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altruism

I was speaking to a fellow Mensan atheist the other day (in person if you can believe it), a guy named Scott, I think!, and we had an interesting discussion about morality and altruism and rationality. It would be fair to say we disagreed. His position was very much dependent upon Ayn Rand. I will confess up front to never having read Ayn Rand, and she's not really on my priority list either, but the person I was talking to her quoted her often enough. And I've heard plenty of other people quote Ayn Rand before, so I think I do have a vague understanding of the general thrust of her philosophy. All of my remarks, however, will be based on Scott's arguments not Ayn Rand's.

Scott was discussing with a theist his view of morality, and how an atheist can be moral without a god, without a threat of hell. This is a tired, old argument for me, so I ignored most of it for a while. His points struck me as particularly libertarian, and I tend to find libertarians rather cold. But eventually, Scott made a statement about angry atheists, and being 'angry', I got drawn in.

Let me be clear up front here, since it didn't seem to register with Scott, that I'm not generally an angry person. I was perpetually angry as a teenager before I became an atheist. I don't have anger management problems. But I do get angry at injustice. And if that makes me 'angry', well, so I'm angry. I do get angry when people tell me I can't be moral and then turn around and threaten a 20-year-old with death for saying so. I do get angry when people tell me I'm going to burn in hell, or that I should lose my job because I'm not the right religion. Again, if that's all it takes to make me angry, well, I'd rather be that than complacent and passive in the face of such treatment.

So, we started talking and we began discussing the value of altruism. Scott rejects it on the basis of what he calls "rational self-interest". From the discussion, it seems like the philosophy can be boiled down to essentially I won't hurt you if doing so hurts me, but otherwise, I do what is in my own interest. His philosophy, however, specifically does not include altruism.

My position is essentially that altruism is of value to the individual as a kind of investment to the society. Community is of benefit to the individual (obviously, certain kinds of community more than others; that is left to a different debate), and so it is of benefit to the individual to support the community by performing acts for which there is no immediate reward. In addition, there is the notion that this is an investment in repaying kindnesses done to us in the past, and in hoping that others will do the same for us in the future when we can no longer help ourselves. I think of it as paying a debt, and as an investment. There is nothing irrational about that calculation, it is merely taking a longer-term look at picture.

And this sort of thing got me thinking. Scott, in our discussion, talked about some of his background, and from what I gathered it was pretty uneventful. His parents paid for his B.A., and then he got a good job, and he only buys things when he can afford them, and so on and so forth. He doesn't have any kids. He's never been without health insurance. He went to grad school only when he could afford it. And so given all these things, it doesn't really surprise me that he claims that he's independent, and could make it on his own without so much government... but he does hide from his colleagues the fact that he's an atheist.

In contrast, my life has been anything but stable. I suffered from depression starting around age 10. I had trouble with college and had to quit and go back later. My dad quit paying for my education a year short of graduating. I had no choice but to go into debt for my education. I didn't want to go into a lucrative field like Scott's accounting degree, so I couldn't get a job and work my way through grad school. My first graduate program didn't offer me funding, and then decided not to let me finish my Ph.D., leaving me in debt and with another degree I couldn't get a job in. I haven't had health insurance but for four years since I was 18 or 19. I developed epilepsy and had to have emergency surgery during years when I had none. My family didn't pay those bills. I couldn't. The hospitals absorbed them (i.e. the community paid for them).

What is my point here? I think the difference between us is that I realize, through hard experience, that control is an illusion. That independence is an illusion. I live alone, with no relatives in town. If I get sick, there is no one to care for me... not financially, not even by getting me tea or painkillers. I value my independence a great deal, but I recognize just how fragile it is. Scott has not had to face that reality, so far as I can tell, and so he can't see the value in investing in something he's never going to use. (And not to surprisingly, he also doesn't believe in insurance, which tells me I'm on to something.)

Thinking about these things also led me back to another analogy this time with economics. I see altruism as a function of a Nash equilibrium. Scott sees morality as a function of Adam Smith.

Dare I say Adam Smith is too simple?

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