Jach's personal blog

(Largely containing a mind-dump to myselves: past, present, and future)
Current favorite quote: "Supposedly smart people are weirdly ignorant of Bayes' Rule." William B Vogt, 2010

Selfishness is clever

There are at least two groups who play with Selfishness in a clever way, and those two groups are evolutionary psychologists and objectivists / Ayn Rand followers. I say it's clever because it's like playing with a set of math theorems and seeing what some consequences are, it's like trying to put together a puzzle with all the pieces being more or less the same yet different enough that you can't arbitrarily place them.

In evolutionary psychology, it's a given that genes are selfish, and our genes determine what we are and set the limits on who we can be. (The human brain is very malleable, so those limits aren't always clear in humans but they're nevertheless there.) So we look at human universals like altruism, a sense of justice, honor, trust, guilt, friendship, sympathy, suspicion and hypocrisy, and many of these things defy explanation if you can only think that "everyone is out for themselves."

The long-standing explanation for these traits is based in Kin Selection, which in a nutshell (I recommend reading the linked paper or Robert Wright's The Moral Animal) is the idea that kin have more or less the same genes, and when a gene arises that increases the likelihood of altruism (through yelling a warning cry when a predator is spotted for squirrels and possibly sacrificing itself, or through sharing a banana), the individuals most likely to benefit from that altruism are closely related and may have that gene as well. Hence the genes still propagate and are selected for; the benefits to an individual's kin who share the gene outweigh any individual loss from the altruism that might make that individual lose out in the gene pool normally. This doesn't mean that conscious altruism goes away, or that conscious minds are therefore automatically entirely selfish, just that at the gene level, which is all that matters to evolution, high-level altruism got there from a low-level selfish process. The mechanisms of an altruistic brain are altruistic: altruistic people will feel like they're being altruistic, others will call them altruistic, and for all intents and purposes they are altruistic. At the gene level this altruism is a selfish benefit for that person's (and likely their kin's) genes.

Evolutionary psychology is full of such shell games, because if you ever postulate Group Selection (groups evolve to benefit the group) as an "explanation" you'll be laughed out of the field. Everything must reduce down to the selfishness of the gene. Because it's an actual science, the standard stuff is pretty convincing and has led to accurate predictions about human and other animal behavior, all in all evolutionary psychology (and especially evolutionary biology) are good, useful, scientific fields. (You do have to watch out for Just-So stories though.)

Objectivism, on the other hand, doesn't benefit from being a science and having scientific reasoning applied to it constantly. Ayn Rand plays a similar shell game in The Virtue of Selfishness where she gives many moral arguments for doing the things we do anyway. She realized that people would dismiss her if she advocated renouncing things like love and friendship, which most people don't normally view as selfish things, so she hijacked the definition of selfish among a long list of other words and started arguing why those two things are not only good, but the highest forms of selfishness. (And trade, which is the mechanism of selfish interaction.)

Pages 26-27:
In spiritual issues--(by "spiritual" I mean: "pertaining to man's consciousness")--the currency or medium of exchange is different, but the principle is the same. Love, friendship, respect, admiration are the emotional response of one man to the virtues of another, the spiritual payment given in exchange for the personal, selfish pleasure which one man derives from the virtues of another man's character. Only a brute or an altruist would claim that the appreciation of another person's virtues is an act of selflessness, that as far as one's own selfish interest and pleasure are concerned, it makes no difference whether one deals with a genius or a fool, whether one meets a hero or a thug, whether one marries an ideal woman or a slut.

This theory is a nice, clever argument to justify those things within the context of objectivism, but they don't hold up under scientific scrutiny. Much of our behavior is "nonspiritual", in that we are driven by subconscious desires and our consciousness is heavily dependent on situation--see the famous Prison Experiment, history, etc.

Unfortunately cleverness is not sufficient for being right, and the rest of this blog post will be a critique on just this aspect of objectivism, and how while it may be clever, it is still wrong.

For a critique on this method of "payment", such a lofty thing as "admiration" can hardly be called currency. I heavily admire Feynman, but he's dead, and wouldn't have cared if he were alive. My admiration is a product of my emotional feelings toward him, which indeed do contain variables for his intelligence, charisma, and ability to write in a way that I can learn from. There is no exchange involved, my learning of him does not diminish us in any form, there is no zero-sum trade like there is with money, the typical form of currency. I am very skeptical of this "spiritual exchange", and I don't mind labeling myself an altruist. (Though if you use Rand terminology, that, by definition, makes me a brute--another clever trick that makes arguments easier to win, confuse opponents with hijacked terminology.)

For an example of further clever hijacking, see:

Page 42.
For instance, if one's friend is starving, it is not a sacrifice, but an act of integrity to give him money for food rather than buy some insignificant gadget for oneself, because his welfare is important in the scale of one's personal values. If the gadget means more than the friend's suffering, one had no business pretending to be his friend.

The paragraph above that one defines integrity:

The virtue involved in helping those one loves is not "selflessness" or "sacrifice," but integrity. Integrity is loyalty to one's convictions and values; it is the policy of acting in accordance with one's values, of expressing, upholding and translating them into practical reality.

and the definition of "values" is given yet another paragraph preceding.

Remember that values are that which one acts to gain and/or keep, and that one's own happiness has to be achieved by one's own effort.

(One can easily go insane trying to follow all of the words that are hijacked.)

But we'll play along with the definitions. Suppose I value the continued existence of humanity, with or without me, into the future. I want to gain the security of humanity's future by eliminating existential risks or, if I could, creating Friendly AI or controlled molecular nanotech. If I have to sacrifice (using the common definition -- giving up something that's probably painful now for something greater in return) myself to gain that state, so be it, it's that important. So I can stuff my altruistic value into the objectivist framework of "value" and it is now selfish! By the same token, I value human life, and I work under the principle of math that two random lives are worth more than one random life, therefore there is some number N random people whose collective lives are worth more than mine, and some individuals whose individual lives are worth more than my own. Therefore I might donate to a soup kitchen, not because I like the individuals who frequent it--indeed, I dislike humans in general while loving humanity--but because I value life and donating to soup kitchens furthers that value. If it must be in a selfish framework, we'll say it gives me warm-fuzzies, but that's not really the case. There are other, similar, arguments that Libertarians use to let them justify giving to charity (as long as it's cleverly framed as a "selfish" act it's okay even if that's not what's actually happening in the brain!) and not kicking stray animals, you can go read those.

So! If I can have classically altruistic values in a "selfishness" framework, would I not be fulfilling the virtue of integrity by acting on those altruistic values, and encouraging others to act on them as well? Would I not be translating those values into reality by encouraging a system of taxation that further helps me achieve my values?

Ah, I can hear the objections already. But then I'm interfering with other people's pursuit of their values by taxing them, possibly involuntarily. So what? It's just a friendly competition of values instead of goods, and I seek to make my values win out. If I can win, and achieve my values, it's rational to choose the path that lets me win. Insisting that I respect the values of others when they do not respect mine is a self-inflicted disability that I can and will exploit for certain victory.

I can be clever too, but in such murky waters I cannot claim I'm really "right" here. What I can claim is that objectivism is a philosophy whose arguments are based on assumptions that don't fit observed reality but nevertheless makes a clever framework and until one grows tired of it as I did about a month or two after reading Atlas Shrugged it makes for good mental masturbation. That book has the strangest effect of making people, smart, average, or dumb, feel smart without having to have done smart things, and making people, creators and non-creators, feel like they're creating when they are not, and that they therefore know what and how the best creators think.

Posted on 2011-04-26 by Jach

Tags: evolution, morality


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