Holidays: Altruism’s Corruption of the Holy

by Jason Stotts

Some time ago, I met a young woman by the name the name of Julia.  After getting to know her, I was surprised to find that the Fourth of July was her favorite holiday, since I had never heard anyone identify the Fourth as their favorite holiday.  It’s not that I’m surprised by the choice of days, the Fourth is a most deserving day for celebration.  Indeed, what could be better than a secular celebration of freedom, rationality, and the greatest country in the world?  No, it’s not that I thought her choice unworthy; rather, I was surprised that a religious person would identify this secular holiday as her favorite.

The surprise came for me because I knew that Julia is a committed mormon.  I would have thought that she would pick a favorite holiday that was more consistent with her religious (altruistic) convictions, like Christmas, Easter, or Good Friday.  Realistically the only kind of people that I would have expected to declare the Fourth of July as their favorite holiday would be Objectivists: people who understand the value of our country and what it represents in the course of human development.

Prompted by my confusion about her choice, I decided to employ what is probably my favorite word in the English language: “why.”  I questioned her about her choice and was relieved, and gratified, that when I asked her why she liked the Fourth of July so much, she actually paused and gave the question serious consideration.  I say gratified because it sickens me when people treat serious and important questions quickly and without thought: as though I should be satisfied by their regurgitated answer that they formed in haste and never questioned.  Julia’s pause, however, was more than I expected.  While considering the question, I could see in her face that it was causing quite an internal conflict: her face was both enlightened and troubled by her thoughts.  Her first response was a rather disappointed “I don’t know,” which is perhaps the worst answer possible to any question.  If you don’t know the answer, then your response should be “I don’t know and I’m going to find out.” Thankfully Julia was not satisfied with her answer either and began to reflect again.  This time she did discover the answer, although she still does not realize its magnitude.

Haltingly, and uncertainly, Julia began to explain that with holidays like Christmas, Easter, etc., you are obligated to get gifts for people you don’t really care about and you are forced to be around people you do not really want to be around.  In effect she was telling me that she did not like duty and sacrifice, that these things pained her, although she did not then make the full identification.  Suddenly her staccato answer stopped and her eyes lit up: she told me that the reason why she liked the Fourth so much was because you were not obligated to get gifts for people that you did not like and you only had to spend time with the people you love and want to be with.  In effect, she told me that self-interest was the proper modus operandi and that she was only happy when she was acting in her own rational self-interest, which was why she hated the other holidays.

Since I knew that a direct (blunt) mode of questioning might make her defensive, I instead took a tactful approach and tried to stimulate her mind to make the connections that I thought should be self-evident.  So, I said: “I agree that living your life for others is no way to live.  To be happy, you have to live for yourself”.  She agreed and it was evident from her face that my answer had struck a chord with her; an ephemeral flash of comprehension lit up her eyes.

Now, this is perhaps one of the most poignant cases of the dire necessity of philosophy in life and the consequences of its absence or perversion.  Through something as simple as holidays, Julia was starting to recognize the evil of Altruism and the goodness of Egoism.  Her religion, accepted at an age before she had gained control of her rational and cognitive faculties, had crippled her mind.  Yet, it could not prevent her body’s automated defense mechanism, her emotions, from acting to tell her that something was wrong.  Julia’s emotional response to the threat to her life, as a person if not even literally to her physical existence, caused her to begin to question.  Unfortunately, having accepted the premises of Altruism, she could not identify what was causing her to feel that way.  Emotions are not enough for us to live by and they are not always to be trusted; they can be corrupted, so we need something that is more reliable and, if used correctly, infallible.

Yet, unfortunately for Julia, her religious convictions had crippled her rationality by corrupting her most fundamental premises.  Left in this position, where one knows that something is not as it should be because he feels that something is wrong which he thinks should be right, is a deadly position for many.  Instead of questioning the premises causing the contradiction, many people would instead began to question themselves.  Since they “know” that it is wrong to act in their own self-interest, and yet they only feel happy when they do, they began to regard themselves as evil.  However, the trap is easy to break out of once you realize that the only things binding you are your own mistaken beliefs.  Instead of starting with the premise that acting self-sacrificially is right, ask yourself why it is right.  If you can’t answer the question of why it is right, then you’re certainly not justified in believing that it is right.  Floating abstractions are worse than ignorance, because ignorance is at least honest.

It is in the realm of Ethics that philosophy has most abdicated its role as the protector of humanity, so it is hard to condemn Julia for failing to question Altruism when philosophy itself has historically failed to question this most controversial of premises.  Through most of the history of philosophy, it was taken as a given that man had to act self-sacrificially: it was only the beneficiary that was contested.  The simple fact that man could live for himself seemed to escape the notice of these purveyors of sacrifice.

Holidays, however, are supposed to be celebrations and celebrations are supposed to be life-affirming: no one would celebrate the fact that he had a debilitating disease, whereas we do celebrate the good things in life like graduations, weddings, new jobs, etc.  How, then, can most of what we call holidays cause Julia, and many others, to feel a sense of bitterness and sadness?  It’s through the perversion of morality via Altruism and the destruction of legitimate concepts such as “holiday.”  By turning words that should be employed to praise the nobility of the human spirit into words that are reserved for otherworldly father figures, Altruism has taken reverence for life and tried to substitute its antithesis.  Why do we hate buying gifts for people whom we don’t really like and don’t want to be around?  Clearly this is against our self-interest.  If I do not like someone, I am not going to want to give him a gift because I either don’t value him or I value him less than the value of the gift, but our “duty to sacrifice” our self-interest under Altruism demands that we ignore this analysis and give the gift anyway.  Yet this only causes ill feelings all around as everyone senses that acting contrary to their self-interest is wrong, while at the same time they feel that they are trapped and have no choice but to act self-sacrificially anyway.

In order to fix the seeming paradox of holidays we have to remind ourselves that if we want to be happy we must identify what this means and work to achieve it.  We must question our premises and challenge our most basic assumptions — “why” must become our credo.  We must reclaim the words that the altruists have stolen and perverted.  We have to overcome the privation left to us by the betrayal of our philosophic forefathers and seek guidance from ourselves.

Ethics should not be a set of negative commands: instead of telling you what not to do, ethics should help you live your life.  Ethics, properly, is a system of general principles that try to help you lead a good life.  It is the role of Ethics to identify the good life.  It is the role of Ethics to identify the actions and habits that will help you achieve a good life.  It is the role of Ethics to help us lead good human lives.

If living a good life is not your goal, if you instead stick to mystical decadence, then death shall be your reward.  If you truly believe that living a good human life is not good for humans, think about what this means for you: you desire not to be human, which is a desire for death.  It is by living a moral life that we become happy and it is by being virtuous that we live a moral life.  Without ethics, we are without guidance in the most important thing in the world: our very lives.

In order to live a moral life we must learn that egoism is the path to happiness: our lives are our responsibility and if we want to be happy we must concern ourselves with our own interests.  What right could I possibly have to the life of another person?  We must be self-reliant and never ask another to sacrifice for us and never sacrifice ourselves for another.

In order to live a moral life we must learn the true nature of happiness.  Is happiness merely feeling joyful?  If it were, then we could live our lives well by staying in a drug-induced delirium all day, yet clearly this would not be a good life.  So happiness must be more than merely feelings of joy.  Happiness comes from living a good human life: from pride in our accomplishments and from pride in living well.  Pride was once called the crown of the virtues and happiness requires us to pick up this shattered crown and restore it to its glory.

In order to live a moral life, we must throw off the chains of Altruism.  We must either act to further our life or act to diminish it: there are no other choices.  If we want to live and be happy, we must recognize Altruism as the virulent form of death-wish it is.  Self-sacrifice is clearly anti-life; it asks us to renounce our judgment and our life.  Duty demands that we purposefully act against our lives; it asks us to willing and jovially give up our lives.  Do you now see the monstrosity of Altruism, lauded as the supposed salvation of man?  Sure, it can save us: from life.

There are so many ways that we can take our lives back from the black pit of death: the most important is to merely recognize the nature of the struggle and what’s at stake.  After this, all we need to do is recognize changes we can make in our lives, such as with holidays.

Reclaiming holiday would require no more than for all of us to sever them from their religious basis and celebrate them for their value to our lives and there is, indeed, a great benefit in proper celebration.  Instead of sacrificing ourselves at the holidays, let us instead celebrate them with the people we love and really do want to see.  Instead of getting gifts for everyone, let us just get them for those closest to us who hold the most value for us.  Let us turn holidays back into celebrations of life.

As is universally true, even the hardest issue can be made easy by breaking it down into its fundamental components and analyzing these for what they really are, our minds are capable of coming to the truth of any issue with time and knowledge.  The issue of holidays has led us to understand the conflict of Altruism and Egoism; we have come to universal truth from a particular situation.  This is yet another example of the dire necessity of philosophy and its usefulness in life.  Let us hope that Julia, and everyone else like her, can figure out these complicated issues for themselves and they can start to be truly happy in life.  Reclaimed, holidays will no longer be a source of suffering.  Instead, they will be a source of joy and an affirmation of life: a celebration of ourselves.

1 Response to “Holidays: Altruism’s Corruption of the Holy”

  1. Christopher

    My favorite holiday is thanksgiving for many of the same reasons. No presents, just good food.