"What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." - G.K. Chesterton

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Some thoughts on enlightened self-interest as the basis for morality

(What follows is a slightly rambling expansion on some of my comments about morality in the post below. What I'm hoping to show is that enlightened self-interest can provide us with a strong reason to act in a "moral" way. It's intended as a conversation starter rather than a definite pronouncement on the subject.)

Enlightened self-interest is different from sentiment or whim – I may save someone's life because I like the look of them, but such an action does not count as truly moral.

The vast majority of human beings are bound together by certain innate desires (security, companionship, contentment, procreation, etc.) which are harder (or downright impossible) to realise outside of the social setting. These desires, as well as forming the bedrock of all civilisation, provide the foundation of secular morality.

Immoral acts constitute those which undermine the realisation of these desires.

For example: I desire safety for myself and those I care about. If I make a habit of killing those who get in my way then I not only provide no reason for others to help keep me alive, I actually provide them with a reason to kill me – as I represent a significant threat to them and their loved ones. The best way to realise my desire is to promote the safety of all in the expectation that they will, in turn, ensure my safety. If I kill, or tolerate killers, such an arrangement is impossible to maintain.

This differs from whim in that reason is employed to consider the total effect of my actions. If someone makes me angry whim may tell me to kill them while reason tells me that such an action will be counter-productive.

(Obviously, most people aren't that keen on killing in the first place, no matter how angry they get – but I'm assuming worst case scenario to show the strength of enlightened self-interest).

As another example: I'm able to provide for myself and my loved ones much easier in a social setting than on my own. Bartering services and goods allows me a much comfier lifestyle than I'd enjoy in isolation – catching and cooking your own food (not to mention building a house, dealing with illness, etc.) is much harder than turning up at work each day and sitting in front of a computer. In order for bartering to work there has to be a basic level of trust between individuals. If I go around lying about everything then people will cease to trust me and so cease to work with me. (The social aspect of my life will also be significantly reduced). So not only do I have a strong reason to be truthful but also a strong reason to promote truthfulness in society as a whole.


An immoral individual is one at war with the rest of society – undermining their chance to realise significant desires.

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Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

I think that's a handy analysis. Our biology makes it a bit more complicated, but generally I think these ideas hold true.

The complexity comes from the fact that our evolution has resulted in the formation of certain contradictory "circuits". When resources have not been limiting, altruism tends to flourish because, as you point out, it lends itself to a far more efficient society. Violence in an otherwise stable society is nearly always self-defeating. However, when times are hard, whether violence is advantageous or disadvantageous becomes less clear. Especially between two competing societies, in which the advantages of altruism are less than the advantages of exterminating or exiling a competitor.

I think all people are essentially at war with these older circuits. I think it's our primitive dark side, and probably what gave rise to the notion of original sin. But that's another discussion.

4:21 PM

Blogger Matt M said...

However, when times are hard, whether violence is advantageous or disadvantageous becomes less clear.

Surely it's in hard times that we benefit most from co-operation, as it allows us to get the most out of what little is available?

Speaking purely as a layman, I think that the selfish side of our nature is often overemphasised. We only tend to be selfish as far as it suits our self-interest. While in the past we've been in conflict with others more often than not, the fact that we've managed to construct such elaborate societies suggests that we have a considerable degree of adaptability - putting aside aggression and distrust where possible.

Altruism depends upon reciprocality - the more dependent we become on each other the more co-operation becomes preferable to conflict. I think that globalisation, whatever problems it might cause, actually leads to increasing co-operation - When terrorism or disease in central Africa can eventually impact our own societies we have a strong reason to help improve conditions there.

The more co-operation becomes a habit, the greater the pressure needed to break the bonds formed.

8:06 AM

Blogger Crushed by Ingsoc said...

Dawkins pointed out, his book could equally have ben called the co-operative gene.

Co-operation is ultimately more efficient, because it preserves a larger gene pool, with a greater number of possibilities. The more genes we aid, the more we aid our own genes.

12:36 PM

Blogger Matt M said...



And it's not just our genes that benefit from co-operation. Most of our personal goals are impossible to realise outside the social setting.

6:06 AM

Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

"Surely it's in hard times that we benefit most from co-operation, as it allows us to get the most out of what little is available?"

In terms of abstract reason, there is a case to be made for that (Ruthie discussed a relevant dilemma recently). But processes of natural selection do not, and have not, always followed what we would consider, with our gift of foresight, a logical path.

If we have a population of like organisms divided into two factions that subsequently experience a decline in resources, there are a number of possible outcomes. One of which is that Faction A simply turns on the Faction B and exterminated it. Under many circumstances, particularly in lower beasties, this is a highly efficient answer to the problem. The remaining resources are secured, and a rival gene pool vanquished. In addition, the surviving beasties in the winning faction are likely to be the ones that were successfully violent, and thus the gene pool will immediately have taken a step towards aggression as an advantageous trait. None of this suggests that altruism would not have worked out better for both factions, because it might have. But the point is moot if one of the factions turned to violence anyway, and succeeded.

As it is, the "programs" governing aggression between individuals and groups of individuals are far, far simpler than even the most basic altruistic paradigm, and it's no surprise that altruism tends to only be emergent in higher order organisms and their societies (i.e. true altruism, not simply instinctual cooperation as is observed in insects).

9:35 AM

Blogger Matt M said...

Good points, Rev.

My focus is largely on human societies - the level of complexity they possess mean that we have a far greater range of options to go for, so even with self-interest as the prime motivation our behaviour we have less reason to adopt an aggressive, selfish approach to potential and actual crises.

Most "selfish" courses of action seem to result from either alienation from society (they're all out to get me!) or self-destructive, emotional ways of thinking (screw them all!).

6:04 AM

Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

We're completely in agreement there. It's precisely because we have a lot of counterproductive instincts (counterproductive now, even if they were not so at some point in the long-forgotten past) that our appealing to reason is so important. Society, more than people, has evolved now to a level where it is no longer necessary to rely on an unwavering loyalty to dogma in order to suppress these instincts.

"Most "selfish" courses of action seem to result from either alienation from society (they're all out to get me!) or self-destructive, emotional ways of thinking (screw them all!)."

No matter how progressive, cooperative and inclusive our society becomes, the distribution curve is always going to have a sample of outliers who buck the trend. Currently, a serious problem is that the actions of the negative (antisocial?) outliers tend to get more airtime than the actions of the positive (philanthropic?) outliers. Events such as school shootings, terrorist acts etc are perpetrated by a tiny minority, but the overall effect is to foster paranoia and intolerance in the majority, causing a small shift of the whole population towards the anti-social, self-serving end of the spectrum.

It's interesting to ponder whether any living organism can reach a level of physiological evolution where reason trumps the fight-or-flight response. If we didn't immediately dispense with reason the moment we felt threatened, we would probably be freed of many of societies ills.

7:53 AM

Blogger Matt M said...

I think that instincts will always (or at least for the immediate future) trump reason when decisions need to be made fast - When I manage to step out in front of a bus there's not much time to assess the situation rationally. The same goes for when we're attacked. Decisions need to be split-second and therefore have to be incredibly simple: Move. Punch. Yell. etc.

I've just finished Dan Dennett's 'Freedom Evolves', and he makes the point that what marks humans out from most of the animal kingdom is our ability to anticipate danger and act accordingly - and it's here that reason comes in, as we have time to compare various possible courses of action and decide on the best one. With more time to make the decision more factors can be included and more complex action taken. We can over-ride any initial emotional resistance as long-term thinking (I want as much X as possible) over-rides short-term thinking (I dislike dealing with Y). Self-interest (Want X) becomes informed self-interest (Y is the best way to secure X). It's from this ability to think long-term, to over-ride short-term desires, that, as I see, leads to the development of a moral system to guide our actions. My short-term goals (Want food) are over-ridden by my long-term ones (Don't want to alienate those around me or incur punishment) and so I pay for my food rather than simply snatching it when the opportunity arises.

9:21 AM


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