Total, Abject Selflessness

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

In his book, The Ominous Parallels, Leonard Peikoff describes how the influence of German philosophers, particularly Immanuel Kant, on its popular culture paved the way for the rise of Nazism and made possible Adolf Hitler's rise to power.

Reader Dismuke sends in a clear and disturbing example of that very influence alive and thriving today. In a recent interview with Spiegel, German shipping magnate Peter Krämer criticizes an initiative, spearheaded by several American billionaires, for the rich to give away most of their wealth. This initiative he criticizes for exactly the wrong reason: It's too selfish.

SPIEGEL: Forty super wealthy Americans have just announced that they would donate half of their assets, at the very latest after their deaths. As a person who often likes to say that rich people should be asked to contribute more to society, what were your first thoughts?

Krämer: I find the US initiative highly problematic. You can write donations off in your taxes to a large degree in the USA. So the rich make a choice: Would I rather donate or pay taxes? The donors are taking the place of the state. That's unacceptable.

SPIEGEL: But doesn't the money that is donated serve the common good?

Krämer: It is all just a bad transfer of power from the state to billionaires. So it's not the state that determines what is good for the people, but rather the rich want to decide. That's a development that I find really bad. What legitimacy do these people have to decide where massive sums of money will flow?

SPIEGEL: It is their money at the end of the day.

Krämer: In this case, 40 superwealthy people want to decide what their money will be used for. That runs counter to the democratically legitimate state. In the end the billionaires are indulging in hobbies that might be in the common good, but are very personal.

SPIEGEL: Do the donations also have to do with the fact that the idea of state and society is such different one in the United States?

Krämer: Yes, one cannot forget that the US has a desolate social system and that alone is reason enough that donations are already a part of everyday life there. But it would have been a greater deed on the part of Mr. Gates or Mr. Buffet if they had given the money to small communities in the US so that they can fulfil public duties.

SPIEGEL: Should wealthy Germans also give up some of their money?

Krämer: No, not in this form. It would make more sense, for example, to work with and donate to established organizations.
So even the last tiny shred of control of their own property, deciding where the money goes, is unacceptable to Krämer. The ability to get a tax write-off bothers him because this makes Buffett, Gates, and company "powerful" at the expense of the Leviathan state. Indeed, even to the extent that these men get any form of personal satisfaction from what they are doing bothers this obdurate altruist because they're "indulging in hobbies that might be in the common good, but are very personal."

Not that I hold giving things away to be a moral ideal, but: God forbid someone feel a single degree of benevolent warmth after improving the lot of another!

Considering this initiative in terms of how it pales next to what the government is looting from us, I solicited my readers for an Ayn Rand quote and, thanks to Jennifer Snow, was able to find the one it reminded me of:
In view of what they hear from the experts, the people cannot be blamed for their ignorance and their helpless confusion. If an average housewife struggles with her incomprehensibly shrinking budget and sees a tycoon in a resplendent limousine, she might well think that just one of his diamond cuff links would solve all her problems. She has no way of knowing that if all the personal luxuries of all the tycoons were expropriated [or given away --ed], it would not feed her family -- and millions of other, similar families -- for one week; and that the entire country would starve on the first morning of the week to follow . . . . How would she know it, if all the voices she hears are telling her that we must soak the rich? ("The Inverted Moral Priorities," in The Ayn Rand Letter, vol. III, no. 21. 1974, p. 345)
Considered in light of how paltry Gates and Buffett's effort really is and how pervasive the call to (human) self-sacrifice is in our culture, the above interview shows us just how malevolent and devoid of genuine good will altruism -- Immanuel Kant's and Peter Krämer's moral philosophy -- really is.

Dismuke further supplies an Ayn Rand quote on that matter which I think bears passing on.
As to Kant's version of morality, it was appropriate to the kind of zombies that would inhabit that kind of [Kantian] universe: it consisted of total, abject selflessness. An action is moral, said Kant, only if one has no desire to perform it, but performs it out of a sense of duty and derives no benefit from it of any sort, neither material nor spiritual; a benefit destroys the moral value of an action. (Thus, if one has no desire to be evil, one cannot be good; if one has, one can.)

Those who accept any part of Kant's philosophy -- metaphysical, epistemological or moral -- deserve it. ("For the New Intellectual" in For the New Intellectual, p. 32.)
In addition to being consistent with his moral ideals, Krämer's worship of the all-powerful state is telling, and should serve as a warning to anyone who holds, understands, and cares about values. Should we permit much more power to the state, it will be the means by which the Krämers of the world force us to live in their cold, nasty little universe.

-- CAV


: (1) Corrected "Dietmar Hopp" in second paragraph to Peter Krämer. (2) Corrected "Dietmar" to "Peter" later in the post.


mtnrunner2 said...

Wow. What Krämer said is right out of Kant's play book.

I find this disapproving statement particularly offensive: "In this case, 40 superwealthy people want to decide what their money will be used for."

Utter evil.

And I see the spirit of National Socialism is alive and well in Germany.

madmax said...

An action is moral, said Kant, only if one has no desire to perform it, but performs it out of a sense of duty and derives no benefit from it of any sort, neither material nor spiritual; a benefit destroys the moral value of an action.

Gus, do you think this is the dominant approach to altruism in today's world? I ask because according to Kant, you can't even derive a spiritual benefit from selfless activity. I don't know if most people would go that far. I think that the way altruism plays out for most is that in order for an action to be considered moral two things must happen: (1)someone else (the "other") must gain a material benefit and (2) you (the actor) must suffer a net material loss. If both aren't present then your action can never be considered moral. However, I do think that most people would allow you to get some type of spiritual/psychological benefit. In that way, while we are a thoroughly altruist culture, we have not yet reached the level of Kant's altruism. If we ever do, that will be the end.

Gus Van Horn said...


Stunningly evil. You rarely see an ordinary person like this, at least in America.


No. I doubt that this is anywhere near the dominant approach to ethics in our country, but that doesn't matter in the sense that enough intellectuals who ARE like this can drive a culture towards what it calls for.

It has happened before, and it can happen again.


Mo said...

this is very repugnant I have to say. Similar to the introduction of "social justice" in medical ethics that I read on the black ribbon project website. Yuck!

Gus Van Horn said...

The more I think of what Krämer said, the more incredulous I am that he can even imagine being condescending, let alone as condescending as he was.

narayan said...

Your last quote from Ayn Rand on Kant and selfishness reminds of a commonly accepted interpretation of a verse from the Bhagavad Gita on work -- that an action is (morally) right if falls under the category of proscribed duties but the actor must be completely unattached to the fruits of their actions or its consequences of any kind. I've always wondered whether Kant was heavily influenced by Hinduism. When it comes to certain religions like Hinduism and Buddhism where there is an absence of an all knowing God, its easier argue against them the way one argues against Kant.

Dismuke said...

I did some googling to learn more about Krämer and how much of a following he has in Germany. Hard for me to tell as most articles are in German. But his comments have found a fan base here in the USA. Unsurprisingly, it is at the Daily Kos:

Gus Van Horn said...


Very interesting. I don't know enough about what influenced Kant to be able to say anything about that possibility one way or the other.

As a possible alternative hypothesis, it's worth considering what Christianity, which I do know heavily influenced Kant, offers that those religions don't: Substitute made-up "values" (e.g., an eternal afterlife) doled out by the Omnipotent One. They sell self-denial "on earth" in exchange for pie-in-the-sky. (Before I go on, I am not terribly familiar with either religion, so if I'm wrong about this in some way, feel free to point that out.)

If I understand correctly, Kant was trying to save Christian morality from the increasing doubt religion received at the hands of the more secular, rational outlook of his time. So he worked to undercut certainty in reason. Perhaps, in addition, he addressed doubts about pie-in-the-sky by creating a new, stripped-down argument for altruism which, lacking these things, didn't depend on them, and would up happening to resemble what the religions you mention arrived at on their own.

I could see it either way. Good question, that.


My general impression of skimming the article and contents is that, aside from the author there, lots of this admirationof Kramer is based on pragmatism "informed" by adoption of altruism by osmosis from leftist culture (e.g., there's a net gain of money for the poor in America, where tax laws don't capture as much of the money as they do in Germany).

Still, it's pretty revolting stuff, and a worthwhile reminder that America isn't devoid of Krämer's ilk.


Mo said...

as if they are somehow entitled to it in the first place

Gus Van Horn said...

Or worse, that no one is entitled to anything of his own.

Jim May said...

Wow. What Krämer said is right out of Kant's play book.

Hell, it might as well have been a direct quote.

This one, in point of fact:

“To be beneficent when we can is a duty; and besides this, there are many minds so sympathetically constituted that, without any other motive of vanity or self-interest, they find a pleasure in spreading joy around them, and can take delight in the satisfaction of others so far as it is their own work. But I maintain that in such a case an action of this kind, however proper, however amiable it may be, has nevertheless no true moral worth, but is on a level with other inclinations. … For the maxim lacks the moral import, namely, that such actions be done from duty, not from inclination.

Put the case that the mind of that philanthropist were clouded by sorrow of his own extinguishing all sympathy with the lot of others, and that while he still has the power to benefit others in distress, he is not touched by their trouble because he is absorbed with his own; and now suppose that he tears himself out of this dead insensibility, and performs the action without any inclination to it, but simply from duty, then first has his action its genuine moral worth.“

--from the Groundwork of the metaphysics of morals (1785)

Or to put it in a more modern and brief, but no less telling, form: "It should hurt when you give."

Also, see the parable of the widow's mite.

Yes, folks, they mean it.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks for supplying that incriminating quote.