Saturday, February 14, 2015
I have been thinking a lot about altruism over the last few years: its nature, evolutionary origins, and relationship to classical virtue in particular. I turn here to consider the null hypothesis regarding altruism. Egoism holds that there is no such thing as genuine altruism. It strikes me that there are three obvious versions of egoism (there may be more) and that all of them are interesting and wrong.
The most naïve of the three we may call impulse egoism. According to this version of egoism, human beings are only moved to act by sensations and emotions, either pleasant or painful. When we feel pleasure, we are moved to act in order to keep the pleasure coming and when we feel pain we act to eliminate the pain. So I keep eating as long as I enjoy eating and drop a hot object when it burns my hand. Likewise, if I act altruistically, say to rescue a child from some danger or pain, it is only because the sight of the child in distress causes me pain. This view is hardly absurd. We often do act under such impulses, even in cases where we act altruistically.
It is naïve and wrong because I am just as obviously capable choosing courses of action which cause myself more pain or cost me more pleasure in the short run than were otherwise available at the moment. If I sit quietly while the dentist pushes a needle into my gums, I am feeling pain right then in order to avoid pain that I am not and do not wish to experience in the future. The naïve egoist might plead that I am acting out of an impulse of fear over future pain, but that clearly won’t do. I am much more likely to be more afraid of what is just about to happen to me than what might happen later. I get up to attend to my infant daughter even though all I am feeling right then is the agony of interrupted sleep and perhaps no small measure of irritation.
The second version of egoism we may call motive egoism. It acknowledges that we often act contrary to the impulses of pain and pleasure but insists that we always do so from selfish motives. If I go to the dentist now it is to avoid pain that I might experience in the future. If I act altruistically by tending to the hungry infant, it is not for the infant’s sake but to avoid the emotional pain that I anticipate I will feel if and when something bad happens to the infant. The problem with this view is that it gets Descartes before de horse. I tend to the infant or help out a friend because I genuinely care about the one and the other. The pleasure that I will feel when my loved ones flourish is a consequence not the cause of my acting according to altruistic motives.
It may be that the pleasures I feel when I benefit others are part of the process whereby altruistic motives are strengthened in my psychology. Evolved inclinations toward altruism are responsive to experience because that makes them more flexible and adaptive. Just as the absence of love may damage an infant’s psychology in more or less permanent ways, so our natural inclination toward altruism can be unlearned. Nonetheless, in a health person altruistic motives are quite genuine. It were simpler for evolution to design a creature that acts out of such motives and then is rewarded for it by emotional satisfaction than to design a creature that must calculate its own selfish interests in advance of every altruistic act.
The third version of egoism we might call rational egoism. This is the view that we should act selfishly. The only rational motive for my actions is my benefit. If I act to benefit others, even at my own short term expense, it can only be a rational action if it benefits me in some long range bottom line way. Once again, I think that this gets it backwards. I like fine wine and a properly cooked leg of lamb because these things please my palate. There are all sorts of evolutionary explanations for these appetites, but the pleasure follows from the objects of my appetites and not the appetites from the pleasures. If I like protein and fat and sugar, etc., it is because such appetites promoted the interests of my ancestor’s genetic success and make it more likely that I will leave offspring to pass on my genes. What happens to my distant progeny will not benefit me, but I care about it nonetheless.
The fact of the matter is that I do care about my family and my friends and my Republic. I may care about them enough to sacrifice myself for the one or the other, though there is no way to tell until the moment of truth. If caring about others in that way is part of the most satisfying human life, and I think that it is so, then it is simply wrong to say that I should act selfishly.
Human beings are capable of acting from deliberation and not merely from impulses of pain and pleasure. We are capable of caring as much or more about others than we do about ourselves. The best human life is a life lived not only for selfish ends but also for the sake of other people. Egoism says nothing much that is useful to say, except as a series of illuminating errors.
Wednesday, December 3, 2014
In the essay “On Classical Political Philosophy?” Leo Strauss distinguished between the definite activities of the political philosopher, the legislator, and the statesman, in the following way.
“Political science” as the skill of the excellent politician or statesman consists in the right handling of individual situations; its immediate “products” are commands or decrees or advices effectively expressed, which are intended to cope with the individual case. Political life knows, however, a still higher kind of political understanding, which is concerned not with individual cases but, as regards each relevant subject, with all cases, and whose immediate “products”‑laws and institutions‑are meant to be permanent...
Every legislator is primarily concerned with the individual community for which he legislates, but he has to raise certain questions which regard all legislation. These most fundamental and most universal political questions are naturally fit to be made the subject of the most “architectonic,” the truly “architectonic” political knowledge: of that political science which is the goal of the political philosopher.
I still remember the wonder with which I first encountered this progression from the immediate, to the long term, to the universal. It came to mind when I read the following conclusion to Larry Arnhart’s essay: “The Grandeur of Biopolitical Science.”
Biopolitical science would thus explain politics as the joint product of natural propensities, cultural traditions, and individual judgments. The natural propensities as shaped in the genetic evolution of political animals constrain but do not determine the cultural traditions of politics. These natural propensities and cultural traditions constrain but do not determine the practical judgments of political actors about what should be done in particular cases, as in Lincoln’s decision about the Emancipation Proclamation.
To explain this complex interaction of nature, culture, and judgment, biopolitical science would draw knowledge from all fields of traditional political science and from intellectual disciplines across the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities.
There is grandeur in this view of political life, as originating through the laws of nature for the emergence of irreducibly complex wholes from the cooperation of simple parts, so that, from ants and bees to chimps and humans, endless forms of political order most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
The emphasis is mine. This essay comes from the June 2013 issue of Perspectives on Politics. It is one of a series of responses to John R. Hibbing’s article: “Ten Misconceptions Concerning Neurobiology and Politics.”
The emphasized words constitute one of the most concise and powerful arguments for biopolitical science and, one may go farther here, biopolitical philosophy. This is evident in the comparison between Strauss’s political philosophy, legislation and statesmanship, and Arnhart’s “natural propensities, cultural traditions, and individual judgments.” The objects of political philosophy are the political things in the broadest possible sense: those that do not change or change the least with place and time. Culture traditions are the products of more or less conscious legislation, as the Greek word nomoi indicates. Finally, statesmanship is only a special case of individual action, which every citizen necessary participates in.
The point in Arnhart’s statement is that while nature constrains both culture and individual action, it leaves open a space within which both communities and individuals are able to move, innovate, and make deliberate choices. That addresses one of the most common objections to biopolitical science: that it amounts to determinism.
I would add three points here. One is that nature constrains culture and individual action in two ways. One is that it limits what is possible. Someone who believes that she can survive without consuming physical nutrients is mistaken, and no amount of faith or spiritual awareness will supply this limitation.
Another way that nature constrains the human action is that it limits what is desirable. It is possible for a person to live the solitary life of a hermit, since hermits occasionally do it; however, human beings being social animals, such a life will never be desirable for most of us.
The second point is that nature constrains individuals in two ways that can, for some purposes, be distinguished. Human beings are mammals and mammalian nature is a broad universal. Individual human beings are also individuals and individuals vary not only by environment but also by biological inheritance. John Hibbing’s work presents powerful evidence for the inheritance of a wide range of character traits that were, not long ago, assumed to be entirely acquired.
My last point is that causation works both ways. Christopher Boehm argues (Cross-Cultural Research, November 2008, 319-352) that
Purposive social selection at the level of phenotype can have parallel effects at the level of the genotype, and that social control has shaped human genetic nature profoundly.
In other words, human cultures, operating within that free space that our natural propensities allow, can bring selection pressure to bear that is sufficient to change those natural propensities. Boehm begins by reference to the fact that Serbian mountain pastoralists are the tallest “Caucasians” in the world. He argues that this is in part because of a cultural preference for taller women. This example, if it holds up, suggests that more or less conscious social selection (the Serbs presumably didn’t know they were breeding for stature) can act relatively quickly.
Boehm’s central target is the evolution of human morality. He thinks that our capacity for altruism and (my terms) our pallet of moral emotions are the result of selection pressure that originated in the free action of individuals, living in small groups, and over time acting more and more collectively. I think he is right.
Friday, October 24, 2014
In ancient Greek philosophy the most important dichotomy involved phusis and nomos, nature and convention. Phusis, which is the root of our word for physics, means growth. A phuton, or “a growth” was the Greek word for a flower or tree or something else that grew out of the soil. It is interesting that our word “plant” names such an organism by reference to the act of putting it in the ground whereas the Greek word points to the process that defines the organism. I will leave it to the students of Martin Heidegger to run with that one. It is enough to say that phusis is the inner nature of anything, what makes it present itself and behave as it does, prior to any human interpretation.
Nomos originally meant an enclosed pasture, within which animals were allowed to roam free. The Greeks used the word metaphorically to indicate the written and unwritten laws that govern human social intercourse. Human beings corral themselves by drawing their wagons into a circle. The corral is merely a set of agreements or conventions made by particular communities. We bury our dead. They burn theirs. We drink alcohol. They eat pork. Just as the pasture is enclosed by an artificial barrier, so the nomoi are human-made. The nomoi exist by agreement or convention.
Phusis is the same everywhere and always. Fire always reaches toward the sky, whether in ancient Athens or today in Aberdeen, South Dakota. Nomoi vary both between communities and within the same community over time. For the Greek philosophers, phusis was existentially superior to nomos. Philosophy was the attempt to replace opinions about the whole of things with knowledge. If you properly understand something that never changes, you will never be wrong about it. This kind of understanding is possible (at least in principle) regarding the natural things. It is not possible even in principle to know something that is valid only by convention. What is true by convention is worth knowing for practical reasons but uninteresting for theoretical reasons.
Two corrections regarding the classical view are necessary in light of the modern science of phusis, which today we call biology. First, natural things are more subject to change than the ancients had supposed. Both modern biology and even modern physics are evolutionary sciences. Second, it is no longer possible to view nomos and phusis as mutually exclusive explanations for human behavior. The creation of norms and other conventions is something that human beings do by nature. Thus nomoi are as much an expression of human nature and as revealing as the fact that we huddle around a fire when it gets cold.
One of the things that led me to rethink this is the marvelous article by Michael Tomasello and Amrisha Vaish: “Origins of Human Cooperation and Morality.” (Annual Review of Psychology, 2013, 64: 231-255). Tomasello and his large collection of partners work both with apes and young children in order to understand human nature and how it is both very similar and very different from our near Darwinian relatives. This bit (p. 246-247) jumped out at me:
Further evidence for young children’s understanding of the basic workings of social norms is provided by their selective enforcement of different types of social norms depending on group membership. Thus, children not only distinguish moral from conventional norms on multiple levels (see, e.g., Turiel 2006), but they also enforce the two distinctly.
In particular, when 3-year-old children see a moral norm being broken by an in-group member and an out-group member (as determined by their accents), they protest equivalently. But when they see a conventional norm being broken by these same agents, they protest more against an in-group member than an out-group member (Schmidt et al. 2011).
In this way as well, then, 3-year-olds have a sense of the conventional nature of conventional norms, that is, that these norms have been decided on by, and thus apply only to, one’s own group but that members of other groups may not be aware of or need not follow the same conventions. The same is not true of moral norms involving harm, toward which they take a more universalist approach.
According to this research, 3-year-old children are capable of distinguishing between conventional right (rules of conduct that are valid only because our group has agreed to them) and natural right (rules of conduct that are valid across all human associations). Assuming that the children in the study are not students of political theory and have not been carefully coached by grad student parents, they seem to have an instinct grasp of the difference between nomoi and phusis. They instinctively understand the difference between rules that are valid because we agreed on them and thus valid only for those who are part of the agreement and rules that bind everyone.
If this holds up, it is dynamite for political philosophy. It means that culture and nature are not in opposition, as social and political theory have supposed since the early moderns. Culture, or social construction, is not something that takes place in some realm isolated or at least insulated from nature. Instead, culture is a subcategory of nature. Fish swim, dogs pee on fire hydrants, and human beings make table manners. This gives full weight to the conventional nature of conventional norms and at the same time allows us to recognize universal standards by which those norms may be judged. It makes it possible to respect and tolerate culture differences but also satisfies an apparently natural human yearning to know that some things are simply right and others wrong.
Saturday, October 11, 2014
My friend Ron White raises the following question on the International Political Science Association Research Committee #12 Facebook page:
Ronald F. White Ken Blanchard Jr.....why not get back to Book 5 of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics? Why not explore the evolution of retribution and distribution based on MERIT, NEED, EQUALITY, and UTILITY? And of course the conflicts that arise at different, times, places and degrees. I've always found this "cooperation research" to be a bit left-leaning....overly focused on need and equality. Don't you?
I reply: no. I think cooperation research captures the tension between Aristotle’s two moral/political books. The Nicomachean Ethics begins with the assumption that the human thing is the deliberate action of some individual human being:
Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good.
The Politics begins with the assumption that the human thing is the cooperative association
Every polis is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good; for human beings always act in order to obtain that which they think good.
As usual, I think Aristotle’s approach is perfect. You can’t understand human beings without looking at us from both points of view. Having digested de Waal and Brosnan’s article in Science, I think it supports Aristotle’s approach.
“The Evolution of Responses to (Un)fairness” distinguishes two forms of inequity aversion. First Order IA presents when a partner in some cooperative activity objects to a distribution of the fruits of the partnership that weighs to the objector’s disadvantage. This form of inequity aversion has been found among a range of species that routinely cooperate.
Second order IA presents when a partner responds negatively to an inequitable distribution of the fruits of cooperation that benefits the objector. If I read the article correctly, this form has been found only in chimpanzees and human beings.
What I make of this is that selfish reciprocity (I cooperate only in so far as I benefit) has much deeper evolutionary roots than conscientious reciprocity (I am concerned both for me and my partner). Human beings are capable of cooperation on a level that leaves all the other primates far behind. The emergence of human moral and political is a result, in large part, of the runaway selection for second order IA. That indeed points toward a “socialist” view of man. Nonetheless, second order IA is dependent upon first order IA, and the latter has deeper roots. Anthropoi are not, and will not be in any practical timeframe, hymenoptera. Human beings remain individuals, each with his or her own interests. Any cooperative community can flourish only if the interests of each of the members is implicit in the interest of the whole. The human community that is most in accord with human nature is one in which the rights of individuals are fundamental.