The Magic of Reality : How We Know What's Really Trueby: Richard Dawkins
THE DRUDGE REPORT GETS about 30,000,000 hits a day, and has been long ensconced among the top hundred US internet sites. Other news sites in the top 100, rubbing digital shoulders with Google, Amazon, and Apple, include Fox News and the Huffington Post: tendentious suppliers of political bias. But the Drudge Report seems to be the only pure news aggregator in that list. What it aggregates are mostly stories that will encourage its right-wing readers to cultivate feelings of outrage and aggrievement at the excesses of the left, while allowing its left-wing readers (like me) to tend to our own outrage and aggrievement at the right-wing. Why do we go there so often? Why is the Drudge Report (or talk radio) what we so love to hate? Why do so many of us get into comment wars, sputtering in impotent fury and Disqus-disgust at the stupidity and sheer wrongness that we seek out on the internet? Aren't there more pleasant ways to spend our time?
Apparently not, at least for a lot of people. One of the best pieces in Pathological Altruism is David Brin‘s chapter on addiction to indignation: “Self-addiction and Self-righteousness.” You might see why looking to feel outraged as often as you can is pathological, but how could overweening, self-righteous huffiness ever be described as altruistic?
There’s very little agreement in this mixed grab bag of essays on what altruism would or could be, and the question seems both easier and harder if you ask about pathological altruism. Harder, because the term teeters on the edge of paradox. Easier, because when the altruist suffers to the point of experiencing her own altruism as harmful, then it’s hard to dismiss altruism, as many are tempted to do, as simply disguised self-dealing — in other words, as a manipulative way of promoting one’s own interests.
The problem of defining altruism
In order to understand altruism you’ll need a decent definition of the concept and a decent sense of what sorts of things wouldn’t falsify that definition. Could it, for example, be altruistic to donate money to charity if the donation gives you pleasure? Let’s stipulate that the answer is yes, it could be altruistic: that the very fact that giving money to charity gives you pleasure is a sign that you have an altruistic disposition. A good working definition of altruism, then, might be: a) a tendency to do things that go counter to something that maximizes self-interest, b) when doing such things will help maximize the purely rational interests of others, c) so that doing these things comes at a cost to oneself. “Prosocial” preferences — preferences that advance the rational interests of others, and of society as a whole — are evidence for altruism.
There is no doubt that such preferences are to be found among human beings. Now, it may be that certain systems reward altruism, so that, in such systems, being altruistic would in fact also maximize rational self-interest. But this is not the chicken-and-egg problem it seems: It’s a match-and-fire problem. Altruism can only be rewarded in systems in which other altruists are doing the rewarding. It may be rewarding, even from a rational point of view, but only if and when the economic irrationality of altruism has already prevailed systemically. This is true even of Robert Trivers’s notion of “reciprocal altruism.&r...read more