More on altruism

Despite the success of opensource, despite everything we have learnt about the way human networks operate, despite everything we have learnt about man’s make-up, drivers and emotional intelligence, I keep meeting people who just cannot accept the concept of altruism.

As far as they are concerned, man was born to be selfish. Period.

There are many such people about. Which makes life interesting for anyone trying to derive value from social software in enterprises; when you talk to them about it, their eyes glaze over, they get the Does Not Compute signal flashing over their foreheads, and they quickly disengage. I’m sure you’ve seen that look a zillion times.
And that is partly why I looked harder at group selection and at emotional intelligence and at the Nohria/Lawrence Four Driver model in Driven.

Today I saw a spark of light, a modicum of understanding, while reading an unlikely source. George Orwell.

I had chanced upon Orwell’s Why I Write monograph while vacationing in the US, but I hadn’t got around to reading it as yet. Until today.

How can you possibly not read a book subtitled “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind” ?

Orwell thinks that there are four great motives for writing that “exist in different degrees for every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living“.

He lists the motives as:

  • Sheer egoism
  • Aesthetic enthusiasm
  • Historical impulse
  • Political purpose

It’s not a very long essay, so I shall let you savour it for yourself, save for an expansion of the first motive. He defines sheer egoism as:

  • Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc. etc. It is humbug to pretend that this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they abandon individual ambition — in many cases, indeed, they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at alland live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, wilful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centred than journalists, though less interested in money.

I have a lot of time for Orwell and his writing, though I don’t always agree with his point of view. Much of the time I do agree with him. But that’s a separate discussion.

Orwell wrote Why I Write towards the end of his life, sandwiched neatly between his two primary successes, Animal Farm and 1984. In 1946, when he wrote the tract, he was only just becoming financially secure for the first time in his life. I am no Orwell expert, but that’s the way it looks to me.

What I find fascinating is the conditioning and worldview expressed by him in that short statement I quoted above, on writing for “sheer egoism”. Here’s my rewrite, obviously biased to help me try and make my point:

  • “the whole top crust of humanity” are a bunch of insecure, fame-hungry, selfish, back-stabbingly ambitious people who are “a minority of gifted, wilful people”; “the great mass of human beings”, on the other hand, are fundamentally unselfish, live for each other, setting aside selfish ambition by the time they are thirty and getting on with life.

Winners; and losers.

Orwell obviously saw things that way, in order to have expressed himself the way he did. I don’t think I’ve placed much bias in my interpretation.

This is not about him being right or wrong. Just that even then, there were apparently many people who were comfortable in “dying to self”, who were relaxed about not kicking, biting and scratching their way up the organisation that is life, who were happy to help each other and live for each other. And they were looked down on. For being altruistic and not particularly ambitious.
But that was then. Now, with globalisation and disintermediation and the possibility of universal connectivity and enfranchisement, maybe things have changed.

Maybe the old Winners Losers model based around selfishness and lofty ambition was a Hits model, and maybe we are really moving to a new Long Tail world. Which is not a Hits model, not a Winners Losers model.

And maybe it’s OK to be unselfish and collaborative and not-loftily-ambitious and even altruistic in this Long Tail world.

Just musing. Until I saw Orwell’s words, I never quite realised how bad a press altruism had, how poor a public image being unselfish had.

This puts the altruism-questioners into perspective for me.

My bad. I guess.

17 thoughts on “More on altruism”

  1. I’m not sure I agree that altruism and ambition are antithetical. At the risk of descending into a sterile semantic debate, I would posit that it is possible to be extremely ambitious and altruistic at the same time.

    Now I’m no biologist or anthropologist but from what I’ve read, there seems to be a reasonable body of scientific research telling us that altruism is an evolutionary and biological attribute in humans and other social animals (think of army ants for example…)

  2. It would appear that biologists and anthropologists kept away from “group selection” during most of the past 50 years, that it went out of vogue, and that it has only recently returned to the fold, particularly over the last 10 years or so, a la Emergence and Linked and maybe even a bit of Tipping Point. The Goleman Emotional Intelligence goes down a parallel route, and the Nohria and Lawrence Driven model also suggests something similar.

    I used the adjective “lofty” to qualify the ambition aspect in order to differentiate between out-and-out ambition and a more moderate form with altruistic behaviour still possible.

    So we agree….

  3. Everything you ever want or need to know about altruism in a selfish world can be found in The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.

    To summarise: genes are inherently selfish – that’s self-evident in the phrase “survival of the fittest” (survival of those that survive), but the groups of organisms that are the gene’s survival mechanism can exhibit emergent altruism, as caring for offspring and siblings is just as important, from a genetic point of view, as procreation.

    It all boils down to game theory in the end with Iterated Prisoner’s Dilema being the model for many forms of life. (Interestingly, it’s the “iterated” part that’s key).

    It turns out that, in an effective community, a certain amount of leaches are not only tolerated but even more efficient.

    So in the meme based world of human ideas – where memes survive or die the say way genes do – most creativity is altruistic, with a few “insecure, fame-hungry, selfish, back-stabbingly ambitious” leaches thrown in.

    Too many leaches, though, and the community, and the ideas it creates, will die.

  4. Thanks Ian. While I have read The Selfish Gene and most other writings of Dawkins, I somehow interpreted him as extremely anti-group-selection. I will revisit him to see whether the perceived bias was mine and not his.

    The extreme-nonrival-good nature of ideas makes the concept of sharing ideas an unusual case, I think.

    More and more I move towards ecosystem approaches, where a complex adaptive system is in uneasy and unstable equilibrium, with occasional paradigm shifts that happen very quickly rather than gradually.

    Leeches fit well into an ecosystem model, and probably act to ensure the rest of the idea creators and shapers don’t go dogmatic or heretical.

    In india my home had an unusual amount of geckos, and no cockroaches. Ecosystem.

    At Imperial College’s site in Sunninghill, there is a team that looks at plant-pest-parasite troikas, in the belief that things like potato famines were caused by imbalanced movement of species and genera.

    Keep the comments coming.

  5. Hi JP, nice post. You quote Orwell; I recall, in college, I learnt from you (re. quiz) that George Orwell was Eric Blair! I came upon “Wigen Pier” recently, and was struck by the power of his insights and analysis. You’re becoming a leftie in your old age! I recall that some British politician had said if you’re young and not a socialist then something is wrong with your heart, and if your older and still a socialist then something’s wrong with your head!!). Talking of college, this week marks the 30th anniversary of our joining St Xavier’s, Calcutta. So many memories, especially since discovering your blog. Once in the context of your usual morning Times crossword solving, you mentioned the poem “Whenas in silks my Julia goes, then then methinks how sweetly flows the liquefaction of her clothes …” (I forget who the poet was). Those lines have remained in my mind ever since. (In 1979, I saw the film “Julia”, where those lines were repeated.) Even today, whenever I’m testing a pen, what I write is “Whenas in silks …” All strength to you. Best, chutki

  6. Have you checked Axelrod’s ‘the evolution of cooperation’ ?
    I find it illuminating on the ‘game theory’, systemic side.

  7. Funny, I have just picked up Axelrod via someone else. Serendipity. Thanks, YGG.

    And Chutki, the Julia poet was Herrick I believe, One of my dad’s favourite poems (and poets).

  8. Let’s be thankful that all that Ayn Rand objectivist stuff is ignored in Europe. Her argument seemed to be that the more selfish an individual was, the greater the general good….

  9. I think its time someone called the bluff, exposed the emperor – Ayn Rand’s writing is demented, peurile, juvenile fantasy. The writer is sick, and the reader to whom it appears like “TRUTH” is simply an unhealthy idiot. Interestingly, if you analyse the books (FH, AS), there’s clever use of psycho-emotional tittilation, in order to aid identification with the oh-so-heroic characters. A recent novel by the American writer Tobias Wolfe, (I forget the name) about a boy in an elite boarding school – has an interesting discussion on AR. Grrrrrrr, ignorance, un-educatedness… :-) chutki

  10. pah.

    once again – you can go back to classical economists on this one. Try Adam Smith and the always misquoted ‘invisible hand’. Look up his quote on why butchers and carpenters choose to supply meat and cut wood, and where they choose to do it.

    The point is that behaviour that is driven by self-interest can appear to be altruistic. This is not to defend rabid free-marketeers – information needs to be as freely available as property rights and access to markets, but to point out that economists have a lot to say on ‘why we do what we do’, and many have already said much of the above.

    Use the profit motive and price as signals to help allocate capital and suddenly we return to the ‘markets are conversations’ theme.

    or go read Freakonomics, or Everlasting Light Bulbs, for slightly poppy, but insightful, examinations of human behaviour and environment.

  11. My first job was in Israel (teaching at the Technion); and I started in the fall term of 1971. In my travels around the country, I had opportunity to visit several of the KIBBUTZIM and was impressed by their diversity. I had not realized that some of them were industrial, rather than agricultural. What surprised me most, however, was that several of the economically successful KIBBUTZIM were considering incorporating themselves as cities, thus moving away from the communal organization under which they were founded. These travels taught me my first lesson in economics that remains with me today: PEOPLE ARE WILLING TO SHARE POVERTY, BUT THEY WANT TO KEEP WEALTH! The KIBBUTZIM thrived under the motto, “We are all poor together, but we shall make this land work for us,” where what was literal for agriculture could be metaphorical for industry. However, once the land DID start “working,” the motto began to give way to “what’s in it for me” thinking. The final stage of this process was the move from communal to municipal governance.

    Like everything else, the concept of altruism is heavily context-dependent. The reason iteration is important in those Prisoner’s Dilemma studies is that it provides information about context. Similarly, groups of organisms have a DE FACTO context that is just not part of how a gene does what it does. I suspect that our inclinations toward altruism have a lot to do (inversely) with the extent to which we FILTER our context in the course of our being-in-the-world. However, it remains important to recognize that such filtering is necessary. I live on the edge of the San Francisco Tenderloin, and there is just no way I can react to everything I see there. I HAVE to be selective about what I do for others, particularly those “anonymous others.” Perhaps the way in which each of us sets a personal sense of values is related to the way in which we decide just how much of what we encounter gets caught by that filter.

  12. I feel you also want to expand the view here : there’s ‘altruistic/selfish’ & there’s fairness (what in French we call ‘fair play’); sticking to the rules. It reminds me of a funny conversation I had, here in Paris, with a socialist friend, who was saying “we’re Ok with liberalism & free markets –when there’s true fair competition –but what we see (in France as in the US & elsewhere) is rulebending like crazies … ENRON is no liberalism, it’s sovietic”… for ‘the selfish gene’ , rules are pure ecology & you can’t bend them; for cooperation between human beings, the rules are cultural, tacit, subtle, the price for not complying is highly variable.

  13. Ian, it is interesting to see that Dawkins and others have finally concluded what every parent knows. The only reason that people spend so much time obfuscating the obvious truth to then stumble back to it, is because we need an excuse to serve our own selfish desires just a little bit longer.

    There is yet one incredibly important piece that the “iterated prisoner’s dillema” people are trying hard not to understand. It is the importance of intent — and the importance of one side first taking a risk in the spirit of forgiveness. The relevant human drama is the “cuckold and the whore” who appear often in Shakespeare. If the two parties in a relationship operate on mutual suspicion, it devolves quickly into a hellish balance that rips apart the world. When one partner says, “I will forgive and trust even though I KNOW it is not logical”, then the other can do so, and the chain moves forward. No couple can ever survive without this step, nor can a child be raised.

    To attempt to measure the exact paramaters by which people leech/freeload/cheat and then build a science from it is retarded. Every person’s heart is different, and as soon as people understand the so-called deterministic rules, the deceitful heart will game THAT system. As long as you keep making scientific excuses to ignore the selfishniess and deceit in your OWN heart, and view them as a ways to manage the sloth/deceit/whatever in OTHERS hearts, we all fall down.

  14. P.S. for the people who say “altruism cannot exist”, I simply say look at the fact that a child was raised. It is not so hard. If we operated by the law of the jungle, we would have as many babies as possible and kill off the ones who learn slowest in the first year — so that we could be free of the “altruistic” nonsense of raising a child. If we operated by the law of the jungle, we would eat our children, or at least the weakest ones. And if we operated purely by the law of the “selfish gene”, we would make stupid laws like “Abraham’s children cannot kill one another or deceive one another, but it’s OK to do so to children of other fathers”. Problem with that is we end up with Ishmael and Jacob. The fact is, we are NOT owned by our animal instincts; we always have a choice, and some choices are better than others. Unless you understand that we are all children of the same mother, you continue to use law of the jungle and prisoner’s dillema to justify the fact that your sister is a prostitute.

  15. Stephen; we’re genetically programmed to abstract human relationships beyong groups of about 150. This is where hierarchy creeps in. Groups of 150 are more likely to glom with groups that are more like their own, so you end up with one supergroup that dominates another and decides that the undergroup is poor because “those people are stupid”. We have bery little empathy for people unlike us, if such people do not appear in our own group of 150. Interestingly, the underclass tend to breed faster these days, so things trend toward apartheid.

  16. I think there is a difference between altruism as described by Orwell when talking about the mass of people living for each other, drudgery, no ambition etc and identity and self-awareness and pursuit of one’s happiness.

    One can be aware and pursue one’s identity (ambition?) and yet exhibit altruistic behaviour. At different times, selfish motives and altruistic motives in one human being are not exclusive. Sometimes I act in my own interest and sometimes I don’t. To me the best argument for altruism is looking at examples in extremis – people are known to sacrifice their own lives for the benefit of others. The stuff of heroes. Perhaps altruism in ‘everyday life’ is a result of being able to ‘afford’ behaviour that doesn’t lead directly to one’s benefit. This is where I agree with JP, with the right environment, connectivity and unprecedented insight into other people’s minds, less ‘selfish motives’ may be possible. As for Orwell, I think his view of altruism was rather bleak.

    A more fundamental problem is defnition of altruism, I think the disagreement between people/schools of thought starts right there, which makes it difficult to have a coherent debate. I have recently had several discussions about altruism, the most recent one this week at a bar in Tyrol. We agreed that finding one example of altruism would be sufficient to prove it exists. That’s a start.

    Also, a few days ago I quoted what you said about altruims in your last post on the topic and sure enough a discussion in comments ensued…

Let me know what you think

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.