"Me-First" and "Democracy"

Sunday, October 14, 2007

From time to time, you'll see scientists tackle the question of whether "altruism" might have survival value to an individual organism or to a species as a whole. In these studies, the term "altruism" is a technical term without any application to the field of ethics: "behavior by an animal that may be to its [individual] disadvantage but that benefits others of its kind, as a warning cry that reveals the location of the caller to a predator." (This fact won't stop journalists from happily making the confusion, however.)

I am unfamiliar with the exact origins of this term, but it occurs to me that the term "altruism" as used in the field of animal behavior is subject to many of the same confusions as it is in ethics. Namely: In either sense of the term, "altruism" confounds actions that really don't benefit an individual, but aid others with those that are mutually beneficial to individual and group.

This confusion is doubly unfortunate when some attempt to apply results from animal behavior studies to understand human behavior. Consider the following quote from the end of the study on ant behavior linked above:

One of the greatest acts of human altruism is the near-total devotion of parents to their children, which can be at least partly explained by the kin-selection idea. Most people show the greatest kindness to their own children, followed by the children of their closest relatives.
Since animals, unlike human beings, do not possess rational faculties, and thus lack spiritual values, I submit that the above explanation is completely wrong (no matter which definition of "altruism" one cares to use). Humans do not act on instinct, and can profit on an egoistic, psychological level by raising children. While it can and does make sense to apply findings from biological studies (below the behavioral level) on animals to humans, it would be hard enough to make this leap at the behavioral level even if the term "altruism" weren't so common.

Needless to say, I cringe almost every time I see some scientific study that claims to provide insight about what it calls altruism, trumpeted to boot by some do-gooder journalist who regards the ant hill as the Platonic Ideal to which human society should aspire. It's bad enough that such studies use such a misleading term, but worse to see genuinely good things, like child-rearing, described as "altruistic", and selflessness taken for granted as a moral ideal.

So color me pleasantly surprised when Toiler emailed me about an anthropological study that called into question the idea that altruism is a viable basis for something that is decidedly not altruistic, and that most people recognize on some level as a good thing:
When it comes to establishing democracy, a me-first attitude isn't such a bad thing. In fact, it might be a necessity, according to Northern Illinois University anthropologist Giovanni Bennardo.

Bennardo spent the tail end of the summer in Tonga, the only remaining Polynesian monarchy. Budding democratic movements there have failed to take firm root, and Bennardo says the problem can be traced to a culturally ingrained way of thinking that always puts groups before individuals.

"Democracy puts the rights of the individual first, but Tongans are trained from birth to do the opposite," Bennardo says. "In their society, the extreme importance is attributed to the group over the individual. The ego is highly constrained. That doesn't mean they can't understand freedom and democracy, but putting individuals ahead of the group is a tough task for them." [bold added]
How tough?
For example, a Westerner might describe a building location as "in front of me," whereas a Tongan would describe it as being "toward the church." In experiments, Bennardo asked test subjects to draw pictures of their island. They typically placed the major town in the center of the island, even when in reality it was at or near the coast.

Working with researchers in Germany and at UCLA, Bennardo demonstrated that this way of thinking also applies to concepts of time, kinship and social relationships, the latter of which is closely tied to the political realm.

"One person, one vote is difficult to implement," he says. "Tongans aren't accustomed to viewing themselves in terms of equality of individuals." [bold added]
Granted, the term "democracy" is itself as ambiguous in today's sloppy political discourse as "altruism", but Bennardo is closer to describing a free society through the term than unlimited majority rule. Clearly, his finding shows that certain cultural attitudes are a prerequisite for a political system that protects individual freedom, something he even explicitly states has applications to the current situation in Iraq.

Having expressed my pleasant surprise, I must also offer a caveat: Suppose that Bennardo had used a better term than "democracy" here. Suppose further that he had presented ironclad scientific proof that a given social system or type of cultural milieu is needed for human prosperity.

What difference would this really make to policy-makers who accept altruism as a moral code or collectivism as the political implementation of that "ideal" morality? Not one bit, when people regard ethics as outside the realm of rational inquiry and accept a moral-practical dichotomy as a given.

Bennardo has provided valuable evidence that altruism and political freedom are incompatible, but so have countless economists shown that socialism is incompatible with material prosperity. And yet we still have countless advocates for socialism even today. As Bennardo shows, we must work to introduce better ideas into the culture before it will trend towards supporting an increase in political freedom again.

Until men accept reason as equally valid in the moral realm as in the scientific, all the science in the world will not save freedom from altruism and collectivism.

-- CAV


Adrian Hester said...

Yo, Gus, you quote the following: "One of the greatest acts of human altruism is the near-total devotion of parents to their children, which can be at least partly explained by the kin-selection idea. Most people show the greatest kindness to their own children, followed by the children of their closest relatives."

This is one of those things sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists like to go on about at very great length. However, in an attack on this approach, the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins pointed out that exactly the same behavior holds true in societies with a large amount of fictive kinship--that is, the kinship ties recognized in society don't match up with the genetic ties due to adoption and so on. Most evolutionary psychologists are, to put it mildly, committed on methodological principle to eliminating all rational actions from their field of study and focusing on what they fancy to be universal genetically-encoded forms of behavior, and many of them really really hate the very idea of social factors outweighing biological ones (much less individual ones, but then they consider free will an illusion), and simply dismiss this argument as "Sahlins' Fallacy," claiming it violates the methodolgical principle of looking at actual behavior rather than what people fancy their behavior to be. But in fact Sahlins did look at individual behavior. The supposed disproofs of his argument I've read have been on that pathetic level of name-calling and blithe disregard for content.

This is not to say Sahlins is the greatest thinker on society and the individual around; he's written some works that include philosophical discussions that are simply misguided. However, he's still quite interesting, and is important for defending the very possibility of objective anthropology against anti-western relativism--though, sad to say, this has been thoroughly misrepresented, near as I can tell through utter ignorance, by the writer most likely to be familiar to Objectivists, Keith Windshuttle's The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists are Murdering Our Past. Most of the book is damned solid, but in the last chapter Windshuttle wandered into anthropological waters too deep for him. Sahlins got into a famous debate with a Sri Lankan anthropologist named Gananath Obeyesekere, a debate Sahlins is considered to have won hands down (which Windshuttle considers a sign of rampant relativism among anthropologists--sad to say, there is a lot of it, but he chose perhaps the worst possible example to argue from).

The actual debate was over whether westerners like Sahlins could conceivably have any capability at all to reconstruct the society of the Hawaiians who killed Captain Cook, and more generaly any non-Western cultures; Obeyesekere argued that they did not by the very fact of being westerners, while he as the native of another tropical island could. It was, in short, an attack on the very possibility of anthropology, and Sahlins made mincemeat of Obeyesekere. However, in doing so Sahlns pointed out the methodological difficulties of understanding how members of another society categorize the world and thus how they react to it; as he pointed out, this meant that it requires patient investigation to figure out their view of the world.

Windshuttle argued in essence that on the contrary it's really quite straightforward for any outside observer, and primitive beliefs being non-scientific are thus invalid and needn't be taken into consideration--the very fact of doing so he called relativism. But this is nonsense, even using the very examples he jumped on: People in the societies studied by anthropologists do not know the findings of western nutrition, so the fact that they classify mushrooms as flesh, for example, is scientifically invalid yet still a fundamental part of their view of the world and thus part of the system of beliefs that guides their actions. Sahlins distinguishes between the world and what a culture as a whole "knows" about the world; the latter is necessary to know how people can be reasonably expected to act in various circumstances, and gaps in the latter combine with the former to understand how people often act in violation of the latter.

More generally, this brings us to the basic failings of behaviorism, in which the only way to handle beliefs and conceptual thought more generally is as complexes of automatic responses to features of the world reinforced over time--yet if those beliefs are false and do not represent actual features of the world, how could they be reinforced in behaviorist fashion? It's akin to the fact that human knowledge is easily capable of creating and handling contrary-to-fact assertions--this is a basic feature of human reason, after all, and basic to science. Yet if all knowledge is merely a vague codification of the regularities impressed on the human mind by repeated stimulus and response, then how can contrary-to-fact assertions be possible? How could they exist, since their very nature is to violate the very regularities assumed as constituting human knowledge? (This is sometimes dressed up in a bastardized Popperianism, and while Popper was so incomplete as to be wrong, he was still on somewhat the right track. These types have stumbled off Popper's track in the dark and are following a rut into nowhere.) And how then could science be possible? Well, one memorable exhange I remember had one fellow arguing that science was true because he knew it to be true, and everyone else was just part of an ideological faction striving for supremacy, and therefore there was no need trying to prove his position to the great benighted unwashed, only to label away any opponents. Which means in practice, he knew it was true through revelation, perhaps not divine in the Christian sense but certainly in the spinozist view of Deus sive natura (God or else nature).

Gus Van Horn said...


But thank you for that very interesting and informative comment anyway!

I am particularly glad you mentioned that "However, in an attack on this approach, the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins pointed out that exactly the same behavior holds true in societies with a large amount of fictive kinship--that is, the kinship ties recognized in society don't match up with the genetic ties due to adoption and so on," because that was a point I suspected would probably hold since people generally know and love their own children, and will be far more likely to feel some affection for people who are more familiar than total strangers, as close relatives usually are.

There is nothing more annoying than "scientists" who wish to study the rational animal while ignoring such fundamental aspects of his nature as rationality and free will!

Anonymous said...

I hear much from today's secular materialists and empiricists about Poper's Falsification Theory (mentioned by Adrian Hester). Is there any merit to that theory? Or is it simply an elaborate form of skepticism?

John Kim

Gus Van Horn said...


I am not as familiar with Karl Popper as, perhaps, I ought to be.

Based on my impressions from a very limited exposure, I would say that it is an elaborate form of skepticism, but I'd look into his ideas more before swearing to that. (And I am a little too busy at the moment to look into it or to think much about it.)

This Wikipedia entry on "Falsifiability" appears to be a decent place to start if you are feeling curious.



Tom Rowland said...


If memory of a long ago reading of Dawkins' The Selfish Gene for a course in Philosophy of Biology serves, the term "altruism" is used in sociobiology and its currently very popular progeny "evolutionary psychology" to name "gene-pool-preserving" "adaptive behavior" of the bird that "calls out a warning" as a predator approaches thus isolating itself as a target for the predator.

Several points to make:
1)It is we that call it altruism, not the bird.
2) the bird, not having a conceptual consciousness, can't identify anything.
3)Far from being ethical-theory-neutral, the word is used to make a "scientific case" for the positive adaptive value for the species as a whole of such self-sacrificial acts.

Such is the state of science in the age of technology.


Thanks to Adrian for some leads for Julie, who is getting her master's in psych and is being inundated with this stuff.

Gus Van Horn said...

"Far from being ethical-theory-neutral, the word is used to make a 'scientific case' for the positive adaptive value for the species as a whole of such self-sacrificial acts."

Yes. That much is true, and I am glad you mentioned it. When one finds such ambiguity in science, there has to be a reason for it somewhere.

And I am sure that Adrian, an good friend of mine, and much more erudite than I, will be glad to learn that he helped.