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Thursday, February 02, 2006

Charity, And Other Lies

Was reading another blog today (since what else would I do at 5 AM at work?) and remembered why I hate philosophy. The discussion at the above link is on why an individual might be motivated to be altruistic. The author of the post provides several explanations, and gets very close when he says it's about "society's expectations," but doesn't take, I feel, the last step in understanding why we would be hardwired to do something that seems so obviously contrary to our own social preservation.

The reason people are altruistic is sex.

Seriously. Bear with me here.

Ask yourself what the difference in dynamic is between buying a girl at a bar a drink, and giving a bum a few dollars. In the first case, sure, you're probably trying to sleep with the girl (or at least get a handjob in the bathroom), but I don't think that elucidates the primary difference. It's highly correlative, insofar as you wouldn't normally buy someone a drink without motivation. But the real question is what it says about your relationship to the person who is recieving and what you are attempting to do in both cases.

When a male buys something for a female, he's attempting to communicate: I can provide things for you. The fact that it's obvious and cliche makes it ineffective as a means of subcommunication (the intention), but that's the motivation nonetheless, even if it's subconscious. The same impulse that drives someone to buy that drink is the defining principle behind altruism. Being charitable is a way of showing people that you are both socially valuable, since you have the resources to devote to being charitable, and in a more specific sense, directly above the person who is forced to supplicate for your charity.

Many, many tribes used to have (and in parts of the world, still do have) social rituals where a neighboring tribe would be invited to an enormous feast where the hosts would heap gifts upon their visitors. At this point, a pure and simple utilitarian view would predict that the neighboring tribe would take the gifts, laugh at the stupid generosity of their rival, and move on. Yet what actually happens is, the rival tribe will go home and, a few months later, invite the original hosts to a feast where they'll try to top the generosity of the previous meeting. It's all a basic way of saying: "You have ten canoes and seventy cantaloupes that you can spare, but I have fifty canoes and nine thousand cantaloupes. Don't mess with me." And this sort of social maneuvering works perfectly.

These same ideas of altruism become incredibly significant, biologically, when you start looking at the dynamics of a small group or pack. Within, say, a group of gorillas, there is always the alpha male and the beta male and down the line. There is a set pecking order* (though it is, of course, variable. If you throw down with the alpha silverback and whomp him, you become the alpha.) and that pecking order determines everything within the society - most importantly, who gets to have sex with the most desirable females and hence, who gets to perpetuate their genetic lineage.

Altruism is a way to be superior to other people, and feeds into our socially hardwired need to be better than others. This is why people tend to be as public as possible about their charity (without seeming like they are trying to be public) - the more people who know about it, the more you are elevated. And even those who make "anonymous donations" probably do so because doing it anonymously raises their status in their own minds. Everyone is different, but the principle is correct.

This is why, when people are approached on the street by vagrents, they are less likely to donate (and feel good about it) than if they do so of their own volition. Sure, harassing people might work because the person becomes uncomfortable, but it's nto really altruism at that point, it's unease at the breakdown of social barriers. Moreover, it's why the reaction to any specific request by the homeless is met with derision - as in, "Ugh, he doesn't even have a home, why does he get to care what I give him to eat? He should be grateful just to eat."

There is a thin line between altruism, which raises your social status, and supplication, which lowers it. In the example from earlier, with buying a drink for the girl, the intention is to raise your status by showing you can provide things. But by doing so with the obvious alterior motive, one ends up dropping their status as it's understood that it's being done as an offering and not out of any actual charity. As well, when someone is not sufficiently grateful, it begins to blur the line between person A doing something charitable for person B, and person A doing something in servitude of person B. Hence the indignation.

So what does this have to do with hating philosophy? This phenomenon is something that is incredibly common and basic and has been studied and understood by psychologists basically forever. Anyone who has ever said "nice guys finish last" or "girls like jerks" is actually verbalizing the consequence of all of this. It's true in every social animal down the line. When Lions eat, the alphas get to eat first - but they don't gorge themselves. They eat, then let others eat. They establish their place in the hierarchy. It's not a mystery in any way, shape, or form. Yet people feel the need to create "greater" reasons for it. They talk about categorical imperatives, veils of ignorance, service to God, and so on and so forth, trying to craft a more appealing fiction for altruistic impulses. It's demonstrative of what moral philosophy actually is: writing a better story for our natural impulses, to pretend we aren't just a collection of behaviors and flesh.

* = the term 'pecking order' actually comes from this exact principle. Namely, in chicken society, they will feed (peck) in a set order based on these same structures. I used gorillas because they are closer to humans.

cranked out at 5:19 AM | |

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