by das monde
Thu Nov 8th, 2007 at 05:44:12 AM EST
I read sometimes right-wing commentators, to get a gist of their basic reasoning. So I stumbled upon the article
Altruism and Selfishness
by British conservative philosopher Roger Scruton,
published in the journal "The American Spectator".
Since we like to discuss here ramifications of altruism and selfishness, we may take a look at this particular perspective. The article starts like this:
THE FIRST PIECE OF MORAL advice that parents used to give their children was contained in the Golden Rule: Do as you would be done by. Christian parents backed this up with the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jewish parents with the commandment to "love thy neighbor as thyself," enlightened parents with their own version of the Categorical Imperative. It all seemed very simple.
Great, we can agree that basis of morality is the Golden Rule. Further, I personally can agree with the main train of thought in the following paragraphs:
Two powerful influences have disturbed that old equilibrium. The first is the gospel of selfishness, preached by Ayn Rand. Don't listen to that socialist claptrap, Rand told us. It is just a ploy of the parasitical, to curtail the freedom of the heroes, and to seize their goods. [...]
Amalgamating Adam Smith's "invisible hand" with Nietzsche's condemnation of the "slave morality," Rand gave to the would-be entrepreneurs of the mid-20th century the courage to say "get off my back." By being selfish, she argued, I enjoy my freedom and amplify my power -- so creating at least one attractive person in the sea of second-raters. But I also provide work and reward to others, helping those around me to be selfish, and therefore successful, in their turn.
[When] a father works to provide for his children; when a woman spends her money on a person she loves; even when a man lays down his life for his friend -- all this is selfishness, doing what one wants to do, because one has the motive to do it, because that is what the I requires.
IT IS NOT SURPRISING if, after a heavy dose of Rand, people end up unsure whether selfishness is a good thing or a bad thing, or exactly how you must behave in order to pursue it or avoid it. Things have been made worse by the biological theory of "altruism," defined as an act whereby one organism benefits another at a cost to itself. On this definition the lioness who dies in defense of her cubs is altruistic. So too is the soldier ant marching by instinct against the fire encroaching on the ant-heap, or the bat distributing its booty around the nest. Geneticists have worried about how to reconcile "altruism" with the theory of the selfish gene; but the rest of us ought to worry rather more about the use of this term to run so many disparate phenomena together.
I agree that both "selfish genes" theories and Rand's philosophy give very easy rationalizations for overly selfish and disregarding way of life. We take the "imperatives" for competition and selfishness way too seriously.
Some more of Scruton's thoughts are as good as any other contemplation on morality. But at the end of the article he suddenly switches to outright absurd and insulting stereotype forming. Here are the last two paragraphs:
Europeans, who are snobbish about American culture, are also shamed by American altruism. Once they have made their fortune, Americans devote themselves to giving it away. They lavish gifts on their school, their church, their college, or their hospital, taking an obvious pleasure in doing so. They also take pleasure in others' success -- an emotion that seems to have vanished entirely from European society. Of course, Europeans are great preachers of altruism. But the more they preach, the less they give. For they do not regard others as their personal concern: It is the state, not the individual, that has assumed the duty of charity, and when things go wrong -- as in the recent floods in England -- it is the state that must step in to help.
The core idea of morality, the idea contained in that little word "sake," is rapidly vanishing from the European consciousness. The public square is full of moralizing language about hunting, smoking, drinking, and other forms of enjoyment. But when you ask for whose sake this or that is demanded, the answer is always: yourself. The old training in "sakehood," which our parents regarded as the first step in moral education, simply does not occur. We should not be surprised, therefore, to discover that European cities are full of disoriented teenagers who think of the laws of morality as rules of longterm self-interest, and who seem unable to imagine what it would be, to do something for any other sake than their own.
Ughh... amoral Europe... how did you get that far?..
Please, can someone show me that humiliating American altruism in the ongoing mortgage mess? Or weren't California fires a concern of no government? Who gives lavishly to Katrina survivors? Wouldn't the Earth look better if we would at least recognize longterm self-interest in moral rules?
There is some cognitive dissonance going on. Is morality something different to us and to American conservatives?
Reading the article once more, I noticed one subtle contrast. Right at the beginning, the Golden Rule is cited as "Do as you would be done", and the phrase is taken very literally since then. That is, nowhere is there a hint to the interpretation "Don't do as you would not wish to be done". All stress is on active give away to someone. Scruton can stress it nicely:
Learning to love your neighbor as yourself is learning to take pleasure in the things that please him, as a mother takes pleasure in the pleasures of her child. To call this "selfishness" is to abuse the language.
But the "Don't..."
interpretation is the more direct characteristic of moral problems. Moral imperatives, such as the Ten Commandments, are dissuading commands. For most religions, the Golden Rule primarily means
don't do harm or cause pain to others:
Confucius: Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.
Rabbi Hillel: That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.
Dalai Lama: If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.
I could even disagree that the Golden Rule
is completely synonimous to Ethics of reciprocity
. The "Don't..."
imperative is more serious and stronger than the suggestion to play "I-scratch-your-back-you-scratch-mine".
I am no theological expert, so I can't say how decisive is the Good Samaritan story is to the Christian ethics, nor even what it is the core lesson of it. But I can imagine that to many venturing evangelist followers the whole lesson of altruism is giving to charity when you can afford it. That is quite an elitist approach: only the wealthy can be very altruistic, while you... won't be as giving as Bill Gates, would you? Besides, no questions are asked how did you earn the wealth that you are ready to give away? Did you hurt many people while catching your wealth? Would a thief be a moral person if he would give 10% of his bounty to charity?
It emerges that the modern conservative (or perhaps neo-Calvinistic) ethics takes a rather narrow stress on the Golden Rule. The "Don't..." imperative does not seem to extend to them beyond explicit moral or legal instructions. It probably contradicts their feudal understanding of freedom.
For us, the stronger moral concern is not to do harm to others. That is why we don't like capitalist "excesses", since their hurt and swindle too many people. We see social control as necessary to keep wild market powers in check, and make economic pain less frequent, widespread or intense.
The basic morality problem can be seen as controlling your own power. Morality is not about getting more power, or giving it away. It is about restricting your power to avoid doing wrong things. That is where "Don't"s come from.
Needless to say, the modern civilization is performing badly both in not hurting environment or fellow humans, and in containing its own powers. That is apparently not in our long term interests - we are going to pay (maybe with some Apocalypse). Libertarian ideology, inspired by Rand's categorical logic, drives the modern breakdown of morals. Simplistic biological reasoning and too convenient understanding of the Golden Rule help along. What will it take to make ourselves nicer?