Altruism

Jurriaan Bendien bendien at tomaatnet.nl
Mon Aug 18 10:19:13 MDT 2003


"A behaviour is altruistic when it increases the fitness of others and
decreases the fitness of the actor. The challenge for
the evolutionary biologist is to show how such self-sacrifical behaviors can
evolve, regardless of how or even whether the individual thinks or feels as
it performs the behavior."

This definition is ill-considered. Altruistic behaviour is, in the first
instance, behaviour which is not self-interested. But behaviour which is not
self-interested is not necessarily self-sacrificial. This would be an
ideological notion, which denies that altruism and self-interest might be
combined in social co-operation.

Nor is behaviour always self-interested. Marx himself said that the vice he
excused most was human gullibility. Gullible people can do things which are
neither self-interested nor in anybody else's interest. If the possibility
of altruism is denied on the ground that behaviour is always
self-interested, we cannot explain a lot of human behaviour, and we ignore
the problem of the human awareness of self-interest.

In that case, we miss a problem which Marx was very concerned with by a
mile, namely, the problem that there may be a discrepancy between human
awareness of interests, the ability to specify that, and what is objectively
in their interests and the ability to act on that, a mutli-dimensional
discrepancy which accounts precisely for evolution (rather than, say,
revolution). Moreover certain conditions (such as reification) may promote
that lack of awareness.

So really the problem of interests is far more complex than simplistic
notions of a self-interested homo economicus or a biological organism
engaged in a competition of the survival of the fittest. This is just dumb
ideology propagated by dumb people who think of themselves as very clever by
making a rational calculation of interests. This rational calculation is
however demolished as soon as the initial conditions are reframed, and new
conditions are introduced, for example by an increase in behavioural
flexibility.

The conceptual confusion involved is the counterposition of altruism and
self-interest, whereas the true counterposition consists of altruism and
egoism. Both altruism and egoism, may involve both the affirmation and
denial of self-interest, at different times, or even the same time. Or as a
psychologist might say, we might be other-directed and self-directed at the
same time, in one single action.

When Marx talks about the relationship between the sexes as a synthetic
indicator of human progress, this is in part what he is talking about. The
best sex features a free harmonious intimacy in which the mind is cleared
and uncluttered by any thought, i.e. in which the contradictions between
altruism and egoism are resolved, at least temporarily. Hence the popularity
of sex as an escape from the vicissitudes of capitalist society.

This is the ABC of socialism, since socialism, at the most basic level,
seeks precisely those institutional forms in which a common social/human
interest can be combined with self-interest, in other words, it aspires to
forms of human behaviour which combine self-interest with a collective
interest, in a specific way. Without this ABC, it is impossible to get a
theory of socialist political economy off the ground. It is also impossible
to get a socialist organisation off the ground.

Jurriaan







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