The “Problem of Altruism”

[This is an essay written in December 1993 for
my friends in a science book discussion group.]

At our session on 10/30/93 someone made a remark about how people only do things for other people for what are ultimately their own selfish motives—because it “makes them feel good”, for example. I characterized this as the “Problem of Altruism” and promised to get y’all copies of some things I had already written up about it. Well, here it is, together with some recent ruminations on the topic.


[This first part is a (slightly edited) excerpt from a letter I wrote to Kathleen Kincade in November 1987. She was one of the co-founders of the Twin Oaks commune in Virginia back in 1967. The other 8 or 10 of us originally involved all left and went our various ways, but Kat has remained true to her communal vision. During the mid-1980’s we corresponded for a while on a variety of topics.]

In these letters we are debating lots of different points, which often means pointing out what we believe are errors in the other person’s position or attitudes. (I.e., brace yourself!) One passage in your letter of Nov. 1 bothered me more than any other so far, namely: far the largest part of the crowd in a demonstration consists of people who are pursuing their interests right there, who enjoy the atmosphere of demonstrations, who would not rather be listening to records. They are having the time of their lives. Even if it rains on them and somebody uses tear gas, and they never do get to see the President or whoever it was, they are pleased with and proud of themselves, and, make no mistake, this pleasure is every bit as real as the musical pleasure you felt guilty about.

This is so cynical and completely erroneous that I feel I have to dwell on it a bit. First of all, I guess you have never been in a demonstration, or at least very few. I’ve been to lots of them, all kinds, over a period of about 23 years now. Often these demonstrations are led or called by people whose ideas are screwed up in various ways. But in every case I’ve ever seen, the overwhelming majority of the people there are very sincere, high-minded individuals, people who are there not “for their own pleasure”, but because they are concerned, or angry, and want very much to do something about injustices and wrongs being done to other people.

Many times the people in demonstrations are very nervous, uptight (due to the possibility of being attacked by the police or arrested for example), and even downright afraid. They generally do not feel at all comfortable, or content, or even happy. (They may be happy about some things about the demonstration, such as its size or militancy, but they are not there to be “happy”, or entertained, or to enjoy themselves.) Demonstrators take what they are doing to be serious, potentially dangerous, important work.

The attitude you expressed about demonstrators is typical of the most reactionary individuals, people like Reagan for example; individuals who don’t give a damn about injustice since they benefit from it. Since they aren’t bothered by injustice, they don’t see why anybody else should be. So they have to invent all sorts of ridiculous motives to ascribe to demonstrators and others opposed to injustice: they must be “just out for a good time”, or “duped by outside agitators”, or “brain-washed”, etc. It does not bother me that the enemy thinks such things; but it does bother me when working class people fail to see through such nonsense.

If I’m not mistaken, I think what is going on here in your case is something like the old “altruism puzzle”. This is a view that philosophy professors love to push on new students because it is so easy to talk them into it. (I’ve heard of cases where the professor was unable to talk them out of it again later however; the contrary argument is much more subtle.) Anyway, this theory goes something like: “Actually there is no such thing as altruism. Everything anybody ever does is done solely for selfish motives. Sometimes, however, the selfish motive is just the personal pleasure one might get in helping others. But rest assured; even in this case the reason the person really helps another is because, like everyone else, he is always pursuing his own personal interests, which just happens to be the good feelings he will derive out of it all.”

As is often the case, in shooting down this theory it is helpful at first to consider an extreme example. For this I will turn to a quote from Scriven’s Primary Philosophy even though his overall discussion of the question of altruism is not done very well:

In the extreme case, when what a man is called on to sacrifice is his life, is it not a little unrealistic to suppose that he will not at that time see certain extremely tangible advantages in being selfish? For all advantages, including the pleasures of charitable works, require continued life.[1]

The point here is that despite the obvious fact that sacrificing your life cannot possibly be considered to be “in your own interests”, or something you would do “for the pleasure you will personally get out of it”, people do sacrifice their own lives for the sake of others. In short, some people really are altruistic in such extreme situations. And if it is possible in such dire situations, is it really so hard to imagine that people can really be altruistic when the stakes are much lower?

Another tack: If you look up altruism in a dictionary you will find definitions such as “the practice of seeking the welfare of others”. It does not really matter why you do this; if you genuinely seek the welfare of others, you are altruistic. That is what it means. You may well get some personal pleasure out of being altruistic. It is hard to see anything wrong in that. But even if you do, you are still being altruistic.

[Insertion, 1993: Actually people use the word ‘altruism’ in various somewhat different ways. Generally it does just mean “seeking the welfare of others”, but often the implied “going out of your way to do so” is made a bit stronger as in this definition from Desmond Morris’s book Manwatching: A Field Guide to Human Behavior (1977): “Altruism is the performance of an unselfish act. As a pattern of behaviour this act must have two properties: it must benefit someone else, and it must do so to the disadvantage of the benefactor. It is not merely a matter of being helpful, it is helpfulness at a cost to yourself.” (p. 153) But an important point to note here is that an altruistic act can still be very definitely to your own disadvantage even if you do get some pleasure out of doing it. If you risk your life to rescue a baby from a fire, and maybe get badly burned in the process, it is an altruistic act even if you spend the rest of your life feeling good about yourself for doing so. The tendency to regard pleasure as the only thing of value is one of the sinister results of the perversion of utilitarianism by Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and their followers in the tradition of classical liberalism. Life and limb are also things of value, for example!]

However, in practice seeking the welfare of others generally does involve some personal sacrifices, and this makes it all the clearer that in general people are not altruistic because of what they personally get out of it (even subconsciously or emotionally). In the typical case altruism involves sacrificing your own interests, to one degree or another, for the sake of the interests of another.

If people were not the sort of beings who could be altruistic, there would not be much of a positive nature that you could say about them. The fact that people are often altruistic, even in this society where most of the pressures are to “look out only for number one”, is to me the greatest thing about humanity.

When I was a bus driver I used to have two friends who I talked with a lot about political, moral, and other issues (while hanging around the “gilly” room waiting for assignments). One of them was very concerned about other people, the plight of older people in this society, and handicapped people, for example. The other much less so. One of these two constantly objected to my revolutionary program on the basis of “it’s against human nature”, or “people are always out for just themselves”. Which of the two do you think it was? My more altruistic friend, or my less altruistic friend? Well, it’s obvious of course.

Have you ever noticed that those who think that “most people are selfish” tend to be selfish, and those who think that “most people are unselfish” tend to be unselfish themselves? It’s no accident. Such ideological frameworks are constructed upon the social practice of their owners. Something to think about the next time you dash off an uncharitable opinion of other people’s motives...

*    *    *

I think it was W. H. Auden who said something like “When I was young I learned that we are all here to serve other people. What I wonder is why the others are here.” The reason I bring this up, is that it seems to concentrate a criticism of communists you made in your letter of Sept. 25th: “When I (reluctantly) read communist stuff, I get the impression that the world for them is divided into Bywhoms (communists) and Forwhoms (proletariat). All the Forwhoms are allowed to seek their own happiness, but the Bywhoms have to put out all their lives to give the Forwhoms a chance.”

In a way your criticism is refreshingly different than the usual criticism by the ruling class that actually communists are just out for their own interests, despite what they may say. You seem to say that communists tend too much towards being totally selfless individuals. And yet you do share half of the same argument with the bourgeoisie. They say everybody is really selfish and should be. You say some people inexplicably aren’t selfish, but should be.

Of course in the real world, things are not quite this clear cut. Everyone (or just about everyone) has some concern both for him or herself and for others. It is sort of like a continuum, with those most affected by bourgeois ideology at the more selfish extreme, and with the communists and the Albert Schweitzers at the other “extreme”.

Of course even among communists, not everyone is uniform here. The degrees of personal dedication vary considerably, and a certain number of people are continually being overcome by the temptations that surround them in this society. Especially in reactionary periods such as we have been in for the past dozen years or so, quite a large number of people lose their revolutionary will altogether and decide to devote themselves to their own private interests instead. It is partly because of these strong pulls from the surrounding capitalist society that communist leaders need to stress the opposite—i.e., selflessness.

Auden’s point is perfectly valid. We are not aiming for a society in which everyone works exclusively for others. That makes no logical sense. Instead we are aiming for a society in which the free development of all is the condition for the free development of each (in the words of Marx). That is, a society in which selfishness, exploitation, and the oppression of others is not the condition which allows a few to be free to follow their own pursuits.

If bourgeois society had to be reduced to a few-word slogan, you could not do better than “Look out for number one”. This is its guiding principle. As long as the principle goes basically unchallenged, bourgeois society will remain, together with all its evil consequences.

Even in communist society there will still be some selfishness, small-group thinking, subjectivism and various other types of narrowness. But the most blatant forms of selfishness, the forms institutionalized into the economic system and into the deepest core of society’s thinking will have been eliminated. Society as a whole will show the appropriate concern for the disadvantaged. There will still be room for those, like Albert Schweitzer, to show especial concern for the welfare of others, by devoting themselves to a medical career, say. But it will no longer be necessary to open soup kitchens for the poor, at least.

I seem to have strayed a bit from the argument. The basic point I wanted to make here is just that in the midst of such a callous, dog-eat-dog world as we live in today, it is remarkable to me that you would find it appropriate to criticize those who most object to the rampant selfishness, who most want to do something about it, who most want to change even themselves in this regard. The only thing I can figure is that this must show in your own thinking a large dose of the attitudes typical of those who benefit most from the “look out for number one” philosophy. (Even in a commune such thinking is possible.)

Those who are most unselfish, most concerned with making the world less selfish, seem to me not subjects for derision, but for admiration and emulation. But of course such an attitude is not in keeping with the prevailing ideology, so no wonder it seems strange to many.


[Here are a few items on altruism, egoism and selfishness from my Quotes & Comments collection:]


“Abstainer: A weak person who yields to the temptation of denying himself a pleasure.” —Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary (1911).

(It is curious how easy it is to see the humor (and fallacy) here, but how difficult it is for beginning philosophy students to see the parallel situation when it is claimed that “really” everyone is selfish even when they are helping others (because “they are selfishly seeking their own pleasure by means of helping others”), and that therefore there is no such thing as genuine altruism. The only explanation for this bizarre interpretation of altruism is that bourgeois society breeds so many selfish people, who--because they are themselves selfish—cannot imagine that anyone else could possibly be any different. —SH)


“Altruism is the main stem of morality and the primary concern of moral principles. The landlady says of her student lodgers that they are good boys, while knowing full well that they gamble, curse, drink, drive to endanger, and consort with loose women. What does she mean? Just that they are reasonably altruistic.” —W. V. O. Quine, Quiddities (1987), p. 3.

(This is pious bourgeois liberalism, and little more. And the problem with pious liberalism is that only pious liberals claim to adhere to it—and most of them are hypocrites.

Actually, the “main stem” of morality is collective interests (which means class interests in class society). This means that in general being moral does not require a working class person to sacrifice his or her own interests; on the contrary, in serving their class interests they generally also serve their own individual interests.

Nevertheless, altruism is still an admirable quality, and indeed a necessary quality in people if they are to be fully moral. The reason is that sometimes there is a conflict between their class interests and their own individual interests; in that case, the interests of the working class and its allied classes must take precedence over the private interests of any individual (or any subset of the class).

Of course, the bourgeoisie always denies the validity and appropriateness of collective interests as the basis of morality. (They use God’s fiat, golden rules, “categorical imperatives”, and the like.) Thus for them the typical moral problem arises from the conflict between individual interests. They can only think in terms of selfish interests—either their own, or those of others. —SH)

“He who does not live in some degree for others, hardly lives for himself.” —Montaigne


“The poor are the only consistent altruists; they sell all that they have and give it to the rich.” —Holbrook Jackson

(A joke, of course, since the poor are forced to do this by the rich or their system and its institutions. —SH)


“And now I see the face of god, and I raise
this god over the earth, this god whom men have
sought since men came into being, this god who
will grant them joy and peace and pride.
This god, this one word: I”
    —Ayn Rand, Anthem (1946).

(We have indeed in Ayn Rand an almost religous glorification of selfishness and the rights of the individual over society, which is, firstly, illogical in that society itself represents the common rights and interests of many individuals, and secondly, sickening in the extreme. The bourgeois philosophy in a nutshell: me first, and “look out for number one”. —SH)


“Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live.” —Oscar Wilde

(Or rather, it is asking others to live or die—you don’t care which, you don’t care how—so that you can live as you wish. —SH)

“The history of the sea teaches that among starving, shipwrecked men selfishness is rare, and a wonder-compelling magnanimity the rule.” —Mark Twain, “Some Rambling Notes of an Idle Excursion”, sect. I (1877-8).


“Men exist for mutual service.” —Marcus Aurelius

“We are all here on earth to help others. What I can’t figure out is what the others are here for.” —W. H. Auden

(This is a profound comment. It is in fact a refutation of a certain extreme altruist position--that hardly anybody really believes anyway. However, we sincere communists are sometimes tempted by a similar notion, that the only life worth living is one totally dedicated to others (the masses). Of course such a life is totally admirable, and it is unfortunate that more people do not lead such a life. But the point is, for most people, at least a part of the goals of life are related to the full expression of their individual desires and interests. As Marx put it, the role of a proper society is to allow every individual to achieve their full potential, etc. —SH)


[The other “Problem of Altruism” (1993):]

Although this paper is entitled “The ‘Problem of Altruism’”, there are actually two big debates that could come under this heading. The first, the one I have discussed so far, is the philosophical question of whether or not there is such a thing as “genuine altruism”. The second, which I will only touch on briefly here, is the “puzzle” over how altruism could have possibly evolved in the first place, either in animals or in human beings. The idea is that animals which are selfish should be expected to be more likely to survive, and that therefore any tendencies towards altruism should be extinguished in the gene pool.

There are many pitfalls here. One of the most common is the tendency of many participants in the discussion (especially those on the sociobiology side) to misuse the term ‘altruism’. They have defined altruism within ethology in purely behavioral terms, where it lacks any conscious or psychological component. There is nothing wrong with that in itself; any science is free to define its own technical terms. But then they tend to invalidly apply their theories and findings to human society by ignoring the difference between the meanings of ‘altruism’ in its everyday sense and in ethology. [The more sophisticated writers on this topic recognize this tendency and try to avoid it. See for example The Dictionary of Ethology and Animal Learning, ed. by Rom Harré & Roger Lamb (MIT, 1986), which is careful to distinguish biological altruism from ordinary human altruism.]

But the basic answers to this evolutionary “problem of altruism” are simply:

  • Cooperation in its various forms is also a means of promoting genetic success (and not just successful competition among individuals).
  • Culture, even among animals, and certainly among human beings, changes the whole ball game. Genetics is no longer all-important (even though there is of course a genetic basis for culture itself). To neglect culture or to try to reduce it to genetics is a form of invalid reductionism.

I won’t elaborate on this topic any more at present, though I have many books and articles which have been written on the issue if anyone is interested.


[Some recent examples of courageous altruistic acts (1993):]

Genuine altruism is in fact a reality, even in this basically heartless present-day society. The San Francisco Examiner a few nights ago (12/21/93) had this headline on its front page: “MUGGING TURNS FATAL; SAMARITAN STABBED”. The article told of a 23-year old artist, Michael Stuckey, originally from Texas, who was driving his car near the cable-car turn-around near Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. He saw a man attacking a woman, stabbing her with a knife. He immediately stopped his car, got out and ran to her aid. The attacker then stabbed Stuckey in the chest and he later died from the wound.

The woman, Susie Sloan, age 32, was a stranger to Stuckey. Although injured in the attack, Sloan was saved by the combination of the heavy coat she was wearing and the intervention of Stuckey. Here are some of her comments the day after the attack: “I am absolutely devastated by the death of that brave young man. I obviously owe my life to Mr. Stuckey. I can’t tell his family how sorry I am for what has happened. Mr. Stuckey provided a lifesaving distraction or I wouldn’t be here right now.”

So why did Michael Stuckey do it? Why didn’t he just keep driving, or perhaps stop and call the police from the nearest phone? If he had followed either of those safe courses of action, Susie Sloan would most likely be dead now, but Michael himself would be alive. Did Michael make a quick calculation, perhaps saying something like this to himself: “Well, there’s a chance I’ll be hurt or killed. But probably not. And in that case I’ll have a life time of satisfaction from this incident. Maybe I’ll even be a hero! Although I really don’t care either way if this woman lives or dies, my calculation shows that it’s in my own best interests to take a chance. So here it goes!” Of course no such calculating nonsense entered his mind!

Michael Stuckey did not perform his heroic act because it was in his interests to do so, or because he did not perceive any danger to himself in doing so, or because he figured he’d get a lot of pleasure out of it (at least looking back later), or even because he wanted to make himself into a hero so he could be admired and respected. All such “explanations” are simply rationalizations that are cooked up by others when they hear of events like this, rationalizations as to why Stuckey was really a fool, or why he was really just as selfish and self-centered as anybody else (i.e., themselves).

I didn’t know Michael Stuckey and haven’t read very much about him. [One person who did know Michael is Carla Gaytan, a fellow student and roommate. She remarked that “this incident just reaffirms everthing that I knew about Michael: that he was a selfless and a really wonderful person.” (S.F. Examiner, 12/23/93)] But I know people like him, and I would like to think that I am just a bit like him myself (though I don’t claim to be as brave as he was). So I am sure that Michael put his life on the line simply because of the kind of person he was—the kind who would not stand idly by and watch someone be stabbed to death. He did not have time to carefully weigh the pros and cons of intervening in the situation; deciding for example if it was really in his interests to do so. (Studies have shown, by the way, that people are somewhat less likely to engage in dangerous altruistic acts if they have time to think about it first—though most of them will still do so anyway.)[2]

But Michael certainly did recognize that it was a very dangerous situation he was rushing into. He did it anyway, because he was primed to do it; he did it because he was a good person. And anybody who says what he did was not an altruistic act has been terribly brain-dirtied by the ruling class and their institutions.

Altruistic acts are really not all that rare, even in this horrible society. But very courageous altruistic acts like Michael Stuckey’s are not overly common. One of the reasons for this is that the newspapers and other bourgeois channels of indoctrination do everything they can to discourage such acts. In the aftermath of this event, for example, the newspapers have had a number of articles talking about how people should not intervene personally; why it is foolish to do so, etc. Actually I have noticed quite a number of sermons along these lines over the past year, one such being a full-page article by San Francisco Chronicle reporter Susan Sward explaining why she is giving up such interventions herself because it has just gotten too dangerous.[3]

An illustration of what I mean occurs in a report of another recent act of altruism and exceptional bravery, that of postal worker Martin Jimenez. A few days before the Stuckey episode, Martin and several other people heard the screams of a woman trying to escape from a rapist in a parking garage over in Berkeley. When they came over to help her the rapist fled. Martin pursued him and captured him with a bluff—pretending that his finger in the guy’s back was a gun! (No kidding!)

The whole story is really amazing; I have just summarized it here. But the point I want to focus on is how the newspaper characterized Martin Jimenez’s action. The headline was “Daring Hero Nabs Suspect in Rape”, and the first sentence reads: “Like lots of heroes, Martin Jimenez is brave—and lucky.”[4] They call Jimenez brave and a hero, but you can’t help but see that they also think he was foolhardy and reckless. The article (which appeared after the Stuckey event even though the incident happened before it) goes on to say

   Fortunately, the unarmed rape suspect gave up without a fight in the incident last Friday, but it could have gone another way. And Jimenez’s friends, who spent Wednesday night toasting him in a Hayward bar, might have been mourning.

   Jimenez could have suffered the same fate as Michael Stuckey.

In fact, it is pretty clear that the only reason this article was even written and printed was because of what happened to Michael Stuckey. There are many courageous altruistic acts that occur which people never hear about; but the topic is currently in vogue. But more than that, the Jimenez story gave them a chance once more to “warn the public” about the potential dangers, and to discourage people from similar courageous acts. This is the real reason the story appeared—not, as newspapers always pretend—just “to report the news”. Thus the article concludes with another slap at Jimenez’s intelligence:

   [William] Langlois [a personal safety consultant] cautions that heroes need to think out their moves to avoid becoming victims themselves.

   But like most good Samaritans, Jimenez hadn’t thought out his strategy too far in advance.

   “I can’t stand violence against women,” Jimenez said, “I heard her screaming. I had to do something.”

The bourgeois system counsels “Always look out for number one first of all.” The good human being responds: “I have to do something.” They can’t agree with, nor even really understand each other’s outlook. Goddamn I hate bourgeois society! And like Marx, I hate it most of all because of what it does to the people who are forced to live in it—making most of them inhuman in their actions towards each other, to one degree or other. So much so, that when we hear of a truly human response to a horrible situation, to many it sounds almost “crazy”.

It is true, of course, that in attempting to help others you must try to use some common sense. If you see someone drowning way out from shore, but you can’t swim yourself, then it would indeed be foolish in the extreme to try to jump in and rescue the person. But most cases are not so clear cut and it is always possible to cook up some rationalization as to why you don’t come to someone’s aid when you really should. Moreover, just because in retrospect you discover that there may have been some better way of dealing with the challenge, it does not necessarily follow that you were “a fool”.

It is probably true, for instance, that Michael Stuckey should have stayed in his car, turned on his high beams, honked his horn to get wide attention (all things which William Langlois suggested after the fact), and perhaps even used his car as a weapon against the knife-wielding assailant (which Langlois did not venture to suggest)—rather than jump out of his car and run to Susie Sloan’s aid. But though there may have been—in retrospect—a somewhat safer method of helping Ms. Sloan, Michael Stuckey was not “foolhardy”. His action was not “obviously stupid”—even if it did turn out that it led to his death. (The attacker might also have had a gun and shot him through his car window, for example.) If anyone insists that you should only go to someone else’s aid if there is no chance of your own injury or death, what they are really saying, in effect, is that you should never try to help someone in such a serious situation. (“Just look out for good ol’ number one.”)

One moral from the Michael Stuckey case is that it is worth while thinking about these sorts of situations ahead of time—since they are becoming more and more common—and even getting prepared for them, to some degree. It is a shame that Michael did not have a gun with him! (Why should only criminals carry weapons??) Of course the government does not want the masses armed, and so makes carrying a concealed weapon—even in your car—illegal. (Something that criminals are not apt to pay much attention to.) So most of us are not ready to risk jail over this at present. In the future, as society continues its descent into the pits, the popular old slogan among my fellow bus drivers might begin to make even more sense: “I’d rather be caught with one than without one!” But in the meanwhile it is not such a bad idea to have an “extra” tire iron under your car seat, for example, and maybe one of the newly re-legalized pepper-gas containers in your purse. A sensible person should make some preparations not only for their own defense, but for the possible defense of others if the need should arise.

Will any of us find ourselves challenged the way Michael Stuckey was? I would guess that if you think back you’ll remember some personal experiences that could easily have turned into something just as serious. One person I know quite well had this experience some years ago at a BART (transit) station in San Francisco. As he came up the escalator, he saw a bunch of people watching some commotion on the other side of the street. A frenzied man was sitting on top another guy, repeatedly beating his head down against the concrete. As soon as my friend saw what was happening he yelled at the attacker to stop, and rushed through the traffic across the street. When the attacker saw my friend (and others) coming, he jumped up and ran away. The man was bloody, but not badly hurt, so it all didn’t amount to very much. But it could have. If no one had intervened it is possible the victim could have been murdered before my friend’s eyes. Or, on the other hand, the attacker could have had a gun; though it wasn’t really very likely, my friend could have been killed that day. To live in this society is to face a small, but definite possiblity of being harmed or murdered any day in your life—no matter what you do. This chance is increased by a small amount if you are willing to go to the aid of others.

My friend said “As a Maoist, I decided long before then that I was willing, whenever necessary, to put my life on the line for the masses. That means primarily serving the people (in Mao’s phrase) by being willing to risk my neck in the course of helping the masses build their revolutionary struggle. But it also means serving the people by coming to the aid of individuals among the masses, when the need presents itself.”

Back around 1970 the government was engaged in a murderous campaign against the Black Panther Party. Across the nation they were raiding BPP offices and beating and arresting people. In Chicago, they had a paid police agent drug the local BPP leader, Fred Hampton. Then in the middle of the night the Chicago PD and the FBI raided the apartment where Hampton was staying and murdered several Panthers and their relatives. The newspapers at the time described it as a “battle”, but later it came out that all the shots were fired by police. (I.e., the typical imperialist “battle”—a cowardly massacre.) Fred Hampton himself was murdered in cold blood at close range while still in bed in his drugged sleep.

In light of these events, a number of white revolutionaries around the country (notably Bob Avakian) came up with the idea of trying to stop these vicious attacks by “manning” (and “womaning”) the Panther offices around the clock with white skins as well as Black. No weapons or anything; just their presence. The idea was that although racist public opinion at the time (i.e., white “middle-class” public opinion—the only public opinion the ruling class cared about somewhat) had no objection to shooting down Black Panthers, especially under the guise of “battles”—it was much less likely to accept the murder of numerous white kids at the same time.

My friend and his wife were among the volunteers at the S.F. office of the BPP. This was at the peak of the government armed assaults on the BPP offices, remember, and they really did believe—rather reasonably under the circumstances—that there was a chance they would be killed. The government did immediately cease its assaults on BPP headquarters around the nation, probably more because there were beginning to be some embarrassing questions raised about earlier attacks, rather than the presence of whites at the offices. Nevertheless, the presence of white supporters at the offices might have been one of the factors that stopped them. (Murderous attacks against individual Black Panthers continued however.)

This leads into my final point. While altruistic acts for other individuals are things to be encouraged, and not discouraged as the bourgeois media does, the most important task here is to focus not on helping individuals, but on changing society so that so many individuals will not require such desperate help in the first place. Instead of an individualist approach—altruistic or otherwise—to the problems of so many individuals, we need a collective approach. That is the only rational way to resolve society’s many problems. The central task of our age, the task which really cries out for a mass willingness for personal sacrifice in order to accomplish it, is a thorough-going social revolution.

But in any human society, capitalist, socialist, communist or whatever, there will be some occasions at least where individuals will be called on to sacrifice their own interests—and even at times their own lives—in order to aid other individuals. Those who are willing to do so are people to be admired, not snidely derided as fools or idiots as bourgeois logic sees it. If you are not the sort of person who would jump in to help others when there is a reasonable chance of doing so successfully—whether or not you have considered the possible consquences for yourself in detail ahead of time—then you are not much of a human being.

—Scott H.
   12/27/93 (edited slightly on 8/17/98)

[Note added in 2008: In September 2006 Robyn Olsen sent me a letter about Michael Stuckey which confirms the sort of person he was, and serves as an additional memorial for this fine person and shows that he has not been forgotten.]


[1] Michael Scriven, Primary Philosophy, (NY: McGraw-Hill, 1966), p. 261.

[2] I forget where I read about this psychology experiment; it may have been in Science News.

[3] “A Forced Retreat”, This World magazine supplement, San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle, Dec. 12, 1993.

[4] San Francisco Examiner, Dec. 23, 1993.

— End —

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