Posted by Jerry on September 20, 2007
My previous post discussed how altruism has come to broadly represent even the most general sense of benevolence toward others. Also, given this understanding of a badly defined and broad conception of altruism, biologists have been recently finding evidence for some kind of biological root to an “altruistic instinct.”
First, altruism is a conceptual principle, and as such, it is impossible for any concepts to have physical-genetic roots in the human body. The most sensible way of me to comprehend any possible genetic roots to the “altruistic instinct” is to consider it as a genetic tendency or rudimentary impulse–certainly not as a genetic predisposition like having the genes for black hair is.
Second, whatever genetic basis of “altruism-type” impulses that may have been discovered (I’m not conceding that they have been, yet), may be the evolutionary vestiges of the survival instinct in pre-modern man. Hunter-gatherers and nomadic men quite possibly evolved with instinctual motivations to live, hunt, and congregate in groups or tribes; early savages (uncivilized men) were faced with innumerable threats from other savage nomads, tribesmen, animals, and the natural elements. It makes sense that grouping (or roaming and living in herds) was a survival strategy for the early man, and over time, this grouping tendency became internalized as an evolutionary impulse for survival.
However, civilization is the process of setting men free from men; it is a progression from a nomadic life lived in the open spaces of a jungle to settlement in private and discrete spaces for individuals. The climb to privacy and the realization of individualism is the progression toward civilization.
Notice that the less civilized a section of society, the more public are their activities and general existence; economic wealth plays a peripheral role perhaps in how civilized a culture is–a rich man can also be highly uncivilized and mutatis mutandis for the poor man.
In this light, the impulse to be in groups or herds is an obsolete concern today. To borrow Ayn Rand’s insight, today we don’t protect ourselves from savages or tribes by ganging up into groups; we draft the Bill of Rights. Man’s nature today has evolved into being a conceptual and rational one. Reason is our most competent tool for survival–not groups, herds, claws, sticks, or clubs. The supremacy of reason and its efficacy in human life has been firmly established by the advancements following the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution.
Therefore, recourse to rudimentary, biological impulses of groupism or other-centrism should be properly evaluated by our faculty of reason to assess its validity and relevance in our present nature and conditions of living. Moreover, remember that what some biologists and altruists are eager to subsume under altruism need not necessarily be altruistic in the proper sense. Therefore, if biologists find that we have genetic impulses to gang up into groups or mobs, we must use our reason to evaluate the relevance and the moral status of these impulses before we choose to act on them.
Since we know that altruism cannot be practiced consistently, we must note that if the principles of reason are consistently applied to the problem of survival, egoism will be the only logical, rational, and moral outcome.