Sunday, May 29, 2011

Altruism, Morality, Personality

This article in Newsweek, entitled "Boycott BP? Don't Bother," came out about a year ago.  Begley argues, among other things, that "consumer boycotts of the latest oil company to run afoul of public opinion are emotionally satisfying but ultimately futile."

If we don't like BP, we should also have problems with Shell, Citgo, Exxon, Texaco & Chevron, Begley argues.  Judged by environmental and humanitarian standards, all of them have a history of criminal, environmental or ethical wrongdoing.

For the record, I've never gotten gas at a BP station and after the spill, I saw no reason to start.  I also pass by Exxon, because I'm still angry about the Valdez spill.  I used to go to Shell and Citgo, but then I started to avoid them as well.  I was down to Sunoco and Mobil (now Lukoil in NJ and PA), but of course Mobil merged with Exxon in 1999, so... I started avoiding them.

I avoid finding out about Sunoco, because I'm sure there's a problem (actually, several) there as well, and I just want to get gas somewhere nearby.

I do similar ethical balancing acts (or contortions) when it comes to investments, and I know for a fact that my retirement portfolio has serious moral failings.  I always question what weight I should give to my principles, and what weight should be given to practicality?

I think most people also want to factor in "profit" as well, and that's where the tough questions always come in.  Capitalism is premised on competition, not altruism.

In Quirk, Hannah Holmes investigates the biological and neurological sources of altruism.  Long considered an evolutionary conundrum, scientists question when, how and why altruism even developed at all.

If survival depends on competition and dominance (as it does in the natural world), where does being nice (to say nothing of being "moral" or "good") fit into the existential equation?

An episode of the sitcom "Friends" once pitted Joey against Phoebe in a debate about whether there was in fact such a thing as a "selfless good deed."  If doing something for someone else makes us feel good, it isn't really a "good deed" per se--it's an act of implicit selfishness that ultimately promotes our own well-being.

In a sense, altruism doesn't make sense: helping others at the expense of ourselves can bite us in the end.  Experimenters often use what's called the "Prisoner's Dilemma" to measure kindness and altruism.  They give test subjects ("prisoners") "money units" which they can then give to an unseen partner.

If they do, the amount is quadrupled.  The unseen partner then has the option of returning some of the money to the first "prisoner."  As Holmes summarizes, the question becomes, "If you were the prisoner, how much would you risk on a stranger?" (99).

You can imagine how this turns out.  Altruistic "prisoners" can get burned by their generosity and then have to determine whether or not to continue their behavior on principle, knowing that they may get burned again.

A similar scenario is the "Common Goods" game, which determines how individuals respond when they realize that a member of their group isn't going to behave altruistically.  Each player is given an amount of money that they can anonymously invest in the "common good."  The researcher will then double the pool of money that results, and divide it equally among the players, regardless of their initial contribution.

As Holmes notes, "[t]he general outcome mirrors the Prisoner's Dilemma.  The average person is willing to commit half of what he has to the public good.  A few people always freeload on the system, getting something for nothing.  And a few others always throw all their money in" (126).

Interestingly enough, science has shown that even dogs and chimps recognize injustice, but they do so in a one-sided way that focuses on identifying only the unfairness directed at themselves.  They are entirely indifferent as to whether that unfairness is extended to another member of the group.

As Holmes observes, "detecting a cheater is only half the moral equation.  The other half is refusing to participate in unfair behavior even when unfairness benefits you.  That's harder" (136).

What Holmes (and science at large) has concluded is that different human personalities will exhibit different levels of altruism and morality, but that both tendencies emerged as ways of preserving human community.

If no one is altruistic and everyone either cheats the system or looks out for him- or herself, the community eventually breaks down.  This is not good for human survival: we need some form of communal interaction to survive as a species.  As Holmes notes,
"The cheaters I've known don't tend to attract a crowd of friends.  The friends they do have may also have personalities that are hard to love.  We have a lexicon for such people, and none of the terms are flattering: He's a taker.  She's a player.  He's a sponge, a parasite.  She's an opportunist, always working an angle." (132)
On the other hand, an entirely altruistic individual will not survive either: if you give away everything you have, you have nothing.  At the same time, however, altruists tend to build up a cache of support among their fellow human beings.  Not everyone is a taker; most people respect and value generosity.

As a result, Holmes claims, "Most of us tend to clump in the middle.  A healthy self-regard prevents us from giving away so much that we endanger our own family's survival" (132).

So where does buying stock or boycotting BP fit into all this?  I think this is one of the interesting dilemmas facing modern existence.  If, as science suggests, distance tends to attenuate altruistic impulses and full-blown morality is a function of more than a simple concern for the extent to which we ourselves are being cheated or railroaded, we may have inadvertently created a world in which remaining at arm's length from the concerns of others is inherently easier. 

As Begley's article suggests, boycotts are most effective when they exist in the context of what Holmes and other researchers would identify as a small (or small-ish) group of human encounters and endeavors:
For a boycott to achieve its aims, there has to be a clear issue. “Don’t kill dolphins when you catch what I need for my tuna sandwich” is specific and clear; “don’t despoil the environment when you get what I need to drive” isn’t. ... A boycott must also give consumers alternatives; you can eat strawberries instead of grapes, but trading in your gasoline-powered car for a Tesla or Volt or other electric isn’t nearly so simple. And a boycott must be organized so that violations are visible. Co-workers could see if you brought grapes for lunch, and anyone in Montgomery could see if you were riding the bus. Unless someone figures out how to make gasoline bought from BP produce exhaust that forms a big “BP” when it spews out your tailpipe, no one knows where you gassed up.
In a sense, altruism and morality prevail if you can shame the cheaters in a group into better behavior.  But the US is largely a guilt culture: we have focused on the individual conscience as the seat of morality, perhaps to the neglect of a larger social conscience.

Should Charlie Sheen be somewhat ashamed of himself?  I kind of think so.  But he and I don't live in a shame culture, and he's probably only "guilty" of bad taste, bad business savvy, bad metaphors, bad parenting, and anti-Semitism--all of which are probably open to debate.

So, the gist is, if I feel okay about what I'm doing, who are you to tell me I'm an immoral pig?  Sucks for everyone else, but I'm doing just fine, thank you.

Hence the phrase, "Winning."  (I hate that phrase, by the way.  May he choke on his "tiger blood"--whatever the hell that means--every time he says it.)

I think this issue is something that social activism has yet to grapple with and that the socially-minded among us have to figure out how to deal with as well.

To some extent, all activist movements operate on the creation of awareness and reform through shame: they attempt to shame individuals, large corporations, CEO's, political leaders, or whoever into a sense of personal culpability and responsibility by exposing wrongdoing.

This is because in the United States, we operate as a guilt culture that assigns responsibility individually--in fact, it is one of the hallmarks of our identity as a nation.

No way am I taking the rap for what someone else did.  Prove that I did it and then prove that it was wrong, otherwise, it's not my problem.  And if I don't feel bad about it, well, then, too bad for you: it means that even though I may be guilty, I don't feel guilty about it.

And you have now hit the moral brick wall of a guilt culture.

Which is why activist movements that seek to expose corruption and shame the cheaters into accepting responsibility for their actions don't always achieve their ends unless they pack a one-two punch: shame them, but then be sure to hit them where it hurts (economically or legally--or both).   

When people advise a return to the values of early American society, I think what is missing from their discussion is a recognition of the fact that, even in the 1770's, communities were by definition much smaller, day-to-day survival was not a given, and cheaters and altruists alike had a palpable, immediate impact on the communities in which they lived.

You could see who was pulling their weight and who was not, and the community could respond accordingly.  And the community would have to respond quickly because, as the Lost Colony at Roanoke makes so hauntingly clear, you could easily vanish without a trace.

I think early American society was a guilt-culture-in-the-making (as witnessed through the individual freedoms guaranteed by The Bill of Rights), but the residues and contexts of a shame culture still prevailed, in many ways.

So are today's boycotts and public exposures through social networking sites, the media, and the internet ultimately "futile"?

I don't think so.  But I do think that many of these activities and the users of these technologies have not yet figured out a way to recreate the kind of small-group identity that seems to be crucial to effective action.  I think this is what happened with the revolution in Egypt: a large group overcame distance to forge a collective counterweight to injustice.

It's not just about being a voice for change.  It's about a willingness to situate one's own unique voice within a larger chorus.   In the end, I believe that this is what the founders of the United States government all did, both individually and collectively.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."