On CNN.com, a story about the Syrian government crackdown on dissidents includes the following quote: “Why are they treating us like animals? We are humans.” Sadly, most governments regard their citizens as animals. The source of this view is not political, but rather, it is moral.
The dominant morality in the world today, and indeed throughout history, is altruism. Altruism holds that each individual has a moral duty to self-sacrificially serve others. Auguste Comte, who coined the term altruism, wrote, “All honest and sensible men, of whatever party, should agree, by a common consent, to eliminate the doctrine of rights…. Rights, then, in the case of man, are as absurd as they are immoral.”
If individuals do not have rights, if they should not have the freedom to act on their own judgment in the pursuit of their own happiness, then individuals will be treated as nothing more than sacrificial animals. According to altruism, your life does not belong to you. Others—whether the community, the king, or the government—may dispose of your life in the name of the “public interest,” the “common good,” or the “general welfare.”
While the Syrian government is practicing altruism consistently, it is hardly the only government imposing self-sacrifice on its citizens. For example, in the United States, the EPA forces us to sacrifice domestic drilling, the construction of dams, and development in general for the alleged benefit of caribou, snail darters, spotted owls, and swamps. “Entitlement” programs force productive individuals to sacrifice their property in order to provide food, housing, and health care for the non-productive. Zoning forces Americans to sacrifice affordable housing for the alleged purpose of preventing “incompatible” land uses.
No matter the issue, we are told that we must put aside our self-interest in deference to the “public interest.” No matter which political party is in control, we are told that some individuals must sacrifice for the alleged benefit of other individuals. Virtually everyone agrees that sacrifice is necessary, and the only issue open to debate is who will be the victims and who will be the beneficiaries.
As long as Americans accept self-sacrifice as a moral ideal, we will inch our way toward the orgy of sacrifice occurring in Syria. If we wish to avoid that fate, we must reject altruism. We must embrace the moral right of each individual to his own life, his own liberty, and the pursuit of his own happiness.