I have had quite a few conversations with various people on the topic of altruism and how it relates to the Objectivist notion of rational self-interest. In all of those conversations, both myself and the person I was speaking to came to the conclusion that altruism is only bad if it is forced altruism. It dawned on me that this is a contradiction and precisely why Ayn always said that altruism and the freedom of the individual were incompatible. The mistake we were making was that altruism is fine if you do it of your own free will; in other words, as long as another entity such as the government wasn't forcing you to do it.
Then it suddenly came to me. Altruism, no matter how it is practiced, is the problem. And it is the incorrect understanding of altruism that is destroying civilization. I understood this on a basic level but it wasn't until the clarification of the concept of altruism popped into my head that I realized why this is true. Concepts: where the mind integrates with reality. Gotta love it!
Altruism, by its very nature, demands that one person give something of value up to another person; whether it is monetary or spiritual makes little difference. Spiritual, in the sense that Ayn's philosophy also translates to human relationships and interaction. It is altruism when that sacrifice by you to another is done at the expense of receiving a lesser value or no value at all in return.
For example, we are all aware of the ineffectiveness of welfare programs run by the government. Taxpayer money is poured out upon the poor to ostensibly help lift them out of poverty. What you end up with, however, are people who simply just cling to getting a check from the government and in return they do absolutely nothing to help lift themselves out of the need to continue receiving that check. They simply continue to languish in their poverty. This is because human beings, when left to their own devices, will always take the path of least resistance.
In the 90's we took a step in the right direction when the Republican-led congress attempted to legislate more controls of accountability into the welfare program. They finally did get Bill Clinton to sign those changes. I feel, however, that all help should be privatized and not dolled out by the government for this reason. But, I digress.
If, on the other hand, you engage in what Ayn Rand called "the trader" principle then this is no longer altruism as properly defined. From the Ayn Rand Lexicon the trader principle states:
The symbol of all relationships among [rational] men, the moral symbol of respect for human beings, is the trader. We, who live by values, not by loot, are traders, both in matter and in spirit. A trader is a man who earns what he gets and does not give or take the undeserved. A trader does not ask to be paid for his failures, nor does he ask to be loved for his flaws. A trader does not squander his body as fodder or his soul as alms. Just as he does not give his work except in trade for material values, so he does not give the values of his spirit—his love, his friendship, his esteem—except in payment and in trade for human virtues, in payment for his own selfish pleasure, which he receives from men he can respect. The mystic parasites who have, throughout the ages, reviled the traders and held them in contempt, while honoring the beggars and the looters, have known the secret motive of their sneers: a trader is the entity they dread—a man of justice.In simplified language, you are no longer giving something up for a lesser value or no value as altruism demands, but instead, you are trading something for an equal or greater value.
In other words, giving a homeless man twenty-dollars to simply satiate and promote yourself to a pedestal on which you stand to boost your self-esteem and cry to God that you now demand heaven in exchange is not good enough. You must also walk him to the shelter and see that he spends that money on some food or some shelter from the cold for a night instead of towards another round of heroine injections seeing him through to his next fix.
Every single one of our society's problems can be addressed in the manner of the trader principle; from the homeless to the health care deprived. We just have to open our eyes long enough to integrate it into our consciousness as citizens and demand the implementation from our leaders.
It truly is not a question of altruism being "forced" or "unforced" as to what makes it "bad" or "good". It is altruism itself that is the problem (i.e. bad) because altruism is defined as giving something up in receipt of a lesser value or no value. Altruism is the problem in its very definition because it is within a concept by another name, the trader principle, in which the solution lies. They are two different things and have two entirely different outcomes. Altruism leads to the damnable collectivist society which brings down everyone. The trader-principle lifts everyone up via maintaining their own individual self-worth and freedom.
This is the precise reason collectivism (socialism, communism, fascism) destroys societies because it expects nothing and demands nothing from human beings who can only live the life proper to man by feeling useful. The premises of both collectivism and altruism feed on the horrid aspects of mankind. The trader-principle feeds on the good aspects of mankind. The very definition of collectivism and altruism demand enslavement. The trader-principle demands freedom and self-esteem.
My philosophical clarification was minor in that it was definitions causing my muddied understanding but it was major in the truths provided.