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Altruism is a touchy-feely kind of term. If evolutionary science is to posit it as a viable alternative to that which drives human progress, it must do better.

Community Organizer’s Toolkit, an Adjunct to Mao’s Little Red Book (Part III)

Altruism is a touchy-feely kind of term, I have always had misgivings about it. Just like philanthropy, it suggests a certain disconnect from the business called life. One never knows what’s in the heart of an altruist or a philanthropist, a sense of guilt, perhaps, for things they might have done otherwise, a symbolic repayment of debt, who knows? Not that it matters, but the image which comes to mind is that of a do-gooder, an eccentric, a Daddy Warbucks type of person. It’s good if you’re can get it, but then again, it’s not very informative either.

If evolutionary science is to posit altruism as a viable alternative, an effective counterbalance to competition as the all-defining principle, or mechanism, which drives human progress, it must do better than that. It must endow it with real-life meaning. It must make it count. To posit selfishness vs. unselfishness won’t do. These are but character traits, nothing more. My suggestion is, endow it with functionality.

There’s nothing wrong with functionality or a functional type of explanation even though, granted, some of it verges on being circular. Take morality, for instance. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that the origins, as the term “mores” clearly implies, had more to do with the functional or the practical than the idealistic. The fact that morality had evolved in time, just as art once did, from their originally puerile and innocuous origins, grounded in practicality, to approximate a standard of human behavior, or the canon, as the case may be, doesn’t negate their genesis. As the science of evolution would have it, things do evolve given time.

It’s no different with altruism, although here we experience a regression of sorts, a retardation. What was originally conceived as having been grounded in functional relationships, based on need and mutual assistance, (see Prince Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, for instance), has deteriorated into something that’s altogether divorced from the original intention and meaning. It became divorced from its source, the practical need for cooperation in dire situations; in short, a kind of quid prod quo. I suspect that ideological considerations played no small part in effectively reducing concern for the other, grounded as it may have been in mere practicality, to what surely comes across as an idiosyncratic character trait.

That’s the force of ideology for you and the effects of doublespeak, and the motivation is obvious: since mutual aid and cooperaton fly in the face of competition and self-concern, by far the predominant mode of social interactions, the idea is to discredit alternative approaches by relegating them to the area of the idiosyncratic, if not bizarre. Indeed, even charity, in its modern rendition, suffers by association: it connotes by and large a passive rather than a pro-active stance. The object is to restore altruism and similar such terms to their original intention and meaning.

What might that meaning be? Concern for the other is as good a start as any, but I’m getting ahead of myself, I’m afraid. We’re still at the level of functional relationships, relationships whereby mutual aid & cooperation are more or less necessary practical responses to situations in which the pulling together of resources is precisely the right thing to do. Notice that self-interest merges here with communal interest, the interest of all. Also notice that the notion of what’s right in this case doesn’t come down to any moral kind of right but is defined instead in terms of strictly practical considerations, the common good in this instance (which happens to coincide with individual self-interests).

Nothing wrong with that, I say. Practice is as good a ground for concept formation as any, especially if it’s sound practice. Besides, there’s no stronger endorsement, or reinforcement for that matter, of a desired course of action, or practice, other than by appeal to self-interest, Saul Alinsky’s standard M.O. And when self-interest, as I stated, happens to coincide with communal interest, you have the best of all possible words. We’re stil a long ways, of course, from other-centeredness, our ultimate destination, since the outlined practice, or the habit of action, stem from practical, not ideational concerns. How we get there and acquire the requisite kind of concern, apart now from whether the circumstances at hand warrant a cooperative type of response (especially if they’re no longer dire!), is a story in its own right, and it deserves to be told.

Consider the following narrative, and I’ll be guided here by the same line of thinking which, to my mind, accounts for a kind of transition (transcendence may be a better term!) from what are essentially ground-level, rudimentary concepts anchored in the practical, to their sublime, ideational form. Just as morality evolved from what was once mere custom or habit governing social intereractions with a mind to the practical into something finer, and art has evolved from what was predominantly a practical activity called craft, so it was with concern for the other; it, too, had humble beginnings. In each and every instance, form came to be divorced from its former function. Divorced from the practical activity which was geared to, and governed by its utility or use, to coalesce into an ideational type of concept, a kind of understanding whose only resemblance to the initial impulse bears the relationship of an object to its former shadow.

In morality’s case, what used to be a social custom, or simply rules for practically-minded behavior, has transcended the idea of mere practicality to become (or evolve into) absolute rules of conduct, as it were, downright contradictory at times to what’s merely practical. In art, the selfsame process had gone through stages. First through ornamentation, the idea of improving upon an object made strictly for use by endowing it with superfluous, extraneous, mainly decorative qualities, has progressed to the point whereby decoration had become the sole purpose, its raison d’etre, an aim all its own, overriding and transcending the idea of mere use. It was thus that the aesthetic impulse was born and, along with it, our appreciation for beauty and for objets d’art.

What transpired when it came to a similar, but no less radical, transition from a mutual aid and assistance mode of being, grounded as it originally was in the strictly practical, earthly concerns whose prime object was to benefit oneself first and only secondarily, and almost as if by afterthought, the community as well, to result in a general concern for the other type of credo, now with no notion of personal gain, advantage, or practicality? It’s the same old idea, I maintain, of transcending mere use to attain finer and better things. The way of human spirit is another way of putting it. Why do we do it? Evolution is as good a term as any.

What of course comes part and parcel with the general concern for the other is a kind of tacit understanding that our personal well-being is inextricable from the well-being of the community, that you can’t have one without the other, that the weakest link in the chain is, at the same time, your Achilles heel, that we’re all intertwined and interconnected, and no person is an island. The general concern for the other falls thus within the general rubric of moral concern. We know all that, and yet–

In his recent book, The Neighborhood Project, David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary biologist, speaks of “prosociality,” a scientific term I’m told, signifying other-oriented attitude or behavior. Though it falls short of the the ultimate understanding, for we’re still at the level of mere impulse, nothing more than a predisposition; I won’t quarrel with that, however. Who am I to argue with science, or with the kind of conclusiveness that comes with scientific measurements, or with operational definitions for that matter?

Suffice it to say, it’s as good a start as any. Who knows, perhaps evolution is all about impulse, the right kind of impulse, an acquired and learned impulse, an impulse we’ve learned to cultivate and stay true to.

I will conclude in part IV.

About Roger Nowosielski

I'm a free lance writer. Areas of expertise: philosophy, sociology, liberal arts, and literature. An academic at a fringe, you might say, and I like it that way.

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