Sunday, May 09, 2010

If You Act Nice You Are Nice: A Repost from 2006 With A Long Update [Anthony McCarthy]

If you're lucky and live long enough you might get to act out one of William Blake's more interesting lines. Sorry, not one of the sexy ones, this one, "If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise,".

Seldom having been wise enough to just leave a futile argument and without the gift of always getting the definitive last word in, I stupidly entered in that argument about pop hedonism yesterday. While it was a waste of time, as usual, I did finally notice something new.

The argument that altruists act altruistically for reasons of their own gratification has been a prop of conservative cynicism for ages. The argument comes down to "x does y because x is the one doing it, so x is doing it for their own reasons". Conservatives can't fathom someone doing something that isn't selfish so they figure those reasons are always selfish. It's impossible to define ultimate motivation of actions so complex as those, so you can't prove otherwise. But if you take things out of the realm of Platonic ideals, where none of us happens to live, and argue out of real life things become suddenly clear.

Have you ever known someone of at least functional intelligence who can't tell the difference between a person who does something for them and someone who refuses to help them in a time of dire need? Anything other than selfishness is beyond the ken of your average conservative, but even they know that there is a complete difference in effect.

It's only when going beyond what is objectively clear in the results of the action that the pop hedonist argument gains a foothold. Ascribing hidden motives to someone who does what appears to be altruistic is unwarranted, it is conjectural, it is without foundation. While hard-hearted, it isn't hard logic. The results of the action are real, the attribution of selfishness is airy-fairy. Nastiness isn't a guarantee of realism. So take some of them apples, greed balls!


I really, really don’t think we are going to survive unless people, individually and as a species, can stop being greedy. Greed is what drives all of our worst activities, environmental despoliation, oppression, war, inequality, all of it. Greed is the cause of the oil gusher that could destroy the Gulf of Mexico, if not much, much more. The current fad of blaming all evils on religion, aside from being ahistorical, is also superficial. All of the allegedly faith-based evil that is cited has as its foundation, greed and its twin, self-centeredness.

Last night it almost got to the old argument about whether or not altruism was just another form of self-interest. E.O. Wilson was cited to me, which is usually a spark that sets me off. But I was feeling a bit written out yesterday and decided to take a break.

I won’t go into the full routine on this, I’ll give you the short version.

What sociobiologists and their allies call “altruism” seems to be founded in Wilson’s observations of ants. In the most extreme forms of the faith, it is asserted as solid knowledge that this “altruism” persists as a genetic trait due to its conferring some reproductive advantage. It’s those smart genes using us for their ends.

In doing this, the sci-guys take a word and concept that has been with us, according to my dictionary, since c.1853, though the concept of unselfish action done for other people predates the word, going back to almost the beginning of the written record. Unfortunately, we have no idea how it translates into ant. We have no idea if ants experience anything like human “altruism”. You might think I’m being silly but, I’ll try to convince you, I’m not.

Human beings frequently have a very, very difficult time trying to come to a conclusion about what motivates ourselves in any individual act. I mean we, as individuals, trying to figure out our own lives and motivations are hardly an open book. And we have the advantage of access to our own consciousness, unfiltered by the need of external communication. And our conclusions about our motivations change, often quite quickly. Looking back over a number of years, we sometimes think we can see our motives more clearly than they seemed to us at the time. That’s one of the great advantages of watching children grow up, it gives us reference. Which will, I’m sure, be pointed to right now with an “AHAH!” by my ideological opponents. As I’m sure I don’t have to assure many of you, that experience is often no great pleasure.

And, as anyone who has kept pets should know, other mammals are often far more opaque. Sometimes we think we can figure them out, quite often, we can’t. And even familiarity with our own pet cat or dog will leave us flummoxed in figuring out another cat or dog.

But one of the things that you always have to remember is that you are asserting your knowledge and experience and your particular point of view when you talk about the behaviors of other beings. That is an inescapable part of making any remarks about behavior. The observer’s point of view, their own history of experience and thinking are as much a part of their observation as a physicist’s view of a sub-atomic particle. What we observe, what we report on, what we include in our analysis, isn’t the act itself or the pattern of “behavior” itself, it is our reported observation of it. When it’s a question of “behavior”, there are, at times, legitimate questions as to whether or not the identified “behavior” is even there or is constructed of wishful thinking.

I don’t think we can begin to comprehend the experience of an individual ant or the variation in how they might see things. How their minds perceive their own motivations, if they even have a sense of motivation. We don’t know if they have any consciousness of themselves as individuals, we have no idea if they have any sense of their own good or the good of their colony or species. We don’t even know if they “behave” out of a consciousness or if they are the mechanical automata working out a preexisting program, which the evo-psy folk seem to think we all are, in the end.

The riddles of human morality aren’t going to be worked out with science. The attempts to do that begin in a muddle and they seem, from my point of view, to end up confirming the preexisting ideas of those who produce their dogmatic statements of truth. What little I’ve looked at in the bios of those folk generally makes me think I can figure out where they’re coming from. And if I’m wrong about that, well, what did I just say about the unreliability of our observations of that kind.

As in the piece that this is a footnote to, I think the identification of actions as altruistic are in the results, which are notably different from the results of actions that are reliably seen as selfish. That’s where you’re going to find a reliable study of morality. Not in trying to discern the motives of ants and naked mole rats.

My fear about this kind of “science” stems from my observation of the worst actions of my species. I think that allowing people to regard themselves, and those other humans their experience probably leads them to be suspicious of, as automata intent on self-interest will result in their giving up the burden of trying to be unselfish. I think it will lead to the kind of cynicism that is rampant in the allegedly educated classes of the English speaking world, and many others I have some knowledge of. I think a lot of that is the legacy of seeing ourselves as mere assemblages of molecules. Molecules with a bad attitude.