Thursday 29 April 2021

Is Christianity selfish? Yes! But why is that a bad thing?

There is a very funny novel by Michael Frayn called The Tin Men (1965) - set in a computer establishment where one of the characters is attempting to construct a 'Samaritan' robot that is 'altruistic'; such that it will willingly sacrifice its own existence for others. 

The background assumption is that self-sacrificing altruism is the highest form of ethical behaviour - and this is indeed probably the mainstream assumption in all modern atheistic leftist societies (which, nowadays, means everywhere). 

Considerable humour comes from the problems of programming this robot - in particular the difficulty that when the robot is made to want to sacrifice itself, and seems to get 'satisfaction' from doing so - then this no longer counts as self-sacrifice because it is merely selfishly doing what makes it happy. 

The ideal seems to be a robot that will willingly sacrifice itself for others, or at least others who are also moral agents - if that can be detected - but will be made more miserable by doing so...

This is one of many paradoxes and incoherences that come from the common idea that altruism is the highest moral value and the proper guide to living. 

One frequent idea is that the greatest public moral exemplars are those who - supposedly - live for the benefit of others despite cost to themselves. 

(Or, at least, donate time or money to organizations that claim to facilitate this... hence the structural role of 'charities' in objectively validating the moral-superiority claims of the ruling classes: charitable work 'proves' that these are truly altruistic people who deserve their fame, wealth, power and status.)

But altruism merely kicks the can further down the road; because altruism fails to provide any meaning to life. 

If my life is to be devoted to preserving and enhancing the satisfaction of other lives, and if this ethic is general (so that society aims at being composed of people all and always doing stuff for each other - but never for themselves) - then this fails to provide any understanding of what all these other lives are For

Why is it good for me to 'help others' - help others to do what, exactly? 

What ever 'that' is - which altruism is directed towards - must itself surely be the primary reason for living? 

(I felt this strongly when I worked as a doctor. The left-liberal altruistic ethic reduces to reducing-suffering in others - since this is regarded as a self-evident Good - so medicine ought to be a perfect exemplar. But it did not feel like that. As I then was I knew of no purpose or meaning in life and denied P & M in the universe; so I found it strange that I was supposed to get maximum life satisfaction from keeping people alive and functional to live lives that they themselves mostly regarded as meaningless, futile and miserable (especially in psychiatric practice). Yet everybody apparently assumed that this 'helping people' was one of the best things about being a doctor, and why I was a doctor.)

Altruism is vacuous as a guide for living. 

Yet the nonsensical altruistic ideal persists - especially as the very basis of leftism - which claims to be the ethic of altruism; with society organized on that basis. Leftist ethics nearly all assume that it is the highest duty to live our lives (and donate our taxes) for 'other people' (or, at least, those 'other people' currently defined as worthy by the leftist Establishment). 

Leftist governments (ie. all governments) assume total power to monitor and regulate all human lives on the basis that this is necessary to ensure that everybody lives and works primarily for everybody-else - and to do otherwise is selfish and evil. Anyone who fails actively to support the altruistic authorities is thus selfish and evil. 

This leftist ethic of altruism is also used to attack Christianity; on the basis that (supposedly) Christians pretend to be more altruistic than anyone else, but are really super-selfish in their desire to sacrifice happiness in this world (including to allow preventable suffering in this world) in return for a promise of a joyous resurrected eternal life in Heaven. 

(...Which is, anyway, impossible nonsense - hence merely a feeble excuse for callous indifference to others.) 

Perhaps in response, a weird kind of Christianized-altruism (which is not really Christian) sometimes develops; which, if taken seriously, leads quickly to immiseration and death - as shown in the misguided and self-destructive life of George R Price which ended in suicide

Suicide is, indeed, a rational response to the ethic of altruism; since it may be understood as helping others by removing one's own baleful influence, or by ceasing to consume scarce resources... 

Indeed, altruism suggests that it may be better never to be born in the first place; so that selfishness is not even a possibility, and others are left with more. 

(This is another commonly expressed view - buttressed by the contemporary fake-environmentalism which sees all living Men as undesirable CO2-emitters.)

In sum - altruism amounts to an ethic of self-hatred and death; which is probably sufficient to explain why it is so vigorously propagated by the modern Global Establishment.  

It is therefore vital to realize that altruism is not an ultimate ethic, nor indeed a good thing at all if taken as an abstract, general or universal commandment. 

By contrast; the Christian morality is based upon love, and focused upon Heaven - which is a place of love: a place that is entered only via an eternal commitment to live by love. 

And the reality of Christian love is seen, primarily, in the family; secondarily in marriage; and only much more rarely in friendships with unrelated people. And not all people are capable of love; and some people refuse it. 

Which fact means that actual mortal Christian love is partial, i.e. involving particular persons. Mortal love is not universal, nor meant to be - and love may be strongly bound up with the greatest knowable joy, as well as voluntary misery. 

"Abstract, universal love" ('of fellow Men' or whatever) is something other and not Christian love; indeed it often (not always) functions as an anti-Christian or indeed Antichrist phenomenon.

A Christian is one who believes that to love and to be loved is the greatest and most important thing in this mortal life (and beyond) - whatever emotions it brings. 

But in this mortal life love is usually partial, may be infrequent, and is always temporary because of death.

Thus, the greatest desire of a Christian is that this love we have experienced partially may be made full and eternal...

Which is why Christians want to accept Jesus's offer of resurrected life everlasting in Heaven; where this ideal state of love is realized powerfully and forever. A Christian has decided that he wants this for himself; and hopes that many others will want it too - but especially those people (and other Beings) whom the Christian loves. 

(And therefore - in its essence - Christianity has, indeed, nothing to do with altruism.) 


Alex said...

"Which fact means that actual mortal Christian love is partial, i.e. involving particular persons. Mortal love is not universal, nor meant to be - and love may be strongly bound up with the greatest knowable joy, as well as voluntary misery. "

What do you make of this passage?

"If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Do not even tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even Gentiles do the same?"

The only ones who approximate that ideal today would be people living as Franciscan monks and such - people who live basically their entire lives to love and serve the poor.

William Wildblood said...

Great piece. What if many forms of altruism were just kinds of self-hatred?

Bruce Charlton said...

Alex - There is no point quoting proof-text modern translations of Matthew's at me when they probably contradict the totality of the Fourth Gospel in the Authorized Version - you know what my my answer will be!

But the passage is anyway complicated by the distinction between one-sided and two-sided love. In this mortal life it is difficult to distinguish unilateral real love (Good) from infatuation, abstract altruism and projection (bad) - except sometimes when it happens within families.

As of 2021, I cannot regard monks/ friars as exemplars. There my be good monks and friars, but most of them seem to be this-worldly, secular-orientated leftist fanatics.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - Thanks.

"What if many forms of altruism were just kinds of self-hatred?"

Yes, I think that is how altruism has been used against Christians (and against the usual evil-oppressor-classified group to which we both belong!).

But the Christian churches have long been at best confused and at worst willing victims of exactly this - since they try to justify themselves to the secular world by the 'good works' they do; which simply makes them look like amateur social services.

For instance, Mother Teresa was (I believe) probably a genuinely saintly and spiritual woman (I have a friend who worked with her), but is presented in terms of primarily providing hospital services to the extreme poor, and them blamed for sub-optimal health care and instead 'using' this worldly provision as an opportunity to evangelize. Of course the real and proper priorities were presumably the opposite (and should have been).

Donald B said...

Fantastic post - a great follow up to your post on liberalism and altruism.

I am reminded of the CS Lewis point that if you act as if you love your neighbor, you might eventually find yourself actually loving your neighbor.
And while I think there is a deep truth there, a) it involves a particular person (not general loving everyone) and b) the focus and goal is the love itself.
Altruism has inverted the idea by saying: if you act like you love everyone, you may find that to are a good person and can overcome your self-hate.(@william - your comment is perfect)

Francis Berger said...

I feel the spiritual aspect of Christian love is neglected. When a Christian loves another person, he or she is focusing primarily on the individual's spiritual being. When a Christian seeks to help another, he or she is motivated by the imperative to help the other spiritually.

Altruism not only abstracts love away from the personal, but also abstracts love away from the spiritual. For example, no self-respecting Christian would consider sacrificing his salvation for the sake of loving another, especially if the love offered only affected the material and had no impact on the spiritual.

Altruism is, in essence, anti-spiritual love - which is basically no real love at all.

Even Hellenistic concepts of love, which contrast Christianity completely, were built upon spiritual considerations. The ancient Greeks believed the spiritual movement of love could be detected in the yearning for perfection. For the ancient Greeks, love amounted to moving upward. Any love moving downward was considered unnatural and devitalizing in the sense that it pulled love away from its primary spiritual goal of striving for perfection. Love was considered a scarce commodity in the Hellenistic world, and it was not meant to be squandered on the lower, but offered to instead to the higher.

Christianity turned this paradigm on its head. The more perfect stooped to love the less perfect without fear of having their own souls diminished or without fear of squandering love. On the contrary, helping and loving those in "spiritual" need increased and expanded love from a spiritual perspective. Christian love emanates from a sense of "overflowing" and the understanding that this "overflowing" creates more "overflowing."

Altruistic/materialistic love may help a person physically, but since it neglects the spiritual being of the "beloved", it eventually succeeds in breeding little more than resentment in the beloved, to say nothing of the false sense of pride and self-righteousness in those offering altruistic love.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Frank - Your last paragraph is an important observation. The modern leftist leadership are vile in a very un-natural way - and the objects of their altruism, the victim groups, are always horribly corrupted by the dependency.

What is worse is that this corruption is deliberate, since it has been established for several decades.

For example the terrible corrupting effect of permanent 'sick pay' on the ex-working-class in the UK (permanent underclass); or the consequences of the 'civil rights' movement on black families in the US (all but destroying them).

These spiritually dire situations are permanently maintained and indeed always increasing; and impossible to abolish by democracy, because they benefit the leftmost parties, who are (in a Godless society) accorded moral supremacy for their universalist altruism.

The birdemic-response -> great reset is an attempt to universalize this systemic corruption - by making almost-everybody permanently unemployed, and therefore permanently dependent on handouts from the Establishment.

Here we see yet another way in which the Ahrimanic demonic spirit operates by using materialism to produce spiritual corruption.

Jacob Gittes said...

This is just a good essay, which addresses one of the lingering issues most of us have at times in trying to understand spirituality and morality. The rather nutty Ayn Rand made good attacks on altruism in terms of her attack on communism and socialism, but her extreme selfishness and rejection of God quickly grows stale.

Bringing love of a kind that most people can understand into the question into it is a great insight. Everyone who survives infancy has at least experienced some kind of familial-type love, and can therefore understand what Christianity offers. Even those severely wounded by neglect long for a mother's and father's love, and can understand it.

I've always been put off by the whiff of indifference, hatred and malaise that emanates from leftist ideologues. Now it makes more sense - there's a hatred of what makes life (and eternal life) worth living.