The other side of egoism

Among the assumptions embedded in a concept like “effective altruism” is the notion that altruism, left to its own devices, might be well-intentioned but ineffective. There’s an image of a kind of bumbling, open-hearted, slightly ashamed (possibly effeminate) fool underneath it, the kind of person who smiles wanly at a homeless person on the subway, tucking a dollar into their cup without making eye contact. Sure, that’s altruism, the story goes, but is it effective? Did it work? From whose vantage point that effectiveness is measured, and for whom did it work, is often left unsaid. But the concept looks down upon ordinary altruism as an act too oriented in feeling, too reactive and improvisational, too weak—not measured or strategic or calculated.

What I’m interested in right now isn’t the effective part of the discourse, but the altruism bit: what is this thing that’s being improved, optimized, upgraded? We generally take it at face value that altruism is a virtue, that acting in favor of another without concern for the favor being returned is good, that selflessness is preferable to selfishness. But that “effective” moniker seems to stand in accusation, the crime at hand a bare altruism that, absent analysis, may serve no purpose at all. What if, it seems to suggest, altruism on its own was not only fruitless but harmful?

There’s an echo of that same skepticism in Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, but as is so often the case with Le Guin, she comes at it from the other side. For the unfamiliar, the book concerns a planet, Urras, and it’s barely habitable moon, Anarres. The latter is populated by a colony of anarchists, who—following their leader, Odo—chose exile from the planet in order to pursue their ideals. No Urrasti is permitted to set foot on Anarres; and while no rule governs the reverse, no Anarresti has even so much as considered going to the planet in the nearly two hundred years since the colony was founded.

Anarresti children are, of course, taught about life on the planet, and all the ways it’s inferior to their own (as, one assumes, Urrasti children are taught the reverse). Urras, they learn, is a sexist, unequal, often violent world, one in which a small number of people get fat on the backbreaking work of many others. As a child, Shevek, the book’s protagonist, engages in many a spirited debate with other boys his age, about anarchism and capitalism and all the rest. They become particularly engaged when they learn of the existence of prisons on Urras, there being no such institution on the moon. They find the concept fascinating and revolting in equal measure, and subsequently get it into their heads that they could make their own very small prison, just to see what it’s like. One of the boys asks to be locked into an ersatz cell, with the others agreeing to release him in two days time.

But Shevek grows uneasy, and the next day—a full day before they had agreed to end the experiment—he tells the others he’s going to let the boy out. They argue:

Tirin turned on him. “Come on, Shev, don’t go mushy on us. Don’t get altruistic! Let him finish it out and respect himself at the end of it.”

“Altruistic, hell. I want to respect myself,” Shevek said, and set off for the learning center.

Le Guin, The Dispossessed, page 35

Don’t get altruistic. This is among the first hints that altruism on Anarres is looked down upon, that altruism is not a virtue among the anarchists. It’s notable, I think, that Shevek claims to be acting on his own behalf, not for anyone else. That is, he rejects altruism in favor of self-respect—hinting that perhaps those two stances are not aligned.

Another hint comes from a description of the port at Anarres. This is where ships travel to and from Urras, carrying fossil fuels and machine parts from Urras to Anarres, and sending metals—tin, copper, aluminum, uranium—back to Urras. It is the only link between the two worlds, given the prohibition against Urrasti visits. It is also, for many Anarresti, a source of shame, as they would prefer no dependence on Urras; but the trade keeps the wealthier and more powerful Urras from attacking Anarres and taking over the mines. Like everywhere on Anarres, work at the port is voluntary. It is also boring. But the narrator notes they are never short of volunteers:

Defense workers manned the twelve old interplanetary ships, keeping them repaired and in orbit as a guard network; maintained radar and radio-telescopic scans in lonesome places; did dull duty at the Port. And yet they always had a waiting list. However pragmatic the morality a young Anarresti absorbed, yet life overflowed in him, demanding altruism, self-sacrifice, scope for the absolute gesture. Loneliness, watchfulness, danger, space ships: they offered the lure of romance.

Le Guin, The Dispossessed, page 81

Here, altruism wears the cloak of youthful desires for sacrifice and danger, for the lure of romance. Not for romance itself, which seems to be in short supply in these postings, but the longing for it, the desire for something that can never quite be fulfilled. That longing for self-sacrifice takes these young Anarresti to lonely ports and quiet old ships; it takes them away from each other, and points them toward empty space, to a planet they may never reach. In my reading, there is also a lust for the stage here: the aged space ships and the dusty port are not likely to be dangerous or even exciting, but as a stage they bristle with the possibility of danger. They are the setting for heroism and self-sacrifice, without ever demanding either.

A third hint appears not in the novel but in Le Guin’s rendition of the Tao Te Ching, whose influence can be seen all over the book. Chapter five—to my ear, one of the more mystical and difficult to grasp chapters—includes the line, “Wise souls are not humane.” To that, Le Guin writes:

The “inhumanity” of the wise soul doesn’t mean cruelty. Cruelty is a human characteristic. Heaven and earth—that is, “Nature” and its Way—are not humane, because they are not human. They are not kind; they are not cruel: those are human attributes. You can only be kind or cruel if you have, and cherish, a self. You can’t even be indifferent if you aren’t different. Altruism is the other side of egoism. Followers of the Way, like the forces of nature, act selflessly.

Tzu & Le Guin, Tao Te Ching, page 8

(Emphasis mine.) By other side, Le Guin is invoking the yin/yang structure that recurs throughout the Tao. That is, altruism and egoism are two sides of the same coin, each of them giving rise to the other. This is not quite the same as saying they are opposites, although that is also true: it’s that each contains the other. They are interconnected, interdependent. An act of altruism may attempt to subvert the self but the ego stubbornly remains, ready to accept the reward. A true act of selflessness (which I think Le Guin would concede is possible but very rare) would be unaware of itself: there’d be no self to register the lack of it.

Altruism in this sense is always performative; there is always a self acting out selflessness. More problematically—and why, I think, altruism is repeatedly spoken of with suspicion in The Dispossessed—that performance positions the giver above the receiver, as someone with both more knowledge and more resources, and often more deserving of both. In its most benign examples—reaching into your pocket when you pass someone busking on the subway, or making a donation to a worthy cause—it can be beneficial, or at least harmless. It can, especially when it occurs face to face, serve as a conduit for connection between two people. It can even bring about some good outcomes, whether or not those outcomes are ever measured. But it nearly always does so while also maintaining the hierarchy, while preserving the giver as the one who knows and has the will and means to give.

The altruist does not turn around and ask for a hand from the person they just helped. That’s part of what we mean by altruism, as an act with no expectation of return. But where does that lack of expectation leave the altruist? Often, in a position of irredeemable superiority. Which is perhaps not selfless at all.

Shevek eventually travels to Urras, the first Anarresti to make the trip. He arrives in A-Io, a wealthy state, where he’s ensconced in a university. He tries to fit in, to teach, but soon becomes restless, realizing that he’s been trapped in a very comfortable prison, but a prison nonetheless. He befriends one of the servants who brings him food, and learns from him what common Urrasti live like. Theirs is a grief-filled and hungry world, not unlike our own.

“Different from all that where you come from,” Efor said.

“Very different,” [said Shevek.]

“Nobody ever out of work, there.”

There was a faint edge of irony, or question, in his voice.


“And nobody hungry?”

“Nobody goes hungry while another eats.”

Le Guin, The Dispossessed, page 248

In criticizing altruism, the novel isn’t suggesting we jettison care for each other. Rather, it’s positing that altruism is a meagre sort of caring. And, I think, it’s going further to argue that caring for each other is also caring for ourselves. “Altruism, hell, I want to respect myself,” says Shevek. In place of altruism, Shevek calls for mutual aid, for solidarity—for seeing the plight of others as his own. That, for me, is the big difference between altruism—or its close cousin, charity—and mutual aid. The former preserves the hierarchy between giver and receiver. The latter recognizes that everyone has things to give, and everyone has things they need. The Anarresti argue that real care isn’t selfless but reciprocal, not altruistic but mutual. Nobody goes hungry while another eats.

In that light, “effective” altruism’s criticism of altruism isn’t a subversion of egoism but a cementing of it.

On Urras, Shevek slips out from the university campus, and, with Efor’s help, goes looking for the common people—for his own people. Finding them, he becomes swept up in a resurgent anarchist movement, and gives a rousing speech. (“You cannot take what you have not given, and you must give yourself,” he says.) As he finishes, the roar of police helicopters drowns him out, and they open fire. Shevek escapes, barely, huddling in the basement of a building with another man who’s been mortally wounded. Eventually, a sympathetic Urrasti commandeers a taxi and spirits him into the Hainish embassy—neutral territory—as the violent repression continues. There, he meets with an ambassador from our own planet, who notes it was an act of altruism that brought her to Urras. It’s worth quoting the ambassador’s words to him at length:

“My world, my Earth, is a ruin. A planet spoiled by the human species. We multiplied and gobbled and fought until there was nothing left, and then we died. We controlled neither appetite nor violence; we did not adapt. We destroyed ourselves. But we destroyed the world first. There are no forests left on my Earth. The air is grey, the sky is grey, it is always hot. It is habitable, it is still habitable—but not as this world is. This is a living world, a harmony. Mine is a discord. You Odonians chose a desert; we Terrans made a desert….We survive there, as you do. People are tough! There are nearly a half billion of us now. Once there were nine billion. You can see the old cities still everywhere. The bones and bricks go to dust, but the little pieces of plastic never do—they never adapt either. We failed as a species, as a social species. We are here now, dealing as equals with other human societies on other worlds, only because of the charity of the Hainish. They came; they brought us help. They built ships and gave them to us, so we could leave our ruined world. They treat us gently, charitably, as the strong man treats the sick one. They are a very strange people, the Hainish; older than any of us; infinitely generous. They are altruists. They are moved by a guilt we don’t even understand, despite all our crimes. They are moved in all they do, I think, by the past, their endless past. Well, we had saved what could be saved, and made a kind of life in the ruins, on Terra, in the only way it could be done: by total centralization. Total control over the use of every acre of land, every scrap of metal, every ounce of fuel. Total rationing, birth control, euthanasia, universal conscription into the labor force. The absolute regimentation of each life towards the goal of racial survival. We had achieved that much, when the Hainish came. They brought us…a little more hope. Not very much. We have outlived it….We can only look at this splendid world, this vital society, this Urras, this Paradise, from the outside. We are capable only of admiring it, and maybe envying it a little. Not very much.”

“Then Anarres, as you heard me speak of it—what would Anarres mean to you, Keng?”

“Nothing. Nothing, Shevek. We forfeited our chance for Anarres centuries ago, before it ever came into being.”

Le Guin, The Dispossessed, page 303

Here, the dynamic is reversed: the people of Earth have been the recipients of a guilt-ridden, if generous, altruism, and it has given them a very small hope. So small that they can look on Urras and think it is a paradise, even as the streets around them are still wet with blood.

Perhaps the ambassador’s people have forfeited their chance at Anarres. But we haven’t, yet.

Related books

The Dispossessed

Ursula K. Le Guin

A planet named Urras is host to a habitable moon known as Anarres. Some seven generations ago, a group of anarchist settlers left Urras to build a colony on the moon, after which the communication between the colonists and the planet all but ceased.

Tao Te Ching

Lao Tzu & Ursula K. Le Guin

Turning to these poems at the end of many a dark day has felt like holding the gift of a small, fierce light.