Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Is Morality Selfishness by Another Name?

Morality keeps popping up in my thinking and reading lately. There are of course the religious discussions of atheistic morality, morality and free will, and theodicy. Then I have also participated in a lot of discussions recently about charity and whether, for example, Oprah is to be commended for her philanthropy or criticized for not doing more. Finally, I've been seeing a lot of the perennial complaints, common for some reason among internet users, that women always go for the jerks and nice guys finish last.

Economist Tyler Cowen links to a couple of posts including Cads vs. Dads II which is based on a comment from a reader:
Why is a Cad a Cad? I think it is because: He can be. His genes are so good, so much in demand, that women are willing to mate with him knowing that he might not stick around. Same reason why a Dad is a Dad. He knows if based solely on looks (proxy for gene competition), he will lose to the Cad every time. So, he must compensate for his lower quality genes by investing more resources in the female and offspring.

Now obviously there are some "Dads" who are attractive enough (or rich or powerful enough) that they could get away with being Cads if they wanted to. But consider an unattractive person. Being a "Dad" might be the only attractive thing about him, so being a "nice" guy instead of a jerk is simply his best bet at maximizing his chances at landing a woman. Or friends, or even maybe a job. Tabarrok goes on to identify a scientific study of birds which indicates that this hypothesis is indeed true... at least for birds.

So combining the Cad vs. Dad hypothesis with my readings and discussions about morality, I got to wondering: are people moral simply because they can't get away with being immoral? If so, morality is a strategy as selfish as any Machiavellian tyrant's.

So what of those who hold forms of morality against their own self-interest? Are they merely tools of a successful meme-complex? Is a powerful person who devotes his life to helping the less fortunate just a sucker? What of powerless people who believe the powerful are powerful because they are worthy?

(See also Nietzsche's idea of slave vs. master morality.)

Were Jewish and Christian* (and Communist**, etc.) morality simply a defense against the powerful, as Nietzsche believed? And am I, ironically, a slave to an arbitrary and predominantly religious morality? Should I adopt the morality of the powerful instead and use my talents merely to maximize my own power and prestige at the expense of others?

(Note: I'm being mostly facetious. I actually believe my sense of morality is based on empathy.)


* Today, of course, Christianity is most often used in the service of the powerful, at least in America. Because Christianity has been the religion of the powerful for so long, its God has changed from the Jesus of the Beatitudes to, e.g., Supply Side Jesus.) Jews, on the other hand, have been quite powerless until very recently.

** Is that why so many Jews were Communists?

18 comments:

David said...

Over at Ambivablog there's some interesting stuff about the altruism of sperm, and the like. Seems even they will work for the greater good at times.

David said...

>>[A]re people moral simply because they can't get away with being immoral? If so, morality is a strategy as selfish as any Machiavellian tyrant's.

I think you're conflating two distinct concepts here. Even if we accept that "people [are] moral simply because they can't get away with being immoral", your conclusion doesn't follow. Morality may still be fully objective and intrinsically praiseworthy even if people's motivation for behaving morality is mostly selfish.

By the way, the Cad vs. Dad hypothesis is a load of crap, as I'm pretty sure you realize.

Jewish Atheist said...

Morality may still be fully objective and intrinsically praiseworthy even if people's motivation for behaving morality is mostly selfish.

While what you say is strictly true, we usually think of morality as something you do even if it goes against your self-interest.

By the way, the Cad vs. Dad hypothesis is a load of crap, as I'm pretty sure you realize.

It's obviously an oversimplification, but there's no doubt that people who are very attractive (in the broad sense of the word) are free to be cads and often are. See professional athletes, for example.

jewish philosopher said...

I think almost invariably people are nice to other people either because:

- it feels good

- they expect to get something out of it in the long run

I think the second option is obviously less likely for atheists than for Orthodox Jews.

intuitor said...

I think people have values and moral standards regardless of religion because some things they were brought up to do and their society upholds as values, which is true of the Chinese, who historically were atheists and yet had a very developed system of morals and values and "niceness" based on confucianism, but who believed in no God!

David said...

>>While what you say is strictly true, we usually think of morality as something you do even if it goes against your self-interest.

The distinction is more important that you're giving credit for. One may argue, for example, that one should be moral even if it goes against one's self interest but most people in fact only behave morally for ulterior motives. The first part is a statement about human nature. The second part, a statement about morality itself.

>>[T]here's no doubt that people who are very attractive (in the broad sense of the word) are free to be cads and often are.

Your phrase "in the broad sense of the word" is key. The problem is when you actually try to define "attractive", it becomes clear that's it's not an objective characterization.

intuitor said...

David, actually your conclusion in your first post doesn't follow. If people's motives are primarily selfish then their morality is imperfect.
Therefore there is no objective morality because it's an idea thought up by morally imperfect human beings.

David Fryman said...

>>there is no objective morality because it's an idea thought up by morally imperfect human beings.

I don't follow. Care to explain?

intuitor said...

David, I mean that our screwed up selfish morality is just another example of the fact that man is not absolute anything (specifically moral). So man is not in the position to posit absolutes: knowledge, morality, religion... anything really. Morality is a man made concept. It can not be more absolute than the men who invented it. Morality is used politically as a stick: you're not like us, you're not moral - bam bam bam. That's all there is to it. (I am a minimalist though.)

David Fryman said...

>>Morality is a man made concept. It can not be more absolute than the men who invented it.

Stating that morality is man-made doesn't make it so. If I deny your premise, what's your argument? Besides, why must an invention assume the imperfections of the inventor?

"Rich Perkins" said...

I'm not sure if all morals are self serving, but they are definitely relative. after all, cannibals find nothing wrong with murder.

There was an interesting book by Tammy Bruce called The Death of Right and Wrong. She basically argues that we have become so PC and accepting of anything that there is no right and wrong any more. Sure, she has a fairly conservative view overall, but I think she has a very good point.

Just take teen pregnancy as an example. It used to be looked down upon and you were ostracized if you had at baby at 15. Now we are not allowed to say there is anything wrong with that and teen pregnancy has been rising once again. Surely, this is not a good thing for society as a whole.

intuitor said...

David, I didn't give my argument yet because we weren't arguing about who made morality. If morality is not man made how come different cultures and epochs have different definitions of what is moral? Morality and man are highly correlated. But there is a relationship of causality too. Man cause morality. You can make an experiment: take a new-born Jew and raise him as a muslim palestinian. What kind of morality do you get? Not modern orthodox for sure.
Now the second point. Invention doesn't assume the qualities of it's inventor. But there are some laws of cause and effect. A finite pencil can't draw infinite circles. A realtively moral man knows experiences only relative morality, has no concept of absolute morality. How can he invent absolute morality when he can't concieve of it? Can you prove that man ever experienced absolute morality?

David Fryman said...

>>A realtively moral man knows experiences only relative morality, has no concept of absolute morality. How can he invent absolute morality when he can't concieve of it?

Of course human beings can't invent an absolute morality. But I reject the premise that morality was invented. Rather, I believe the morality is built into the fabric of the universe and slowly discovered by humanity over time. (Note that this view is applicable to theisitic and atheistic conceptions alike.)

intuitor said...

David, you are talking of objective morality, I know. The fabric of universe is little more than ones own subjectivity. To quote William James, "where on this moon-lit earth have you seen facts?" I don't subscribe to such an extreme version of relativism or subjectivity. But you have to agree that discovering something in the fabric of universe is a veiled euphemism for raking among several culture based concepts that are inextricably mixed with the universe.

David Fryman said...

It's not a euphemism. Yes, "discovering something in the fabric of the universe" requires sifting through many layers of culture. But that just answers your earlier question of why "different cultures and epochs have different definitions of what is moral". It's because discovering and understanding genuine morality is perhaps the most challenging project humanity has ever encountered.

Ex Atheist said...

"Elimination of the weak and defective, the first principle of our philosophy! And we should help them to do it!"

(Nietzsche, the Syphillitic...in The AntiChrist, sec. 2)

Theres atheist "morality" for you.

And we see it being worked out in our own society...over a third of all pregnancies aborted, the majority of those minorities (David Duke thinks abortion is great for minorites) and letting the "defective" babies die.

Or, better yet, killing...uh, aborting them...before they are even born.

No perversion is inconsistent with atheism.

intuitor said...

David, when you peel away all the layers you're left with a joke.

Egoist Paul said...

Yes, there is an atheistic morality
based on selfishness. It's Ayn Rand's Objectivism. Ayn Rand has a
very complete answers to many of your questions concerning morality.