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Left and Right Altruism

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?

As for the accusation that we, Europeans and/or progressives, do not like to give, it is not true.

First of all, by not wanting to grab everything that we can reach but probably would not need, we give freedom to others (beside us, or in the future) to live fulfilled lives; and we really enjoy giving the same opportunities to others. In the modern over-exploited world, the freedom of others (beside us, or in the future) to enjoy the same basic things is not to be taken for granted.

Leaving enough resources to others is basic application of the Golden Rule, when there is risk of depriving the others of the same life quality. We generally enjoy not hurting the others.

When it comes to giving, we are most concerned to give to those that are hurt. It is enjoyable to see people most in need being helped, especially with your contribution. We may be not much concerned with giving personally to recipients - but we do see it very sensible to help the people by collective arrangements, like taxes. We can give more help if we cooperate in giving the help - and we enjoy giving together.  

by das monde on Thu Nov 8th, 2007 at 06:03:20 AM EST
European Tribune - Left and Right Altruism
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.

Clearly he's really saying that Europeans are shamed by American success.

And of course he's right. We certainly are shamed of successes created by screwing the weaker and less fortunate, presented in vulgar displays of competitive conspicuous consumption.

We're ashamed that Bill Gates became one of the richest men in the world by selling fourth rate software enforced by predatory practices.

We're ashamed that IBM worked with the Nazis to make the holocaust run more smoothly.

We're ashamed of car companies that fight tooth and nail to prevent limits on emissions standards, even when this makes them less profitable and doesn't match real market needs, because they prefer to preach a gospel of high-octane machismo than deal with the real world.

We're ashamed of success created by running sweatshops and impoverishing local workers by outsourcing work to even poorer workers overseas.

We're not ashamed of real success, created honestly. But when there's so little honest success, created with a social conscience, we don't think that throwing money at a church or school makes up for the damage that has been done in accumulating it.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Thu Nov 8th, 2007 at 08:24:21 AM EST
and a lot more, although morals and ethics are becoming winged on a globalized two-party system.  Obviously the author has some issues... gender and atlantic.

Our knowledge has surpassed our wisdom. -Charu Saxena.
by metavision on Sun Nov 11th, 2007 at 12:44:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The difference that he outlines between wealthy Americans giving to charities and wealthy Europeans paying taxes and then expecting the State to take care of things is, I believe, a difference between a thinking based on alms and a thinking based on rights. When you're screwed over by a flood or a hurricane, you have a right to expect the state to intervene on your behalf. You should not have to rely on charity from the wealthy - charity that may or may not manifest itself in the actual event. Naturally, this reduces the need for charity in the first place.

Further, the American version of charity is based on a semi-feudal patron-client system that progressives usually reject. One of the many functions of the welfare state is precisely to break the bonds between clients and patrons.

Not so many decades ago, employers provided their employees with housing, food, cloth, etc. That, of course, made the employees utterly dependent on their employers. If you were fired from your workplace, your quality of life would drop like a homesick rock. The welfare state has broken that dependency, by providing universal health care, universal pensions and universal unemployment insurance.

Not so many decades ago, the family was the vital primary social unit, protection and material security in case you lost your job. This, of course, led to a dependence on your family. If you had a falling-out with your matriarch or patriarch, you were up a creek without a paddle. The welfare state has broken that dependency too.

I.o.w., the difference between American and European concepts of welfare can, I believe, be summed up as a difference in the view of social structure: Employer-based health care, pay-per-degree education, private pension schemes and lack of universal unemployment insurance reflect (and create and reinforce) an underlying clan-based patron-client society.

As an aside, the unfettered accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few families that we have seen over the last half-century may well be a harbringer of a return to a truly feudal society: A society where clans of pseudo-nobles wield a power that is individually or collectively comparable to the power of the State. Naturally, such a society is incompatible with democracy as is usually understood - one of the historical prerequisites for democracy was central authority breaking the power of the nobility in the 16th and 17th centuries...

As another aside, I have yet to see any numbers that document Americans being more charitable than Europeans, when you decontaminate the statistics of church contributions and other phony charities.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Thu Nov 8th, 2007 at 10:18:16 AM EST
Personally I think that turning to roger Scruton for moral guidance is like turning to Stevie Wonder for an opinion on rembrandt. He's vaguely aware of the concept, but finally hasn't got the sensory ability to grasp the subject.

keep to the Fen Causeway
by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Thu Nov 8th, 2007 at 10:47:53 AM EST
Nice analysis!

I would venture that your emphasis on the "don't" is describing a characteristic of Western European societies.

Eastern European societies on the other hand have been undergoing a huge identity crisis trying to match their traditions with Western mores. I should expand on that later.

Here it suffices to say that I feel you are missing the emphasis on sacrifice introduced by Christianity. The question and the imperative, moves from the "don't" (Jewish Law), to the "do" (Hellenic and Asian thought) to "sacrifice" (Christianity) In the latter (admittedly rarely practiced approach) the Ego is vacated. All actions are addressing the urge to serve and thus be in community. The good Samaritan was a parable to explain how one acts shelflessly in a secular setting. It was then followed by the explicit request to leave all worldy matters behind thus vacating one's Ego.

Societies function with a combination of the "do" and the "don't". Conservation has long stopped being an interest of conservatives and therefore expecting from them to willingly limit their power is like waiting for Niagara Falls to dry. It is not happening in our lifetime.

Orthodoxy is not a religion.

by BalkanIdentity (balkanid _ at _ google.com) on Thu Nov 8th, 2007 at 01:19:19 PM EST
The "do"s, "don't"s and sacrifices are blending and alternating in different proportions through time. Say, sacrifice was probably a frequent pagan practice - though it is not clear whether it was directed to fellow humans. Even if unpractical, sacrifice is a kind of Neurolinguistic Programing. The ancient idea is that you cannot keep everything you get - you have to be ready to give away something for what you need or desire. The modern prosperity gives an illusion that you can get and keep everything.

Asian ethical traditions are really very diverse. In particular, Zen Buddhism offers an interesting taste of "selfish" altruism: your deeds to others are not that much important to you except that they bring you closer to the Enlightenment experience. With directly selfish preoccupations, or without compassion, you are not supposed to achieve "awakening". That probably tells something about deep nature of human psychology.

On Christianity, Wikipedia states the following:

Christianity adopted the ethic of reciprocity from two edicts found in Leviticus 19:18 ("Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD." NIV[1].) and Leviticus 19:34 ("But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God"). Crucially, Leviticus 19:34 universalizes the edict of Leviticus 19:18 from "one of your people" to all of humankind.
In this light, Christian teaching is progressive (or even socialistic).
by das monde on Fri Nov 9th, 2007 at 01:09:23 AM EST
[ Parent ]
In this light, Christian teaching is progressive (or even socialistic).

Which is why I think Christianity -- despite all the savage devastation and malicious suffering its proponents, standardbearers and institutions have wrought on the world -- nevertheless remains one of the foundations of what is best in Western society:  recognition of, compassion for, and respect for the intrinsic "value" of each individual, and the common humanity of all people transcending, even outdating, national, tribal, class, ethnic identity, etc.

Truth unfolds in time through a communal process.

by marco on Fri Nov 9th, 2007 at 02:12:47 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Between Jesus Christ and a believer, there is a whole row of apostles, popes, evangelists and political figures.
by das monde on Fri Nov 9th, 2007 at 03:42:05 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Which is why I think Christianity -- despite all the savage devastation and malicious suffering its proponents, standardbearers and institutions have wrought on the world -- nevertheless remains one of the foundations of what is best in Western society:

i couldn't agree more, bruno-ken.

it makes it more the pity how shamefully we live up to the teachings of one we profess to revere.

most kids growing up see little to relate to in 2000-year-old tales of a magical shepherd.

and while rome purports to have locked up the franchise, it's memorable the hand that empire had in our hero's downfall.

he who dared take the religion of his desert forefathers and try to transform it into a religion of compassion and softness, to replace the warrior/refugee/victim code with something truly universal, pure acceptance, understanding and love...

it's still the greatest idea ever, and still has the same forces arraigned and allied against it...  religions with no mercy, and political/business interests which have harnessed the doglike devotion of the duped and ignorant to help foster and buttress institutionalized injustice, racism and exploitation of the many weak for the benefit of an amoral, and often immoral few.

plus ca change...

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Sun Nov 11th, 2007 at 09:57:31 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Those two verses cover everything...

from Iraq to immigration!

I never read the book and I think I had never heard Leviticus quoted until 43 came to office.  (o:

Our knowledge has surpassed our wisdom. -Charu Saxena.

by metavision on Sun Nov 11th, 2007 at 12:59:19 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Conservative altruism reminds me of a sociological category used to characterize the humus of the Sicilian Mafia. It's called "selfish charity".

Basically it involves cherry-picking or targeting the needy within a restricted framework in order to maximize social and religious cohesion around the aims of the ruling class. It's highly symbolic and simply serves to reinforce consensus.

There will be plenty of ritualized gratitude and plenty of kickbacks. But in the end it's a formidable obstacle to welfare and other basic rights.

Or to put it bluntly, a basic right is transformed into a self-serving donation.

by de Gondi (publiobestia aaaatttthotmaildaughtusual) on Thu Nov 8th, 2007 at 04:44:54 PM EST
Scruton was one of the lecturers who joined the staff of the Birkbeck College philosophy dept. while I was doing an evening class degree course there years ago. He was a smart guy, but already committed to the absurd dogmas of the Right. What a pathetic "argument" this is, significantly, it seems he doesn't bother to cite any evidence. Had he done some elementary checking he would have seen that the basis of his conclusion is just wrong.  Here are some of the relevant facts from Robert Reich's blog:

Friday, December 22, 2006
Charity Shouldn't Begin at Home

`Tis the season to be jolly and also to make donations to your favorite charity. This year's charitable donations are expected to total more than $200 billion, a new record. Some 80 percent of them are made now, in the final weeks of the year.

But lots of charitable dollars - especially from the wealthy, who have the most to donate - are going to culture palaces: to the operas, art museums, symphonies, and theaters where they spend much of their leisure time. They're also going to the universities they once attended and expect their children to attend, perhaps with the help of what's known as affirmative action for "legacies."

These aren't really charitable contributions. They're more like investments in the lifestyles the wealthy already enjoy and want their children to have, too. They're also investments in prestige - especially if they result in the family name engraved on the new wing of the art museum or symphony hall.

It's your business how you donate your money. But not entirely. Charitable donations are deductible from income taxes. This year, the U.S. Treasury will be receiving about $40 billion less than it would if the tax code didn't allow charitable deductions. Like all tax deductions, that gap has to be filled by other tax revenues or by spending cuts, or else it just adds to the deficit. (Not incidentally, the government now spends some $40 billion a year on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which is what remains of welfare.)

I can see why a contribution to, say, the Salvation Army should be eligible for a charitable tax deduction. It helps the poor. But why, exactly, should a contribution to the Guggenheim Museum or Harvard University?

Look, I'm all in favor of the arts, and I've spent a good portion of my adult life teaching in a university. I can see giving a charitable deduction to an art program or a scholarship program aimed at the poor. That's charity. But not to an arts palace that has nothing to do with the poor. Not long ago Lincoln Center had a gala dinner supported by the charitable contributions of the leaders of the hedge fund industry, some of whom will be receiving billion-dollar bonuses in the next few weeks. I may be missing something here, but this doesn't strike me as charity. I mean, poor New Yorkers don't often attend concerts at the Lincoln Center.

It turns out, in fact, that only an estimated 10 percent of all charitable deductions this year will be directed at the poor.


An F for Scruton.

Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner - that I moved to Nice.

by Ted Welch (tedwelch-at-mac-dot-com) on Thu Nov 8th, 2007 at 04:48:18 PM EST
Altruism is giving economists fits right now, especially those who believe that markets are a balance of self interests.

The biologists are straining to find an evolutionary explanation as well.

But on the issue of philanthropy one needn't bring in altruism. Much philanthropy is motivated by ego and control. Truly altruistic philanthropy would have to be anonymous.

I have an essay on why philanthropy is not a "good thing":

Abolish Philanthropy

I distinguish charity from philanthropy.

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Thu Nov 8th, 2007 at 06:24:01 PM EST
before the end

[When] a father works to provide for his children; when a woman spends her money on a person she loves;

´man=father provides, woman<mother spends´  Aaarrrgggh.<p> as a mother takes pleasure in the pleasures of her child.

A father doesn´t?

Scruton is .... necrotic!  Should be on the scrub list.  But thanks for a good diary.

Our knowledge has surpassed our wisdom. -Charu Saxena.

by metavision on Sun Nov 11th, 2007 at 12:38:35 PM EST
I've only just got around to reading this. A great diary, thanks Das Monde!
by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Sun Nov 11th, 2007 at 01:58:50 PM EST

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