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Friday, August 25, 2017

An Altruistic Society Would Be a Chaos of Curtsies

Altruism suffers grievously from the knowledge problem.

Ayn Rand is despised by some for championing “selfishness” and for inveighing against altruism. According to “polite opinion,” self-orientation is anti-social and altruism is the pro-social ideal.

But, at least at the extreme, it is actually altruism that is decidedly anti-social. In explaining Herbert Spencer’s social philosophy, Will Durant wrote this about altruism in The Story of Philosophy:

“If everybody thought more of the interests of others than of his own we should have a chaos of curtsies and retreats…”

This is a powerful point. Altruism suffers from an insurmountable case of what F.A. Hayek called the “knowledge problem.”

Nobody knows an individual’s preferences better than the individual in question. In a fully altruistic society, each person would be clumsily trying to guess at everyone else’s preferences instead of primarily addressing the one set of preferences he doesn’t have to guess at: his own.

Moreover, each selfless person wouldn’t get any guidance from the objects of their altruism, because those beneficiaries would also be altruistic and so would have no interest in facilitating their own satisfaction.

As Harry Browne wrote in How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World:

Let’s look first at the ideal of living for the benefit of others. It’s often said that it would be a better world if everyone were unselfish. But would it be?
If it were somehow possible for everyone to give up his own happiness, what would be the result? Let’s carry it to its logical conclusion and see what we find. To visualize it, let’s imagine that happiness is symbolized by a big red rubber ball. I have the ball in my hands — meaning that I hold the ability to be happy. But since I’m not going to be selfish, I quickly pass the ball to you. I’ve given up my happiness for you.
What will you do? Since you’re not selfish either, you won’t keep the ball; you’ll quickly pass it on to your next-door neighbor. But he doesn’t want to be selfish either, so he passes it to his wife, who likewise gives it to her children.
The children have been taught the virtue of unselfishness, so they pass it to playmates, who pass it to parents, who pass it to neighbors, and on and on and on.
I think we can stop the analogy at this point and ask what’s been accomplished by all this effort. Who’s better off for these demonstrations of pure unselfishness?
How would it be a better world if everyone acted that way? Whom would we be unselfish for? There would have to be a selfish person who would receive, accept, and enjoy the benefits of our unselfishness for there to be any point to it. But that selfish person (the object of our generosity) would be living by lower standards than we do.
For a more practical example, what is achieved by the parent who “sacrifices” himself for his children, who in turn are expected to sacrifice themselves for their children, etc.? The unselfishness concept is a merry-go-round that has no purpose. No one’s self-interest is enhanced by the continual relaying of gifts from one person to another to another.
Perhaps most people have never carried the concept of unselfishness to this logical conclusion. If they did, they might reconsider their pleas for an unselfish world.”

Compare this “chaos of curtsies” and “merry-go-round that has no purpose” to the efficiency, cooperativeness, and friendliness of a society based on self-interest. In such a society, people still serve one another, because they recognize that it is in their own best interest to do so.

And this service tends to be adroit and efficient, as opposed to clumsy and wasteful, not only because it is driven by the powerful motor of self-interest, but because it is guided and informed by the expressions of self-interest (market demand, market prices, requests returned favors, etc) of those being served.

Originally published on the author’s Medium profile.

  • Dan Sanchez is an essayist, editor, and educator. His primary topics are liberty, economics, and educational philosophy. He is the Director of Content at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) and the editor-in-chief of He created the Hazlitt Project at FEE, launched the Mises Academy at the Mises Institute, and taught writing for Praxis. He has written hundreds of essays for venues including (see his author archive),,, and The Objective Standard. Follow him on Twitter and Substack.