Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Coerced Altruism, Involuntary Servitude, and Contempt for the Less Well Off

“Many people need to be coerced to do things for their own good.” This is a common refrain heard from social liberals and religious conservatives alike.

National service was advocated by both presidential candidates in the recent election; young people are to be coerced to “do good for their own good.” Advocates of the military draft have always argued that it is the duty of eighteen-year-olds to serve their country and to die for it; unless current ideological trends change, future drafts will extend involuntary servitude to young women, putting them next to the young men so they may also die for their country. And in the government-run, government-coerced education system “service learning”—the notion of learning about the poor and downtrodden while at the same time receiving an altruistic jolt by serving them—is abuzz. Students are forced to clean bedpans in nursing homes and give food to the homeless.

Such notions are usually put forth by the more highly educated. The less educated just follow along in agreement. Two questions come to mind: Why do so many people think this way? And how do they come to think of children, young people, and others in general as their slaves? The first is readily answered as the two-and-a-half thousand years of cultural tradition that equates altruism and self-sacrifice to ethics. The second is more subtle and takes us into psychology.

Of course, most advocates of these ideas do not think of their victims as slaves. The word is harsh, but forcing someone to do something against his or her will does not make that person an autonomous individual. That it is the highly educated who espouse these notions indicates an air of superiority over those who are coerced. Historically, it has always been the upper-class aristocrats who have taken it upon themselves to make decisions that control the lives of their subjects, the lower, less educated classes. Today, we do not have an official aristocracy, but Plato’s philosopher kings (1, 2) have most certainly been replaced by our present-day PhD kings, the ones who hold authoritative (and authoritarian) positions in various government agencies.

Interestingly, this elite, when pressed for details about why they believe what they do, exhibits not just an air of condescension over the lower and less-educated, but also an apprehension to let the uncultivated guide their own lives. There appears to be a fear, not unlike that of the old aristocracy, to the effect: “I know what’s best for the uneducated, but I don’t want to associate with them. We have nothing in common.” Do I dare say that the attitude of this contemporary elite is “I don’t want to associate with the ‘great unwashed’”? The elite fears a loss of status or rank, and therefore power, over its subordinates by hobnobbing with them; the dirt may rub off and cause contamination. The elite fears that they might lose their pseudo self-esteem.

The essence of this attitude is a profound lack of respect for the less well off accompanied by the contemptuous sorrow known as pity that apparently gives rise to the need to lord it over them. The need to lord it over others, as I pointed out in a previous post, derives from defensive anxiety. Having grown up in the ranks of the “less well off” and “less educated,” I can attest to the lack of respect communicated by those who thought they knew what was best for me. Ironically, neither I nor most of my friends or relatives considered ourselves “less well off” or “disadvantaged.” Our unquestioned assumption was that we would do better than our parents. Self-esteem, it seems, is precondition not just to raise oneself above one’s original station in life, but also, and perhaps more importantly, to avoid turning around and looking down on those from whence one came.

The conviction to impose altruism and involuntary servitude on others stems from unexamined premises embedded in our culture for thousands of years. The root of the premises, though, is the thousands-of-years old view of human nature that certain types of people are incapable of helping themselves or, especially, making sound decisions for themselves. And “types of people” here means anyone of a certain skin color, gender, religion, nationality, or level of income, education, and occupation, etc. The source of this theory of human nature, in turn, seems to be rationalization for the fears those in power feel toward those who are lower in status. This is a case of psychology influencing and determining perception.

Altruism is the main premise in our culture that needs to be examined. It does not mean kindness or gentleness. It means giving up a higher value for the sake of a lower or non-value. It means self-sacrifice. The first step to questioning altruism is to acknowledge the full meaning of the adage, “We were put on earth to serve others.” The full meaning is implied in what one wag added to the familiar phrase: “ . . . but I don’t know why the others were put here.” The others were put here to collect our sacrifices and it is our duty to continue sacrificing to those others. That is the meaning of altruism. It is ancient ethics still reigning over us in the twenty-first century.

1 comment :

GGB said...

An excellent, concise, circumspect examination of the dillema of coerced altruism. The line between benevolence and slavery seems fairly defined as the point at which one stops volunteering time, capital, resources. You also, very astutely, alluded to the psychological "stroke" we recieve from doing something voluntarily and how that is taken away when we are forced to be "good". It takes something that should feel good and turns it into something that makes us feel exploited and used.