our sacrifice. Why?

Life requires gaining values, not losing them. If we always deny ourselves, we would die. And even if we followed my colleague’s advice, practicing altruism not on principle but self-sacrificing only occasionally, it would still damage our ability to survive and flourish. Declining a job offer for your dream job only sometimes, or passing up the promotion every now and then, may not literally kill you like consistent self-sacrifice—giving up every value—would. But it is harmful to your achieving your values and happiness nevertheless. It also harms the recipients of your sacrifice. If you give up values for the sake of others, you would be less productive, and fewer values would be created overall—which is others’ loss also.

Some of my business ethics students also have difficulty grasping the true meaning of self-sacrifice and self-interest. Some persistently hold onto the idea that only altruism makes benevolence, kindness, and collaboration possible. They have been taught all their lives (many MBA students are mature adults) that altruism is good and self-interest is bad. So they make comments such as: “Only those who subscribe to altruism would consider or help others, or contribute to charity. If a neighbor’s barn burns down, only altruists would help re-build it.”

What these students and my colleague fail to see that it is the morality of self-interest, not self -sacrifice, that makes benevolence possible. The prevailing morality of altruism imposes a duty to be our brothers’ keeper (and government reinforces it by “redistributing” our income). This hardly has induced benevolence toward others. Studies show that in countries where the government imposes altruism through highly progressive income taxes and other taxation schemes, people’s benevolence, measured as charitable donations relative to income and the rate of volunteerism, is the lowest. (Many European countries belong to this category). The reverse is also true: in countries where altruism is less imposed (where taxes and government welfare programs are the lowest), the rates of charitable giving relative to income and volunteering is the highest. (The United States is the leader in this group).

The ruling principle of human interaction should not be self-sacrifice but trade. Only when people are free to trade value for value for mutual benefit by mutual consent, true benevolence among men is possible, as historical evidence from the 19th century America shows. When government protects the right to liberty, including the freedom to trade with whomever and however we wish, benevolence (manifested as private charity, mutual aid societies, etc.) grows. Government violating our rights and redistributing our income has the opposite effect: resentment or lower productivity.

Benevolence does not require self-sacrifice. It is completely consistent with self-interest to help others, to give to charity, or to volunteer one’s time—as long as it does not entail self-sacrifice. When the people we help or the causes to which we contribute are values to us and we can afford to help, there is no self-sacrifice. This applies also to business. Producing and trading material values for profit is the primary purpose of business, but self-interested charitable giving to causes that help the local community thrive or that enhances the company’s reputation, is moral.

Altruism means self-sacrifice and is destructive. All forms and amounts of it, even “a little bit,” should be rejected.

8 COMMENTS

    • Thanks, Gayle! Yet, this seems very difficult for people to grasp, thanks to altruism’s dominance in the culture today. I think if people realized its destructiveness, they would recoil. But the sugar-coating as kindness make people accept it as an ideal.

  1. I am suspicious of businesses that give to charity in order to enhance reputation – that’s pandering to bad public notions.
    They strike me as shallow.

    Note as well that it harms the company by diverting attention from producing better for people (better quality of product and service at lower price), fostering a “good enough because we are charitable” view. I ignore Better Business Bureau membership because of that.

    And some of the activities that can get publicity are poor choices for spending compared to what could be done quietly for greater real benefit.

    I think there is much quiet charity, given to people who deserve help, by people who don’t need the false self-esteem of media recognition.

    There are of course many business activities that complement the enterprise – for example, providing recipe books for no charge was common decades ago, they both taught people cooking and highlighted more ways to use the company’s products. (With the many cookbooks available today – from Cooking for Dummies to the weighty and pricey Chemistry of Cooking less is done, but some companies still provide recipes on their web site.)

    • Thanks, Keith, for your comments. I agree with you and should have been more precise re: business and charity. So let me me try to clarify: the primary, central purpose of business is to create and trade material values for profit. If businesses contribute to charity (and I say ‘if’–it is not a duty or “corporate social responsibility”), it must be a minor side issue. However, for some businesses contributing to local causes could be in their self-interest, such as sponsoring kids’ sport teams (and getting their names displayed on their jerseys, say), to help the communities in which their customers and employees live thrive. (Producing and trading material values will of course have a much larger impact.) Such charitable gestures can generate goodwill for the company and translate into employee loyalty and enhance sales.–I used the term ‘reputation’ but that is not accurate enough. It made you think companies who randomly give to any cause, unrelated to their business or market, just to look good and to get media attention.

  2. First, thank you for writing this. I just stumbled across this post from a Google search.

    One thing that has always struck me is this: Why is it considered “greedy” to want to keep your money, but it’s not greedy to want or to accept other people’s money? In other words, why is it OK to be on the receiving end of someone’s “altruistic sacrifice?” Why does the altruism end there? By definition, shouldn’t the receiver also sacrifice the value offered to him or her? I imagine two altruists sitting in front of a chocolate bar, saying to each other, “No, you take it! I insist!” over and over for the rest of their lives.

    • You are welcome, Peter–glad if my post was enlightening :-). You identified the inherent contradiction of altruism that those advocating that moral code evade. Altruism is anti-human life and therefore destructive.–Peter Schwartz’s forthcoming book (June 15), “In defense of selfishness,” will provide a full analysis altruism.

  3. Not sure if I agree with your definitions of altruism – while there are people who go too far with altruism for their own good, you definitions seem exaggerated. I also used to think of altruism in (only) this way, but in hind-site it was because was suffering from FOMO and/or afraid of being walked all over like a doormat (just like I was during my childhood).

    Martyrdom is usually altruistic, but altruism is not always ‘martyrdom’ – what your describing is “false humility”, “insecurity”, “low self-value”. TRUE altruism is not thinking less of oneself, it’s thinking of oneself less (often). The problem is many of us derive our worth from what we have or how well we perform, so we naturally feel that by thinking of ourselves more often will gain more and/or teach ourselves to perform better- and in turn give us a happier life.

    It’s important to acknowledge and attend to one’s own needs, without which we not only limit/devalue ourselves but can also hurt others – but I think the view that alot of (but not all) critics have towards altruism is often based more in ‘wants’, rather then ‘needs’ – not that there is necessarily anything wrong with wanting something – but we live in a culture that feels oppressed if it takes 1 minute longer that usual for MacDonalds to make a cheeseburger – seriously – I have actually observed this.

    You, me and others may not personally be this way, but in the bigger picture, our consumerist western culture is hardly good at differentiating ‘thinking of others’ and ‘martyrdom’ – let alone defining “Altruism”

    • THank you for your comments, Dave. The definition of altruism is not mine but that of the Oxford English Dictionary, the Encyclopedia of Ethics, and of a number of ethicists who are experts in their field. (I am not stating as an appeal to authority but to point out that the common connotation of altruism as benevolence does not capture its essence and is therefore mistaken).

      It seems to me that you are confusing rudeness and selfishness, and altruism and consideration for others, as per your MacDonald’s comment suggests. Please read my post from last week–Why we should be selfish–it explains this confusion.

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