Self-interest, altruism and shared intentionality: a quick note and stake in the ground

To a substantial extent the ‘left/right’ divide is characterised by a common way of seeing the world in which there’s self-interest and its opposite – altruism. But I think that impoverishes the debate. I think there’s a third category far more important than ‘altruism’.

To generalise or propose ‘ideal types’ I think it’s fair to say that while both right and left think both categories exist and are important, the right think that self-interest is the real engine room of life, and that altruism is a much weaker force, and not something one would want to rely on. In the words of right wing Labor man, Jack Lang and his one time acolyte Paul Keating “Always back a horse called ‘self interest’. At least you know it’s trying.”

Or as Adam Smith put it, beneficence is an ornament. As he wrote regarding justice:

It is the ornament which embellishes, not the foundation which supports the building, and which it was, therefore, sufficient to recommend, but by no means necessary to impose.

The left think that the world is unfair – which it pretty obviously is against any reasonable abstract definition of fairness – and that therefore a core role of collective institutions is to use coercion to realise at least some of our altruistic intuitions – to make the world fairer.

To reduce the thing to its irreducible essence, I think it might be better to say that both the left and right share that last proposition – that collective institutions realise various altruistic intuitions but that the right are more likely to regard such things as artificial and/or fragile, and this limits their enthusiasm for collective action, and their suspicion that it’s likely always being eaten away at by people ‘gaming’ the system in their own self-interest.

Where the left might pursue more redistribution via the state, the right might question the justice of this, but their strongest case is surely regarding the wisdom of it. As our institutions must impose things against self-interest – as they go against our selfish grain – they’re pitting an ornament (altruism or beneficence) against more visceral and perseverant forces – of self-interest. And as the effort mounts, more and more people will seek to evade and undermine the collective institutions.

Again Smith puts this nicely. (Smith deserves some of the same sort of credit we should surely give Edmund Burke for being so early in his suspicions of the French Revolution. Burke prophesied doom as early as 1789 when the ‘left’ were generally rejoicing in the revolution and the revolution itself seemed to be heading somewhere towards the constitutional monarchy that was the upshot of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. But I digress) In the last year of his life and in the last edition of the Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1790, Smith wrote this:

The man whose public spirit is prompted altogether by humanity . . . will respect the established powers and privileges even of individuals, and still more those of the great orders and societies, into which the state is divided. Though he should consider some of them as in some measure abusive, he will content himself with moderating, what he often cannot annihilate without great violence. . . .

The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. . . . He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.

While this juxtaposition of rights and responsibilities, selfishness and altruism has its place, I think we capture more of the world as it is, and as it’s experienced (at least as I experience it) if we realise that something largely new about our species – and constitutive of it – is shared intentionality. As Simon Angus and Jonathan Newman put it:

It has been hypothesized that the evolution of modern human cognition was catalyzed by the development of jointly intentional modes of behaviour. From an early age (1-2 years), human infants outperform apes at tasks that involve collaborative activity. Specifically, human infants excel at joint action motivated by reasoning of the form “we will do X” (shared intentions), as opposed to reasoning of the form “I will do X [because he is doing X]” (individual intentions). The mechanism behind the evolution of shared intentionality is unknown.

This is much better than ‘acknowledging our obligations to one another’ or ‘altruism’. I think there’s a rough way of bringing home this idea. If we ask the ‘self or other’ or ‘selfishness or altruism’ question we can get a quantitative proxy. How much of our disposable income do we give to others. In no country is philanthropy more than 2% of GDP. So if the right is suspicious of the power of altruism they’re correct. The score at full time is Altruism 1: Self-interest 99.

But then that’s disposable income. In fact as a community those in the developed world collectively choose a position where self-interest gives up around 40% of its earnings to government (with around 10% either side with the US and Australia at one end and the Scandanavian countries at the other). We give to government to fund services to the community. We’re funding the ‘we’. Like the sacrifices made from the football oval to the battlefield, that’s shared intentionality. Sacrifice, not experienced as for ‘the other’ but for ‘us’.

In this reckoning the scoreboard looks more like this.

Altruism                             1
Shared intentionality      40
Self-interest                      59

In fact in the passage from Smith above, the ellipsis omits material that makes it clear that Smith was not juxtaposing self and other interest, but something more messy and unruly:

When [the man of public spirit and humanity] cannot conquer the rooted prejudices of the people by reason and persuasion, he will not attempt to subdue them by force; but will religiously observe what, by Cicero, is justly called the divine maxim of Plato, never to use violence to his country no more than to his parents. He will accommodate, as well as he can, his public arrangements to the confirmed habits and prejudices of the people; and will remedy as well as he can, the inconveniencies which may flow from the want of those regulations which the people are averse to submit to. When he cannot establish the right, he will not disdain to ameliorate the wrong; but like Solon, when he cannot establish the best system of laws, he will endeavour to establish the best that the people can bear.

Finally, I’ll observe that language another uniquely human artefact is the medium which is the product of, and vehicle for our shared intentionality. But that’s a subject for another post. . . .

Postscript: It was Comte, generally regarded as the founder of positivism who coined the term ‘altruism’ as the opposite of ‘egoism’.



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paul walter
paul walter
5 years ago

Back from shops and sitting down, this made for a mellow read, with the quietly withheld second part of the Adam Smith quote as an amelioration of harder truths uttered early.

I’ve in mind President Obama again weeping trying to persuade Americans to accept rudimentary gun controls for an example, yet it is true that he faces a harsh reaction from the “cracker” right if he attempts to impose anti weapons laws without at first garnering consent. He understand also the processive nature of reality for the Human at its current stage and “digs”patience, which makes him a better man than me.

Jenny McCulloch
Jenny McCulloch
5 years ago
Reply to  paul walter

I like this example. Individual protection versus community protection. Two ways to achieve a shared intention that is presumably peace, with one less bloody than the other.

John walker
5 years ago

Smith was a illuminated thinker- that last quote is beautiful.
By the end of WW1 John Monash strongly believed that ” individualism is the best and not the worst foundation upon which to build up collective discipline” .
Monash’s AIF ” the best most professional assault infantry in the world” certainly had a fair bit of shared intentionality.

5 years ago
Reply to  John walker

Monash was not only very probably the best General of the 20thC, but essentially an amateur at the game of soldiers.

When he wasn’t leading and commanding troops superbly, he was a top flight engineer (made some pioneering innovations in the use of stressed concrete in bridges), a very good lawyer, and after WWI, set up Victoria’s State Electricity Commission, which managed to electrify the entire state in the 20 years between the Wars.

His doctoral thesis “The Australian Victories in 1918” is well worth a read if you can lay your hands on it. It shows a clarity of intent and execution that is exceptional. In many ways he was inventing “blitzkreig” before the tools for it were fully developed.

john Walker
5 years ago
Reply to  Larry

Larry yes.
By June July August 1918 Monash had at his disposal , virtually all of the Royal armored Core (about 500 tanks ) many thousands of field ,to heavy , artillery , aircraft ,and all the other equipment needed for a prototyping test run of blitzkrieg.
And he had also become close to a defacto chief organiser of the whole allied forces.

Yet Monash , before the war was a part time soldier and the son of two German jews.

5 years ago

The shared intentionality stuff on infants is not a good argument as a counter to altruism — it is very easy to find altruistic acts in children as young as 2 years old that not too many people would dispute are altruistic acts. So both types of reciprocal interactions appear from a very similar age. Indeed, whilst I personally don’t believe it occurs so early (it is highly debated), there is some evidence showing infants even less than one year old can make judgements based on moral behavior relating to altruism (generally helping behavior). For example, if you get two puppets and have one of them help a protagonist reach some goal (each get to the top of hill), infants will prefer the helper puppet over a neutral puppet or a puppet that hinders the protagonist.

I also don’t think your scores like how much people donate are so useful by themselves. This is because most things we deal with are at least in part socially driven and so we behave with many of them as expected, and we are expected to be somewhat careful with money. We also want our money to be put to a good cause even if altruistic, and how does anyone really know where their charity money goes? On the flip side, there are countless other altruistic acts that are wide-spread that range from the fast and insignificant (being a nice driver) to things that take lots of time and effort but where one can see the immediate effect (e.g., volunteering) that if people didn’t do, society would be a very different place.

5 years ago

I recommend strongly Jonathan Haidt’s book “The Righteous Mind – why good people are divided by politics and religion”. He and his colleagues tackle the evolutionary origin of morality and its several hard-wired foundations. These fundamental moral principles are common to all of us, but how we balance them one against the other appears to determine where we sit on the left-right spectrum. It is far more complex than altruism vs self-interest, but at the same time it makes more sense, to me. In the end, my take on it is that self-interest rules. For example, generosity has an element of selfishness in it because of the pleasure we experience in giving. But as soon as we think the recipient of the generosity is taking it for granted or thinks we’re a sucker, our altruism evaporates. We have evolved with these hard-wired characteristics because it made tribal life more successful.