I’m fascinated by scientists who study morality and do-gooderism. They seek an explanation for helping others! Why do people do that???? It is baffling, this cooperativeness. It flies in the face of their evolutionary premise of selfishness. But the premise can’t be wrong, so they need more data which explains all the scientists watching monkeys world wide. (Or chimps or apes! Whatever!)
A piece in the Times today (“Moral Camouflage or Moral Monkeys?” by Peter Railton) shows how committed researchers are to the science of selfishness, or as they like to call it “survival of the fittest.” Being committed to selfishness means that they explain familial bonds as “inclusive fitness”–one protects and cares for one’s blood relatives in order to ensure the survival of one’s genes. A similar theory and catchy name—”reciprocal altruism”—serves to explain other social bonds:
Joan Silk, a professor of anthropology at UCLA, and her colleagues, recently reported a long-term study of baboons, in which they found that, among females, maintaining strong, equal, enduring social bonds — even when the individuals were not related — can promote individual longevity more effectively than gaining dominance rank, and can enhance the survival of progeny.
Is it just me or is this all a frustrating downer? Why is everyone so suspicious of those who want to help others?
People love to put down altruistic gestures by pointing out tiny moral flaws or bits of self-serving flies in the ointment. (Yes, I went there.) Like, “So and so doesn’t care about X cause, she is just trying to get publicity for herself!” Well who cares?? The science of selfishness, via Railton, worries that those who engage in altruism are only doing so in order to forward their own agenda–the “moral camouflage” that he refers to. Actions and individuals must be one thing or the other. Selfish or altruistic, no middle ground. That kind of nitpicking–Al Gore has a private plane!–is generally used as an excuse for moral inertia and it pisses me off. People use it to make a religion of inactivism because they are waiting for a flawless Jesus leader instead of doing something. Context matters, but you can’t cling to context while you sit on the sidelines and rot.
(I guess this is related to what I wrote about Salinger. In that I was saying that yes, he is an important writer–but he was not a recluse, and the recluse theory conveniently allowed his hagiographers to leave out troubling aspects of his life and his behavior towards women. Various people thought this meant I was saying that he was a terrible person whose books should not be read. Not at all. This is generally where I start babbling about Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger and Gloria Steinem got an eye job! but I will leave it at that)
Rejecting moral complexity means that Railton, like other scientists of selfishness, can then reject morality altogether, because in this economy, selfishness will always win:
Between two individuals — one disposed to use scarce resources and finite capacities to seek out the most urgent and useful information and the other, heedless of immediate and personal concerns and disposed instead toward pure, disinterested inquiry, following logic wherever it might lead — it is clear which natural selection would tend to favor.
Sure it’s an interesting dramatic conceit–it’s Jacob vs The Man in Black!–but it seems determinedly ignorant of gray areas. “Pure, disinterested inquiry”–does this guy not know objectivity is dead? Setting up morality with this weak example and then crowing when well-muscled selfishness wins is pretty transparent. Once you accept that it’s All Altruistic or All Selfish, it’s pretty easy to justify that since no one exhibits pure goodness, it’s acceptable to do purely nothing.
Which is all by way of saying I’m gearing up for fundraising for the Sarah Jacobson Grant, and I have every intention of having a great time doing it.