Monday, May 26, 2014

Our dangerous Neighbors: An Abandoning and Defense of one of our Higher Callings

A small idea I have been tacitly tinkling with for the last few days (upwards of a week), building upon some rather unappealing assumptions I cannot move away from.

I am of the unfortunate disposition that humans are essentially incapable of altruistic acts, an opinion that gains me few to no friends. As I understand it, we are meant to conceive of altruism itself as the purely selfless act, where by the agent thinks at least none of itself (for various purposes I will be using the non-gendered noun), and perhaps even counts its well being in the negative, i.e. sacrifices its own well being for the sake of some beneficiary. For various reasons, this seems to be out of line with the type of Being humans are bestowed with. Although here is not the place to elaborate on the arguments against true altruistic capabilities, suffice it to say that through revealed preferences, a standard economic idea, all decisions made by humans inevitably indicates some sort of belief in being better off with the decision made. 

There are naturally cases wherein humans act without having true preferences whatsoever, times of uncertainty where the outcomes of actions are not know to the actor, occasions where the actor are tricked into an unfair deal (an unfortunately typical occurrence in our system) etc. but I don't think anyone would like to call a case where, say, a farmer is tricked into giving away his life savings for three magic (they are not magic) beans as a case of altruism towards a deceitful bean farmer. We would certainly not like to think of the oppressed masses as voluntarily letting themselves be taken advantage of for the good of the capitalist overlord, although perhaps some would like to give the masses the moral high ground (in which case I would beg that we devolve into hedonism). Barring such claims, I would claim that consciously, with relatively high amounts (such that the actor has a good idea of what it is getting into) of information decisions are never made without the actors interests at heart. 

It paints a bleak picture for human nature indeed, many of us fall back always upon the believe in a fundamental human goodness, or at least the capability towards some goodness. In the following I would like to present a rather neutered but more feasible and with regards to outcome just as full position for human goodness, which will begin with a discussion of a rather down on his luck neighbor.
It need not have a name for our purpose, let it only be known that it is remarkably worse of financially than ourselves, and lives in such a vicinity that our brand pride and joy is constantly within his grasp: a 1956 (no idea if this year is significant for motorcycles) Harley-Davidson, a present from our deceased father, a memorial of days past, the last remnants of a trip made across wide lands with a now deceased spouse, whatever you want it to be. Our only goal in life is this motorcycle, its upkeep, the ability to take it on short rides and longer trips; it is the object of our long hours at work, the sacrificed free time in stead spent slaving under an ugly boss smelling of.. whatever, you get the point. We only care about this motorcycle, and moreover, we do not give a damn about our neighbor.

It seems we have a good reason to keep our neighbor content, however. Our interest may only lie with the motorcycle, but our neighbor might interfere with our interest: he could steal and sell it, in a drunken rage he could scratch it out of malice, and any number of things that would render our life's worth null and void. Our neighbor poses a threat to our self-interest via his ability to to ruin our hopes for it, our capability of preserving it, or even of enjoying it. We have at this point only mode of recourse: keeping our neighbor happy. 

Some may balk at this, there must be other options, they would say. We could move, have our neighbor arrested, force our neighbor to move, chain our precious motorcycle inside the house such that nothing short of breaking in through our front door could put it at risk. Sadly, none of the options will ever suffice, as we have not just one neighbor, but billions, such that we could not arrest all of them, such that some of them are nations with weapons strong enough to render our home and motorcycle into dust, such that we are outnumbered and could never move far enough away to completely rid ourselves of the nagging thought in the back of our minds: oh dear, we surely hope my motorcycle is still ok since we've last checked on it.

The more adept reader will have noticed that we are not speaking simply form a motorcycle, but from any number of goods we hold dear: possessions, freedom, loved ones, pride in being, but at the bottom level it is simply of any sort of self interest, that elusive thing manifesting itself in our plethoric decisions from day to day, the only thing that we actually care about. Unfortunately, it is not the case that we have been truly acting in our self interest, as we have continued to allow ourselves to ignore the basic truth, that our interests will never be safe so long as there is someone looking across the road, either wanting what we have or resenting us simply for having it, in any way threatening it. Our only recourse is to make sure that our neighbor has no reason to do us harm, has no wants, and doesn't feel in anyway inclined towards any act that would put our interests in danger. We essentially have to work to made our neighbor content, but if we bar for a moment any reference to states of mind, to intentions, then we have for all empirical purposes an altruistic act. It is only with the intent of the act that is loses it's selfless character.

It is only by truly understand the requisites for our own self interests that we can come to altruism in a world wherein we are governed as such, by inclinations to our singular goals and wants. It does not require full information, or full rationality to achieve, but just a simple consideration of those who are not as well off to give ourselves the freedom and security to pursue our own interests. Of course problems arise when we consider the reality of scarcity, that we can never completely satisfy everyone, but a world wherein the motivation to take against the wills of others is not so difficult to realize.

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