Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Monbiot on altruism and philosophers

George Monbiot asserts that the Common Cause Foundation has made the 'transformative' discovery that people aren't very selfish.  Or maybe it's not so transformative because, he say, science knew that all along.  Consistency aside, we should shun "philosophers from Hobbes to Rousseau" (among others) because their accounts were "catastrophically mistaken".

This is what you get when someone doesn't know the limits of his competence.  It's wrong about philosophers (and economists) in a number of ways, and the survey's findings can hardly be 'transformative'.

For a start, it is childish to make a big deal of this survey.  Yes, a large majority, when you ask, say nice things rather than nasty things.   That's not behaviour.  Only a biologist who knows nothing of surveys or psychology could be so clueless.  People who actually look at society (e.g. Robert Putnam) have pointed to a decreasing interest in public goods:  no 'transformative' bunch of verbal responses can undermine that finding.  And innate selfishness, regarding these researchers, is a straw man.  They don't go on about 'selfishness' but about the decay of institutions that have effects not at all attributed to innate human characteristics.

As for philosophers from Hobbes to Rousseau...

First, every single social contract theorist and classic philosopher who's made assertions about self-interest has noted that self-interested  desires include other-regarding desires.   These are universally assumed to extend at least to immediate family, but could reach much further.   So no philosopher has asserted that people are 'selfish' in any relevant sense.

Second, all well-known social contract theorists have asserted that the state of nature is a construct within a thought experiment, a state of affairs which may or may not have occurred.  This can hardly be 'mistaken'.

Third, Rousseau came closest to seeing the state of nature as a reality but in the Discourse on Inequality he suggests that orangutans may be the original, natural man.  In other words he situates the state of nature in, well, nature, millions of years before the emergence of the genus homo, never mind homo sapiens.  Given that and an only very slightly generous reading of the text, he then makes pretty good sense.  Moreover he spends a great deal of time presenting his view on the emergence and decisive importance of sympathy and empathy.  By no stretch of the imagination does he conceive of the human beings who form societies as 'selfish'; quite the contrary.

Fourth, Hobbes and other social contract theorists do not assert that humans are naturally 'selfish' even in the broad sense that includes other-regarding desires.  To take Hobbes, he says that humans are set one against another, not because of innate selfishness or greed or aggression, but because they compete for an irreducibly scarce commodity - security. (Leviathan I.13)  And for Hobbes the state of nature is simply a state where contemporary humans lack government - for example, Yugoslavia in time of civil war.  This has nothing whatever to do with "our innate, ancestral characteristics", Monbiot's witless take on the state of nature.

Fifth, the theories about altruism with which I'm familiar are weak.  Game theorists (some in biology) note that altruism is 'logical' in the sense that those who simply retaliate do worse in a *series* of games than those who don't.  But, as other theorists have noted, this doesn't carry much weight because in the real world, retaliation can end the series of games.

Then there's David Gauthier, who argues that, in a certain population, socially minded 'constrained maximizers' do better than narrow, 'straightforward maximizers'.   But his reasoning sneaks in assumptions about the proportion of one to another, and about the trust that constrained maximizers are rational to afford one another.  These assumptions are accepted by approximately no one.  In any case, as already noted, straightforward maximizers may well have other-regarding desires.  Gandhi might well have counted as a straightforward maximizer.

Finally Monbiot might want to consider the varieties of 'altruism' before he gets enthusiastic about it.  If I go out of my way to help others, even make sacrifices for them, I may do so out of loyalty to my family or town or region or clan or tribe, my country or race or ethnic group or co-religionists.   (Animal loyalties, too, may not extend to their entire species.)   I might also, out of those same loyalties, harm 'outsiders' whom I see, rightly or wrongly, as a threat.  Or I might harm them simply to obtain some benefit for 'my' people.  A great many atrocities are committed largely out of altruistic love for others, that is, for certain others.

It is a shame that Monbiot deploys his rubbish to pronounce on serious matters like Syria.  That degrades rather than enhances an understanding of the horror that transpires there.

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