VIRTUE IS ITS OWN REWARD – OR WHAT?
Say, why are there so many of us out there drawn to the novels of Jane Austin or to the television series, ‘Foyle’s War,’ revisiting them again and again? Seems ter me it’s our fascination with the characters and their emotions, especially the main characters, in the context of the moral world depicted in each, a world where good sense and individual integrity are important.
In Jane Austin’s novels, Socrates’ dictum,’Know thyself,’ underpins the misunderstandings and romantic coming together of the main characters. It gives emphasis to the flaws of the comic characters whose intensely revealing conversations suggest no likelihood of self-knowledge. In ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ there’s the vulgar Mrs Bennet looking for wealthy husbands for her daughters as in Jane Austin’s ironic opening lines in the novel, ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged,’ and there also the pompous and unaware Mary Bennet and Mr Collins. In the novel,’Emma’ there’s the revealing comments of two social climbers, The Reverend Elton and his wife, and in ‘Persuasion,’ Anne Elliot’s unfeeling, narcissistic family. They won’t change.
The romantic involvement of the main characters depend on their capacity to learn by their mistakes. Without resolving their misunderstandings about each other, no happy ending, letter required from Mr Darcy to Elizabeth, and recognition by Elizabeth of her own mistakes:
‘How despicably have I acted!’ she cried; I who have prided myself on my discernment! … How humiliating is this discovery! yet how just a humiliation! … Till this moment I never knew myself!’
For a happy ending, shocked self awareness required from Emma:
‘How improperly had she been acting by Harriet. How inconsiderate, how indelicate, how irrational, how unfeeling had been her conduct! … How to understand the deceptions, she had been practising on herself and living under! The blunders, the blindness, of her own head and heart!’
In the most painful of the romances, the broken engagement of Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth in ‘Persuasion,’ it is not Anne who needs to grow into consciousness but Captain Wentworth. Fated to be the regretful observer of other people’s folly, Anne must wait for Captain Wentworth’s process of reappraisal, the famous letter:
‘ You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late … I would not have waited these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine.’
And then there’s the attraction for us of Foyle’s War, set against the backdrop of the Second World War and Britain under the threat of invasion. You’ve got Chief Inspector Foyle and his team, second in charge, Milner, and Foyle’s driver, Samantha Stewart upholding law and order on the home front.
You might say here at Hastings Police Station, the perceptive Christopher Foyle is the guardian of civilized values. ‘Thou shalt not cheat or murder thy neighbor.’ And people do, cheating their neighbors or profiteering from the war, stealing fuel, art works, secrets and killing for passion, revenge or to conceal other crimes. Foyle and Milner, himself a casualty of war, an amputee, and the sympathetic Sam Stewart, in an understated way, are all deeply committed to the moral world they work to uphold. When Foyle is ordered to overlook a serious crime by someone important to the war effort, he resigns in protest. Thank goodness, for a very good reason, he agrees to return to duty in the next episode or things would likely have got a lot worse in Hastings.
So what about this moral virtue thing?
Selfish Genes and Such.
Sometimes yer get tired of the dismal selfish gene and prisoner’s dilemma game theories telling us serfs, evolving as we have from the animal kingdom, ter fergit altruism and ethics, they’re really jest us fooling ourselves, a light show of convenient mutual benefit scenarios concealing what’s below, the wired in mean and nasty self. Tsk, there’s that Charles Darwin, in himself a model of reliability and altruism, coming out with his evolutionary bombshell that existence is nothing but a universal struggle between living organisms competing for existence. Cooperation? There’s that Richard Dawkins telling us that group behavior has little to do with cooperation. The behavior of ants and bees and the behavior of our nearest genetic relatives chimpanzees and ourselves, evolved to benefit our selfish genes.
Any chance that sometimes, some of us humans just may act without benefit to ourselves, put trust and altruism before personal gain? Hmm…In his book, ‘The Origins of Virtue,’ Matt Ridley presents from a socio-biological view point, the arguments surrounding the development of human morality, exploring how genetics can be used to explain certain traits of human behavior, in particular, human morality and altruism.
Say, the argument from evolutionary inheritance doesn’t begin well. On cooperative behavior in the animal kingdom, for the fore-mentioned ants, bees and the chimpanzees, selfishness rules, helping your sister ants or bees or the relatives in your primate tribe though Dawkins may call it kin-altruism, really amounts to helping your self …
And Animals R Us – aren’t they?
So what about us? Animal behavior has profound implications for the study of the human mind, as Helena Cronin in ‘The Ant and the Peacock,’ (1991) argues, that ‘to erect a biological apartheid of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ ‘ is to ‘cut ourselves off from a particularly useful source of explanatory principles .’
Ridley’s book abounds in case studies of animal and human behavior regarding those four great drives of living species, drives of hunger, sex, fear and aggression. One case study he presents, from the 1970’s and 1980’s involves Arnhem chimpanzee politics. In 1976 a chimp called Luit became the dominant alpha male in a study group by dominating the previous alpha male, Yeroen. Prior to the take over, Luit had tended to join forces with the chimpanzees that had just won fights but once he became alpha he switched allegiances to the underdogs to stop fights and keep on top of any potential rivals. However Luit was soon toppled by a conspiracy between an ambitious but not so strong young chimp, Nikkie, who formed a coalition with Yeroen. Nikkie and Yeroen had a deal that Nikkie could have the power if Yeroen, as the power behind the throne. was allowed a large share of the sexual favours of the female chimps. But then Nikkie started reneging on the deal. After several such incidents Nikki was no longer alpha male and Luit was back in power.
Matt Ridley sees a parallel with human alliances in history, the chimp scenario uncannily like events in the War of the Roses with the English queen, Margaret of Anjou, (married to henpecked Henry V1,) as Luit, Edward 1V as the usurper Nikkie and the wealthy Earl, Warwick the Kingmaker, in the part of Yeroen. Following his initial support for Edward, the increasingly disenchanted Warwick formed an alliance with Margaret to drive Edward into exile. Edward later killed Warwick in battle, captured London and had Henry V1 murdered. The theme of kings and leaders reined in and dominated by individually weaker coalitions is a common one in human history all the way up to the American Constitution.
In chimpanzee troops, the most important coalition is the one between adult males of the same group against all adult males of the enemy troop when danger threatens ‘abroad.’ Aggressive group defense of territory and raids against rival chimpanzee troops, is nothing more than an extension of the coalition building we see in Nikkie and Yeroen. When Luit became alpha male he supported losers against their persecutors. Matt Ridley argues that alpha males thereby play an important pacifying role, the reason possibly being to prevent the break up of the group. When a troop of chimpanzees go on a raid, the alpha behaves as if he must get the backing of his coalition partners before launching an attack.
Ridley compares this behavior to groups of closely related men living together as a social unit. In the same manner as chimpanzees, feuding and raiding between groups is chronic.
The historical enmity of the Scottish clans, territorial fights between France and Austria, Russia and Turkey, Bulgaria and Serbia, hey, Europe’s map is shaped by battle between neighbors. As Geoffrey Blainey observes in ‘The Causes of War,’ most of the European wars of the last four centuries occured between near neighbors. The Manchester Theory that increasing foreign travel and cultural exchanges promote peace is not borne out by the evidence. Anthropologist, Napoleon Chagnon, who lived among the ‘fierce Yanomamo people of Venezuela in the 1960’s observed the almost routine warfare and raiding between villages. So highly is aggression valued in the culture that Chagnon observed that of six feast ceremonies intended to build war alliances, two of the six ended in fighting between guests and hosts. (Chagnon ‘Yanomamo’.)
And what is the significance of all this fighting? Well Darwin’s expression, ‘the struggle for existence’ is sometimes erroneously interpreted as the struggle between different species. As Konrad Lorenz observes in his book ‘On Aggression,’ that fight to the death you see in movies between a tiger and a python or the python and a crocodile isn’t what Darwin had in mind. A struggle between predator and prey is not a fight in the real sense of the word. From many excellent photographs it can be seen that a lion, in the moment before it springs on an antelope, is in no way angry, not growling, ears not laid back or showing other well-known expressive movements of fighting behavior. The counter-attacking by prey, on the other hand, such as crows mobbing a hawk, is more related to aggression.
The selection pressure of contests between different species, contests between predator and prey, may influence evolution selection of functions like swiftness of prey or leaping ability and sharp claws development of predator but in reality, as Lorenz notes, the struggle that Darwin was thinking of that drives evolution forward, is the competition between near relatives. ‘What causes a species to disappear or become transformed into a different species is the profitable ‘invention’ that falls by chance to one or a few of its members in the everlasting gamble of hereditary change.’ ( Lorenz, Chapter 3.)
Darwin raised the issue of the survival value of fighting. He concluded that it is always favorable to the future of a species if the stronger of two rivals takes possession of either the territory or the desired female. And so often, says Lorenz, the truth of the past is still a truth but only a special case. Ecologists have recently demonstrated another essential function of aggression, that is, that unless the special interests of a social organization demand a close aggregation of its members, it is expedient to spread its members as evenly as possible over the available habitat and avoid exhausting its sources of nutrition. Lorenz’ studies of coral reef opportunities for niches of specialized, poster-coloured fish and the fighting reactions elicited against interlopers wearing the same poster colours has the effect that each species keep measured distances from nutritional same group species. The signals of song birds proclaiming territories serve the same purpose. (Lorenz, Ch 3.)
Concerning us being jest a vehicle fer our selfish genes, what about our prevalent groupish and generous behavior of sharing food with others of our species?
Huntin’ and Fission.
Well other primates do it too, predominantly sharing meat, it’s about hunting as a cooperative male enterprise and the payoff involved. Chimps do it for sex. Meat is not a large item in their diet and their favored prey, small colobus monkeys, when shared in the troop, seem scarcely worth the effort of the hunt. A study of the chimpanzees in Tanzania, shows that whether a male troop of chimpanzees decide to hunt their favored prey or not depends on the presence in their party of a female chimp in oestrus. If the hunt is successful, the hunters will preferentially give some of the catch to the receptive female. And surprise, surprise, the receptive female is most likely to bestow her favours on the males that are the more generous with meat.
Matt Ridley considers that it’s not unreasonable to assume that human hunting started for the same reasons as for chimpanzees and may still be a factor in big game hunting. In modern hunter gather groups, there does appear to be a connection between the number of hours a week a tribe hunts large game and sexual promiscuity of the group. Studies of keen hunting tribes of South America, the Ache and Yanomamo and the African Hadza tribe compared to the intermittent hunting groups, the puritan Hiwi and largely faithful !Kung suggest that keen hunters have more affairs. In their studies of the Hadza tribe and big game hunting, Kim Hill and Kristen Hawkes argue issues of reciprocal generosity, Hawke argues intangible rewards of social generosity for the hunter who kills the giraffe. Hill claims that with so much meat, no one’s going to notice the successful hunter passing on a choice cut to the nubile wife of a neighbor. (Ch 6, Ridley.)
Be that as it may, there are other reciprocal benefits of hunting for humans involving division of labour between men and women and the bonds of marriage. Sexual division of labour is part of virtually all societies and it’s noticeable that men and women segregate their jobs even when they share them.
So why did male hunting change from a seduction device to being part of a deal with one or two wives? Out on the grasslands where we originated, division of labour was a survival benefit. The high protein supplied by the hunter was high energy food but there was always the risk of the failed hunt. The women’s gathering of tubers and plants was less high energy but a reliable food security so sharing meat and vegetables meant both were better off. Then there’s sharing with the tribe. Meat represents luck. The hunter who catches two armadillos today and shares with the men who failed to kill anything at all, which is likely to happen 40% of the time, is a sort of reciprocity in which one man trades in his current good luck for an insurance against his future bad luck. And of course there’s the cooperation required in hunting really big game. Even free loaders get some of the kill.
So the gist of our genetic inheritance would seem to be a blend of individualist
aggression and groupishness based on self interest. Is that it? Animals r us? Well not exactly.
Alike but Different … Viva la Difference!
Deriving lessons from nature can be a tricky business as Matt Ridley notes. You need to steer your craft carefully between the Scylla of direct animal parallels and the Charybdis of emphasis on human uniqueness. Nature doesn’t rule, culture does. Even Dawkins claims that ‘Man’s way of life is largely determined by culture.’ ( ‘The Selfish Gene.’ Oxford 1977 p 177.)
A surprising theory has begun to emerge in recent years that the human brain is not just better than other animals’, it is different in fascinating ways. It is equipped with special faculties to enable it to explore reciprocity. Reciprocity in society may be an inevitable part of our natures – an instinct, we don’t need to be taught it against our better judgement, natural selection has chosen it to enable us to get more from social living.
Heh, if life is just a competitive struggle, why is there so much cooperation around and why are so many people such eager cooperators. We live in towns, work in teams, our lives are a web of inter-connections, families, friends, colleagues, we seem unable to live without each other.
Matt Ridley describes an agricultural society in North America, the Hutterites, as an example, rather like bees, of cooperation and interdependence. The Hutterites praise selflessness and mete out harsh penalties against acts of selfishness. Unlike bees, however, the Hutterites are not all related. Ridley observes that in most human societies, as in the Hutterites, altruism is praised and nepotism frowned on, our cultures, for all their differences, are comprehensive at the deepest levels as expressions of love, loyalty, jealousy and hierarchy. We define virtue almost exclusively as pro-social behavior,’we are all Hutterites at heart.’ ( R Ch 2.)
Those Big Game Theories.
Well we still have to explain that Hutterite behavior which exhibits reciprocal altruism.
The well known Prisoner’s Dilemma theory suggest some answers. The original form of the dilemma depicts two prisoners charged with a serious crime, each interviewed separately, and offered a deal if they confess. If a prisoner confesses, he is imprisoned for just six months, the other gets 20 years. If both confess, they each end up with 10 years imprisonment. Logic of the situation is to confess since neither prisoner can trust the other. However, when people are asked to play repeat games of Prisoner’s Dilemma they start to cooperate.
In 1979, political scientist Robert Axelrod, set up a tournament of fourteen variations of Prisoner’s Dilemma in which the cooperative ‘nice strategies, especially the game of Tit-for-tat came out on top. As Axelrod explained, Tit-for-tat’s success is its combination of being naive retaliatory, forgiving and clear. Its niceness prevents its actors getting into unnecessary trouble, its retaliation discourages the other side from persisting whenever defection is tried. Its forgiveness helps restore mutual cooperation and its clarity makes it intelligible to opponents, thereby bringing about long term cooperation. Trouble is with these games, including Tit-for-tat, all strategies are defined in advance unlike responding to real world problem situations. So Martin Novak and Karl Sigmund designed a new tournament where, as in the real world, uncertainty prevails, and came up with a new winning strategy, Pavlov, (misnomered, as its behavior is the opposite of reflexive.) Pavlov is nice, establishing cooperation like Tit-for-tat, but also has a vindictive streak that enables it to exploit naïve cooperators such as ‘Always Cooperate.’ Thus it does not allow a cooperative world to lapse into a too trusting Utopia where free riders flourish.
Pavlov had originally been unsuccessful in the earlier tournament where all strategies were defined in advance, but in this new and more realistic tournament allowing for probability and learning, Pavlov quickly adjusted its probabilities to the extent where its supremacy could not be undermined by ‘Always Defect’ strategists. It was, says Ridley. a truly evolutionary stable strategy . ( R Ch 4.)
So do animals and humans use Pavlov? Seems they do, and not just Hutterites and some other primates. Sticklebacks venturing out on predator inspections choose partners that are consistently good cooperators. This indicates that sticklebacks are able to recognize each other and remember which fish can be ‘trusted.’ Pretty remarkable considering that only the higher mammals are generally considered to have sufficient brain power to recognize each other as individuals and have memory of outcome of past behaviors.
And we as humans as a species, and in whatever culture, appear to be uniquely aware of cost benefit exchanges. According to test responses to social contract puzzles like the widely administered Wason Test, people are not so good at looking for rewards and losses when these are not illicit in some sense, but are very good at detecting cheating. ‘The Wason Test seems to tap into a part of the human brain that is a ruthless and devastatingly focused calculating machine.’ (R Ch 7.)
To Bond or not to Bond. What are the Questions?
There’s a fascinating chapter in Lorenz ‘On Aggression’ called ‘The Great Parliament of Instincts,’ in which he argues that ‘it is an error to assume that the big four instincts – hunger, sexuality, flight and aggression -are irresistible tyrants whose commands brook no contradiction.’ ( L Ch 6.) Lorenz describes studies of ritualized response fixed motor pattern in animals which he calls ‘little servants of species preservation.’ ( L CH11.)
The zig-zag courtship dance of the male stickleback is a conflict of two drives, aggressive protection of territory and desire to mate with the intruder. Other aggression channeling rituals he describes are the appeasement dance of cranes and the bonding triumph ceremony of greylag geese. The graylag geese triumph ceremony rules the lives of the geese more than any other drive, and is performed throughout the year involving not just pairs of geese but whole groups of individuals. In all these bondings, even stickleback, personal recognition in varied environmental situations is essential. With herd formation as a means of protection from predators, recognition of individuals is not required, all that’s necessary is to be able to get lost in the crowd.
Humans have not only developed rituals but rich cultures to promote human bonding and exchange contracts. Neurology and situation tests indicate that our complex brains have propensities for empathetic bonding and the ability to assess violations in our exchanges with one another. Religious practices are an example. When we experience bad luck we are prone to attribute it to the anger of the gods because of something we have done. Trade mutual deals are other major exchange practices.
Curiously, in recent years economists, who have founded their discipline on the question of ‘what’s in it for the individual,’ have begun to reconsider. Much of the innovation in recent years has been based on a discovery that people are motivated by something other than self interest. Robert Frank, an economist looks at the part played by emotions, what Adam Smith called ‘moral sentiments,’ in our problem solving. Frank calls this the commitment problem. (L CH 7.) Emotions are profoundly irrational forces that Frank says cannot be explained by material self interest though they have evolved, like everything else in human nature, for a purpose.
We use our emotions to make credible commitments for example two friends making a deal to start a restaurant, one as chef, the other book keeper. Since each has the opportunity to cheat, a rational person would not choose start the restaurant, so losing, as Frank says, the opportunities the enterprise could represent. The entrepreneurs risk trusting each other based on perceived shared emotions of shame and guilt regarding cheating. Similarly a farmer fences in his cattle knowing that his neighbor’s rage and obstinacy may lead him to sue, even at the cost of ruining himself in the process.
And love commits us to a relationship. A Dutch ornithologist discovered that if the male of a pair of breeding blue tits is wounded, the female will quickly seek another male to mate with, behavior we regard as callous. Another observation is of a pair of breeding storks that don’t recognize each other at each annual reunion but simply return to the same nesting site. In humans, ‘our emotions,’ as Frank has put it, ‘are likely guarantees of our commitment.’ ( R Ch 7.)
So where are we now? What Game Theory indicates is that reciprocal altruism, a provisional altruism, is an environmentally stable survival strategy and is therefore as genetically based as is aggressive self interest, two diverse genetic instincts with two opposing drives, in humans processed by our complex brains, ( don’t forget that the human brain is different from the brains of other animals,) and reacting within complex cultural environments. What other living species are able to create cultures, reflect on experience, imagine new scenarios or empathize with the experiences of others, as we do?
What emerges as the bottom line, of course, is that we are stuck with an altruism that’s linked to genetic self interest, but as a biological species, could we realistically expect anything else? And what if, say, as children of the gods, we had been created as perfect beings, where would be the virtue in that – we couldn’t help being good.
More worthy that we humans hafta’ struggle seems ter me. And sometimes, as Robert Frank observes,’The honest individual is someone who values trustworthiness for its own sake. That he might receive a material payoff for his behavior is not his concern.’ (R Ch7.)
Jumping in the Deep End.
Well we’ve heard what he said, she said, so what do you and I think regarding the shifting sands on which we fallible humans build our value systems? Herewith a serfs leap in the dark.
Take friendship. There’s Michel de Montaigne, the most skeptical of men, who made a
life-time study of his own behavior but could find no motive for his friendship with Steven de la Boetie, – ‘that unspotted friendship which we have so sincerely, so entire and inviolably maintained between us … whereas there is no commerce or business depending on the same but itselfe … because it was he, because it was my selfe.’ (Montaigne Essay ‘Of Friendship.’)
Hmm … sounds like altruism ter me.
Then there’s that historic figure Socrates who died for his principles. Charged by the Athenian Senate with corrupting the youth of Athens through his teachings, Socrates refused to escape when urged to by his friends:
‘I cannot abandon the principles which I used to hold in the past simply because this accident has happened to me … Do you imagine a city can continue to exist and not be turned upside down, if the legal judgements which are pronounced in it have no force but are nullified and destroyed by private persons?’ (Crito, Plato.)
Sacrificing yer life fer yer principles …altruism, I’d say.
And then there’s those acts of sacrifice you occasionally read of in the newspapers where someone attempts to rescue a total stranger from drowning or a burning building, actions where the altruist sacrifices his or her life for others. Schopenhauer has something to say about this:
‘There is something really mysterious, something for which Reason can provide no explanation and for which no basis can be found in practical experience. It is nevertheless of common occurrence, and everyone has had the experience. It is not unknown even to the most hard hearted and self-interested. Examples appear everyday before our eyes of instant responses of this kind, without reflection, one person helping another, coming to his aid, even setting his own life in clear danger for someone he has seen for the first time, having nothing more in mind than the other is in peril of his life.’ (S.1840.)
And something else that’s really mysterious. I’d say, is the pursuit of the sublime that we find in great art. You know the feeling you sometimes get when you see the moon suddenly emerge from behind clouds, or hear a sudden call of a bird in the night, a kind of, well, rapture, the kind of experience you get from great art.
In ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,’ James Joyce examines this response to art, a feeling of unimpeded lyric life beyond the feelings of desire or aversion experienced in daily life. James Joyce observes that great art is ‘static’ unlike advertising art that moves you to desire, which he calls pornographic art, or proselytizing art, which is didactic, evoking aversion. The elements of great art are its wholeness, its harmony, and what Joyce describes as its radiance.
When you listen to great music like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
or view a great art work like Rembrandt’s etching, ‘Christ Healing the Sick,
the harmony of the parts to the whole, the perfection of the form, resonate with something inside us. Ego seems dissolved, as suggested by the famous lines of Henry Vaughan’s poem, ‘The World:’
‘I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great Ring of pure and endless light,
As calm as it was bright:’
In great Greek and Shakespearean tragedies we witness the ego driven responses of an Oedipus or a Macbeth with composure, our human understanding is enlarged beyond the merely didactic by this unified experience with its plenitude of values. The emotions invoked by great literature are our most generous and insightful regarding the human condition, pity, terror and empathy rather than loathing or aversion. And then there’s comedy, we laugh at our human weaknesses, so Jane Austin-ish, so uniquely a human attribute. Have yer heard the joke about the ….. ?
Can the striving for perfect form and its majestic or comedic achievement by a great artist be explained by the theory of the selfish gene? I do not know but I’d be surprised if it could. Can we find on the record, examples of selfless behavior that we recognize as truly altruistic? I’d say so, don’t know what you would say.