From Fri Aug 11 17:00:09 2006
Newsgroups: alt.politics.communism,alt.politics,alt.atheism
Subject: Re: selfishness
From: Haines Brown <>
Date: Fri, 11 Aug 2006 16:36:48 -0400

Selfishness and altruism

By Haines Brown, alt.politics.communism, 11 August 2006

I waited for this thread to get on topic, but the few times it began to do so, replies carried it off again. That's a shame, for the issue is an interesting one, and is also contentious and divisive. It would be nice if it it could be laid to rest.

Everything I say here is highly speculative, but perhaps it might at least contribute to a definition of the question's parameters.

Whether or not human beings are capable of altruism seems a modern obsession, although there had certainly been an interest in various kinds of selfless behavior for a long time. In the ancient Roman world it was much discussed, but the issue is obscured because the context of political ideology carefully separated private and social life. Altruistic and selfish behavior both existed, but were contradictory. The citizen's selfless behavior in the political arena was the source of Rome's greatness, but it was the opposite in private and family life. In fact the Romans were no more selfless in political life than they were selfish in private life.

This illustrates an important point. In fact people have always to varying degrees and ways been selfless, the Romans as much as any. The problem is not how people actually behave, but our ideological explanation of altruistic behavior. That is, whether or not apparently selfless activities can be interpreted as really self-serving is in some way a rather artificial question, although it does have some ideological interest.

With the advent of Christianity in late Roman times, the actual selfless bonds that existed among people in their private lives were lifted (like much else) to the level of society as a whole, which in ancient times meant the political level. As a result, private altruism, instead of just a description of a behavior, became ideological, for it was the expression of an inner necessity borne of person's personal connection with a godhead understood to be the source of all love.

It seems to me that it is this feudal assumption that the Enlightenment set out to combat. The Enlightenment was anxious to establish the autonomy of the individual (that is, his property), and so any linkages with a godhead and any outside obligations had to be abolished in principal as the source of irrational behavior. As a result, any impulse toward altruism had to reside within the individual, be an expression of human nature, a characteristic of the social atom. Because all needs are reduced to individual needs, altrustic behavior becomes selfish by definition.

And here is the source of the problem, for human nature can only be inferred from behavior, and people have taken the same behavioral facts to come up with contradictory hypotheses to explain them. This, I believe, is why the argument goes on and on and gets nowhere.

As is often the case with such endless disputes, the source of the problem may be the terms in which it is defined. In this case, the social atomism of capitalist ideology contradicts the possibility of really selfless behavior, while a socialist ideology insists that something is gained through social solidarity that enlarges human nature.

This difference can't be resolved through debate, examples of behavior, or an appeal to evolution or genes. It is the result of people working from contradictory premises, and the only resolution is to re-evaluate the premises from which we start.

In a Marxist perspective (if I may be so bold as to define it), man is considered a social being. However, the term “social being” begs for definition, for it can have a variety of connotations. The issue here is not social behaviors, but just what we mean by “man”.

I do not mean by this the impossible goal of defining human nature in empirical terms, but a rethinking how we represent a human unit of analysis. In fact, from a Marxist perspective, “man” is not an empirically-defined thing, but is a process; it is the effect of a causal relation between society and an individual. That is why in Marxism, a social “class” is defined as a causal relation, a “relation of production”—and therefore as a process, not an empirically-definable thing (such as group of people who happen to share certain features or behaviors).

If we are individuals who continually developing through our social existence, and if society develops through our interactions, then we are social beings in the sense that what makes us really human is our social capacity for development. Of course, as biological beings we must eat, but we don’t think of eating as really definitive for what humans really are. We share that feature with a worm. If a newborn is deprived of any social contact whatsoever (but nevertheless somehow managed to survive), you wouldn’t end up with a human being, but an intelligent animal.

When a person acts altruistically, to ask whether it is done selflessly or it is really self-serving makes no sense in Marxist terms because self and society are not two independent entities, but two aspects of one process. This does not mean there can be no behavior that is either selfish or selfless, for the point is that these are the poles defining a spectrum of behavior that is usually represents both at the same time. In capitalist ideology, these poles are defined as being contradictory, and therefore there is no middle ground between them; behavior is either selfish or altrustic.