Ludwig von Mises on Egoism vs. Altruism

A Facebook friend of mine, Jack Schwartz, recently drew my attention to an essay by Warren Orbaugh, Similarities and differences between Ludwig von Mises and Ayn Rand’s ideas. If you are interested in this subject, I recommend that you read it. I may have more to say about it later, but now I will just take up Mises’ view on egoism vs. altruism. Here are some quotes on this subject (from the section “Eudaemonistic Ethics and Socialism” in Socialism, p. 356ff):

The idea of a dualism of motivation assumed by most ethical theorists, when they distinguish between and altruistic motives of action, cannot […] be maintained. This attempt to contrast egoistic and altruistic action springs from a misconception of the social interdependence of individuals. […] There is no contrast between moral duty and selfish interests. What the individual gives to society to preserve it as society, he gives, not for the sake of aims alien to himself, but in his own interest. The individual […] cannot deny society without denying himself.

And, in the next section, “A Contribution to the Understanding of Eudaemonism”:

That everyone lives and wishes to live primarily for himself does not disturb social life but promotes it, for the higher fulfillment of the individual’s life is possible only in and through society. This is the true meaning of the doctrine that egoism is the basic law of society.

I quoted those passages in an essay I wrote a long time ago in Swedish, Varför behöver vi Ayn Rand? (“Ayn Rand: Why Do We Need Her?”). I tried to answer the question “Why do we need Ayn Rand, when we already have Ludwig von Mises? What does she contribute that goes beyond what Mises (and other free market advocates) have already told us? And my answer, in essence, was that Mises does not condemn altruism the way it should be condemned. From those quotes, it seems that he thinks egoism and altruism are compatible and that there is no conflict between them. He does not seem to have grasped that altruism actually means self-sacrifice.

Orbaugh quotes the whole paragraph of which I quoted a part above:

Nothing is gained when the teacher of morals constructs an absolute ethic without reference to the nature of man and his life. The declamation of philosophers cannot alter the fact that life strives to live itself out, that the living being seeks pleasure and avoids pain. All one´s scruples against acknowledging this as the basic law of human action fall away as soon as the fundamental principle of social co-operation is recognized. That everyone lives and wishes to live primarily for himself does not disturb social life but promotes it, for the higher fulfillment of the individual´s life is possible only in and through society. This is the true meaning of the doctrine that egoism is the basic law of society.

Well, this is eminently true. There is no such dichotomy as “living for one’s own sake” and “living in society” or “getting along with other people” (well, at least as long as those others are rational). There are, as Ayn Rand wrote in The Virtue of Selfishness, no conflict of interests among rational men; and, as Mises and other good economists express the same idea, there prevails on the free market a “harmony of interests”.

The only valid objection I can raise against Mises is still that he does not see that “altruism” actually means self-sacrifice and thus has to be condemned as an evil doctrine. He sees it as “living with others and getting along with others”. He probably has not read this line by Ayn Rand:

Do not confuse altruism with kindness, good will or respect for the rights of others. These are not primaries, but consequences, which, in fact, altruism makes impossible. (“Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World”, Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 71ff.)

But is this a mere semantic difference, or is it indicative of a deep philosophical gulf between Mises and Objectivism? I would say the former.

(Parenthetically, I have noticed over the years that as soon as there is a discussion about egoism vs. altruism between Objectivists and non-Objectivists, the discussion immediately becomes semantic. Our adversaries say we do not know the meaning of the words or that we have the wrong definitions. They bury their heads in dictionaries just like ostriches are said to bury their hands in sand; and the discussion never advances to real-life examples.)

As you probably know, the term “altruism” was coined by the French philosopher Auguste Comte – and he did mean “living for others” or “for mankind”, at the expense of “living for oneself”. Mises does have a caustic remark about Comte:

There was Auguste Comte. He knew precisely what the future had in store for mankind. And of course, he considered himself as the supreme legislator. …He planned to substitute a new religion for Christianity, and selected a lady who in this new church was destined to replace the Virgin. Comte can be exculpated, as he was insane in the full sense which pathology attaches to this term. But what about his followers? (Human Action, p. 72f.)

The theme of Orbaugh’s essay is that Rand and Mises

… although using the same words, are using different terms, and, I hope to prove, that while seemingly saying different things, are in fact, saying the same thing.

In this case, yes. The difference is merely semantic or terminological.  There are other cases like this. But then there are cases where the difference is not merely apparent but real. If I am not too tired, I will return to them later on.

3 Responses to Ludwig von Mises on Egoism vs. Altruism

  1. Hans Palmstierna says:

    Very interesting indeed. I for one also think that the differences are mostly semantic – quotes such as the one from Rand which you outlined seem to support this thesis. It would however be interesting to hear in which ways you think that Mises may have differed from the views of Rand. I’ll be eagerly awaiting any follow-ups.

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