Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Altruism and the Definition of the Human Species

As I have argued in my book, Life of Earth, altruism is one of the most basic aspects of the human mind. I believe it is a fundamental component of human behavior. Almost everybody has at least a little bit of it. There are some people (psychopaths) who do not have it; aside from them, every human being practices altruism. There are some people who practice what Barbara Oakley has called “cold-blooded kindness” who know how to simulate altruism even when they do not feel it. But these people recognize that altruism, even if they cannot themselves experience it, is a fundamental aspect of human identity.

Species can be defined on the basis of fundamental characteristics; but there are always outliers that are included within the species even if they do not have these characteristics. In an alpine meadow in the Black Hills, I saw a Delphinium (larkspur) whose flowers had only four petals, none spurred; but larkspurs are defined as plants whose flowers have five petals, one of them spurred. This plant was a mutant larkspur. Similarly, humans are characterized by 46 chromosomes; but people with 45 chromosomes (Turner’s syndrome) or 47 (Trisomy 21, formerly Down’s syndrome) are included within the human species. Psychopaths are humans, even though they lack altruism.

This raises the question of whether people who reject altruism are fully human. I am not talking about psychopaths; I refer to human beings who know and feel altruism but make a deliberate decision to reject it. Unlike people with genetic mutations, who are included within the human species but lack some defining human characteristics through no fault of their own, anti-altruists have chosen to place themselves on the fringes of the definition of what it means to be human.

The richest 400 Americans have more wealth than the bottom 50 percent of the population. Think about this. This is an imbalance of wealth that more closely resembles ancient Babylon than any modern nation. There is more. These 400 people insist that they should pay fewer taxes. Right now, according to page 86 of the IRS instructions for Form 1040, the top tax rate is 35 percent, which is one of the lowest in the world. Republicans are now proposing that the top tax rate be only 25 percent. This would vastly reduce federal revenues, which would mean that essential services on which many poor and middle-class people depend would be nonexistent. Only an anti-altruist would rejoice in this. To one of the wealthiest 400, $10,000 means nothing; to the bottom 50 percent of Americans, $10,000 can spell the difference between survival and collapse.

And there is yet more. On a news program on NPR, one of these richest 400 people called in and said that if his taxes were not lowered, he would take revenge (he did not use this phrase) on his fellow citizens by cutting back on employment and pay in his corporation. His attitude was fiercely hateful toward his fellow citizens. He hates the rest of us. Really. He may technically be a citizen of the United States, but his loyalty is not to his country but only to himself. He would choose to inflict an unlimited amount of damage on others rather than to give up even the slightest amount of the increased luxuries that would come from a tax reduction for the richest Americans. He obviously hates anyone who is not as rich as he is; in fact, he probably hates the other 399 of his fellow super-rich.

And yet this man depends upon the altruism of all of the rest of us. He may be able to pay for any medical procedure that he needs or desires, but these procedures were developed by researchers who are paid much less than he is, and often at taxpayer expense. He would not be able to afford health care using only procedures which were developed entirely by his personal funding. If he fell down on the sidewalk, he would expect someone to call an ambulance, rather than to say, gimme 500 bucks, sucker, then I’ll call the ambulance. His reasoning is, I am rich therefore I do not need to do anything for anybody unless I am paid for it; but because I am rich, you need to do things for me, even when you are not paid to do so.

I believe that this man has, by his own volition, placed himself outside of the range of behavior that defines humanity. Technically, he is a human, but no more so than the four-petaled larkspur is a larkspur. Perhaps this man should live on an island, and if he gets sick, he should receive only medical care which was developed at his own personal expense. See how long he could survive without the altruism of the rest of us. See how long he could survive by being an incipient subspecies that is not quite human.

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