Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Selfishness and Altruism

In various chat forums around the web, I have come across long discussions about selfishness and altruism. Moralistic posters argue that we should do something for its own sake, not for any benefit that we derive from it. They loudly condemn the hidden agenda behind actions supposedly done out of the goodness of one's heart which actually work to the benefit of the person doing it. If they come to believe that there is a hidden benefit to moral actions, they condemn all human beings as pathetically selfish. On the other hand, you have extreme libertarians, particularly of the Ayn Rand variety (I've heard Objectivists called Randroids, which left me in stitches--it calls to mind Daleks in dark pin-striped suits.) These people argue that there are really no true selfless acts, or if there are, there shouldn't be. They claim that altruists are in fact lazy people who are actually trying to hoodwink honest, hard working people into handing over the fruits of their labour. When faced with the poor and destitute, the Randroids would echo Scrooge's words: Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses? And if they be like to die, then perhaps they'd better do it, and decrease the surplus population.

In fact, both these views share a common view of human beings as atomized, disconnected entities, in which the self extends only as far as our physical form. Moralists stress the benefit of all outside this self, while Objectivists stress the benefit only to this limited self. The common error is the belief in this limited self. As we mature, we (hopefully) move beyond this limited self to an expanded self, including first our family, then our tribe (political, social, ideological, or religious,) moving on to a broader conception of the tribe, and ultimately, to identification with all of humanity and even to nature itself. Having a good grasp of ethics simply means that you are mature enough to know that what's good for others is good for you. The whole selfishness-altruism argument is a red herring.

Selfishness is bad for you. Suicides happen because the victim feels disconnected from other people and unable to influence them. We're social animals; we have an inherent need to be with others, and this means sharing. Indeed, the more we cooperate, the more we thrive. Any business that doesn't offer win-win transactions won't be in business for very long. Unbridled greed is as bad for capitalism as poor productivity. The reason that capitalism works so well is that it limits competition to the least common relationships and encourages cooperation in the vast majority of relationships. Monopolies and cartels are broken by the state because they violate this principle; they allow a few people at the top to cooperate and screw everyone else. Communism failed so miserably because, despite all its propaganda about comradeship, it encouraged competition, betrayal, and political in-fighting at virtually every level of society. Regardless of our fetishistic glorification of competition, our most hallowed model of competition is sports. But sports is about a group of people playing by the rules of the game; ritualistically limited competition within a framework of cooperation. When someone breaks the rules, they are penalized. When someone cheats, they get thrown out.

Behaviour which genuinely works against one's own interests is rarely beneficial to anyone, because it usually permits others to break the social contract without penalty. This is called enabling. It permits someone to pursue a course that is ultimately self-destructive well past the point where it would otherwise be prevented. In this relationship, the pair consisting of addict, alcoholic, or criminal, and his accomplice, act as a single destructive unit. The same could be said for the devoted follower of a bloody tyrant. Eventually the bubble bursts; the destructiveness which the enabler seeks to keep at bay overwhelms the enabler, and everyone else along the way.

Apparently selfless behaviour works to establish and maintain a social contract which works in favour of the selfless person as well. The self expands to include others and certain ideals, without which the person would consider life meaningless. A man who sacrifices himself by throwing his body on a grenade to protect the members of his platoon is acting on a social ethic which exists to keep him and all he loves alive. This serves the extended self. This does not make it any less good or selfless. The dying man has simply assimilated a communal ethic to the point that he acts upon it without thinking. He would expect others to do the same. That it fell to him to do it was merely an accident of circumstance.

Religion, and nearly all ethical systems, work to encourage this expanded sense of self. The figure of God represents a commonality amongst all of creation; the communion with God is meant to be an expansion of self without limit, the identification with all people and all things. An infinite self is the same as no-self, because there is no other. This cannot be maintained for more than brief interludes, but it has a powerful impact. Technically speaking, this experience may be a brain-fart--a combination of broken signals to part of our brain, that producing a feeling of dislocation in space. No longer identifying ourselves as being in one point of space, we identify with everything. This is usually combined with a driving certainty in the physical reality of the experience. This confusion of subjective experience as objective reality is called reification. Nevertheless, the outcome of the experience is to try to repeat it and act upon it. If the result is a genuine wish to connect with and help others, then this is a very useful brain-fart. In other words, it confers an adaptive advantage, and should no more be discounted than any other experience.

There is a downside, however, which is that the experience is non-rational, completely subjective, profoundly attractive, and open to a wide variety of interpretation after the fact. If it occurs within a religious, mystical, or occult framework, this sensation of certainty can be hijacked for some rather dubious beliefs. The self, once expanded, is for a while soft and malleable; it is remarkeable not only for what can be included, but for what can be taken away. The result may be a greater love for all humanity, but it can also be redirected towards a simple change of tribal allegiance, with all that is outside of the tribe being considered outside of the experience and therefore not worthy. The tribe can take possession of the experience and charge admission for it. While strong tribal allegiances were beneficial to our ancient ancestors, they can be disastrous in a modern, multicultural world armed with deadly weapons.

While the reification of the mystical experience may be false, there is one fact about the experience that we can be certain of: we enjoy, indeed, we crave the feeling of being connected with more than ourselves. The point of religion should be to expand this connection as far as it can possibly go, to dissolve the opposition between tribes, rather than planting yet another flag on the plain of Armageddon.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

The American Dream

The American Dream may be summed up in two words: Social Mobility. The promise of the American Dream is the promise of the Horatio Alger stories, that anyone can make it with enough work and determination. Your fate is in your own hands, and the system is fair and will reward you based upon your own merits. Whether this is generally true or not, there has usually been a sufficient number of cases where this has actually happened to supply anecdotal evidence.

Faith in the American Dream is what keeps both the American economy and American society chugging along. Acording to this doctrine, even the poorest worker is but an aristrocrat in exile, waiting for his big break, his ticket to easy street. If they cannot achieve vast wealth, they can at least attain a decent standard of living and look forward to a comfortable retirement. Social status at birth is no obstacle, or indeed, any guarantee. In the American Dream, America is not ruled by an aristocracy, but a meritocracy.

America has resisted the large labour movements which exist in England, primarily because it represents itself as a society of equals. There can be no class consciousness if there are no classes. The perception of stratification, reenforced in England by the existence of an old aristocracy marked by birth rather than effort, leads those at the bottom of the economic scale to identify themselves as permanent members of that class, and to band together with others of their class to further the interests of their class as a whole. This, too, is an imperfect solution. Class identification reenforces stratification. The solidarity of the workers tends to hold them down even as it locks others at lower economic levels out. The result was the closed shop system, which drew a hard line of division between labour and management, and blocked entry into the shop. Furthermore, the hard antagonism between labour and management impaired productivity, limiting the funds which could be used to pay workers and expand operations, resulting in fewer and lower paid jobs. Unpleasant as Margaret Thatcher was, she at least broke much of this up and provided a better chance for those locked out at the bottom to gain access and climb the ladder.

There have been times when the American Dream has faltered and almost failed: during the early part of the 20th century and during the depression. Both times the spectre of communism loomed large. Karl Marx made one prediction that still holds true: when the workers were not able to afford the products of their own labour, the markets, and the businesses that served them, would collapse, taking the whole system down with them. The first time it was salvaged through the efforts of rich philanthropists, who, convinced of the need for a healthy and contented workforce, poured much of their wealth back into civic improvements, education, and public health. It is ironic that many of these same philanthropists were responsible for much of the damage that they were now seeking to repair, and it is still open to question whether their later efforts for the public good were sufficient to redress the harm they had caused amassing their fortunes. More telling were the early efforts of Henry Ford, who insisted on paying his workers what were essentially dot com wages for the time, creating a working middle class which would eventially form the backbone of American wealth and power. He also promised never to fire anyone who would make an honest effort to work, regardless of ability. Ford himself, though, was a mixed bag; during the depression he employed gangs of enforcers to put down strikers by force, resulting in the death of a number of the very employees to whom he had made these promises.

The second time the American Dream teetered at the brink, it was salvaged by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who instituted large public works projects in the New Deal to sop up the unemployment caused by the crash. Much of the anti-communists ferver of the 50's was a reaction to the flirtations with Communism brought on by the depression. By the 50's, however, much of the motivation for this interest in communism had already dried up. Few people could see any reason to jump a horse that now seemed to have regained its feet, and McCarthyism was simply an exercise in demagoguery, and attempt to seize power by attacking a scapegoat constructed out of an internal enemy that was already too weak to defend itself. The anti-communists, however, had little faith in the judgement of the people, and shared a bizarre conviction with the communists themselves in the power, even the inevitability, of communism's ability to seduce and subvert the will of the people.

The power of the American economy lies not only in it productive capacity, but also in its ability to consume, the strength of its markets, and this is made possible by disposable income in the hands of the vast majority of its people. If there is no one to buy, production becomes pointless. This, at least, was understood by Ford when he paid his workers unprecedented wages, creating a market for his own goods. It is a lesson which needs to be relearned. Low prices based upon low wages leads a race to the bottom, and possibly to a situation where prices which cannot be lowered any further are still too high to be afforded by the majority of the population. This is the America of Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart is a classic pyramid scheme, which can only work so long as it grows. Sam Walton was not a villain--he really did intend to share his success with his employees. But he created a trap. Wal-Mart's earlier employees, who were given shares of the company, prospered by holding pieces of an ever growing pie. But the pie has stopped growing, and the result is stagnation, with the vast majority of employees at the bottom stuck on the lowest rung of a ladder whose upper rungs are already too crowded. This stagnation prevents social mobility, setting the stage for the formation of class consciousness, and the death of the American Dream. At this point, Marxism becomes relevant again.

But Marxist solutions are little more than crutches at best, and unmitigated catastrophes at worst. They may be better than nothing, but that does not make them the best solution available. They gain traction only when no other solution is offered. The real solution must come from all levels of society. The working poor are active participants in their own ruin. The key is education. We must all understand that there are consequences to even the simplest of actions, that the price tag on something does not tell us the full cost of what we are buying. Every dollar we spend is a vote. If we spend our money on goods produced or sold on the basis of subsistence wages, we are voting for an economic system which will drag us to the subsistence level. In a globalized market, the poverty of the third world worker is as close as the goods they produce. If their wages are so low that they can never expect to climb out of the hole of poverty and at least buy what they produce, trade deficits become inevitable, and the very gentry who benefit from this arrangement in first world countries will soon find themselves beholden to foreign masters. The workers in third world countries need not make the same as workers in the first world, but they must at least make enough to become consumers themselves, producing a market sufficient to eventually equalize trade between the countries. Any other arrangement puts first world countries on borrowed time.

In the past, at least some of those who held positions of power had sufficient vision to see the wreckage ahead before they reached it, and were able to turn to avoid it. They understood that money will flow from rich to poor, the way air moves from a high pressure area to a low pressure area. This can happen through charity, through a well ordered economic system, or through theft. If charity is scarce, and the economic system is so skewed that vast disparities become entrenched, then the only means of protecting property becomes a police state. And a police state quickly becomes so expensive that a welfare state, by comparison, looks like a dime store bargain. In a police state, the thugs hire out to the highest bidder--but then, the rich are still paying the criminals. And when the thugs figure this out, they find themselves in a position where they can name their price. And there is a danger that the day will come when the enlisted men will turn their guns on their officers, as they did in Russia in 1917. If the police are amongst the working poor, and come to believe themselves trapped in that status, it is only a matter of time before they switch allegiances.

In America that switch is likely to be gradual, a slow erosion of the social contract. The result will not be revolutionary fervour, but a slow rot, powered by the assumption that everyone works in their self interest anyway, so why shouldn't I? If even the illusion of meritocracy collapses, then hard work and idealism will seem naive and be held in contempt. It is faith--real faith, not superstition--that binds a society together, faith even that supports the very value of money. Faith and the ruthless pursuit of wealth have always been bitter enemies; the antagonism between them rings out again and again in every scripture and fable. Evangelicals who rail against the materialism of science have completely missed the point. The real enemy is the materialism of greed, and American Christians seem to have made an alliance with Mammon. They have too many rich patrons to please. This will cost them dearly. It may cost them everything.