How to Kill a Million People
Altruism Versus Self Interest
By Steve Gillman
Is altruism a good idea? Is self interest a dangerous thing
to hold up as a virtue? Let's look at this by starting with a
A powerful and charismatic man decided that his country should
go to war with neighboring countries, and kill all the people
living there. Then he could seize the land and everything else
they owned for himself. He went to the people and announced his
plan, asking them to help in this great undertaking.
"This is what I want!" he told the masses. "Just
think of how powerful I will be then, and how wealthy too. In
the name of everything that I want for myself, I ask you all
to help me!" For some reason, this did not inspire the people
to kill their neighbors.
In another time and place, another powerful man also wanted
to kill millions and seize their belongings and land. He went
to the people and asked for help.
"Think of all that you can gain," he told them.
"When we are done killing them all we can share in the loot
and divide the land among ourselves. For your own sakes, help
me do this thing!" But the people had no desire to kill
others, nor to steal their things, nor to see their own friends
and family die in such a war.
In yet another time and place, a charismatic leader decided
that the religion of his people, and the laws of his country
must be imposed on the neighboring countries. Such a war would
perhaps cost a million lives. He went to the people, and said,
"They do not believe as we do! They do not respect our God
nor our laws! For the sake of our religion and our great nation,
we must show them the error of their ways! Come fight this battle
This war was fought. In fact, it has been fought throughout
history, again and again in various forms. For tribe, for fatherland,
for religion, for gods, for workers, and more. For any cause
beyond the personal, humans can be rallied to kill their brothers
by the millions. And yet we still pretend that it is ego and
self interest which are dangerous.
We have been trained to think that what is right and good
is beyond the personal. Therefore the personal, including one's
own life and the lives of those who one cares for, can be sacrificed
for the "greater good," and we can kill others in the
name of that "good" as well. Violence and death is
the result of this philosophy.
Note: Motivating and inspiring a group of people to
kill others is very psychologically disturbing, and understanding
the people that carry out these actions takes a trained mind.
This is why professionals in this industry have to have the
right knowledge and experience, or a misdiagnosis can happen,
potentially leading to worse consequences. Degrees like a forensic psychology
online degree provide individuals with the proper education,
and after that it is up to the individual to choose the right
path for their career.
Altruism Is a Philosophy of Death
It is true that humans can and do kill others for purely egotistical
and selfish reasons. Common murderers do this, for example. But
if she wants to kill on a large scale, a human can never do it
alone. She has to be helped by others. That requires that those
others have good justifications, because killing people - or
even helping those who do so - is not normal nor comfortable.
Only an appeal to some cause greater than themselves can get
the people to help in evil on this scale. Only the philosophy
of "the greater good" has the power to motivate people
to tolerate and support this kind of death and destruction.
How often do you think a Nazi said, "I want to exterminate
the Jews because it suits my personal interest." Even those
few who might have thought this could not face their peers if
they did not find other justifications based in larger causes
which they all shared a belief in. Hence it was for the "purity
of the race," or for the "fatherland."
Imagine asking the average American in 1943 why he tolerated
or supported putting thousands of citizens in concentration camps,
just because they were Japanese. How many would say "I just
like the idea," or "I was hoping to get some of the
property that was taken from them," or "It seemed that
it would be good for me." None would say these things. They
would talk about "national security," even though most
personally never felt any real threat from these innocent people.
"Our leaders are doing what's best for our country,"
some might say, once again delegating their thinking and power
to a "greater cause."
A man I know suggests killing half of all humans for the "sake
of the planet." Were he to suggest killing millions because
it seemed to benefit him, nobody would take him seriously. But
because we're trained to hold so many things as higher in value
than the individual lives of ourselves or others - society, Earth,
God, country, political system - he can probably find many who
will agree with him.
Now, explain to me again why we should be afraid of the man
who advocates self interest? Where is the danger? His powers
over others are limited, and an honest man who seeks his own
good will not find it in hurting people in any case. He naturally
comes to value and respect the rights of others who seek only
their own good as well. Altruism is the real danger here.