Tibor R. Machan
Yes, yes, I am desperate–I am digging into in-flight magazines for my good news since I cannot find too many in such places as The New York Times, TIME, or Newsweek. But I am a firm adherent to the Seventh Day Adventist motto, "Notice the good and praise it!" So.
In a book of hers on marriage and its benefits, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage (Viking, 2010), Elizabeth Gilbert outlines a view related to the nature of marriage that I find encouraging. She was impressed with a comment from the European writer Ferdinand Mount that marriage is a revolutionary act. In relation to this observation, which isn’t my focus here, she has said "Put in that way, marriage starts to look less like a stuffy old institution and starts to look more like a giant social battle between the forces of good–individuals who want to follow their own hearts and choose their own spouses–and evil–the controlling instincts of repressive authorities who fear that love. Somebody who likes to think of herself as somewhat bohemian, I found that idea exciting, inspirational, and really reassuring" (American Way, January 2010, p. 58).
Think of it–the practice of individuals following their own hearts and choosing their mates is good, while arranged marriages, imposed customs and traditions (which, among other things, give rise to honor killings and such) are evil. I don’t know whether Ms. Gilbert realizes this but she has a very basic point, one that in historical terms is indeed revolutionary. The rights and value of the individual have only recently become acceptable and even today they are not widely embraced but mostly scoffed at.
It has occurred to me in the past, in relation to this point, that one area where altruism is not much promoted is in psychology and psychiatry, where people are advised about how to improve their lives. It seemed clear that if a therapist spent the hour with clients or patients advising them how they ought to sacrifice their lives to others, they would soon be fired.
One needs here to consider just what altruism amounts to. As the philosopher W. G. Maclagan made clear back in the 1950s, “‘Altruism’ [is] assuming a duty to relieve the distress and promote the happiness of our fellows….Altruism is to … maintain quite simply that a man may and should discount altogether his own pleasure or happiness as such when he is deciding what course of action to pursue.” As presented ordinarily, by ministers or priests or in fiction, altruism means ranking the policy of looking out for others as one’s priority in life, as first on one’s list of moral duties. And of all professions the helping ones, such as psychology and psychiatry, could hardly follow this policy. Self-help books, too, would not be such good sellers if they preached altruism.
Sadly, however, when it comes to addressing the public at large, in political speeches, in punditry, from the pulpit an the like, altruism is the norm. Not that people actually practice it–they could not and also remain functional. But there is a lot of lip service being given to this ethical system despite how confusing it is. As I have quoted him before, W. H. Auden put the source of confusion best when he remarked on "the conceit of the social worker," which is (quoting the Revd. Vivian Foster, the Vicar of Mirth) that "We are here on earth to do good for others. What the others are here for, I don’t know." The problem is, of course, that basic ethical principles need to be generalizable, something that everyone can practice in his or her life, but altruism clearly isn’t. And there is that other problem of how come other people are deserving of our care and attention above everything else but we, who are also human beings, are not. Why?
In any case, it is nice to learn, right at the beginning of a new year, that the altruistic nonsense has its skeptics even among mainstream writers. I do hope that all those who read the little interview of author Gilbert while flying about the globe on American Airlines during the month of January 2010 take away the important lesson her remark teaches.