Monday, August 17, 2015

Altruism is an Instinct

As a nonconformist, I have throughout my life looked on with amusement, dismay or puzzlement while others uncritically adopted whatever ideas happened to be popular at any particular time. In 1961 during his inaugural address John F. Kennedy famously said "ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country;" not long after that the Peace Corps was founded and 1960's American-style liberalism took off. It had never occurred to me that there was an imperative to do volunteer work, and nationalism even then seemed like somewhat of a bogus concept, since I already had reservations about American life, though I would not have been able to articulate them at that time. Living in one of the most liberal states now, I still encounter a lot of the same Kennedyesque do-goodism that doesn't make much sense to me. Middlebury College, for example, is a bastion of liberalism and like many elite liberal arts colleges expects its students to demonstrate a strong commitment to community service. If I were still in high school I would probably have to go through a cognitive therapy program in order to make myself civic-minded enough to be accepted at a good college.

It occurred to me today that much of my critique of Western liberalism, particularly in regard to its assumptions about human nature, can be summed up by stating that altruism is an instinct. I have already laid the groundwork for this claim by discussing humans as eusocial creatures who have evolved cooperative behaviors that allowed the species to survive up to the present. It is an obvious enough statement, but it has enormous consequences if you think about its implications with respect to religion and morality. You can more or less throw out most existing theology and moral philosophy and start from scratch. In my view, if altruism is an instinct it should be examined in the same way as other instincts, not as a supernatural or rational phenomenon that has its roots either in a divine being or in an analytical process.

For comparative purposes, altruism is a little like sex. You feel good engaging in both of them, and why do you think that is? Your body rewards you for repeating those activities that saved your ancestors, to put it simply. They helped others and others helped them, allowing them to survive life-or-death situations over thousands of years, and that behavior became encoded in our genes, whereas less cooperative people were more likely to die and consequently their presence is less evident in the gene pool. The mechanism that executes this is probably the involuntary release of chemicals in the brain that makes you feel good when you help someone, and you can easily observe this both in yourself and in others if you just pay attention. The real reward is that rush of chemicals, which may prevent you from acting selfishly even when that might be to your advantage. I strongly doubt you'd ever see much altruism without it.

I thought of sex because that is an extreme case of chemicals influencing human behavior. Sex is far more essential than altruism and encompasses organs and neural systems in addition to the production and release of chemicals in the brain. If your ancestors hadn't been interested in sex, you just plain wouldn't exist under any circumstances, whether they were altruistic or not. In the same ways that we've created comforting stories that provide a palatable explanation for altruism, we've done it with sex. We like to attribute altruism to the inherent goodness of mankind or to the will of a benevolent god even though we know perfectly well that there is no evidence for either. In the case of sex, the accompanying mythologies also seem like a cover for something that we'd rather not think about. Thus was born the idea of romantic love, which still plays an important role in millions or billions of lives, depending on which culture you happen to belong to. In my view, excluding personal drug use, the more pleasurable an activity, the more important it is likely to be for survival, and consequently our bodies have gone to a lot of trouble to pump us full of just the right chemical mix to make us unable to resist doing it. How interested in sex would anyone be if they never experienced the accompanying feelings and sensations? They're there for a reason, and they work pretty well. The mechanisms associated with altruism are just not as noticeable given their lesser biological significance.

One might take a skeptical position on the foregoing, but proving that it is correct doesn't interest me and it is close enough to the truth for my purposes. Finding all of the related chemicals, neurons, genes, etc., would be too large of an undertaking for me, especially when you can approximate the truth via thought experiments about why some traits exist in us rather than others. Altruism isn't likely to exist either by virtue of our rational adoption of it or as a result of pure chance.

I find it important to think about altruism as an instinct vis-à-vis public policy, because others don't seem to do this, or if they do you never hear about it. In the U.S. the prevailing view, from Bill Gates to Barack Obama to David Koch to Dick Cheney, is that Americans are the altruistic good guys in white hats, and the rest of the world is full of unaltruistic bad guys in black hats, for example, ISIS, al-Qaeda, Iran and North Korea. The truth is that there are good guys and bad guys everywhere, and they can coexist in the same body. Moreover, altruism came into existence in small groups well before our modern conception of mankind arose, and it may not function at all the way we like to think of it in inter-group conflict. And, to make matters worse, there are severe misunderstandings of nature to be found in the writings of contemporary philosophers who advocate extending our altruism to other species. Of course, this all brings me back to my favorite theme of automated government. In deciding how to sort things out among ourselves, it would be useful for everyone to recognize that we are, after all, just animals and not divine beings placed here by an omniscient god.

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