Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Altruism - The ant and the officer

Roger Scruton thinks that the modern concept of altruism is possible only by warping the meaning of the word so that it denotes the opposite of what it used to. The causes of this are what he calls "the gospel of selfishness" (as expressed by Ayn Rand) and "the biological theory of 'altruism', defined as an act whereby one organism benefits another at a cost to itself", but only as another, more 'elevated' act of selfishness, or enlightened self-interest.

To illustrate the latter:

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. Is it really the case that the officer who throws himself onto a live grenade in defense of his men is obeying the same biological imperative as the soldier ant who marches to his death in the fire? And if so, is there anything really praiseworthy about the officer's action?

I would agree that there needs to be a way of distinguishing the officer's action from that of the ant. It is interesting that in Marxism, and related creeds, the human qualities of greed and selfishness would become non-existent in the post-revolutionary order. 'Altruism' would become systemic. According to such thinking, the act of the officer would be a case of false consciousness - a mode of thinking imposed in order to shore up the existing unjust system. Selfishness in the pre-revolutionary world was seen as a measure or a proof of the injustice of the system or else as a reaction (more or less justified depending on who was in power) to it. Thus the actors had greater agency than the ant, but not much. They could choose to be victims of the system or to overthrow it. But for the most part, they were, in the end, merely products of it.

Scruton is going back to a vision of the individual that is still fighting its corner, but has been under threat for 2 centuries. It is one that acknowledges the greater good, but whose measure is either God or an elevated idea of duty. In this vision, true altruism (selflessness) is an ideal to be sought after, and it is not natural, but acquired; it is cultural. Looking for it in nature, in order to justify it, is a waste of time. It is about a society inculcating/imposing ideals. But to inculcate them, it first has to have them. And to have these ideals, it needs a framework of individual responsibility and something approaching honour as well as the assumption of a reality higher than the Self.

One of the great challenges of the secular world is to be able to assert such a reality without denying its residents responsibility for their actions, to uuphold ideals without them being contradictory and/or murderous, and to encourage altruism without emptying it of all meaning.

Technorati tags:

No comments: