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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 24a

Altruism, Utilitarianism, and Selfishness

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Altruism, Utilitarianism, and Selfishness.

[A Lay Sermon read to the Sunday Free Discussion Society, Masonic Hall, Lonsdale Street, Melbourne, 11th January, 1880, by H. K. Kusden. Printed by request.]

Ecclesiastes II, 24.—" There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour. This also I saw that it was from the hand of God;" which, being rationally interpreted, means—that it is a law of nature.

I propose to justify this sound philosophy, which has been unwisely depreciated and falsely abused under many names, such as Epicureanism, Hobbism, but more particularly as the selfish theory, in contradistinction to that hyper-moral system which has been adopted by most religions as well as Christianity, which is concisely embodied in what is called the golden rule, and has received the modern name of "Altruism" or living for page 2 others—from the great French Positive Philosopher, Comte. I must, however, guard myself when advocating the general principle of utility as the end of individual action, against being misunderstood as adopting the formula in which it was expressed by its greatest expounder, Jeremy Bentham, as the proper end of the legislator—The "greatest happiness of the greatest number." That object may doubtless be achieved by a follower of Epicurus, of Solomon, or of Hobbes. But I maintain that it is an error to recommend such an end as a universal Private motive, Bentham's work, I admit, tended to the greatest happiness of the greatest number, but that was not his motive. It was the reason that he gave to others for accepting what he taught. His sympathies were moral and social, and it gratified him so to labour. His motive was the gratification that that labour gave him; in plain English—Selfishness. And when I advocate utility as a rule of individual action, I mean utility, Not to the greatest number, but to the individual agent, whose proper spring of action I hold to be selfishness, self-conservation, or having a single eye to one's own advantage. I say selfishness plainly, and not egoism with Mr. Herbert Spencer or Hedonism with Mr. Sidgwick, because I abhor compromise, and call a spade a spade. I mean bona fide selfishness; not mistaken, short-sighted selfishness — which is really self-sacrifice and not selfishness at all; but the most far-sighted, wise, discriminative, and esthetic selfishness. This is not putting a new meaning on the word; for it is plain as I said, that imperfect or mistaken selfishness is not selfishness at all, but self-sacrifice. I wish to correct the general misapplication of the term selfishness. If a man by miscalled selfish conduct makes himself hated, or ruins his constitution, he does himself a manifest injury which no really selfish man would do. Such conduct should be called ignorant, stupid, self-sacrificing, or working for others; anything but selfishness. I propose to show that a wise, enlightened selfishness is the only proper and efficacious principle of human action; that therefore it is a mistake to deprecate it, and to attempt to lead men to act upon any other principle; and that as a matter of fact all the good that has been done in the world has page 3 been done on that principle. I shall show on the other hand that Altruism, or working for others, is, as a principle not only hypocritical and false, but necessarily abortive; and historically has, therefore, done more evil than good. Although good actions have been recommended and bad ones deprecated, the reasons adduced for good conduct having been false, less good has resulted than if the sound and effective principle of self-interest had been inculcated instead.

The hypermoral theory of altruism, or working for others, is full of anomalies and contradictions, so that if consistently pushed to its legitimate results it would be found to involve much more than self-destruction. So that although a person were to sacrifice himself for the good of others, which of course should be the highest virtue according to the principle of altruism, still if he recommended all others to act on the same rule, and they were to act upon it, obviously universal self-destruction would follow, and the object would be defeated. This is scarcely a perfect result. But suppose that only those who admired the rule were to act upon it—and that is more than are ever likely to do so—then those only who were capable of the highest virtue would accomplish their own destruction, and those incapable of it would alone be preserved. This result would perhaps not be actually so bad as it should be deemed by those who advocate altruism; for the altruists would be exterminated, and the others for whom they had sacrificed themselves would alone, as the fittest, survive to judge of and profit by the results. Each one should then, for the sake of the others as well as of himself, see the radical viciousness of the principle, and should at least enquire whether some moral principle could not be discovered upon which others might be recommended to act without encountering the destruction or disadvantage not only of themselves but also of all who adopt and act upon their rule of life.

I do not pretend that all or any Altruists push their principle to these consistent logical conclusions from it. That they do not is that of which I complain; because they are bound to apply it consistently if it be true, and" if its consistent application lead to obvious absur. page 4 dities which have to be rejected by its advocates, the principle itself must be regarded as false. But I shall examine other modifications of the principle of altruism and see whether or not they are to be involved in the same condemnation.

I will take the golden rule itself as embodying the principle, so far as it is accepted by Altruists, including Confucians, Buddhists, and Christians of all denominations—"Do to others as you would that they should do to you." I must, however, remark that on the face of it this rule has reciprocity so obviously in view that those who advocate it should be the last to object to the principle of utility. The words "as you would that others should do to you" clearly imply the return to be expected from others, and that that is the reason of the conduct recommended. But whether thus interpreted by the principle of utility or not the rule is bad, and would lead to both personal and social destruction. I admit that there are such people as professed pessimists, who say that life is not worth living; and that to them the achievement of such results should be the highest virtue; but I am not aware that any pessimist has ever consistently advocated the practice of the golden rule upon that ground. Pessimists are, however, in such a minority and so particularly inconsistent that I shall leave them out of consideration. If the golden rule be adopted irrespective of the utilitarian expectation of reciprocity, it becomes an invitation to depredation, and is consistent altruism, or self-sacrifice for the sake of others. Not that the good of others would be really served without reciprocity. It would Not. You could achieve virtue yourself according to this standard by stripping yourself and giving all to the poor. But were all to do the same, no one would have anything, and as there would be no wealth to support more population than in primitive savagery, population must fall to that level, and, as I said before, personal and social destruction would result. But without supposing such an absurdity as that men would generally act so unnaturally, it is easy to see that similarly evil results would follow a much more limited practice of the altruistic principle. If those whom page 5 society deputes to preserve order and security; if our gaolers, police, and magistrates were to act upon the golden rule, no offender would be arrested, not to say punished, crime would be unchecked, and social disorganisation must result. If only those who profess to believe it to be a duty to sell all they have and give the proceeds to the poor, were to do so, the same results to a large extent would follow. The precept is on the face of it absurd, being impracticable universally; for obviously if all were sellers and givers there would be no buyers. The less stringent instruction, however, to do as you would that others should do to you, would, as I have said, disorganise society, for no constable or magistrate could perform his duty and observe the rule. Let us now suppose that the rule were to be practised to a limited extent by all. Let every man retain just enough for his own necessities, and give only the surplus away, though it is a question whether he should ever have a surplus, it is clear that in any case there would then be no wealth. Now it should be obvious that without wealth in the hands of individuals there would be no surplus accumulations employed in creating the means of civilisation, without which no more population could subsist than in savage countries where they are unknown. There could certainly be no railways nor telegraphs," no libraries, banks, universities, post-offices, manufactories, ships, nor even any large establishments, nor businesses. Civilisation would be an impossibility, and nine-tenths of the present population could not be supported. The present extra population subsists upon the surplus wealth earned and saved by comparatively a few, and invested by them so as to enable them to live upon the interest. They cannot do so without making the principal benefit society. Were the wealth-savers to do to all the thriftless as they in the place of the thriftless would wish to be done to them, the wealth would be divided as soon as, or rather before, i accumulated, and could not be available in the quantities necessary to civilisation. The investment of this wealth gives employment and the means of living to millions who otherwise could never have existed, and who now page 6 would starve were the investment of wealth to cease.

The golden rule is a rule of Communism, and is incompatible with the existence of wealth or the well. being of society. The utilitarian rule of the greatest: happiness for the greatest number is obviously an amendment upon the golden rule, but it has been in my opinion constructed more with an eye to the good of society and to negativing the defects of the golden rule than to the enunciation of a strictly accurate rule of private life. Altruism doubtless was aimed at the greatest happiness of the greatest number, and was also intended to include that of the agent also; but much is lost in truth as well as simplicity by stating as a rule of action what is really only a collateral result of virtuous conduct, and what is certainly not effective with, or felt or approved as a motive by, a majority of men. There can be no doubt that the large majority of men leave the greatest happiness of the greatest number To the greatest number, and look almost exclusively after number one, and that alone. And they are perfectly right in doing so, and only wrong in doing so imperfectly. They too commonly misconceive their own best interest, and therefore fail to further that of the greatest number, with which their own is necessarily identified. It is a man's true interest to be perfectly truthful, not because it is a fact that it is good for society, and therefore for him as a part of it that he should be so; but because it is a fact that by misrepresenting facts to others, and still more by appearing to gain by doing so, he more or less destroys his own judgment of truth and falsehood, and of what is wise and foolish. He cannot deceive another without laying the foundation of a self. destructive habit which with every step becomes more incorrigible. If he fail in deceiving, the mischief to himself may not be so important; for though the habit still tends to form, the result does not justify the policy. But if he succeed in deceiving, and gain some pecuniary or other present advantage, the injury to himself is irreparable; for he has actually experimentally achieved an argument for believing that falsehood is of more value than truth, and his judgment cannot fail to be page 7 distorted, and the habit of deceit to be strengthened, in proportion to the apparent present gain. The degeneration of the judgment is the more sure in that it is wholly insensible, and that there is no chance of retrieving it but by more often repeated failures in deceiving, though even that is more likely to be attributed to clumsiness or accident, or any but the true cause. Dr. Maudsley—one of the highest authorities on Insanity—expressly states that a habit of deceit is conducive to insanity; and anyone may remark how childishly and absurdly persons of even good original abilities often commit themselves at last when the habit of deceit is confirmed. The degeneration of judgment is inevitable and rapid, and affects the intellect generally, as the result—insanity—implies. Truthfulness, in my opinion, covers all that is most important in morality. The social advantages of a reputation for truthfulness and honesty are obvious enough, and in view of the conflicting speculative opinions on the subject, popular proverbs speak the general conviction, based upon experience, with remarkable plainness. "Honesty is the best policy," and "truth will out," are axioms admitted by every one to be generally certain, and only supposed to be liable to exceptions in particular circumstances by those who are ignorant of the extent to which all social and moral phenomena are inter-related and dependent, and how appropriate, uniform, and inevitable are the remotest and most complex sequences of cause and effect. The vast importance to us of true information in any matter in which we are required to act is obvious enough, if only from the pains which men take to secure it, which prove, I think, that a higher value than formerly is now and will in future be placed upon human veracity. Moral feeling is an instinctive habit, of slow growth, and precedes the conscious philosophy of the process, which however is but the discernment of self-interest as the real motive power in every case. But who will question that it must be every one's real true interest in every way to be perfectly wise and virtuous? There is no person living who would not be so if he could, and if evil habit were not too strong for the deliberate dictates of experience and reason. Who page 8 does not see that self-interest lies in securing the good opinion and gratitude of others by acts fitted to command them? Who does not know that a single act of perfidy or cruelty will outweigh and negative in social estimation years of consistent moral conduct; and that therefore the only way to secure a reputation for virtue and beneficence is to be habitually as virtuous, wise, and beneficent as possible? Nay, independent of reputation, it is better to Be wise and efficient for one's own sake, in order to Be as powerful as possible in act; and no man can be as powerful in act as he who can command the hearty and united action of his fellow-men. And whoever would command it must entitle himself to it by prior beneficence to them. Not that I wish to imply that reputation is everything, or anything to compare with the self-satisfaction sometimes found in setting public opinion at defiance. The sacrifice of income or reputation to one's own respect is rarely required; but the maintenance of one's self-respect at the sacrifice of reputation and income brings a superior self-satisfaction, besides generally securing an exalted reputation with a minority whose opinion is best worth having.

Now, whoever would benefit mankind must act so as to make them wiser and more efficient in action, more civilised, in fact. No man has done this so effectually and largely as those who have laboured with no object in view but that of making themselves as wise and powerful as possible; and those who have pretended to labour to make others wiser and better directly, and not solely to make themselves so, have not only done less to make men generally wise and efficient, but have as a rule made them less so than have those who had no object in view but to make themselves wise and efficient. My opinion to this effect would be worth little enough unless in so far as it is supported by history and experience, and to them, therefore, I shall refer.

It is commonly and truly said, that Julius Cæsar did more for the civilisation of Europe than any other individual; and few will contest that what he did was done solely for his own aggrandisement and not for the advantage of others. It is equally notorious that the advantage of even the Roman people was entirely a page 9 subordinate consideration with him. But there is no doubt that his purely selfish work contributed largely to spread among all the different peoples of Europe a knowledge of each other, the Roman moral feeling, the Roman law, and Roman speech, which prepared the way for commerce the great agent of civilization, and imbued them with a regard for law and order which is its necessary condition. Sir Isaac Newton worked for others as little as did Julius Cæsar. He simply exercised his natural faculties to the top of his bent without thinking of others at all. Yet his mathematical and astronomical discoveries not only facilitated ocean navigation and therefore commerce unprecedentedly, but gave men such new views of the universe, as to revolutionise their conceptions of its conditions, its duration and its origin, and to contribute more to the abolition of superstition than he himself would have liked to believe possible. James Watt, George Stephenson, and Wheatstone have in my opinion done more than almost anyone else to improve the morality of mankind by multiplying their means of communication, their relations and ideas, and teaching them insensibly how mutually dependent they are upon each other, and how indissolubly their interests are connected. Yet there was nothing in their motives beyond the indulgence of their particular hobbies, and if they foresaw at all the possible benefit of others in the resolute selfish prosecution of their work, it certainly was not their motive, which was simply to follow their special inclinations. I have elsewhere proved that even John Howard the celebrated philanthropist did the same, and that to say that he was disinterested in devoting himself to the work in which he confessedly felt most interest, is a contradiction in terms. Howard's only son offers a striking contrast to his father. After wild dissipation in early youth, while his father was too busy about felons and prisoners all over Europe to watch the result of the extra pious education he provided for his son, young Howard became a lunatic for ten years before he died. Now his was a genuine case of selfsacrifice with the natural appropriate result. Howard neglected his son if not himself; and yet while professing to work for others only, he obtained a higher page 10 reputation than any other man, and indulged himself in his particular whim to the top of his bent. But unfortunately as I have elsewhere shewn, the work that he did has really tended to demoralise society, by creating a sympathy for criminals—a disregard of the interests of honest people—and a rapid degeneration of posterity. The appalling increase in the proportion of lunacy is largely due to Howard's hypermoral action. The rate of increase of lunatics in England is such that the total should overtake the total number of the population in less than 300 years.* And here the rate of increase is more than double that in England. (Argus 17th Jan, 1880). Ignorant of his own real motives, Howard pretended that he acted from a love of God; but those whose eyes are open—see, that if God is loved, it is not even professed to be for nothing, or less than even an infinite advantage; and thus self interest is still the only real efficient motive.

The allegation of hypermoral altruistic motives is then a false and hypocritical pretence. Still if like results followed, it would be hypercritical to quarrel with the motives. But as I have just said the results are not alone deceptive and mischievous, but abortive besides. In the same way all religious rules of action are equally faulty. The rule of action should relate to the actor himself, and not falsely pretend to anything else. The rule of human action should coincide with that which nature plainly and universally dictates, and aim at self-conservation simply and candidly. Seek ye first your own best interest, mental and bodily, and all social virtues shall be attained by you in realizing that, which obviously really includes them. When Jesus directed men to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and said all these things shall be added unto you, that is food, clothing, and all other necessaries, he certainly indirectly put it upon the footing of self. interest, but falsely; for it is certain that when men neglect to take thought for the morrow—of what they shall eat and drink, and wherewithal they shall be clothed, all those things are Not divinely provided for page 11 them. It is precisely because they would otherwise certainly be cold and hungry, that men feel called upon and are really obliged to provide them for themselves and those dependent upon them. What would become of a man, not to say of his children, if he followed Jesus' injunction to imitate the lilies of the field, and take no thought for the morrow? Giving to him that asketh of thee, and from him that would borrow of thee, turning not away, would abolish wealth and disorganise society. This is what I call hypermoral teaching, and though if a man were to follow it he would soon find himself in the watch house, it is absurd only in so far as it attempts to go beyond the dictates of an enlightened self-interest. The results were comparable, though on a larger scale, to what followed Howard's hypermoral conduct. People went in bald-headed for piety and neglected morality. Jesus' teaching was exactly calculated to destroy society, and society was soon, in fact, entirely destroyed. Self-interest and self-improvement were entirely neglected, and nothing but piety was thought worth practising; that is by the minority of saints, of whom advantage was of course not unnaturally taken by the majority, who appreciated the practical advantages of being sinners. Jesus objected to wealth and civilisation. He was either quite ignorant of the advantages of civilisation, or he knowingly taught its extirpation. Wealth was the way to hell, and the kingdom of heaven was for the poor. If his omniscience acquainted him with possible railways and telegraphs, which we know are the best moralising as well as civilising agencies, he was silent about them. He objected to wealth. The result was that the civilisation which the Romans had introduced into Europe gave place to the ignorance, vice, and degradation of the middle or dark ages. Self. interest is essentially the rule of commerce; and until commerce arose, superstition reigned triumphant, and improvement was impossible. Virtue and morality were falsely held to concur in demanding the sacrifice of worldly to heavenly interest. It was commerce that first taught the essential interdependence and concurrence of all men's interests, and proved that to make a nation wealthy, all that is necessary is for individuals to page 12 mind their own business. Political economy has proved that attempts to make the state wealthy otherwise, only make it poor. It is a man's best and most enlightened self-interest to be truthful to others that he may be so to himself, and not destroy his judgment by distorting his knowledge. It is his interest to be what he wishes to be thought to be, because he cannot then appear to be anything else, and runs no risk of failure in playing a false and difficult part. It is his interest to accumulate wealth, and it is quite as much, if not more, the interest of others that he should accumulate it. It is his interest to be beneficent to his neighbours in order to command the services of everyone in return. Some men, I have admitted, have worked as they thought for the good of others, but invariably have done more harm than good. It is obviously no man's highest interest to be a liar, a thief, or a murderer; and if men do act in such ways against their own interest, it is from a grave misapprehension of it, or from weakness of mind, or the force of habit, in present temptation.

But no one will deny, in any case, that men as a rule are more impressible by their own apparent self-interest than by altruism, and it is therefore irrational to recommend them to act upon motives which have no weight whatever with them. Now every man instinctively acts for his own self-interest, even when he alleges to others and even to himself that the good of others is his motive; and it is mere waste of energy to suggest to men any motive less certainly and universally operative. There is no other motive so universally operative or so powerful as the instinct of self-conservation, however men may have disingenuously attempted to take credit to themselves by alleging quasi higher but fictitious ones.

We all know this well enough, and act upon it too, whatever opinion we may profess. If starting a son in business the bishop would give him the same advice as I would. He would Not say—My dear boy, I send you as a sheep among wolves, for whose benefit you are to work, and let them eat you if they will, taking no thought for the morrow. Imitate the lilies of the field; "they toil not, neither do they spin, and yet Solomon in page 13 all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Shall not God much more clothe you, oh ye of little faith?" If any one asks you for your coat, give it to him, together with your waistcoat, at Once; and lend for the Lord's sake any money you may have to anyone that wants it. If you live at all it should be for others, not for yourself. And if you earnestly teach others to do the same, and they believe you, they will perhaps not ask you for more than you have got. Such would be true altruism. Religious altruism might induce the bishop to say—that for every sacrifice of himself for the good of others God will hereafter return sevenfold into his bosom. Seven hundred per cent, is not bad interest for an altruist. But you would find that the bishop would no more recommend such nonsense than would I. In advising a son, we both would say—speculative opinion aside—My boy, you are now to begin life for yourself, and your success depends upon yourself. If you are industrious and prudent you will gain a good position; if you are idle, thriftless, and intemperate, you will not deserve to get on, and you won't. If you are temperate, truthful, and honourable, you will have the respect and esteem of your neighbours, and what is better, of yourself. If you are mean and lie, you will be hated. If you are kind and beneficent you will be loved and happy also; as surely as if you steal and murder you will come to be hanged or to wish you were so. Tour happiness is in your own hands, whether you be rich or poor. If you are unhappy it will be your own fault. To secure your own prosperity and happiness, act towards others so as to engage them to vie with each other in doing you service. And remember that you will be what habit makes you. You can't indulge sometimes or once, without beginning a habit, for habits begin in isolated acts. One dishonest act makes a man a dishonest man, but many honest acts will not make him an honest man again. The bishop would perhaps say from habit that good conduct would secure the blessing of the Lord. But it is easy to see that it is really the blessing of society that he means. Jesus said that the Lord's blessings are quite impartially distributed, like the sunlight and the rain, for he is no page 14 respecter of persons, bad or good. The only way in which good and evil as such are appropriately compensated, is by social reciprocity, which rarely errs.

The religious doctrine of the depravity of man is now happily, almost exploded, being based upon a fallacy which scarcely any one would advocate to-day. For it was assumed in that doctrine, that it is the worldly interest of men to be vicious and immoral. This is now known to be the reverse of the fact. It is now almost universally known that vice and immorality necessarily involve social injury and personal destruction; that it is every one's true worldly interest to be invariably truthful, honest, liberal, active, temperate and respectable; and that it is not only stupid but suicidal to sacrifice the solid advantages that these qualities secure, to the passing whim or sensuous gratification of the present moment. Religious people are unconsciously quite aware of this. You don't find them selling all they have and giving it to the poor. No—they are just religious enough to secure the profitable reputation for it by persecuting those who expose the duplicities and hypocrisies of religion, but they are so extremely ready to accept the worldly rewards of moral conduct, that the suspicion is unavoidable that they distrust the reality of the heavenly ones promised to those who forego them. Man is naturally ignorant, but without religion he is not depraved. He necessarily for his worldly advantage, desires to be esteemed, and natural egotism besides compels him to desire to deserve to be so. Religion which teaches him that he is depraved is the thing that thereby depraves him. Religion alone leads him to wish to profit by his neighbour's loss; not so much to gain a pretended heaven by consigning every one else to a fictitious hell hereafter, as to secure the present Worldly power—which the reputation of piety gives; by coercing non-conformists—by misusing the the powerful engine public opinion to perpetuate ignorance, to choke free enquiry and to consecrate hyper-moral fictions. But when rogues fall out honest men come by their own. The multiplication of religions is the ruin of all of them. Men now enquire if any are right and find all equally at variance page 15 with each other and with nature. The demands of nature and society are best satisfied when a man does the best for himself physically and intellectually. Does Society suffer any more than he by his becoming wise healthy, and wealthy? No! both gain enormously. The only thing is, that such a man needs no priest; and therefore the priest and even Jesus Christ made these crimes. He cannot inherit the kingdom of God which is for the poor, the miserable, the helpless and the believer of the priest, who tells him to be content, but if he has anything, to sell it, and give to others. When men recommend you to work for others, note that they are the others for whom you are desired to work. I say suspect them. I say work for yourself; make yourself as wise, healthy, and wealthy as you can; and observe that the best means of doing this is to make all those about you your friends, and active and wise helpers of yourself. What is the difference between a man starving alone on a desert island, and a happy social man, but that one is surrounded by active, wealthy, and wise men and the other without them? There are others around him of course, neither active, nor wealthy, nor wise. But they are not useless to him, if his eyes like the wise man's are in his head. A man to become wise without them would himself have to try by experiment the bad effects of thieving, murdering, lying, drinking, incivility, extravagance, penuriousness, and intemperance, if others were not so obliging as to serve as examples to him, by working for others, and sacrificing themselves, in this particular way. Is it not strange that with so many warnings and examples before them, men so frequently go and do likewise, instead of becoming wise thereby? This is not only because they inherit from all their ancestors the shortsightedness and proneness to mistake their apparent and immediate pleasure for their real ultimate advantage; but also because they are mis-taught that their best worldly interest is contrary to their ultimate interest; that nature which universally prompts to self-conservation, is wrong, and that the priest who urges him to work for others, including the priest, is right. But if men would only wisely discern their own best worldly interest and strive page 16 vigorously to achieve it, they would benefit society far more than by hypocritically pretending to work for others.

There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul (that is bis intellect) enjoy good in his labour. This also I saw, that it was the law of his nature.

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* See Journal of Mental Science October 1879, page 310.