The argument about altruism lurks just below the surface in many debates. In Superfreakonomics it’s addressed head on, with evidence cited that suggests that it’s maximising gains that matters, and that we don’t have an offsetting innate sense of fairness. Matthew Taylor’s response in his blog is too cautious. ‘Even if we think human beings are, in their interactions with strangers, overwhelmingly self interested this doesn’t mean we should be champions of laissez faire economics and a minimal state. The reverse could be true.’
Taylor allows the altruism argument to go by default here. It’s one thing for research to suggest that the generality of people behave according to self-interest. It is something else to assert that everyone behaves that way, that it’s human nature. It could equally be argued that beneath the carapace of self-interest we use to protect ourselves there is an innate sense of the worth of others, an innate sense of fairness.
We look beyond all our delusions, our fears, our pride, and what do we find? Still the same self-interest, or instead a sense of the worth of others that we’ve hitherto denied? We see that worth in our family, our parents, children, close friends – leastways many of us do. But we too often deny it to those beyond our family and any local groups we’re affiliated to.
The Buddhist doctrine of ahimsa, harmlessness, is helpful here. It means doing harm to no-one and as far as possible no creature and, taking it further, no-thing. If we can only appreciate the sense of freedom that comes from following this path, and the joy we experience, then it’s so much easier to argue that helping others is innate.
The argument it seems to me should not be about whether or not altruism is a part of human nature, but rather about how that altruism can be allowed to express itself.
Going back to the Cameron post-bureaucratic model if we want to remove pressure from above and argue for engagement and accountability below, then we do have to accept that we will be acting out of altruism and not enlightened self-interest. I don’t believe in a social order where we act in a social manner because we have to, aware that if we don’t society will implode. There simply isn’t enough glue in the notion to hold society together.
Society in a Hobbsian sense is no more than survival management, with mechanisms imposed to save us from ourselves, and we should expect to move from crisis to crisis, holding on by the skin of our teeth.
Society as a moral entity is something very different. It functions not because we seek an accommodation with others, or contribute in some indeterminate way to the general will, but because we seek the betterment of others. In the absence of a generally-recognised external morality to provide a motivating force, we have to find it within ourselves.
Unfashionable as an argument because the consensus holds that morality belongs to the private, not the public sphere – and should stay there. That fundamentally, Mr Cameron, is what has to change.