Wednesday, September 1, 2010

What is Altruism?

My sister read Rand's The Fountainhead and was completely revolted by her bleak vision of human social interactions. She portrays all acts of kindness as acts of pure selfishness in the end. In Randworld, altruism is a form of glib selfishness.

So, the warm inner glow of personal pride which comes from another person's well being, though it came at your own expense, well Rand says stop that shit. Grow up. Be selfish and unapologetic. You can see why the Cons eat it up.

My sister, like many, found Rand revolting and yet she found that idea of altruism as connected to selfishness as hard to escape, even though it didn't seem a very nice view of the world she was rattled by it. She and I have talked about this a lot over the last few years. Finally I think I made a breakthrough. This is what I wish I'd said, not what I actually said which was even longer winded and even less coherent.

Whatever selfishness is, our relationship to it is somehow linked to our survival.

The feeling of warmth most people feel when helping another person at cost to ourselves is a form of natural, biological reward. Endorphins! Party in the brain! Just chemicals. No morals. No ethics, just natural selection giving us a buzz for doing something helpful to others at our own expense.

As I really did say to my sister - she is the least selfish person I know really - just think like a selfish person for a moment and experience the actual difference.

Suppose that a person is unconcsious in the water. A selfish young man says to himself, I won't jump into the water to save them because I'll get my new Nikes wet. That's not a very good reason, so they begin to find others. It's not my job, Hassellhof's babes should show up any moment... The person who is selfish does things purely in their own interests and then rationalizes why afterwards.

Meanwhile a sick old granny who can barely breathe and is scared of drowning herself struggles against the waves to pull the person from the water. She acts before a lot of thinking has really taken place and only after is she at all likely to try and rationalize her behavior.

So who is actually the more selfish? The sick Granny who will have the reward of knowing she risked her life to save another or the guy who was too worried about his shoes and feels the smaller warmth of having spared his Nikes from the water? How is this supposed selfishness being assessed in different cases, in other words?

It's like something Typo said elsewhere about words and the definitions we give to things. They really matter and here we have a classic instance of human compassion being depicted as this terribly wrong thing which - in Randworld - really stems from the need to feel a biochemical reward.

Well imaginary Granny scenarios are contrived. Here's the thing that clinched it. I went all Godwin's law on her.

I said something like, what about the selfishness of those who hid Jewish friends during the holocaust as compared to the selfishness of those who turned their 'friends' in?

What was their relative reward/risk table and payout in a game that's lose lose and where win win means they all get to live?

After 6 months of keeping a secret family that can get you killed, did it still seem like a warm glow all the time? This idea of selfishness in the midst of altruism stems entirely from one hidden assumption: all acts of altruism are assumed to be about as complex as a grandfather spoiling a child absolutely rotten because it makes the grandfather feel good to see the child happy.

Once that kind of example is used to set Rand's bleak themes into motion, it's never questioned and more examples like it follow where there really is a questionable relationship between action and reward and the motives. If all you see is that pattern, it's not a really useful and open way of thinking about the vast complexity of human relationships.

It was nice to have this quiet discussion with my sister, gentle and thoughtful as always, but this time a real breakthrough. Her sense of relief was palpable. She cracked her way through the illusion Rand creates by thinking and thinking and thinking. My sister got that problem beat. It was great. She could see: hang on a moment, this is just wrong. Something about this whole way of valuing behavior in such black and white terms is absolutely wrong.

It was a good time to shut up and say no more.

I loved watching her relief. I mean I can think of no other word for what I saw.

It wasn't like some earth shattering thing, but she clearly was never happy with this idea. She kept bringing it to me to kind of debate it, sometimes for hours, so I figured either she was hoping to change my mind or hoping I would change hers and I saw my answer to that when she seemed to kind of take a step back as the Rand on her back, spitting its poison in her ear for about two years, fell silent for a moment.

I had one more argument held in reserve. Something I was thinking about. I mean my sister forces me to debate this so I end up contingency thinking and preparing a line of argument for the next round. I don't think I'll ever have to say it. But here it is anyways.

Note also that people who are actually psychopaths or narcissists do not have any response of warmth for an unselfish act. They don't report having any happiness associated with acts of kindness to others. The endorphin trigger for being, you know, nice because being nice feels nice... well it just ain't there.

Since they get no biological reward for cooperations where they break even, let alone where they lose out, they just don't and can't behave decently to anyone, except because of conventions. They need some conventions to "fit" into society at all but they never actually trust anyone with anything at all so they don't ever bond to others or feel emotions that we take as normal.

Those are characteristic traits of anyone who is actually unable to act altruistically, indeed they often learn to feel reward for acts in which other people suffer harm.

The person I've just described is the person Ayn Rand holds up as the norm. If anything Rand's philosophy and view of the decent human motives as all selfish at heart, tells you about Rand herself and not the normal human being.

As a footnote, I feel very selfish indeed for helping my sister to see a new path through the stupid maze Rand led her into. It's been maybe two years of talking about this every few months.

There's no question that blogging about my happiness really is a selfish thing, but blogging about my wonderful sister and her remarkable intellectual honesty also makes me a happy Smiley.
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