Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Some More Thoughts About Altruism

Today is election day, and I am posting this entry before the results are in. The election forms the backdrop for yet more comments I will make about one of the best human adaptations, the capacity for altruism. Across the country, observers have noticed the overwhelming flood of negative campaign ads. While surveys have shown that the candidates themselves favor positive ads, the “independent” groups that support them funnel a seemingly unlimited amount of money into negative ads. These groups have such names as “Fund for Freedom, Love, Goodwill, and a Bright Future,” or something like that. I might note that, since I do not have television, my own estimate relies on the large amount of campaign mail that I receive in Oklahoma. In this reddest of red states, I am surprised that the campaign mail seems mostly positive. Republican Tom Coburn is running for Senate again, and I have seen none of his ads; but in 2004 his negative ads were really vicious. But in general, even if not in Oklahoma in 2010, altruism seems buried by negativity.

Midterm elections usually favor the minority party, and this one will almost certainly be no exception. This means that, at least on the national level, altruistic cooperation will be more important than ever. If Congress goes Republican, it will have to participate in a give-and-take with the Democratic president (direct reciprocity), if anything is to be done; and the reputation of both parties will depend on their display of goodwill (indirect reciprocity). At least, this is my hope. But I remember the government shutdown in 1995, because Newt Gingrich’s Republicans demanded that President Clinton do everything they wanted, and I suspect that something at least this bad will happen again.

Altruism is an instinct, and like most instincts it operates at an almost subconscious level that would be nearly impossible to codify into rules. Imagine programming a computer to be altruistic. Altruism cannot be legislated. Let me give an example. When I sit in my backyard, I can hear the bleating of a goat down the alley. Remember, this is in the city limits of Durant, Oklahoma. I imagine that one goat is no problem: not much noise, not much waste. But how many goats are too many? You could make a law about this but it would be complex: how many goats per unit area could be allowed, relative to waste disposal processes. I can imagine city officials spending hours on a goat ordinance. But altruism makes it simple: don’t have so many goats that it bothers your neighbors. You can probably think of a nearly unlimited number of examples of legal complexity that could be avoided by altruism. No matter how complex the laws may be, a non-altruist can find a technicality around them.

It can get even worse. Yugoslavia, during the Soviet era, was at peace not because of altruism but because of Tito’s dictatorship. As soon as the dictatorship was gone, all hell broke loose. The nearly total absence of altruism virtually ruined that part of the world. An unstable altruistic truce exists in Rwanda, one which totally broke down in 1994. My point is simply that nothing can take the place of altruism.

And in upcoming years, our politicians will need to remember this, especially the Republicans who are clearly less altruistic than Democrats, and who have promised that, if they take power, they will offer no compromise. John Baynor has declared the number one priority of a new Republican majority to be the destruction of Barack Obama’s presidency. I fear that altruism will not just be ignored but be shunned by the hyperventilating Republicans.

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