Rational altruism and selfish selflessness.

A: I saw an interesting lecture on the YouTube recently…

B: You’re watching lectures on there now? I thought you were mostly into cat videos?

A: The cat videos are getting old…… I have this weird desire to learn stuff now.

B: Careful, that can become addictive.

A: Anyway, the guy was saying that altruism isn’t rational, that really just exploiting others and trying to take everything for yourself is rational. He said that’s why we need religious frameworks to make us ethical people and we can’t just rely on rational arguments. Not that we have to actually be religious now, but we wouldn’t have been moral in the first place without religion and our current sense of morality comes from the fact that we live in a society with a religious underpinning. What do you think about that?

B: Well, it’s true we live in a society that has been shaped by religion. That’s true of all human societies. It’s also true that culture provides a framework for our value judgements, including those in the ethical or moral dimension. That’s definitely one of the most important functions of society. However, it’s not true that morals, ethics and altruism began with religion and it’s certainly not true that a superficial “every man for himself” approach to life is the most “rational” approach to take. So, whilst “the YouTube guy” made some good points, his thesis that altruism isn’t rational, which seems like a fundamental claim here, is false.

A: I knew you’d disagree. You disagree with everything.

B: No, I don’t…

A: I rest my case.

B: Ha. What I actually do is I criticise everything – that’s how I learn.

A: Uh huh. Righto then, criticise away.

B: Don’t mind if I do! For starters, we know that plenty of non-human animals can be altruistic, particularly social species. There are plenty of examples amongst mammals, but even social insects can be thought of as altruistic – think of a bee sacrificing itself for the protection of the hive. Bees don’t have religion and neither do monkeys grooming each other, warning each other with alarm calls, or forgoing food rewards, even starving themselves, to prevent other monkeys receiving electric shocks. Altruism is common in pre-linguistic animals….

A: Why?

B: I’m getting there. With the bees it’s fairly simple – it’s kin selection. The only way the genes carried by an infertile worker bee can get passed on, can be replicated, is through the queen. The queen’s fate is the fate of the hive, so the worker will sacrifice itself to safeguard that fate, to increase the chances of its genes being replicated. Maybe this is where altruism, and ultimately morality, begins – ethics and morality are social phenomena and the first social groups were groups of related individuals.

A: Sure, that makes sense, but it goes way beyond that with humans. We don’t just look out for our family members, we sometimes make extraordinary sacrifices for total strangers.

B: We do indeed, and it’s not only humans that display altruistic behaviour towards unrelated individuals. That sort of thing isn’t restricted to mammals either, even animals that seem completely unfeeling to us, like caimans…

A: Hold up, you forget that I’m not a biologist – what’s a caiman?

B: A type of crocodylian.

A: Like an alligator?

B: Close enough. When there are droughts and the wetlands they inhabit start to dry up, caiman mothers will lead their babies on long journeys over land to find any remaining pools of water. Sometimes there are so few pools that caimans converge on them from all over the place and they become crowded. There isn’t space for all the adult caimans, so most of them leave their babies behind to be looked after by just a few surrogate mums, like a crèche…

A: A caiman daycare centre.

B: Exactly. The mums that stay behind look after all the babies, protecting them from predators even though they are unrelated to the majority of them.

A: That seems pretty altruistic.

B: For sure, and it’s equally possible to think of those that leave, braving the drought, as the ones making the sacrifice – they seem to know their babies will be better off if they don’t compete for space with the other mothers. Anyway, it’s common for animals to make some sort of personal sacrifice for the “greater good”. There are heaps of examples amongst birds and mammals – we could spend all day discussing examples. The key thing that unites them though, and that takes things further than kin selection, is something known as “reciprocal altruism”.

A: Like “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”?

B: Pretty much. Right, let’s talk humans – we’re social, and we know that we’re descended from social ancestors. Our closest surviving relatives, the chimps and bonobos, are highly social. So are the majority of primates. In these sorts of social groups reciprocal altruism is common, whether it is manifested in grooming behaviour, babies being raised by multiple group members, political alliances, or whatever. Again, there is a huge number of examples, but let’s stick to humans.

A: Yes, let’s do that – there’s only so long I can resist the urge to check my Twitter feed.

B: Until only 12,000 years or so ago, humans were all hunter-gatherers. Back in those days, groups really had to stick together – group members had to look out for each other. Hunting and gathering are capricious, especially hunting. Some days, some weeks, you just can’t catch a break; every game animal you see is one step ahead of you; your spear finds only air. During these lean times, when the gods of the hunt have turned their backs on you….

A: Now you’re being silly.

B: Not at all. The point is that if you weren’t having any luck hunting, but other members of your group were, then you’d better hope they were feeling well-disposed toward you. If you’d been a jerk, stealing their furs, turning them away from the warmth of your fire, playing your bone flute at all hours of the night, they probably wouldn’t feel like sharing their meat with you. Incidentally, this is probably why polygamy was rare prior to the advent of agriculture – group cohesion had to be maintained by the sharing of resources.

A: Interesting point. Does that suggest that when guys say it’s “only natural” for them to want multiple women that is just a bad excuse for bad behaviour?

B: Um, let’s not go there right now. It does, however, remind me of an important point: ultimately what behaviour counts as ethical and what counts as rational is context-dependent. That context can be pretty broad, like the context of being human, or it can be narrow, depending on what sort of behaviour we’re discussing. It doesn’t necessarily matter what is “natural” – if you’ve agreed to be faithful and you are unfaithful, that is unethical. Being an arsehole might be totally “natural”, but it’s still being an arsehole. Anyway, back to the hunter-gatherers. It’s easy to see that in that context refusing to help your neighbour when they are in need, adopting a superficial “every man for himself” attitude, would not be at all rational. It would be a surefire way of convincing others not to help you when the shoe is on the other foot. So, altruism is perfectly rational in that context.

A: Does that mean you think religion is totally irrelevant?

B: I didn’t say that, but it’s not where morals originate and it’s not something we require because the supposed “purely rational” alternative is being completely immoral. There are other issues with pure rationalism, but that’s for another day. Religions, anyway, are more like descriptions or codifications of morals than ultimate sources of them. They are one way, perhaps the most potent way for much of human history, of providing a framework that can stabilise morality….which is not always a good thing, mind you. Today, partly thanks to religion, but also due to our deep evolutionary history, we live in societies full of ethical and moral norms – checks and balances. Certain kinds of unethical behaviour are severely punished with everything from loss of reputation and ostracism to life-imprisonment or even execution in some places. Again, this is not uniquely human – being unethical can be extremely costly for many social animals, especially amongst primates, none of which have complex language and therefore lack detailed codifications of morality such as religions. In any social system in which there can be punishment for ethical transgression along with rewards for generosity, either direct or indirect, immediate or across longer time periods, altruism is rational.

A: I guess that makes sense. It kinda makes you think about our definition of “altruism” though doesn’t it? I mean, if being altruistic is good for you, it doesn’t really seem like altruism, it seems almost selfish…

B: Exactly. Altruism is selfish. Everyone from Buddha to Ayn Rand knows that.

A: Buddha and Ayn Rand? I don’t see the connection. Ayn Rand is evil.

B: Rand is a victim of her own clever use of language, a bit like Richard Dawkins. Did you know he has claimed he could just as easily have named “The Selfish Gene” “The Altruistic Gene”?

A: No, and I must say this is all deeply counterintuitive – altruism and selfishness are meant to be opposites!

B: Language games are fun, aren’t they? But sometimes being too clever, or perhaps using a buzzword like “selfish” to increase the exposure of your ideas, invites misinterpretation. A big part Dawkins’ book is about reciprocal altruism and how it evolves not really in spite of, but actually because of the “selfishness” of our genes – in evolution, selfishness leads to altruism, secondary to the evolution of sociality. Rand had a similar idea in mind when she claimed that if people really understood what was best for them, thus what was maximally “selfish” behaviour, they would see that it meant doing what was best for those around them as well – maximally selfish behaviour leads to altruism. Why? Because we are social organisms, dependent on those around us in so many ways.

A: Every man for himself equals every man for each other?

B: Yep! A lovely evolutionary paradox. A snake biting its own tail. The ouroborus strikes again.

A: You and your bloody ouroborus, you have snakes on the brain. How does Buddha fit in?

B: Well, compassion for all sentient beings is very central in Buddhism. But it’s made quite clear that this is for soteriological reasons….

A: Sauté-what now?

B: Soteriological. Reasons concerning personal salvation. Meditating on compassion, on universal, unconditional loving kindness, is a core part of the Buddhist path towards enlightenment, towards freedom from suffering. The idea is that we suffer less when we are more compassionate. Interestingly, recent brain-imaging studies suggest that this compassionate meditation, amongst all the various Buddhist mind-training techniques, is the one most strongly associated with the reduction of personal suffering – with happiness, with joy.

A: So being compassionate is selfish.

B: Bingo. It’s the best way to reduce your own suffering. Being maximally compassionate towards others is the best thing you can do for yourself, or so the claim goes – maximal altruism is maximal selfishness. It’s just a matter of really understanding what’s best for yourself.

A: Which is not necessarily easy to know.

B: True, but you can’t use that ignorance to claim that exploiting others is rational. That’s an oxymoron – ignorance cannot be rational, even if sometimes it might be blissful. So, as far as I’m concerned, enlightened selfishness is altruism and that’s as rational as it gets. Make sense?

A: Sorry what? I was distracted…..have you seen what Trump just tweeted?

5 thoughts on “Rational altruism and selfish selflessness.

  1. I used to say ‘I hate prejudice’ but – now I’m not sure which is hate and which prejudice, under what scenario is A Rand evil – to herself or others? There seems to be a lot going on which defies logic, which isn’t surprising as logic is one of the simpler tools in our kit, and, while we are not pre-linguistic as one of you commented it may be that being able to speak obscures what is going on. There may not be a ‘logical’, verbalisable reason why things happen. Slime molds know what to do and when – just as ants fan out with their eggs if you attack their nest, they are driven by what we might see as altruism, but is really just a version of Macbeth’s dilemma – fight or go down. Wherein lies Lady M’s altruism? Thoughts from the cellar

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Howard, you’re absolutely right about all of the above. At the end of the day “rational” and “altruism” are just words – words are “empty” (formally speaking!) in that they do not map properties that are intrinsic to the “world”. All our descriptions of the world are just that, descriptions – map, not territory.

      So the intention in discussing social insects in the context of “altruism” is merely to illustrate that there is an evolutionary continuum between the “self-sacrificing” behaviour of the insects and the concept space mapped by “altruism”, which is usually something people only consider in human contexts. This is just the same as pointing out that the “awareness” of a slime mould is on an evolutionary continuum with what we refer to as “human consciousness”.

      In what sense is Ayn Rand “evil”? In no sense, if you ask me, but she is often characterised as such by the mainstream left of today (who are unlikely to have read, in context, a single word she wrote).

      These dialogues are single-authored, but I sneak in to the frames of reference of my paper-thin interlocutors many an offhand comment referring to something I think is silly, or wise, in current “popular culture” – it’s never entirely clear if either of them really embody “my” perspective (or if I even have one).

      Completely agree, given the emptiness of words, that there are many things that are “real” that we cannot clearly describe in words (or any other way). We could follow the early Wittgenstein and suggest that all verbalisations that are not strictly logical in construction are formally meaningless….or we could acknowledge (perhaps more like the later Wittgenstein) that words are the best we have. We need to communicate about this stuff, so we’ll just have to keep doing it imprecisely.

      Knowledge grows through an iterative and communal process of conjectures and refutations – I say something imprecisely, you criticise it imprecisely, I respond imprecisely, and slowly we manage to inch (only inch) closer to an accurate description of that of which we wish to speak (we will not remain silent, Ludwig!).

      It’s a bottomless pit, the knowledge game, but it’s a whole lot of fun, thanks (as always) for playing!

      Genevieve sends her love (it’s our anniversary today!)


  2. I love the Celtic cross and the church; as a long time devotee of St Hilda of Whitby (Hildoceras bifrons) , who was violated by the Augustinian take on God at the council as to the setting of Easter, and, more importantly, the idea that the Virgin Mary was paramount, I am ambivalent


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s