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.How tough?
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]
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.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.
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]
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.