Sunday, June 21, 2015

My Amazon Review of Peter Schwartz's In Defense of Altruism

Peter Schwartz has penned a book that fills a need in Objectivist literature. According to Ayn Rand, selfishness is a virtue and it's opposite – altruism – destroys morality and civilization. While there has always been a good deal of discussion around these points, no one has written a full length defense of Rand's ideas.

Generally speaking, I enjoyed this book. Schwartz makes many excellent points and, along the way, makes a good Objectivist case that altruism has negative consequences for many areas, not just ethics. I do have a few criticisms.

1. Schwartz's best examples to prove his point are focused on what might be called "pathological altruism." Yes, we'd all agree that there is something wrong with someone who would give up all his body parts until he has none left, or gives away all his money to charity rather than leave any for his children; however, these are rather extreme examples. People generally live their lives with a proper amount of concern for themselves and others. I think Schwartz opposes selfishness and altruism in ways that don't correspond to our day to day decisions. It is certainly possible to have concern with oneself and also engage in "other directed" behavior.

2. Related to the above, Schwartz tries to make his case by caricaturing altruism. I don't know any "altruists" who would seriously maintain that it is morally desirable (if not obligatory) to give one's money to a drug addict.

3. Schwartz's understanding of history is better than the typical Objectivist's (for example, Leonard Peikoff's books are filled with all sorts of howlers, most notably his misunderstanding of Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem) but his discussion of religion, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance could be a bit more nuanced.

4. Some of Schwartz's digressions, such as government regulation of medicine, are a little far afield from the main topic.

5. Altruism, as defined by the man who coined the term (Comte) does in fact mean something close to what Rand meant by it. Selfishness, however, means primarily concern for oneself to the expense of others. Schwartz is free to use terms as he wants, but he seems to think that if only the world used these words the way he does, the morality of selfishness would become clear. I think this places a little too much faith in the ability to discern morality from the proper use of terms.

These flaws notwithstanding, I recommend this book.