Popular Science Monthly/Volume 34/February 1889/Editor's Table

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THE question of the proper balance to be maintained between altruism and egoism is one of much practical importance. A certain view of the subject was presented in the paper by Mr. Charles W. Smiley, published in our November number, and a different, to some extent an antagonistic one, was maintained in the letter from Prof. Bulkier, of Washington, which appeared in our number for January. We have already expressed a general approval of Mr. Smiley's position; but, in view of the counter-arguments of our recent correspondent, we may perhaps be allowed a few additional words of explanation.

The question, as it seems to us, is not which is the higher principle of action — altruism or egoism — but the much more practical one as to the extent to which, and the circumstances under which, one human being should gratuitously supplement by his own industry or capacity the deficiencies in one or both these respects of another human being. The early Christians, we read, had all things in common: no one said anything was his own; all individual property was abolished, as completely as P. J. Proudhon himself could have wished. Somehow or other this state of things did not continue long; and Christians of the nineteenth century show no particular desire to revert to this feature of the early church. We may therefore claim that personal ownership of property is recognized to-day as a good thing. If, then, any one is called upon to part with a portion of his goods for the benefit of others, some adequate reason should be shown for his doing so. It is not enough to tell him that altruism is a virtue; for that argument, unchecked by other considerations, would lead to the reestablishment of the very system of communism upon which it has been decided not to re-enter. Before he parts with his money for alleged benevolent objects, a reasonable man will require to have it demonstrated to him that its application in the manner proposed will cure more evil than it will, either directly or indirectly, cause. In order to judge the matter rightly, we should take the case of a man who, possessing wealth, is employing it in a prudent and useful manner, and, so far, helping forward the prosperity of the community; not the case of one who is squandering large sums of money in idle ostentation or vicious pleasures. In the latter case the man is doing harm with his money already, and possibly more harm than would be done even by injudicious benevolence. The former case, therefore, is the only one that enables us to bring a proper criticism to bear upon a suggestion for an "altruistic" application of wealth. The money is now being usefully employed in the industry of the country; and, so far as applied to the personal expenditure of its owner, is being used in maintaining a type of living that simply inspires respect, challenging neither the stupid admiration of the vulgar nor the envious regards of the poorer classes. It is evident that nothing short of a very satisfactory demonstration of the superior usefulness of the proposed end would justify the transfer to it of capital already usefully and worthily employed.

Now, among the points to be considered in weighing such a question, this certainly should not be overlooked, that the altruistic act, while it may alleviate a given case of misfortune, tends to produce another case to replace the one relieved. Does any one ask how? i>y creating an expectation in the minds of others that their troubles will be lightened or removed in a similar manner, and so causing a certain relaxation of the effort by which a condition of helplessness might be averted. The probability is that not one only but several cases calling for charitable interference might be the result of a single stroke of charitable effort; just as a single prize taken in a lottery upsets scores if not hundreds or thousanrls of minds. We need not, however, theorize on the subject —though the theory on this occasion is nearly as demonstrable as a proposition in Euclid—for experience has proved over and over again that systematic "charity" makes beggars. The man, therefore, whose money is usefully employed, and who has nothing to reproach himself with on the score of personal waste, will have to be satisfied that the cases of want or vice that he cures—admitting that he cures them— will not be made up, or more than made up, by others resulting more or less directly from his benevolence.

But in how many cases is real good done to the so-called "beneficiaries" of charity? "We have ourselves heard the most mournful confessions on this subject from persons who practiced altruism, or Christian charity, as they would perhai>s rather have called it, from motives of religious duty. According to these statements, it is a comparatively rare thing to be able to record any solid advantage as resulting to the objects of such charity. But, if so, must not harm result? If we mistake not, the secretaries and other agents of our Young Men's Christian Associations could tell of hordes of shiftless, characterless creatures, interspersed now and then by some unctuous adventurer, who haunt their rooms in the expectation of relief, and who frequently get relief, but of whom no good is ever afterward heard. We do not deny that money may be expended in such a way as to do real good to those who need help; we only say that it is difficult so to expend it, and very difficult to guard against doing harm to others by weakening the motives for resistance to the habits that make for pauperism. Some large charity may seem a beautiful and admirable thing considered in itself; but we should not stop with this inside view. We are bound to ask what effect it is producing on society at large; and if a current is seen ever setting toward it, and virtually "nulla vestigia retrorsum "—no steps turned away from it—we must moderate our admiration of the function it is performing in the community.

It is common for sentimentalists to speak of natural selection as the very type of a "merciless law." But who will dare to say with confidence that natural selection is not more merciful, on the whole, than man's vaguely altruistic interferences with the natural course of things? Nature makes incompetence and misery short-lived, and reduces them in every way to a minimum. Man steps in and accuses Nature of cruelty; he tries his own hand, and, lo! thousands and hundreds of thousands are leading a languishing physical and a depraved intellectual and moral existence. The result is not one to be proud of. Man should love his neighbor. Truly; but that does not mean that he should undermine his neighbor's independence, or that he should injure half a dozen neighbors for the sake of benefiting one. As we understand Mr. Smiley, altruism is just as much in need of being kept within the bounds of reason as egoism. He would not discour- page generous instincts; but lie would oppose the idea that, because an act is altruistic, it must be good and virtuous. All altruism is interference, and interference needs to be justified. As we stated at the outset, people are too much accustomed to think of charity being given out of a surplus that would otherwise not be usefully employed; but that idea tends to disguise the real nature of the question. There is vast need for social reform in the matter of the expenditure of money; and indeed we know of no direction in which a moral crusade is more wanted. If something could be done to check the barbaric extravagance of our wealthy classes and the blamable extravagance of classes that are not wealthy, much good would be done to the whole body of society.