Self-Interest vs Altruism - Problems in Scaling the Decision Process
By Tom Crowl
February 19, 2009 - 3:51pm ET
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Both Self-Interest and Altruism are inherent motivations in humans and have essential and established roles in evolutionary theory well supported by both observation and controlled experiment.
Examples of altruism extend across many species: soldier ants sacrificing themselves for the colony, vervet monkeys sounding loud alarms to warn of threats though it draws a predator's attention to themselves, bats regurgitating blood meals for hungry companions... and soldiers storming Omaha Beach in Normandy.
(For a good discussion see Biological Altruism Stanford Encyclopoedia of Philosophy, revised Oct. '08)
This was a dilemma for Darwin himself and he recognized it as perhaps the greatest challenge to his theory of natural selection presented in "The Origin of Species".
How could it possibly make sense for an organism to act against its own self-interest thus reducing its chance for reproduction? It seems such a trait would die out since those carrying it would be putting themselves at a disadvantage compared to those without it!
In "Descent of Man" he glimpsed the truth. Evolutionary forces also act on the group as a whole. Later investigations by many scientists have shown how an individual organism may, by reducing its own advantage, increase the survivability of the group and thereby a greater proportion of its own characteristics. (In fact, evolutionary forces act on many levels from genes, to cells, to organisms, to ecologies, and perhaps even the planet as a whole, but that's not the focus here.)
THE PROBLEM IN SCALING THE DECISION PROCESS IN HUMAN SOCIETIES
Self-interest is clearly bounded. In other words its quite clear where it begins and ends: the individual and his/her personal survivability.
However altruism is NOT!
The boundaries of what might be called extended identities vary from individual to individual and from sub-group to sub-group within the entire human species.
Further, the intensity of attachment to these extended identities is directly related to proximity.
Proximity here can be defined as genetic, geographic, or cultural (social, political, psychological, etc.) and is the primary factor regulating the inherent force and direction of altruistic motivations in a deciding individual.
In short, altruistic drives weaken with distance whether genetic, geographic or cultural.
Human individuals and groups engage in conscious decision processes with intent of both personal and group effect.
With scale these decision processes require hierarchical structures and compartmentalization since if each individual were expected to participate in every decision we'd all soon starve with lack of time for anything other than "deciding" group issues.
However, hierarchies with scale become increasingly problematic because the relationship of proximity to altruism tends to narrow the focus of the Deciders.
This is because WITH SCALE THE SELF-INTEREST MOTIVATION OF THE DECIDER REMAINS CONSTANT BUT THE FOCUS AND INTENSITY OF THE ALTRUISTIC DRIVE DOES NOT NECESSARILY EXPAND TO MATCH THE LARGER GROUP.
Especially where the hierarchical structure erodes proximity.
The U.S. Constitution and others are an implicit acknowledgement of this by recognizing the need for both hierarchcal and distributed (egalitarian) mechanisms for proper balance.
It remains a sound structure. However subsequent and additional changes in scale, social structure, legal structure (corporate law especially), technology and culture make additional attention vitally necessary.
There is no single or simple solution to these issues.
As may be becoming more generally known I'm a fanatic for the idea of Political MicroDonation (under $1) and the Individually-Controlled/Commons-Dedicated Account at the core of a distributed network as a vital tool for that rebalancing. But it's not the only tool needed.
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