Altruism, Generosity, and Selfishness in the Age of Bernie

Senator, and presidential hopeful, Bernie Sanders’ enticing blend of progressivism (which claims reason and science as justification) and socialism (which is skeptical of both) gives cause to inquire into the foundations of his redistributive political mindset.

Sanders’ politics echo the social ideology of Herbert Croly, whose book, The Promise of American Life (1909), introduced a progressive liberalism that lost its intellectual respectability decades ago (for more on this loss, see The End of Liberalism: The Second Republic of the United States, 2nd edition [1979], by Theodore Lowi). Croly, in turn, was influenced by the “positive polity” of French philosopher Auguste Comte, who coined the term “altruism” to denote the personal sacrifices that his social ideology entailed. Comte claimed to disdain utopian social visions yet proposed (across numerous volumes) “the wildest of them all.” By his lights, “[o]ur harmony as moral beings is impossible on any other foundation but altruism. Nay more, altruism alone can enable us to live, in the highest and truest sense” (see Comte’s primer, The Catechism of Positivism, 1858 [1852], 310–311).

The ethicist and philosopher of economics John Mueller offers a distinction between altruism and everyday generosity: “benevolence [altruism], or good will, can be extended to everyone in the world, and beneficence [generosity], or doing good, cannot” (Redeeming Economics: Rediscovering the Missing Element, 2010, 36). Yet sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, and economics teach that sacrificial altruism among humans occurs naturally only within the family. Voluntary generosity, by comparison, usually entails no true sacrifice (see my 2018 paper, “Altruism: From Pagan Virtue to Political Biology,” Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism 26: article 4, 1–19).

Croly echoed Comte’s call for altruistic social policies:

The Promise of American life is to be fulfilled—not merely by a maximum amount of economic freedom, but by a certain measure of discipline; not merely by the abundant satisfaction of individual desires, but by a large measure of individual subordination and self-denial. [...] To ask an individual citizen continually to sacrifice his recognized private interest to the welfare of his countrymen is to make an impossible demand, and yet just such a continual sacrifice is apparently required of an individual in a democratic state. The only entirely satisfactory solution of the difficulty is offered by the systematic authoritative transformation of the private interest of the individual into a disinterested devotion to a special object [e.g., a “truly” democratic state]. (The Promise of American Life, 1909: 22; 418, italics added.)

Croly, like Comte, embraced Enlightenment progressivism, by which Robespierre attempted “to lead the people by reason and the people’s enemies by terror”; the people’s reason ultimately led Robespierre onto the guillotine. The other Enlightenment choice available was classical liberalism, from which America’s early political fabric was woven. (For historical analysis of these developments, see two books by Jonathan Israel, Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights, 1750–1790 [2012] and The Enlightenment that Failed: Ideas, Revolution, and Democratic Defeat, 1748–1830 [2020].)

Altruism and progressivism necessarily entail coercion. The historian Vegas Liulevicius shows that “[a] clear connection exists between 20th-century plans for utopias and use of terror to bring them about. [... Terror was necessary] because plans for perfection encountered either passive or active resistance” (Utopia and Terror in the 20th Century, 2003, Part 1). The “harmony” that Comte imagined would flow from altruism was illusory.

The prominent academic psychologist and avowed Enlightenment humanist Steven Pinker characterizes modern altruism as “[t]oday’s Fascism Lite, which shades into authoritarian populism and Romantic nationalism, [and] is sometimes justified by a crude version of evolutionary psychology in which [...] humans have been selected to sacrifice their interest for the supremacy of their group” (Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, 2018: 448). The prominent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins sides with Pinker on the facts, but differs with him on the spirit: “Human superniceness is a perversion of Darwinism, because, in a wild population, it would be removed by natural selection. [...] Let’s put it even more bluntly. From a rational choice point of view, or from a Darwinian point of view, human superniceness is just plain dumb. But it is the kind of dumb that should be encouraged” (Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist, 2017: 276–277, italics added). “Dumb” behavior and “impossible demands” are unlikely means for perfecting individuals and societies.

The Roman Stoic philosopher Lucius Annæus Seneca wrote of generosity that “people must be taught to give benefits freely, receive them freely, and return them freely and to set themselves a grand challenge: not just to match in actions and attitude those to whom we are obligated, but even to outdo them, for the person who should return a favor never catches up unless he gets ahead” (On Benefits, n.d.). Seneca argued that an upward eudæmonic spiral results whenever benefits are given and reciprocated voluntarily.

Generosity and reciprocity nevertheless arise most often as instrumental means to purposeful ends. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes aptly argued that “No man giveth but with intention of good to himself, because gift is voluntary; and of all voluntary acts, the object is to every man his own good; of which, if men see they shall be frustrated, there will be no beginning of benevolence or trust, nor consequently of mutual help” (Leviathan, 1651). Ayn Rand similarly saw, in “the grace of reality and the nature of life,” a “rational selfishness—which means: the values required for man’s survival qua man—which means the values required for human survival—not the values produced by the desires and feelings, the whims or the needs of irrational brutes, who have never outgrown the primordial practice of human sacrifices, have never discovered the industrial society and can conceive of no self-interest but that of grabbing the loot of the moment” (The Virtue of Selfishness, 1964: 31).

Sanders, like Comte and Croly, proposes to perfectioneer society through the kind of altruistic policies that, since the late eighteenth century, have wrought havoc on mankind.

James A. Montanye is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute.
Posts by James A. Montanye | Full Biography and Publications
  • Catalyst