Making a Virtue of Altruism

Sketchpad post…

The creature moved solely by instrumental, self-regarding rationality has a name: sociopath. A sociopath with supernatural epistemic and computational capacities is called homo economicus oreconomic man.”  A handful of sociopaths exist, but gods live only in myths and textbooks. Flesh and blood human animals are, like the naked mole rat, “hypersocial.” The idea of a species of hypersocial sociopaths is as close as one comes to biological contradiction, which may be why homo economicus has not been observed in the wild. Normal humans are born cooperators — “strong reciprocators” in the language of Gintis and Bowles. “Homo reciprocans” is a conformist beast freighted with culture. A norm sponge. But we humans are not socially programmed robots. We are clever conformists. We can glimpse the advantages in “defection,” in pretending to pull our weight and writing our own rules when it suits us. But why can we do this? Why can we defect? Why aren’t we socially programmed robots? Maybe this: the point of such high-fidelity conformism is the ability to adapt to our environments (or to adapt our environments to us) at the speed of cheetahs compared to natural selection’s dumb glacial grope. The point of high-fidelity conformism is to take advantage of adaptive innovation. So we are equipped with the ability to imagine a better way, which happens to include the ability to imagine shirking or bucking the norm. Sociopathy is not our problem. Imagination—the engine of adaptive conformism—is. Nature’s solution is our taste for “altruistic punishment,” the disposition to hammer norm shirkers despite the personal cost. How not self-interested are we? This not self-interested: We are so obsessed with conformity that we will hurt ourselves to hurt those who refuse to conform. And we don’t even need to know the point of conforming, or whether or not it helps. The stone heaved through the window of the suspicious gentlemen bachelors: this too is altruism. To learn that humans are not sociopaths, are capable of other-regarding acts, are willing to sacrifice ourselves to keep hearts and minds in harmony, is not to discover there is no problem. A main lesson of the Scottish Enlightenment is the possibility and necessity of recruiting potentially destructive self love into the service of public happiness. But if self love is not in fact the mainspring, or the only spring, of human action, then maybe their lesson for us now is that we must also learn to civilize the capacity for norm-enforcing self-sacrifice. What matters is not how we are motivated. What matters is how our higher-order norms (our institutions?) channel and coordinate our various motives to produce the elements of flourishing. What matters is which norms we’re willing to pay dearly to enforce.