Roberto  Diego

One thing about the truth: Someone has to tell it.

The Psychology of Altruism

by Roberto Diego


Copyright 2005 by Roberto Diego - Permission to distribute or reprint is allowed so long as copyright mark and all links are included.


Recently, I read a charming article by Jessica Bennett called “Buying In: Mirrors on The Atlas Sphere.[1]  I realized, as I was reading, that there is a great deal more to the idea of consumerism than most people think, and I believe I have discovered that the concept is an essentially collectivist invention grafted onto the fabric of capitalism.  The tool that accomplished this grafting is the philosophy of altruism.

Bennett starts the article by describing her observations of a particular female customer who had been trying-on many dress outfits in the retail clothing store where the writer worked.  The main point of the description is that the female customer had spent a lot of time looking in the mirror and asking others’ opinions in order to get an indication of what people would think of her in each outfit.  The assumption of the piece is that we were observing, in the lady’s behavior, a sort of consumerism that motivates and fills the need of some people for a higher sense of self-esteem.  The mirror was the conduit between the opinions of others and the lack of self-knowledge on the part of this particular consumer.

The article reflects a growing mind in the writer who seems to be evaluating how a capitalist system works for the benefit of consumers.  To a certain extent, she is the diametric opposite of the lady in the mirror.  Ms Bennett is trying to understand; the lady in the mirror can’t understand no matter how long she looks at herself in the mirror.  The reason for the consumption of so many clothing items by the lady, in the view of the writer, is to impress others and thereby attain self-esteem.  But I must respectfully say that capitalism is not about consumers like this lady in the mirror.  Consumers are merely factors in the system, and in my view, the type of consumer the writer is discussing is merely performing a subconscious primping ritual that belongs to tribalism rather than capitalism. 

Capitalism is about freedom and, in this case, it is about the freedom to choose what clothing a person will wear regardless of the motive for that choice.  It has nothing to do with a person’s self-esteem.  The idea of “consumerism” as an economic concept is anti-capitalist; it represents a cynical view of society and economics that believes people must consume at ever faster rates in order to have a vibrant economy.  This is a collectivist viewpoint that stresses spending for the sake of the “greater good,” a practice that, in the view of the collectivist, is opposed to and more important than the practice of investing.  Though it is unfortunate that the greedy rich get richer in a consumer society, so say the theorists of consumerism, at least consumers consume and increase their self-esteem.  I believe this is all wrong.  There is nothing greedy about wanting people to buy your products.  Self-interest and greed are not synonymous.  In fact, the idea of “greed” is merely a cynical caricature of self-interest.

Bennett asks the right question when she fantasizes about turning the woman into the mirror and asking of her “What do you think?”  This gets to the heart of the issue and reveals a clear dividing line between two types of consumption in a capitalist system.  Are irrational people obsessive consumers?  Surely, yes, in many cases, but is capitalism really an effort to appeal to irrational consumers?  It allows them to buy what they want, surely, but is capitalism merely about frivolous consumption?  A wise old man like me would point out that mirrors are reflections, reflections that allow us to see ourselves.  In a tribal society like ours, mirrors, for most people, are essentially "otherist" in nature, designed so we may evaluate what we look like to others, because to some of us, the opinions of every other person but our self matters.  In fact, the opinions of others matter so much to such people that all of their earning is done so they may consume and impress.  They give rise to a huge clothing industry, cosmetics industry and a number of others.  These consumers are anxiously motivated by a desire to make others like them and that is how they live their lives – and precisely why they are uninteresting.  It is not an issue of self-esteem but rather an issue of anxiety felt over the opinions of others.  When this is the prime focus of life, it destroys the individuality of the person.

But there is another type of consumption.  Not everyone is consumed by this desire to always be consuming.  Why do you take a bath?  So others will not smell you or to feel clean?  Why do you primp and groom yourself?  So others will think you are a good person or to feel in control of your hygiene and health?  In a capitalist system, there is a possibility of rational consumption, the use of one’s mind in order to decide how best to achieve one’s values. In such a system, you decide based upon your evaluations, your thinking and your rational conclusions, not upon what will make others like you. 

In a tribe, each member follows memorized rituals in order to make others think highly of him; so he knows what to think of himself.  This is because all of the messages in tribal societies say the individual is irrelevant compared to the importance of the group.  But in a free society, a civilization, if you use reason, you don't care what others think of you, you don't have that "otherist" perspective.  In a free society, you learn that there are ways to deal with others without giving up your own judgment.  This is where reason and science give you information on how to live in a society of individuals.  A mirror becomes a way of seeing yourself and understanding yourself; it is a reflection of the person you have created, a source of knowledge.  A rational person uses it to see himself and to learn what must be done to make himself a better person.  What people think is never a consideration except possibly in the more narrow sense of how he presents himself to people of high values whose opinions he respects. 

What are the influences that cause these two types of approaches?  The first is altruism that robs you of your ability to judge and makes you promiscuous - this creates the "obsessive consumer" that respects all minds alike and therefore has no way of judging for himself. Altruism is the philosophy that believes the highest value and goal of the individual should be to live for others, to spend one’s life in service to others and to ensure that the suffering of others is ameliorated through self-sacrifice.  Self-sacrifice is seen as having magical powers.  If only all people would sacrifice, that is, live like ants on a hill, the world would be a magical place of love and abundance.  Altruism is presented as a philosophy of love for mankind; but, in my view, in order for the individual to love all other men, he must disregard himself and his own needs.  For some reason, in spite of centuries of sacrificing, the world’s problems seem always to be worse and more sacrificing is called for.  In my view, however, to live one’s altruistic creed consistently, as has been said by others, one must find the first cannibal’s pot and jump in. Next generation, now it is your turn to give up your lives for others (re: Social Security, for example).

For an altruist, normalcy is made up of a constant effort to please others, the more altruistic the individual, the more scrubbed and over-groomed he is - look at religious leaders.  This is because the opinions of others are presumed to be paramount.  The altruist has only one answer to life’s problems: please others; and his life is an endless effort to sacrifice to others, to always look good, to always smile, to always say nice things, to always preach god, etc.  It is a blind, meaningless and purposeless quest that never ends and winds up consuming the individual, his life and his psychological makeup. This is considered healthy in our society but is, in fact, not healthy at all.  It is neurotic dependence on others. These people suffer from a whole range of sicknesses due to their constant state of anxiety over what people think of them.

The other influence is reason which creates a thinking mind that can judge for itself, a person of high values and self-sufficiency.  Reason rejects faith which is the imposition of “knowledge” without foundation; it rejects force which is the introduction of guns into private decision making; and it rejects altruism which offers only one solution to all problems and that is self-sacrifice.  In our present day, a true person of reason is rare because of the dominance of altruism.  There are few people being sent to school to learn “how” to think and only a few rare individuals are able to discover the value and importance of reason on their own.  Most courses in logic and clear thinking are so infiltrated by collectivism that there are few independent minds coming out of our universities.  A person has to learn about reason outside of the influences of cultural institutions.  Indeed, there are few that have realized that reason is the foundation upon which self-esteem is built.  People are taught to be so afraid of upsetting cultural norms that few have gotten past introductory logic.  And in spite of the fact that altruism destroys self-esteem in confirmed altruists, it has an even more devastating impact on the lives of people who search for answers and knowledge – they learn early that there are some things you can not challenge, and they are faith, force and altruism. 

A recent issue of Scientific American[2] mentioned some studies done in the 1930s by Claude Steele.  During the study, Steele called people over the phone and made negative characterizations about them such as “people in your neighborhood are bad drivers."  What was the consequence?  They called the same people back and asked for a donation to charity and the people that were given the negative criticism donated in higher percentages.  Although Steele does not draw the conclusion, I believe this study reveals the psychological power of the dominance of altruism in our culture.  Negative characterizations coming from others (any others) lead most people to the conclusion that you have to please others, and if you don't, they won't like you, you are bad. There's the mirror, the reflection, the consumer. 

Most people learn only one reaction to this "ritual mask of negative judgment:” please others, give, donate, do what it takes to turn the frowns into smiles-because in order to feel good about yourself, you must please "them."  From such attacks, given through out life, the single most devastating casualty is the individual’s ability to muster reason in order to understand the discomfort that altruism causes.  Rather than think, the individual decides that the best way to eliminate the discomfort of other peoples’ displeasure is to appease them and appeal to them by doing good things for them.  Not only does such “altruism” destroy lives, relationships, health and good will, it creates the “obsessive consumer” in today’s capitalist system, the person whose whole life is taken up with the struggle to please others.  Further, it corrupts the very concept of civility and respect for others.  If a person is being “good” or “doing good” because he is anxious about being judged harshly, what does that make of being civilized because it is the rational thing to do?  This is the same question, in another form, of why one would look in the mirror, either to see what others think or to see what one looks like.  Further, it even corrupts the concept of "giving to others" because it turns the activity into something that must be done in order to "live properly" when there are times and situations when such "giving to others" is rational action.  To remove "doing good deeds" from the realm of reason makes it a ritual that must consume the entire life rather than the proper thing to do in certain situations.

In this context, we can see altruism for what it is (metaphorically); a double-sided coin that says “do good” on one side and “you are bad” on the other.  In other words, altruism is based upon a false premise, the basic evil of man.  Original Sin is the idea that moral dualists have always brought up whenever honest inquiry was made about the nature and role of man on this earth.  Is man basically evil as altruism holds?  Look inside your self and if you find that you don’t think of yourself as evil, then perhaps you should question the viability of a concept (altruism) that states man has no value.  Maybe then you will see that it is not such a logical choice to be “good” to all men indiscriminately as altruism requires.  Maybe then you will realize the cruelty of men who function on that premise. Now ask yourself why your taxes are so high and just who is benefiting, the poor or the people who make you feel guilty for not giving more?

I read in Frankl[3], "There are things which cause you to lose your reason or you have none to lose."  This statement, made to describe the effects of bizarre treatment in the Nazi concentration camps, applies to altruism as well; to what Frankl himself would consider the normally adjusted person, the altruist.  We live, in effect, in our own form of concentration camp, the camp of altruism, where people live only for the sake of pleasing others, where reason has no place.  Altruism creates the anxious person that surfs through life floating on the whim of any frown, angry mask, look of disapproval and negative judgment given by any other person.  This person does not really want to please others; but rather, he wants to eliminate the excruciating anxiety felt over what others think.  This concentration camp is a world of changing “truths” where one day everything is great because everyone is nice to you, and on the next day, somehow, in some way, you have fallen from the pedestal and someone thinks you’ve done something wrong or selfish.  In a concentration camp, the most important minds that you must manipulate in order to survive are those of the prison superintendent and prison guard.  In the concentration camp of altruism, it is every person on this earth.  If concentration camp cruelty makes one lose reason, what about the people who’ve never had it because of altruism’s cruelty?

Frankl is wrong to posit that the normally adjusted person is one who lives for others.  In fact, altruism creates its concentration camp by creating fear in each person over the opinions of others and then tells you that you can be a good person if you think only of others - be nice, proper, well behaved and above all, do things for others.  This is literally a duping of the individual in favor of religious and cultural leaders and their goals.  There is no logic to help you learn what to do, altruism destroys logic by making it unnecessary (altruism is the only solution to all problems); there is no reason (altruism is the reason); no thought, just get up every day and repeat only one thought over and over, from the root of your being: how can you please others?  The answer, do things for others, think always of others, judge what they would judge, please them in every way.  This is what psychologists like Frankl tell us is the way to be properly adjusted in society.  But are such people happy seeing only a distorted, disapproving image in the mirror?  Can they make good judgments and come to good decisions about their life choices?  I think not.

Consider prominent leaders and politicians.  They must stuff their resumes with as many things as possible that they have done to help others.  Why?  Because if it is seen that they made all their millions, created dynamic corporate organizations, for their own sake, then they will be given the evil eye of hatred and doomed to suffer the fate of sacrificial victims, to be thrown over the parapet of social unconcern, ostracized and marked with the stamp of evil. 

Ever wonder why, in ancient rituals, it was always the most beautiful person that was sacrificed to the gods?  It was the perceived best that was considered to have angered the gods the most.  And so today…look at relationships between people.  Why do people who love each other separate or divorce?  Because one of them is not “giving” enough, one is too selfish, too handsome, too self-centered, too consumed by career, success, ambition.  Are you seeing the pattern here?  The one who is not giving enough is always seen as the problem – according to altruism.  What about the partner who complains that the other is not giving enough?  Isn't this constant complaint putting the independent individual in a position of having to choose life and living over the concerns of a semi-dependent person who cannot conceive of loving someone who is not a slave to his insecurities?  What kind of excruciating contortions must the “selfish” one engage in order to satisfy such irrational demands?  How does she find a compromise between dependency in others and the need for independence within?  If she rejects the dependency of her partner, she is considered vicious and cruel and is ostracized by family and friends to suffer the unspeakable torture of trying to understand what it is that she did to cause all this anger and hatred she is receiving.  The criticism, “you are selfish” is all that altruists know how to give; and the solution, you must be kinder to others, accept others, give to others, is completely beside the point and has nothing to do with anything the individual has done.  As long as altruism is seen as the cure for relationship problems, we will have relationship problems on a MEGA scale.  That means lots of psychologist chairs to consume.

Is do-good resume stuffing merely a cynical effort to fool people?  No, it is the people that are duped by altruism that are the fools.  To believe that it is only the altruistic acts that you perform that matters about you is the crime of the centuries.  The successful ones, many of them also duped by altruism, are merely trying to survive without being eaten alive.  Now you understand why politicians are always offering programs that “help others” by taking from the rich.  It makes the rich, in today’s altruism infested jungles, feel better to be enslaved and robbed legally.  At least then, they think, they don't have to live through the indignity of being hated for being successful. 

Consider the opposite thought, if you aren't an altruist (heaven forbid that anyone would not want to be an altruist), what does that make of you?  In their, the altruists’ minds, it makes you a person deserving of frowns and anger and hatred and ridicule; an outsider, a rugged individualist, crude, unrefined, unintelligent, uneducated – it makes you a BAD PERSON of low values, scandalous, evil, worthy of hate and a hater of man, a person who is looked down upon and who must be converted and educated into thinking the right way – the right way being that you must realize that to be a good person you must put others first – is there a more cynical view of man than altruism, the philosophy that says YOU do not matter but OTHERS do, that your life should be a constant struggle to help THOSE who hate YOU?  Try to build self-esteem on that.  What does that do psychologically to a person trying to live according to reason; a young person struggling to understand what it means to look in the mirror? 

Altruism is so pervasive in this culture that even President Bush brought it up constantly in his recent Inaugural address (2005); and that is why he did: it is pervasive - no one (or few "good" people) would disagree with self-sacrifice – it is the dominant philosophy.  That is why someone like Bush, who is presumably an advocate of capitalism, preaches with every breath the value of sacrifice and altruism.  He is too afraid not to do it.  He thinks he must appease drooling altruists and liberals in order to lead them to the right system – he may not know (and help us if he does know) that the “right” system, if you follow the premises of altruism, is not capitalism but theocracy, a dictatorship of religion.  In this atmosphere, polluted by the stench of sacrificial victims everywhere, you cannot possibly expect a President of the U.S. to elevate the non-sacrificial individual to a position of rights. He’d be hounded out of office – by his own party. 

How easy it is to say, “See the problems of the world?  They are caused because there is not enough sacrificing…so let’s throw a few more bodies on the pyre.”  That might sound reasonable to an ancient tribe menaced by a destructive god, but why are we still doing it today?  People cannot and do not apply reason to the problems of the world because they’ve been spoon fed the altruistic solution since birth: sacrifice for others.  That’s it, think no more, just sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice and then do it some more – how many more generations do we have to waste with the same old solutions that aren’t working?  No wonder Bush talks only about altruism.  That, unfortunately, is the only thing he knows, the only thing most of us know, the only thing being taught and the ritual goes on.  Yet, that is precisely why Bush is wrong...altruism is not a solution...individualism is.  Freedom, capitalism and the inalienable rights of the individual all make one thing possible; they release one faculty into the world; they make it possible for people to decide about their consumption based upon their minds' thinking.  That faculty is reason.  Altruism is the problem because it precludes reason, destroys reason, ridicules reason (and those who practice it).  It makes bad decisions the norm and therefore it perpetuates generation after generation the blood baths of history, wholesale or one person at a time.  It achieves only what it is intended to achieve: more sacrificing. 

Those who take altruism seriously are "obsessive consumers" in more ways than one.  They not only are incapable of thinking when they look in the mirror, they insist that others create the goods that assuage their anxiety at prices they can afford.  Until we begin to challenge the negative consequences of altruism we will not find leaders who practice reason and clear thinking.  As long as altruism is the only solution for society and for our definition of the socially adjusted individual, we can only hope for caricatures of leadership and caricatures of lives, phony people who think that doing good for others somehow makes them good in the opinions of others.  That is the world in which we live.  The altruistic mirror has destroyed the cognitive apparatus; people look into it to see what others think and all they get is a distorted reflection.  And like in a Twilight Zone episode, the cause of the distortion is not in the mirror but in the mind.  If not averted by a strong dose of freedom and reason, the next debacle will be caused by altruism, as have most debacles of the past 2000 years.  Name one disaster that was caused by “self-interest.”


[2] Scientific American, Feb 2005

[3] Man’s Search for Meaning

 Posted on 2/25/05

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