Tanya on selfishness and altruism

Tanya has a blog post about selfishness and altruism, which is almost entirely wrong. We can see the see the beginning of the problem right at the start of the post:

In ethics we talk of the difference between ‘selfishness’ and ‘altruism’, and although it is frequently acknowledged that these terms are very elusive, we are to a great extent dependent on them for moral discussion.

On the surface of it, a straightforward reading of the dictionary has the case set out plainly.

self·ish adjective \ˈsel-fish\: having or showing concern only for yourself and not for the needs or feelings of other people”

al·tru·ism noun \ˈal-trü-ˌi-zəm\ : feelings and behaviour that show a desire to help other people and a lack of selfishness

An interesting thing to note here, which Tanya doesn’t note, is that these definitions are part of a more general idea about how the world and morality work. That idea is wrong in a way that was pointed out by Ayn Rand, as I shall discuss below. Tanya continues:

However, there’s a sense in which these definitions can only be read plainly if we were discussing, say, animal subjects–subjects which have a clearly defined ‘self’ to which they can clearly be concerned with benefiting or not within a given activity. Animals have this as they are strictly programmed by evolution. They have a ‘self’ (using the term loosely) amounting to a biological entity looking to survive and replicate, as a biological entity. This sets out clear boundaries in which activities such as eating when hungry or finding shelter are self-preserving, while activities such as grooming another or helping another eat when they are hungry are other-orientated.

This is all wrong. Animals enact a program in their genes. They can’t create new explanatory knowledge. As a result of this they can’t create knowledge about their place in the world, what they are doing and why and whether it could be improved. An animal doesn’t have a self anymore than does a cute computer game character. One way we can tell this is that people have made attempts to teach animals language and have failed to teach them anything beyond the simplest rudiments. For some examples see Kanzi: The Ape on the Brink of a Human Mind by Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and Are Dolphins Really Smart? by Justin Gregg, neither of whom necessarily agree with my interpretation of what they wrote. See also The Beginning of Infinity, Chapter 16, especially around p. 407.

Tanya then writes about humans:

Humans are a different kind of creature, we are programmed by evolution only in a weak sense, and we are in a much stricter sense programmed by values. We have selves that are mental, which exist in self-selected ideas, and as such are malleable. We can learn, we can develop preferences, and we can change our minds. What is at one point unselfish can become selfish merely by shifts in our ideas. And therefore, there’s a sense in which we can never become less selfish in the pursuit of altruism. If a person is motivated by ‘wanting to win the football match’ this notion may entail ‘wanting to motivate the team’, ‘wanting to play your best’, or ‘wanting to give the crowd a good time.’ Each action can be interpreted fairly as both selfish and altruistic. Although each can be seen in a sense as generous, they are not idly or purposelessly giving, they serve some desire of the self. This veil of selfishness to our actions continues to apply to most human intentions, even charity.

What about people? Ideas can’t flow as easily from one person to another as they can within a single person’s mind. In particular, you can only judge or act on ideas in your own mind, not on those in the mind of another person. If you want to judge another person’s ideas you have to learn them first. Furthermore, since you have different knowledge than they do you have different opportunities and can make use of different stuff. Some people might be good at drawing, others at programming, others at physics and so on. So it makes sense to say that you are different from other people and that those differences often imply that you can benefit from different deals. So it makes sense to say that a human being can act in his own interest, which can be different from that of another person, but it doesn’t make sense to say this about an animal. Tanya continues:

The lines between altruism and selfishness are blurred by our existence through the mental in which ‘us’ and ‘the outside world’ can be intimately intertwined by values. In the extreme, selfishness can manifest itself in form of dying for a cause or a loved one.

This is very confused. What people commonly call selfishness involves lumping together two very different ideas, as pointed out by Ayn Rand. Idea 1 (good): thinking about what is in your self-interest and trying to enact it. Idea 2 (bad): being willing to do absolutely anything that seems to benefit you according to some ideas you happen to hold at the moment. Lumping those two things together is what Ayn Rand called a package deal.

The same set of common ideas lumps together two very different ideas under the heading altruism: another package deal. Idea 1 (good): you sometimes help people when it benefits you too. Idea 2 (bad): you have an obligation to help people even if, by doing so, you are cutting your own throat. Indeed, cutting your own throat is good and if you’re not doing it then you suck and other people should cut your throat for you.

One way that bad ideas survive: people accept them uncritically by using common words without stopping to question the ideas behind them. When Rand says that she uses the term selfishness for the reason that makes some people afraid to use it, the positive way of interpreting this is that she is bringing these bad ideas out in the open so that we can kill them. Rand replaced those ideas by saying that rational people don’t have conflicts of interest. So you can act in your own interest without screwing over other people.

The bad ideas in the definitions Tanya gave have leaked into her discussion of morality. Tanya claims you can sacrifice yourself for a cause or a loved one and that this is selfish. This is misleading. Let’s suppose you go off to fight in the British army in World War II. If you’re rational your objective is not to die. Rather, you are taking a risk of dying because the consequences of losing the war are worse the the risk of death that you’re taking on. If you get conquered by Nazi Germany it’s virtually impossible to act in your rational self-interest without being murdered. By contrast, if you’re fighting in the Soviet army and you take the risk required to steal food from kulaks, then you’re just an idiot – you are literally throwing away your life for nothing, for less than nothing. By living the idea that productive people can be thrown under the bus, you will reduce production. And you have made it more difficult for any productive person to cooperate with you, which will make it more difficult for you to improve. And in any case if the authorities decide you should be murdered, then how can you say no given the ideas you hold? What argument can you give that you should not be killed for the good of others? The British soldier may be acting in his rational self interest, the Soviet soldier is not.

Under an Objectivist perceptive, this renders talk of altruism redundant, with altruism standing out only in instances in which coercive pressures precede generosity. But it is not evident that, if this be so, by the same token talk of ‘selfishness’ shouldn’t becomes obsolete. If we find ourselves in a situation where one can say ‘I changed my mind drastically from being selfish to being selfish’, the term is hardly descriptive.

This is not a very accurate depiction of Rand’s position. Rand doesn’t consider talk of altruism redundant: she thought it was a good idea to criticise the bad content associated with it. Tanya’s misunderstanding illustrates a weakness of discussing issues in terms of the definitions of words rather in terms of explanations, as criticised by Popper: see The Open Society and its Enemies, Volume 2, Chapter 11, Section II. Rand may be partly to blame for this problem in the interpretation of her work since she sometimes laid stress on definitions. Tanya has taken this bad habit and run with it.

But then it sounds like Tanya is about to turn the corner and get something right:

But of course, all of this misses the point. Practically speaking when people speak of ‘selfishness’ being good or bad, or ‘altruism’ being good or bad, they’re really being used as umbrella terms for some handy rules of thumb to help guide us in selecting and reviewing our values.

Tanya then goes on to give examples of what she considers good and bad ideas under each term. Each term is sometimes used to invoke good moral ideas and sometimes used to invoke bad moral ideas. This often leads to lack of clarity about moral issues when people don’t discuss the ideas. The right thing to do if some issue is unclear is to clarify it by discussing the ideas, not terminology. Tanya then writes:

To decide between values we require much more sophisticated ideas to guide us.

Presumably it would be a good idea to start discussing the ideas she lists under her definitions, but she doesn’t. By contrast, there are some philosophers who don’t stop just when things are getting interesting. Ayn Rand wrote two novels and several non-fiction books, which have a lot of good and substantive and sophisticated moral content. Karl Popper also had good moral ideas, like the idea that you should take ideas seriously and discuss them instead of discussing terminology. See also some of the posts on the blog you’re reading right now, like this one, and Elliot Temple’s blog. Sadly, people often ignore such content.

About conjecturesandrefutations
My name is Alan Forrester. I am interested in science and philosophy: especially David Deutsch, Ayn Rand, Karl Popper and William Godwin.

One Response to Tanya on selfishness and altruism

  1. Dan G says:

    Hi Alan

    I wanted to say I recently caught on to this blog via twitter and have read almost all of the posts – great stuff. I have also read your physics papers for a while now. I am a math/physics undergrad so I am still learning the language but I have a clear idea of the foundational ideas I’m interested in.

    As I have said to David Deutsch he is the best thinker alive, I don’t know David the man but I guess I’m saying the knowledge instantiated in his brain is the best in our neighbourhood of the multiverse. Very few people even get that ‘best knowledge’ and ‘multiverse’ are real things.

    Anyway you are clearly one of the deepest guys out there, and it is exciting to see someone else so fluently espousing these ideas in the discussion of other things so take care and I will continue to read the blog.

    Dan Genovese

    PS Are you working on any new physics, perhaps in the same vein as constructor theory?

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