I wanted to share this paper that I wrote in criticism of a book called Meeting the Ethical Challenges of Leadership – Casting Light or Shadow by C. Johnson for a class in leadership ethics. I think it makes some important distinctions between altruism and benevolence in light of current events.
“Advocates of altruism argue that love of neighbor is the ultimate ethical standard. … Our actions should be designed to help others whatever the personal cost (Johnson, Pg. 153).”
“It is obvious – historically, philosophically, and psychologically – that altruism is an inexhaustible source of rationalizations for the most evil motives, the most inhuman actions, the most loathsome emotions. It is not difficult to grasp the meaning of the tenet that the good is the object of sacrifice – and to understand what a blanket damnation of anything living is represented by an undefined accusation of ‘selfishness’ (Rand, Pg. 163).”
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term altruism was introduced by the 19th century philosopher, Auguste Comte. By altruism, Comte meant that sense of sacrifice to society or taking the good of others as the highest good. In today’s society, most – lacking an education in philosophy and taking the publics’ word on the subject - take the term to mean a basic decency or generosity. The author seems to split the difference, whilst acknowledging Comte’s original meaning.
Unfortunately for the author, altruism is not the foundation of good will towards others. Altruism is incompatible with good will and love – and freedom. Freedom, at is most basic form, is the power to act without intimidation by others. Altruism requires the sacrifice of the individual to the collective. It is this requirement that makes altruism antithetical to freedom and removes it from any credible list of virtues.
Furthermore, the author uses the word “selfish” to describe the regard for one’s own welfare to the disregard of the well-being of others. This is a rather sinister twist on the original definition and shows the author’s bias and political view point. Pure “selfishness” is simply the concern for one’s own interests. The author seems to suggest that right acts are those taken to benefit others and wrong acts are performed to one’s own benefit (Rand, 1970).
Contrary to the author’s assertions that altruism is good for people, businesses and society in general, “altruism permits no concept of a self-respecting, self-supporting man—a man who supports his own life by his own effort and neither sacrifices himself nor others … it permits no concept of benevolent co-existence among men … it permits no concept of justice (Rand, ix).”
With all of this in mind, is there an alternative to altruism? Is there a cooperative method of dealing with people and businesses – one that benefits both parties whilst respecting their rights and differences? Certainly – it’s called benevolence.
Contrary to the view of the creators and editors of Wikipedia, benevolence and altruism are not synonyms. Unlike altruism, benevolence is completely compatible with freedom. Benevolence is a commitment to achieving the values derivable from life with other people in society, by treating them as potential trading partners, recognizing their humanity, independence and individuality, and the harmony between their interests and ours. Benevolence is thus clearly rationally selfish. It is not a sacrifice of one’s interests to those of others. Rather it reaffirms a positive view of human beings and recognizes the potential of humans (Kelley, 2003).
Of the many charitable groups that exist in the world, one can be singled out as purely benevolent – the Freemasons. Around the world, Masons give away over one million US dollars per day to various charitable causes, and each body within Masonry has it’s own cause. The Blue Lodge (the first 3 degrees of Masonry) supports the local public schools with donations of time and money. The York Rite offers free eye care to needy children and young adults. The Scottish Rite offers free speech pathology services to children. The Shrine Hospitals offer a multitude of free services in the communities that they serve. These are but a few examples. Local Masons also run the Midnight Mission, a downtown Los Angeles homeless shelter and service center.
At the core of each Masonic charitable enterprise, you will find the benevolent attitude of the individual contributing Mason – giving a portion of his wages as an investment in his community’s (and country’s) future. Each charity supports a central theme, supporting those in need with dignity and respect to both the donor and the recipient. The donor is free to give or not give. The recipient is free to receive or not receive – they have but to ask.
As a Mason, I have a certain sense of pride that the money and time that I give to the various charities I and my Lodge support goes to help people increase their capacity to live a free and independent life. The gift of sight to a nearly blind child (York Rite), the gift of language to a budding learner (Scottish Rite), the gift of freedom of movement to a crippled child (Shrine), and the gift of a free thinking mind (Blue Lodge) are all worthy investments. I agree with Steve O. (a classmate) when he said that if only the [altruists] would get out of our way financially (over-taxation), we would have more to give to worthy charities.