Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Dickens and Burke warn on extreme altruism

There is a common assumption that altruism is always a good thing. This puzzles me, because one can do wrong out of love another as well as out of love for oneself.

A second assumption that tends to follow the first is that, if altruism is always a good thing, the more we have of it the better.

There is an article in the Guardian today by Larissa MacFarquhar about those who are inspired by this idea.

It reminds me inescapably of Mrs Jellaby in Bleak House, who is obsessed with educating the natives of Borrioboola-Gha ("on the left bank of the Niger") while her own family goes to rack and ruin around her. (I have visited more than one Liberal household like that.):
Soon after seven o'clock we went down to dinner, carefully, by Mrs. Jellyby's advice, for the stair-carpets, besides being very deficient in stair-wires, were so torn as to be absolute traps. We had a fine cod-fish, a piece of roast beef, a dish of cutlets, and a pudding; an excellent dinner, if it had had any cooking to speak of, but it was almost raw. ... 
All through dinner—which was long, in consequence of such accidents as the dish of potatoes being mislaid in the coal skuttle and the handle of the corkscrew coming off and striking the young woman in the chin—Mrs. Jellyby preserved the evenness of her disposition. She told us a great deal that was interesting about Borrioboola-Gha and the natives, and received so many letters that Richard, who sat by her, saw four envelopes in the gravy at once. 
Some of the letters were proceedings of ladies' committees or resolutions of ladies' meetings, which she read to us; others were applications from people excited in various ways about the cultivation of coffee, and natives; others required answers, and these she sent her eldest daughter from the table three or four times to write. She was full of business and undoubtedly was, as she had told us, devoted to the cause.
I also remember Edmund Burke's dismissal of Rousseau:
He melts with tenderness for those who only touch him by the remotest relation, and then, without one natural pang, casts away, as a sort of offal and excrement, the spawn of his disgustful amours, and sends his children to the hospital of foundlings. The bear loves, licks, and forms her young; but bears are not philosophers. 
Vanity, however, finds its account in reversing the train of our natural affections. Thousands admire the sentimental writer; the affectionate father is hardly known in his parish.
In part it's the sort of ad hominem attack that has always been made on left-wing intellectuals, but I think Burke is on to something when he sees exaggerated altruism as a variety of vanity.

I suppose I am saying, as Mr Brooke would in Middlemarch, that altruism is fine "up to a point".

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