Friday, April 27, 2012

When is behavior "selfish" and when is it "altruistic"


While I plow through Edward O. Wilson’s “The Social Conquest of Earth”, I’m goaded into wondering which behaviors of my own, and of others around me, are “selfish” and which are “altruistic”.
The most obvious “selfish” behaviors, in the modern world, would be those that take care of oneself and that maximize one’s “pleasure”.  Going to work and doing your job dependably is, in sociologically terms, “selfish” if you support only yourself.

Self-expression and “recognition gaining” seem like “selfish” actions.  Artistic creations, such as musical compositions (especially in the classical world) are usually the result of individual effort.  Because publication and performance tends to satisfy the ego, most of us would see creating and disseminating them as “selfish”.  (You have to be very good at your craft and work diligently to succeed at this, but that doesn’t change the idea that it is in a sense “selfish”.)  Likewise, blogger journalism might be seen as “selfish”.  The true-life young character Zola (in the film “High Tech, Low Life” at Tribeca, movies blog Apr 26) who goes off on an adventure to blog in China is satisfying his own need for recognition and accomplishment and a sense of influence, to the chagrin, perhaps, of his family, which wants to see him seeking a wife.  Mark Zuckerberg’s creation of Facebook seems to be driven much more by ego and a desire to “be important” than making money per se.   But Wilson might see these as partially altruistic, if the output from such individuals has a beneficial influence on human culture.

In comparison to self-driven expression, marrying and having children sounds altruistic, done for the “group” (the natural family as extended by one’s parents). But in a practical sense, most adults who have children see them as part of their “selfish interest”, just as most people see their life partners.  Generally, people are “selfish” when they pursue potential mates, and particularly if they are jealous about the competition from others.  In the gay world, men are “selfish” when they pursue potential liaisons, whether short-term, or permanent life-partners.   Likewise, people are “selfish” when they are concerned about the “attractiveness” or “desirability” of (potential or real) partners, which may not be sustainable for a whole lifetime.

However, doing things for extended family members other than a partner or children is more clearly altruistic.  Taking on foster children sounds altruistic, even if compensated.  Adopting children sounds like both, but it sounds more altruistic if the children are special-needs.  Parents often expect older children to learn to take care of younger siblings, and this is clearly expecting “altruistic” behavior, because the siblings are the result of the parents’ activity, not the older child’s choices.  Volunteerism is generally “altruistic”, and extends into activities that can involve personal risk taking, such as fire-fighting and military service.  In the past, military service could be conscripted and was an example of mandatory altruism.  The same idea exists with the idea of national service today.

I find that I am constantly “bombarded” with calls to join “other people’s causes”, and accept the direction and regimentation imposed by others, which of course can interfere with getting my own personally chosen goals accomplished. 

Balanced personalities are more likely to be willing to accept goals developed by others and even to recruit others into these goals.  At worst, they can stumble into hucksterism.  Unbalanced personalities are more likely to insist on staying on their own paths. They can become prone to narcissism. 

The concept of eusociality would probably regard "chosen" behaviors as "selfish" and those that involve responsibilities that cannot be chosen as "altruistic".  I guess nature, with the idea of group selection, denies the "Axiom of Choice".  It's the unchosen ones that form the backbone of moral teaching early in life.  


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