Materialism vs Altruism?

Not sure if this is a factual question or a Great Debate - I’ll start it here in case there is a straightforward answer - if not, Mods feel free to move this.

I’m hoping someone on the Straight Dope can help me out here: My kid’s grade 12 social teacher has presented them with a ‘political axis’ that has altruism on one end and materialism on the other. She claims that political affiliation can be placed on this spectrum, with the right being more ‘materialistic’ and the left being more ‘altruistic’.

To me, this makes zero sense. Outside of partisan politics, how is materialism related to altruism in any way? How do they even belong on an axis together? I have never seen a definition of materialism that has anything to do with altruism or political affiliation.

The opposite of materialism isn’t altruism, it’s idealism. And the opposite of altruism is egoism, not materialism. If I refuse to help someone because I’m busy meditating, I may be selfish but it has nothing to do with materialism. And if the focus on my political activity revolves around the redistribution of material goods, I’m behaving materialistically, yet my concerns affiliate me with the ‘left’. For that matter, I thought Marxism was considered a ‘materialistic’ philosophy. So I don’t understand how such a spectrum could possibly make sense.

In addition, just wanting to redistribute wealth or have government help the poor does not make you altruistic. Altruism entails personal sacrifice - putting someone else’s needs ahead of your own. It’s not altruism to vote to have someone to take money from person A and give it to person B, if your own well-being is not involved. In fact, that desire can be completely selfish if A) you’re a person who would financially benefit from such a transfer, or B) you gain secondary benefit for supporting such policies by gaining political power, signalling your membership in a political group, or because it makes you feel better about yourself or helps you assuage guilt you feel over other moral failings. So that seems wrong too.

My kid is really struggling in this class because of this, whereas he’s always had straight A’s in previous social classes. Their last assignment was to take a whole bunch of ‘values’ like honesty, love, family, wealth, “World Peace” (not a value, but whatever - it was on the list) and then choose the ones they care about, put an ‘A’ or an ‘M’ next to them to signify whether they are ‘materialistic’ or ‘altruistic’, then determine from that whether they are on the right or the left based on the result.

To me, this seems like almost propaganda. She has created a false dichotomy by defining the ‘right’ as being materialistic, caring only about money, while the left is ‘altruistic’, and therefore values things like love, honesty, and family. With that dichotomy set up, the exercise was basically to put all the ‘nice’ things on the left and all the ‘bad’ things on the right. Of course the kids all discovered that they were leftists after that exercise.

But I would like to be fair to the teacher. Has anyone seen this formulation before? Is this part of the curriculum anywhere? Google turns up nothing. Given her obvious liking for Marx (she quotes Marx regularly and has a large poster of Che Guevara in her classroom), I thought maybe this was some Marxist critique of capitalism or something, but I couldn’t find that either.

My kid asked for a source for her material (it’s not in the text), and she said that she didn’t have one, but that the handouts should be sufficient to learn. I find it troubling that there appears to be no academic literature or even popular articles on this supposedly well-known axis, and the teacher can’t point to any supporting material other than her own self-made handouts. If anyone can point me to a source so my kid can understand it, I would really appreciate it.

One reason I want to deal with this is that it seems to me that she is actively teaching incorrect concepts to the kids. When they get to university they are going to be horribly confused until they un-learn what she is teaching them. I studied philosophy in college and these definitions of materialism and altruism, their relationship to each other and to political ideologies is completely new to me.

So if anyone would like to take a stab at explaining this before I talk to the teacher, I’d like to hear it!

I think you’re approaching the term “materialism” philosophically:

and she’s approaching it from the idea of economic materialism:

So I think you are misreading her on this: “And if the focus on my political activity revolves around the redistribution of material goods, I’m behaving materialistically”. Redistribution doesn’t mean a excessive desire for personal accumulation, which is how I would guess she is defining materialism. If one’s primary goal is a personal desire for accumulation – goods for oneself and no regard for others – then that would obviously not be altruistic. But your counterexample is on point: meditating our lives away while ignoring the problems of others is not “economically materialistic” but it’s certainly not altruistic either. “Self-interested” would be a better term for what she seems to be describing. The spectrum should go from self-interest to altruism, with “economic materialism” as she’s defining it as a strict subset of self-interest.

Even with that corrected spectrum, there are a few obvious criticisms to make.

First, claiming to be altruistic is no guarantee that one is genuinely altruistic. Even sincerely believing oneself to be altruistic is no guarantee of purely altruistic results. What do the moralists actually accomplish with their sermons? Better results for other people? Or higher social status, which they can claim from loudly and prominently asserting socially approved positions? There’s no particular reason to trust ourselves when we start yapping about our own motivations. We could easily be lying to ourselves.

And second and probably more important, society is far more complex than the mere motives of the people who make up the society. The idea of the “invisible hand” is that people self-interestedly seeking their own personal ends might interact to create a system that brings about results that no one inside the system had ever planned or anticipated. Which is to say: There is a strong altruistic case to be made for a certain amount of economic materialism. What might at first blush appear “economically materialistic” or self-interested could in fact be the most altruistic choice available to us.

I think another way to approach this problem is to suggest that materialism is in opposition to spiritualism: namely, that a materialist view is that material goods is the defining feature of life, not spiritualism. However, that does not speak to the distribution of material goods.

A materialist in this sense could say: “I’m an atheist/agnostic and I don’t care if I have a soul or if there is a god. All that matters is the human condition, which in turn is based on material goods. And I don’t want children to go to bed hungry; society should ensure that material goods are distributed in a way that human needs are met.”

That’s a form of materialism that is very altruistic.

Another variant of this type of materialism could take a much more restricted view, and agree that human happiness is all about getting material possessions; but that it is solely the responsibility of each individual to achieve that degree of material possessions and happiness by their own efforts.

That’s a type of materialism that might be seen as non-altruistic (although even then, the Randian approach would be that only by achieving material possessions by one’s own efforts does one truly achieve happiness, and therefore this approach to materialism could be defended as a form of altruism).

In essence, the teacher has failed to define “materialism” in a way that makes the exercise meaningful, except by her own personal definitions - which do seem to be slanted in favour of a more lefty perspective.

Another way to approach it is to say: “I want to care for my family, therefore I need to have a good job with a steady income.”

Is that materialism or altruism? I’d be interested to hear the teacher’s response.

Finally, i would just say that traditionally, the left has been very materialistic - in countries where the left goes beyond liberalism and into socialism.

To give a Canadian example: Tommy Douglas and his government were very materialistic: they were strongly concerned with the distribution of materials goods in society, and whether material goods could be re-distributed by socialist principles to achieve greater levels of personal financial security and personal happiness.

At a greater extreme, Communism is concerned almost exclusively with materialism; one needs only to cite the title of Marx’ book: “Das Kapital.” The distribution of material goods has always been the concern of the left.

So, I would conclude that she’s set up false dichotomies and is engaged in very fuzzy, non-analytic thinking.

Here is a direct transcript of the relevant part of the handout:

I have never heard that materialism was a ‘right wing’ value, or that altruism was unique to the left. In fact, there’s no real split in charitable giving or volunteerism between the right and left once you factor our religion - if you leave it in, the right is significantly more altruistic.

She seems to be confusing collectivism with altruism, or at least voting for wealth redistribution as altruism because it shows you ‘care’. Or something. Of course, that’s not altruism. Altruism requires an element of personal sacrifice - of giving up something you value for someone else. Personal charity may or may not be altruistic depending on the reasons, but voting to have one party’s wealth confiscated and given to a second party does not qualify as altruistic under any definition.

Then she goes on to equate altruism with things like love, family, honesty, ‘world peace’, ‘sharing’, etc.

So… Right-wing people care about money. Left wing people care about love, and peace, and honesty, yada yada yada. That really does seem to be the dichotomy she has set up, knowingly or not.

The point is that you can be an altruist and not a materialist, or both a materialist and an altruist, or neither altruist or materialist, and none of them have a damned thing to do with where your political beliefs land on a spectrum, so far as I can tell. It just all seems rather incoherent to me.

I will say that your point about economic materialism may be what she’s getting at so that’s interesting, but it still has nothing to do with the left/right split.

Yes, this is a common problem when trying to measure something like altruism: it’s very hard to separate out the motivations. I may give money to a charity, but if I gain more value in prestige, signalling my affinity to a group, or whatever, I’m not really being altruistic. And if the ‘altruism’ does even involve a personal sacrifice (say, advocating for a subsidy you would benefit from, or for one group to have wealth transferred to another when you are not part of either), finding true altruism gets even more difficult.

When the left advocated for a global ‘living wage’, or talks about quality of life in terms of Gini coefficient or income inequality, it is exhibiting very materialistic values. They certainly seem to agree that improving material wealth leads to improvements in the human condition. So I’m still not getting the left-right dichotomy she has set up.

That’s pretty much my analysis. My guess that in her head she thinks of conservatives as those people who are totally focused on cutting taxes, and therefore their primary goal is money. While her friends on the left all care about the earth, the children, world peace, etc. This is her way of conveying that ‘insight’ to her students.

If you’re having a discussion with the teacher, I would strongly challenge her on her sources for this analysis. She should be able to back it up with some sort of curriculum resources. If she ends up saying she made it up, that’s the sort of thing school superintendents should be informed about.

I would dig out these stats and take them to the meeting with the teacher; ask her how that factors into her continuum. Or, give those stats to your son and let him raise with with the teacher, if he feels up to it.

I’m not sure that one can prove that altruism even exists except as a very tiny aspect of human nature. Most people try to do as well as they can in life and give a small portion to those less fortunate.

There is definitely no such thing as political altruism. One cannot be altruistic by giving away other people’s stuff. Also, truly helping people requires in person care. Time is arguably more important than money, and often even more valuable to people. Those who give up their time to help others are engaging in more altruistic behavior than people who just send a check. Especially if you are giving away money you don’t really need. Most of us could live with just a little less money, very few of us think we have enough time.

Regarding the OP: Ouch. That handout is painful. It apparently has not undergone peer review, to put it mildly.

Regarding correction:

Sure there is. One can vote for higher taxes for oneself, in order to support puppies and ice cream (or whatever). The difference between that and private charity is that working through a democratic process can represent a collective agreement to fund a public good or public charity. I chip in $1 (or more) if you do the same. This occurs pretty explicitly among some religious groupings and I see no reason why it shouldn’t on a political level.

Altruism also exists as a philosophical concept as well as one in evolutionary biology. Its nature though is a matter of discussion and research. Also one of the foundations of Islam is tithing: 10% is a non-trivial amount.

So, I had a nice chat with the teacher today, and she agreed that the material is misleading, that the definitions of materialism and altruism are not correct in the handout, and that taken as a whole it could be confusing to the students. She said she could see now how biased it could look to someone else, but assured me that there was no intentional bias.

The source of the material is apparently a breakout session of social studies teachers at a working conference, and that’s where the handout and other material was developed. I guess that means that this material is also being taught at other high schools in the area. I’m not sure what I can do about that, but the teacher was very reasonable and agreed to have a further discussion with the class to correct some of the misconceptions the material may be causing.

It’s a little worrisome to me that an entire group of high school social studies teachers didn’t find anything wrong with this material, but I don’t know what the process was, how it was vetted, or how it’s being distributed. I hope the teacher notifies the others of the flaws in the material and it gets pulled from circulation.

Thanks for your comments, everyone. I think the factual question has been answered. If you want to keep debating this, it’s fine by me. It’s an interesting subject.

The question is really not whether this type of political action is useful, the question is whether it is altruistic or not. Determining altruism is really hard, as it is difficult to know a person’s internal value system. If I am religious and I give all my money to charity, but I do so because I believe that is the path to heaven, am I behaving altruistically? If I value eternal salvation over money, then I’m not behaving altruistically.

Or consider the students in the classroom. They may advocate all sorts of collective action and demand taxes on the rich to fund the poor, but if they are students and not working, they don’t have to worry about taxes themselves, but they do gain significantly from peer approval and self-satisfaction by advocating for those causes. So that would not be altruistic at all.

In my experience, people on the left and right are perfectly capable of separating political affinity from personal behavior. Whether it be a politician who goes on about family values while having a mistress, a person advocating for less government interference while calling for more regulations on his competitors, or a person who advocates for environmental causes while living in a mansion and flying in a personal jet, we seem to have have two sets of values - those we tell others we believe in and care about, and those that are revealed through our actual behavior. So even that is hard to pin down.

Is tithing altruistic? If it’s a commandment of the faith, it’s not an altruistic choice. If you do it because you want to get to heaven, it’s not altruistic. If you do it to maintain membership in a group that provides significant value to you, it’s still not altruistic.

To know whether it is altruistic or not you would have to somehow read the mind of the tither and see if it the money tithed truly was more important to him than the benefits of membership in the church or community. And that’s something the person may not even have sorted out in his own mind.

Plus, like I said, writing a check for an amount you don’t really need isn’t really much of an act of sacrifice compared to giving your time, or giving up money you really do need. Paying taxes, which is mostly done automatically, takes even less effort, and in fact it seems to make some people think they are off the hook when it comes to actually helping people in need.

If this country taxed free time, by say requiring Americans to work on behalf of the poor X number of hours a year, then you’d find out just how altruistic humans are.

All your points are reasonable. But I was addressing a narrower point, whether political altruism is possible. You don’t need to sample people’s value systems for that. You just need to sketch a plausible one and assert that it exists somewhere. If I was to address your concerns, I’d structure the argument in a more empirical fashion.

I can also demonstrate my point trivially. Altruism is studied in a biological context. Sometimes it is characterized as selfish altruism. Often it’s studied under a framework of reciprocity. The point being that though altruism might be different than we conceive it, that doesn’t deny its existence. And in reality there are assuredly multiple flavors of the phenomenon.
More substantively, it’s easy to question whether an apparently altruistic behavior is in fact “real altruism”. It’s another thing entirely to say that “Real altruism” never exists and can’t exist. The latter claim would face a pretty high evidential bar. Heck, all I would have to show is a plausible partial motive or contributing factor. If we were to take this to GD, I would start with an old philosophical text of mine, establish the existence of altruism, and work from there. Then we would run into the sorts of issues that you brought up. That gets difficult, as it involves imputing motive which requires a lot of investigation.

I hope I didn’t leave the impression that there’s no such thing as altruism. There certainly is. The question is whether it can be associated predominantly with one side of the political spectrum.

And yet conservatives, like you, for instance, are more likely to support the draft, another form of forced service.

On a related note, I’d say that COMPETENT service is something people are unwilling to give freely. It’s probably easier to get the average CEO to spend a little time at a homeless shelter serving food, than to get him to teach a class to underprivileged college students on his areas of expertise, even though he’d be doing more provable good with the second.

There are better examples, but I’m tired.

Glad to hear the discussion with the teacher went well, Sam.

I agree with the OP. Altruism and materialism are two separate concepts not opposite ends of a spectrum.

Classical Romans expected their leading citizens to finance the building of public works. So if you were a successful Roman you’d build a public bathhouse or something like that to show off your wealth. It was clearly materialistic - the bigger and more expensive the building you paid for, the more prestige you gained from it. But it was also altruistic - you didn’t gain prestige if you spend the same amount of money building a residence for yourself; that would have been seen as just self-interest.