We don’t live for others, but for ourselves

by Tibor Machan

The most prestigious of contemporary moral philosophers favor the morality of fairness and impartiality. By this they tend to mean we all ought to think first of everyone’s welfare across the globe as we decide how we are going to conduct ourselves. Although they often implore us to fashion public policies by this standard, in fact they intend this to be something we ought to do in our most private decisions as well.

In his book “Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence,” New York University philosophy professor Peter Unger says, “On pain of living a life that’s seriously immoral, a typical well-off person, like you and me, must give away most of her financially valuable assets, and much of her income, directing the funds to lessen efficiently the serious suffering of others.”

This is quite a preposterous demand, comparable to the Christian ethics that demand we imitate Christ as we live our lives. But at least the Christians tend to be willing to allow for our imperfections — Roman Catholics didn’t invent confession for nothing. What Unger and company want from us is total altruism, living entirely for others.

However, sensible ethics advises us not to live for others but for ourselves, which often includes looking out for Nos. 2, 3 and 4 — family, friends and neighbors. But we ought to, actually, make sure we are faring well in life, even thriving. Just go to a psychiatrist and see if his advice is that of the altruists. No way — you are supposed to care for yourself, practice that venerable Greek virtue prudence.

An example is how we deal with the terrible news we read every day at the breakfast table, or wherever one gathers the news. Any sane person knows there are horrible things happening to people across the globe that he or she simply needs to ignore. Yes, now and then contributing to a rescue fund or the Red Cross is the decent thing to do; I am not suggesting it’s sensible to be callous. But it is sensible to turn the page when one reads of the latest earthquake in Iran or famine in Somalia or even the weather carnage in Florida — unless your friends and relatives have been hit, in which case the matter becomes personal.

Our lives and energies simply cannot be spread so thin as to care for all others. If we did, the result would be caring for no one at all. Imagine having to cry whenever anyone anywhere dies. Or toasting the birth of every baby everywhere on the globe. Or sharing the pain of economic downturn for all who experience it, while also cheering on the fate of those who are prospering. Who but some kind of mythical saint can have that kind of wealth of emotional resource to feel along with billions of other people and the capacity to act on any of it? No one.

What ethics or morality require is sensible living, which takes one’s own objectives in life as one’s priority, including the well-being of people for whom one has taken responsibility — one’s children, especially, and other kin. But this blather about how we must serve everyone everywhere in order to amount to morally decent human beings is just crazy. It doesn’t even consider how destructive of any measure of human self-sufficiency such ethical ideals tend to be, communicating to the world that everyone can just wait for the help from everyone else and need not attend to his or her own needs.

In any case, the bottom line is that this rampant and wild altruism peddled by contemporary moral philosophers at some of the most highly regarded departments of philosophy is nonsense.

Tibor Machan advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at
Machan@chapman.edu