The ethics of altruism


The Ethics of Selfishness was always intended as an introduction to this article, which broadly speaking deals with altruism. I wanted to outline a proposal for a system of public ethics which was sufficient in scope to provide a useful framework for legislation of society, business, and government – even between nations – but at the same time placed the least restriction possible on individual freedom, cultural expression, and the form and responsibility of society.

Perhaps that sounds like a foolish and impossible task, but it has been tried before in what might be called the “universal human rights movement.” That was both a failure and a mechanism of cultural imperialism, but I think it had promise.

In fact we use the language of morality all the time in the public sphere, to talk about government responsibility for social programs, business ethics, scientific research, international sanctions, war, aid, and even disease. The basis of this conversation is unstated, and for that reason it’s inconsistent and often hijacked by pressure groups, or politicians. It’s been possible for the conservative parties of the west and the religious parties of all kinds to claim the high moral ground, portraying the enlightenment movement (founded and always based on altruism and secular morality) as lacking moral backbone. More important, this has enabled moral justification to be twisted to support utterly immoral actions, from neglect of the weak to torture and war.

I don’t think it’s impossible to outline at least the starting point for a “minimum ethics,” but I want to start from a secular theoretical basis rather than a series of open ended rules like “human rights.”

The best place to start talking about altruism is with evolution. [Thanks, Áine.] As Dawkins pointed out, organisms are their genes’ method of reproducing themselves. Often it’s more effective to aid the reproduction of another copy of the genes rather than the copy in this particular organism. So for example if I help my brother survive and reproduce my actions increase the success of the 50% of my genes which are part of his DNA. That’s why beehives use infertile children of the queen to do all the work; their genetic material is propagated by their mother with their help in the form of the fertile queens and drones of the mating flight.

That’s not, except in the most narrow sense, truly altruism. Evolution does some “clever” things with powerful strategies, however, including magnifying them and extending them far beyond their original effect. In humans, this “genetic altruism” has been extended greatly. Insanely greatly. We help the members of our clan (relatives) and from the same emotions of loyalty, belonging, sacrifice, and xenophobia we identify with and help the members of our tribe, village, football supporters club, religion, nation and race. It’s a very effective strategy, and it’s part of the unwritten history of the last 10000 years that “nations” by various strategies (including racism, and propaganda groupthink) have come to dominate the world, overcoming all the individual tribes.

So genetic altruism has been subverted by culture to a central role in allowing societies far larger than kinship groups to predominate. I believe humans have, if rarely, shown themselves capable of far more than that. They can act according to an altruism which transcends genetic altruism completely, and is based instead on a philosophical (reasoned) or aesthetic (intuitive) desire to benefit others without evolutionary or faux-evolutionary advantage to ones self. This doesn’t answer the question of whether this should be done. From my own perspective, without it life is brutish and meaningless; a ferocious but empty struggle for pleasure and survival. Your mileage may vary.

As will become clear later on, echoes of the evolutionary altruism seem to keep resurfacing – the old tribalism can perhaps never quite go away. In the mean time, we need to leave it to one side and begin again from a purely philosophical point of view.

Kant proposed a categorical imperative; a duty which holds regardless of our personal will or desires. Loosely speaking his idea was that each individual should choose principles of action such that if everyone were to choose the same principles (universalisability) the outcome would be satisfactory. That’s a lot like saying do unto others… . It makes sense as the starting point for any conversation about ethics, and in fact it’s the reason Ethical Egoism is not a satisfactory moral theory – it allows actions which would lead to disaster for everyone, were everyone to take those actions.

Mill had a universalisable principle which made its way into the Declaration of Independence: that what was right was what maximised total happiness. I mention this because I’ve always had a problem with it. It’s paternalistic. It assumes that rulers should decide what people want and how they should get it. Actually for this reason “… the pursuit of happiness” is an improvement, but I’m wary of even this formulation. I’d rather stick with life, liberty… and maximum autonomy.

I much prefer Rawls approach, which recognises that any objective moral system should be limited to the political sphere. He has theories on a just society, but he also introduces the idea of a “veil of ignorance.” What moral choices would you make if you knew nothing of your own race, status, wealth, gender, or whatever? It’s a useful refinement of the idea of universalisability. The principles of action should be the ones you would choose if you stepped back from your current situation and looked from an entirely objective viewpoint.

So far so good. There are important results from this simple beginning: it proscribes most forms of harm to others considered crimes in every culture. Robbery and murder, for example, where the result for everyone would by unpleasant if everyone acted this way.

I thought at first there was a principle which could be derived at this point, as follows. Each person is autonomous in their moral choices. This is an observation of the fact that people to the extent of their capacity, have free will or would like to consider that they have free will. Thus each person is responsible for the moral consequences of their behaviour. My argument from this was that any reasonable person would, from the standpoint of the veil of ignorance, wish to reserve the right to make their own moral choices since they could not in any case give up responsibility for those choices. This would, I thought, mean that the first right of every human being should be to maximum freedom of action consistent with the duties and freedoms due to others according to principles of universalisability.

But this is not the case. Many people believe that their obligation is to give up their own moral autonomy to the moral code described by their religion. Many believe they should give up their moral autonomy to the tabus of their traditions or the laws of their state, or even to the will of their military leader. Doing so does not absolve responsibility. The choice to give up choice is still a choice. In the same way the choice to drink too much alcohol does not absolve responsibility from the consequences of inebriation. The Nuremberg trials were correct to refuse “following orders” as a defence.

This is why I’ve spent several weeks not writing this article. I had intended to go from here to a positive account of public morality based on virtues and qualities, but this is a stumbling block. In fact I think it highlights something hidden in the supposed “Clash of Civilisations” – a true conflict between the “traditional” and “enlightenment” world-view. It is, I believe, the old genetic altruism reappearing, tribalism and tribal and cultural loyalties showing more power than what I’ve called transcendent altruism.

The essence of the enlightenment project is that each person has an inalienable right to moral autonomy. Kant spoke of the sovereign individual subject:

man as a free agent who, just because he is free, binds himself through his reason to unconditioned laws, it stands in need neither of the idea of another Being over him, for him to apprehend his duty, nor of an incentive other than the law itself, for him to do his duty

In contrast the traditional duty of man was to render unto caesar the things which are caesar’s and unto God the things which are God’s. A similar concept is developed more fully in Islam; submission

To Him belongs everything in the heavens and the earth and there-fore, the religion shall be devoted absolutely to Him alone. Would you worship other than God? [16:52]

So instead a qualified form of the right to moral autonomy: any reasonable person would wish to reserve the right to make their own moral choices or to give them up as a matter of their own choice rather than by the direction of others. Thus the first right of every human being is to maximum freedom of action or the freedom to choose how that should be limited, subject to the duties and freedoms due to others according to the principles of universalisability.

In this way a basic principle of objectivity gives rise to secular moral principles of individual autonomy, liberty, and the idea of doing no harm to others. And this pluralist humanism contains the possibility of its rejection in favour of more traditional authoritarian morality.

This approach can go far beyond this on a personal level, and as a public construction it can go further in a process of dialogue and collective decision. For both the individual and the society I think a rule based system, a regulated morality, is a mistake even though laws based on moral principle may always be its baseline. This is where human rights was limited and inflexible, and in the end culturally determined. My suggestion is that there may be a way to construct a living morality, adaptable to culture and evolving with it, by starting from the point we have reached here and considering the virtues which should be expressed by actions.

I’m not sure how to overcome the problem that some people do not consider it right to retain their moral autonomy – something which is empirically obvious but which I find nevertheless incomprehensible. Comments and suggestions most appreciated – this is an unfinished idea put in print to help me think it through. Also please don’t think I’m rejecting religion as a viable foundation of morality. The very fact that it’s so attractive, perhaps because it’s rooted in the base current of the origin of altruism, makes it important. Perhaps the answer is a synthesis of the two rather than a rejection of the traditional?

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One Response to The ethics of altruism

  1. Benscoter says:

    I love it, you’re perfectly right !

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