Conversation notes, in collaboration with James Richardson.
Our creations and destructions are changing our environment far too quickly for our genetic building blocks to keep up. To the extent that our actions, as a society, are created by a system, it is by a system predicated on self-interest. Hardly a surprise, for as carriers of ‘selfish genes’ we are programmed to do all in our power to ensure the survival of our own biological offspring. The triumph of capitalism is to turn the rational, informed individual action, oriented to personal material fulfilment, into action that best serves the society in which we find ourselves. Or so it said on the box.
Yet the triumph of capitalism seems to bring the triumph of the greedy, the malevolent and the dishonest. Huge quantities of wasteful and wasted production are environmentally destructive, while the comfort of the few depends on the deprivation of the many.
The marketing industry is one reason that capitalism continues to malfunction. In serving a system based on the rational decisions of millions, marketing firms spend countless creative minds on appealing to our less than rational impulses. Equipped with a powerful understanding of symbolic manipulation they take advantage of the short-cuts we have developed precisely to avoid the need to take a calculated approach to choice. Our ability to perceive the possible consequences of a wide range of our actions, way into the future, would paralyse us were it not for systems of habit formation, trust in the familiar, social identity formation, role adoption and so on. Instinctively the front-desk agents of capitalism have plugged straight into these non-rational forms of thought offering us lifestyles, identities and statements rather than cars, clothes or food.
Our extended symbolic capacity is what some say sets us off from the rest of the planet’s inhabitants. Others, dwindling in number, say it is our morality, by which we understand our potential for altruistic action. The one, we argue, is based on the other.
Observed in a variety of creatures, self-interested genes sometimes propel their carriers to apparently altruistic action, which on closer investigation is based on a system of reciprocity: you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. The deals struck by male dolphins, requiring other males to help wrest a hot female from a third group for the purpose of gang rape, is of this form. The dolphins initiating the deal gain a genetic lottery ticket with short odds, while the abetters swim away without a betting slip. The evolution of this behaviour requires some explanation, given the lack of immediate reproductive award in aiding others’ copulation. A deal is necessarily struck, however, and later the abetters will be in the position of the rapists, and have been traced swimming hundreds of miles to find the former instigators who will return the favour. Trust is difficult to come by in the natural world, but such examples are far from unique.
Reciprocity indeed provides an evolutionary basis for reciprocity (which may appear as altruism) among humans; it does not explain, however, incidents of altruism that cross species boundaries: rescuing baby birds or adopting abandoned kittens.
Reciprocity will not explain genuine altruism either. Some people will jump into the river to save the life of others they do not know; others will not. The first may be understandable through the particular cognitive shortcuts they have devised in order to exist in a complex society. Rationally we might say that by doing unto others as you would be done by must be conducive to a society in which your chances of survival are increased. However, rationally we might well realise that you might as well free ride on others altruism without getting wet yourself. Instinctively we depend on the abstract symbolic forms that guide our lives some people will jump.
But self-interest can be internsalised – it is impossible to say whether (and if so to what extent) actions that help another individual, group or the species entire, is motivated by ‘pure’ altruism or is self-serving in some less immediately tangible way.
What of the ‘warm glow’? This is not necessarily simply a feeling of smugness (‘I have done right’, a karma for the self and for no other), but even where we commit ourselves to actions which have no benefit for us as individuals per se (or ‘ours’, whether you take that to refer to close-knit genetic group, culture, what you will) is there not a possibility that the mere knowledge of our having ‘done right’ is a tonic for the self? Indeed, how can it be otherwise? For to say at the point of altruistic contact that one has ‘done the right thing’ is to gloss over your ignorance of the context of your action (for one can never have comprehensive knowledge of its precedents), and its effects in the future. Rightness can be read in the full and unforgiving light of history; else it is read in a poor light – now we see through a glass darkly, as Corinithians would have it. So maybe one cannot and should not think of one’s actions as right or wrong at all, no matter how noble seems the justification that the surface of mind holds up to you…this needs must indicate a paralysis, else a resolution to act as one thinks is right, accompanied by an acceptance that your own understanding of right and wrong is culturally specific. An imperfect solution, which must be embraced as the best when a perfect solution is so obviously lacking.
I can think of two explanations; what is interesting about them is that neither can be seen as in any way ‘practical’, i.e. having some general or specific evolutionary advantage:
1. Something religious/spiritual, a pure altruism, which it would be nice (because a very encouraging sign) to think that humans were capable of, since it suggests a capacity to be kind without any hope of kindness being returned. There is of course a very rarefied idea of reciprocity here, psychic rather than material, which makes the boundary between this explanation and the other blurred:
2. the heretofore mentioned ‘warm glow’ theory of altruistic action, terribly cynical, but no less credible. Maybe the cold glow rather than the warm would be a better light to look at it in (better descriptively but worse in implication, since it suggests that rather than doing the right thing in order to get a feeling of self-satisfaction we do it because of the potential guilt of inaction. This is all very Calvinistic and ‘orrible).
The problem seems to me to be that our capacity for self-delusion is such that it would be very difficult to properly assess whether we were acting in our own psychic self-interest (since we obviously would suppress this knowledge – the warm glow does not come, the cold glow cannot be kept away, if one knows one is not acting genuinely altruistically) or doing good because good should be done.
And if our concept of good has become divorced from what is biologically necessary it raises interesting questions as to how such a concept could evolve – perhaps it is a pleasant mutation of the original flowering of intra-species altruism that, through the security of knowledge of generalised reciprocity, has given our species so many advantages (the benefits of which can be felt far more quickly than biochemical evolution would allow). So inter-species altruism follows, and the ultimate extrapolation of altruism – where its ‘goodness’ would be very hard to question – would be behaviour for which one knows one will not only be unrewarded (either by one’s conscience, tangibly by other people, or intangibly by the mechanism of reciprocity) but will actually suffer or die. Laying down one’s life, in fact – the most important doctrine in Christianity is that of ‘Christ crucified’ (which possibly explains why Christ living, walking around and generally being normal are not of paramount concern to the Gospel writers). Of course if one believes one will receive a spiritual reward for such action then this could be argued to be very far from altruism indeed; but even if one is generally spiritual rather than specifically religious there is a strong suggestion that an irrational altruism based on unscientific concepts like the sanctity of life…
Symbolic forms are almost infinitely malleable. We may not understand the laws of their formation and change but we see values of all kinds motivate actions courageous and cowardly. ‘Civil rights’, ‘national independence’, ‘no to nuclear testing’ and ‘terrorism’ have all had the power of life and death.
If there is some great CEO in the sky directing the course of human action, they have set an exciting endgame. By providing the species with brains capable of advanced symbolic manipulation they have given us a means to alter our environment beyond our biological capability to adapt. To continue acting with self-interest as the only guide appears to be headed directly for catastrophe. By the same processes, however, we have been granted the ability to hold values that reach beyond the immediate destiny of our own particular mixes of genes. Is it this evolutionary twist that offers some chance of salvation.