Thoughts on PJ O'Rourke and those "dangerous altruists"

Wednesday, October 18, 2006 at 04:53 PM

In a forum on C-SPAN, PJ O'Rourke said that altruists are the second most dangerous people in the world, behind only the "true sociopaths...Altruists.  Who knows where they're coming from?"

I've been thinking about the baseness of that statement a lot as I go through the work of introducing a year and a half old Rottweiller mix puppy into a household with a 10-year old Plott Hound.  Very different personalities, those two, along with very different ages and levels of activity.  And lots of jealousy over attention, food, and toys.  An incredible commitment of time required just to keep them exercised enough that they don't go crazy.

Why bother going through this mini-hell, especially the stress of inflicting a pushy puppy on a staid 10-year old hound?  Because the puppy would have been euthanized exactly a week ago today if I didn't.  Just like the hound was probably going to end up euthanized 3 years ago, when he came to live here (he'd been at the pound for 18 months and was close to catatonic from stress and hopelessness).

I assume that O'Rourke would consider this behavior part and parcel of dangerous altruism.  So what evil impulse pulls me toward that dangerous state of mind, rather than following O'Rourke down the peaceful path of self-interest and FuckYouism?

I doubt that can ever be articulated clearly enough that people like O'Rourke (and our current federal government) would ever understand it.  Suffice it to say that empathy certainly plays a role.  I can't look at a caged dog without feeling some sense of what the dog is feeling.

I also can't look at a social, playful puppy under sentence of death without feeling a sense of horror, of lost opportunity, of just plain wrong.

And I think that empathy and a real sense of right and wrong existing apart from your own self-interest probably separate me and others like me from O'Rourke and others like O'Rourke. How separate from others do you feel?

Does any increment in your own well-being outweigh any detriment to someone else's well-being?  If so, you probably nodded knowingly and approvingly when you read what O'Rourke said.  If not, you probably shuddered when you read it.

And these personality typess matter a whole bunch when it comes to government.  If you're a self-interst kind of person, why wouldn't you take a bribe if you thought you could get away with it?  Why wouldn't you lie and distort and scheme and smear to get elected to a position that you could then use to vastly increase your riches?  Why wouldn't you support laws that transfer trillions of dollars from the poor to the extremely wealthy, if the wealthy make it worth your while?

I truly believe that the character of any group, including nations, is determined by the proportion of its citizens who believe like O'Rourke.  And I truly believe that nations with a majority of O'Rourkes, or in which the O'Rourkes somehow gain the upper hand despite being in the minority, are doomed to disintegrate into cruelty and violence, if only because those weapons will be required to keep the desperate citizens on the bottom from revolting.

And finally, since free market capitalism is inherently "O'Rourkian," is there any way that a nation devoted to that principle, without a moderating force of empathy and compassion, can avoid disintegrating into cruelty and violence?

Look around.