With not a dry eye in the stadium, Oprah Winfrey — an iconic American phenomenon that has traversed the fruited cultural plane — said farewell to her daytime talk show audience and offered words of advice for her viewers. One particular kernel of advice she gave struck me. She said, “Start embracing the life that is calling you and use your life to serve the world.” (Emphasis added.) I have serious disagreement with this call for servitude that I wish to explain.
Implicit in Oprah’s comment was the notion that it is morally right for individuals to “serve the world” as opposed to serving themselves. Oprah has, in essence, encapsulated the altruistic morality perfectly — the morality that states humanity’s justification for existence is to serve others and that self-sacrifice is her highest moral duty. This is an evil moral code that views man as not a heroic being of rational capacity to accomplish the most complex and life-fulfilling of tasks, but as a sacrificial animal to be a slave to the common good.
Human life is a constant struggle. We must acquire food, shelter, and clothing for our bare necessities, but we must also live our life fulfillingly by accomplishing our goals, pursing our hobbies, and live healthy. Such objectives cannot be accomplished if our moral pursuits implore us to view the happiness of another person as good, but not our own happiness. Altruism is, at its root, the morality of suicide.
There is a common confusion that arises from this critique of altruism: should we not help others? Should we live a life of isolation, ignoring the needs of others? Altruism is not just the helping of others; it is the sacrificing of the self to others. Altruism is commonly confused with kindness, generosity, or benevolence, but those characteristics do not imply sacrifice. Altruism does.
If one is to believe in individual rights at all, one must believe in the sovereignty of the individual over their own actions. If humans were not sovereign people, if they were mindless automatons of random action, they would not be bearers of rights at all. Since humans are rational animals, and are indeed sovereign, it should then be to the discretion of the individual — with respect for that individual’s constant struggle for life — when kindness, generosity, or benevolence should be employed.
Oprah is not asking her viewers to help others as they see fit, she is imploring them to serve, which by definition involves self-sacrifice. So I have a better piece of advice for people, one that respects you as a person much more than Oprah does:
Your life is yours to live. It is your ultimate value, your everlasting project. It is full of trials and defeats, elation and success, but it is yours to live. So live it, and don’t just live it, live it flourishingly. Live life to the fullest your imagination and ability can take you. Pursue selfish interests like finding and loving a fulfilling partner; like surrounding yourself with family that make you feel loved and appreciated; like excelling in a career that makes you proud of yourself. You are the ends and the means.
Do not listen to Oprah’s misguided pleas for servitude and slavery. You are not obligated to serve me or anyone else. Your only moral pursuit, your only justification for existence is to live and enhance your life. And if kindness and generosity enhances your life, as it no doubt does Oprah’s, so be it. It’s your choice, not anyone else’s.