Intuitions and Ideology

Is it a common intuition among philosophers that human beings are naturally self-centered.?  We don’t, such a story could go, actually give a damn about others’ survival, but for various reasons – largely for our own good – we need to act otherwise.   My sense is that this is a wide-spread belief in the profession, and indeed when it surfaces, I end up feeling I should find another field, despite the empirical and transcental arguments I have heard for “the impossibility of altruism.”  Are such intuitions, if they do exist, the product of rational reflection or do they more often mirror deeply popular ways of regarding ourselves?  That is, are they more a matter of ideologies?

In any case, it now  seems that such intuitions  may well be quite wrong.  There has already been  interesting evidence that reciprocity is a deep seated need for the human psyche.  And theorists  such as Sarah Hrdy have argued that female groups formed to raise infants are not inherently selfish agents.  But  the NY Times reports empirical backing for an even more stunning idea.  What distinguished human beings from chimps in the earliest stages of our split from them is the difference in cooperating with and learning from others:

Anthropologists studying living hunter-gatherers have radically revised their view of how early human societies were structured, a shift that yields new insights into how humans evolved away from apes.

Early human groups, according to the new view, would have been more cooperative and willing to learn from one another than the chimpanzees from which human ancestors split about five million years ago. The advantages of cooperation and social learning then propelled the incipient human groups along a different evolutionary path. …  Group selection could possibly act at the level of the tribe, Dr. Hill said, meaning that tribes with highly cooperative members would prevail over those that were less cohesive, thus promoting genes for cooperation.

And what is part of all this?  Pair bonding:

The finding corroborates an influential new view of early human origins advanced by Bernard Chapais, a primatologist at the University of Montreal, in his book “Primeval Kinship” (2008). Dr. Chapais showed how a simple development, the emergence of a pair bond between male and female, would have allowed people to recognize their relatives, something chimps can do only to a limited extent. When family members dispersed to other bands, they would be recognized and neighboring bands would cooperate instead of fighting to the death as chimp groups do.

I’m left wondering about philosophical intuitions.  Is it right that many people have found “foundational selfishness” an intuitively attractive view?  If so, does that tell us that books such as The Selfish Gene are just internalized?  Are intuitions, despite many people’s claims for their source in reason, too often a reflection of wide-spread academic beliefs?

28 thoughts on “Intuitions and Ideology

  1. I’m not sure what The Selfish Gene has to do with the rest of your post – presumably accepting the genic perspective on evolution that it defends would make one less prone to regard persons as foundationally selfish (setting aside issues about the specialised meaning of “selfish” in the book’s title).

  2. For a slightly different angle on the same point: the assumption that people seek only material benefits for themselves in economics and political science has been challenged by some, most saliently by the first woman to win a Nobel Prize for economics: Elinor Ostrom. A short concise piece that is not too technical but contains all the relevant points is “Revising theory in light of experimental findings.” It is really neat how she begins with abstract game-theoretical predictions, questions them, and finds that the path leads to how humans learn norms in childhood. (Ref: “Revising theory in light of experimental findings” by Elinor Ostrom , Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 73 (2010) 68 – 72.)

  3. Default capitalist theology, ie Econ 101, is rational choice theory, which is deeply a self-interest theory. Thanks so much for this post. I think the prisoner’s dilemma indicates we’re profoundly social beings. Even self-interest accounts for the other somehow.

  4. Awesome post! Although, in the end, I wonder if you’re giving credit to ideas (like Dawkin’s Seflish Gene) for generating “selfish intuitions” at the expense of looking at where those ideas come from vis-a-vis material social conditions. I mean, if selfishness intuitively /makes sense/ then that points at something in the world of practical cause-and-effect that’s giving it traction and not just a deluded reflection of it. Otherwise, how else would views like Dawkins’ grip those of us they do in the first place? I’m not really suggesting anything that Marx didn’t when he went after methodological individualism and “contemplative materialism” in his Theses on Feuerbach.

  5. Many people have been self-proclaimed egoists for quite some time. I think philosophers actually tend to oppose egoism more than a lot of other people. I don’t find it intuitive to think we are egoists, but certainly many other people do see it that way. Egoist assumptions often seem to get in the way of teaching the importance of morality.

  6. As far as I can see, philosophers’ intutions, as you suggest above, generally reflect their ideologies, their class, their superstructural role in the economy, their gender, their cultural background.

    It never fails to surprise me how unconscious of that ideological structure supposedly self-aware people are.

  7. I guess I’m not sure how common an intuition must be to count as “common”, but I guess I’d say I’d be quite surprised if a _majority_ of philosophers working in ethics, political philosophy, philosophy of the social sciences, philosophy of biology, and other fields that a read a fair amount of held the intuition that “human beings are naturally self-centered” in any deep or important way. Even Hobbes didn’t hold it exclusively! We should also want to separate out methodological stances from claims about something deep about human nature. So, Jon Elster’s work, for example, is an example of methodological individualism in many ways, but it doesn’t depend on or support this intuition in any clear way, especially if it’s taken to be something deep.

    Philosophy, of course, is full of lots of people who believe all sorts of things, and I don’t doubt that there is a significant number who have this intuition in a clearly dumb form. But I’d be quite surprised if it were a majority position or even a very large minority one (say, above 35%) among people working in the fields where it would be most relevant.

  8. I think I’m with Matt on this one. I thought ‘we’ ethicists were done with this hypothesis (for the most part, anyway) by the early modern period. As Matt rightly points out, even the philosophers who were then by their peers referred to as holding the “selfish hypothesis” didn’t believe quite the thesis described. And as for the importance of ‘pair bonding’ in the development of a sense of common interest (& the topic more generally), as utterly predictable as I know it is that I’m about to do this, I still can’t resist: T

  9. Worth recalling, perhaps, the opening line of Adam Smith’s _Theory of Moral Sentiments_?

    “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”

    One can hold, with Smith and quite plausibly, that self-interest is a dominant motive in our behavior in a wide range of contexts, without holding the position that self-interest is the only motivator.

  10. I’m not an ethicist–never even took an ethics course–so my intuitions are uncorrupted.

    The idea that people are selfish seems to me intuitive. I remember as a kid thinking that everything was a zero sum game: whatever made me better off made others worse off because there was only so much good stuff to go around. Being good I thought meant making others better off at one’s own expense so I decided I had no interest in being good. It was only a huge insight somewhere in early adolescence to realize that sometimes it wasn’t just a matter of competing for a finite amount of good stuff. I still think though that in most of our transactions we are playing zero sum games: there are only so many winning lottery tickets, philosophy jobs and drumsticks to go around.

    So this raises the “why should I be moral question”–and not being an ethicist I don’t know the respectable answers. But I suppose my motivation is modal safety. I support actual policies that will benefit my counterparts at nearby possible worlds which benefit people other than me in the actual world. Every time I go through the supermarket checkout I think how narrowly I escaped being a supermarket checker, how my counterparts at nearby possible worlds are doing pink-collar shit work. I also see guys doing various kinds of construction and handyman work and am dismayed that my closest counterparts (who I assume are female) couldn’t get those jobs. So I’m in a precarious modal position: at nearby worlds where I don’t manage to grab the brass ring–which I don’t get a PhD and academic job–my counterparts will be stuck being secretaries, supermarket checkers or whatever because they will not be able to get any of those guy jobs that I and my close counterparts would find tolerable as fallback positions.

    This is what motivates my feminist commitments and activities. I want to move those worlds at which I do pink-collar work further away–and bring the worlds at which I do blue-collar work closer.

    Does this count as egoistic concern or is it altruistic insofar as I believe in counterpart theory? Would it make any difference if I believed in transworld identity? The bottom line though is that when I reflect on what motivates my moral concern it’s almost never sympathy for other people but empathy–the recognition that I could be in their shoes. And isn’t that just a fancy metaphysical way of framing the Golden Rule?

  11. H.E. :

    It’s empathy in my case too.

    However, not everyone wants the drumstick: I’m a vegetarian.
    That is: it’s not always a zero sum game, because not everyone wants the same thing.

    And aren’t many of our wants socially conditioned? There may be a limited amount of I-phones to buy or of money to buy I-phones, but why do I want an I-phone?

    Perhaps I may want to live in a society in which people recognize each other as significant. Perhaps wanting to live in a society in which people recognize each other as significant trumps having an I-phone for me.

  12. Thanks for the host of great comments! I hope I don’t herewith stop them.
    I should know better than to say anything about ethics on this blog. Still, I think it is important that I was asking about intuitions and not theories. So the question arises: how could you tell anything about intuitions independently of the theories one might hold?
    One thing one might ask is whether theorists think their non-egoism theory is inborn or somehow acquired. If they think it is acquired, then presumably it is at least possible that in the state of nature, it’s each one for one’s self. Or maybe. The anthropological evidence is really about the state of nature.

    But another way is to look at what people assent to. I’m not sure what people would say now in reply to a lecture that evolution doesn’t provide altruism; its now on empirically shaky grounds. I’ve sat through a lot of them and my sense is that until recently people thought that made sense. I think it was principally feminists who first took this on, but I may be wrong here.

    Thirdly, one could look at what people say on the topic of pair-bonding versus men having a tendency to want multiple partners. I don’t think I’ve discussed this with anyone who didn’t say men were constrained only by fear of being caught. Well, except for a very few people, among them my partner. (Perhaps he was under pressure??)

    Finally, one might look at whether most people explain others’ actions by asking “well, what was in it for her/him.” In my experience, this form of explanation – perhaps sanctioned by Freud – is ubiquitous. I think it should be stamped out, actually.

  13. I meant to add Annette Baier’s comment that men see morality as like a system of rules for the road. Once one has bought into such a system, one can’t just do what one wants, but one’s own safety is a primary reason for endorsing such things.

  14. such an interesting conversation, thanks!

    i’m especially interested, jj, in the implications you draw out here for intuitions. because of my training, i find the idea of intuitions confusing or unhelpful for precisely the reasons you note here. the idea that we might have intuitions that are fundamentally ours or that belong fundamentally to us, including the idea that such intuitions might be *uncorrupted* (i know this was tongue-in-cheek, h.e. baber, but it’s nevertheless interesting!), is just strange to me. of course we live in a culture or under an ideology that benefits from faith in selfish individualism. of course, i’m also skeptical of intuitions that these intuitions are rooted in nature, or rooted in primate or early human behavior. or at least i’d like to pursue the question of to what degree this works as an explanatory mechanism.

    but more to the point, what is the value of intuitions? how can intuitions be separated out from beliefs, as you say, jj, or ideologies (beliefs that have been “socially constructed,” we might say)? and what value are they when they have been separated out? i’m thinking here of some of the x-phi experiments for “folk intutions”: what are these experiments testing for, really? what are we trying to get at with these? are they simply the just-so stories that re-affirm what we, as subjects constructed (or conditioned, if you prefer) by a society or a world that relies upon the ideology of selfish individualism, cannot not believe to some extent?

    in conclusion, basically what joe said.

  15. De gustibus. I want that drumstick and iPhone.

    Seriously I think one difficulty the Left has in selling itself (in the US in particular) is it seems dominated by inherently nice people who authentically prefer “recognition of one another as significant” to iPhones, who are moved by talk about “the common good” and who aren’t natural Hobbesians as I am. They just don’t bellyful that attraction of Ayn Rand and ask questions like, “Why do some guys go around beating people up?” rather than “Why do some guys who could if they wanted to refrain from beating people up?”

    As I said, I’m on the left politically because of empathy rather than sympathy: I want other people to have iPhones and drumsticks because I could be in their position. I’m no ethicist, but I think you can defend moral (and political) decency to people like me who, for whatever reason (nature or nurture) aren’t moved by “common good” considerations and would, if there weren’t compelling reasons not to, go around beating people up.

    Practically speaking, I see this a lot in students, particularly young male novice blowhards who are into (political not metaphysical) libertarianism because it feels good–and I understand how good it feels. I get one or two of these guys every year (here in the US). And I’m happy to show them what a real a beating feels like.

  16. There are so many great questions being asked. I wish I had answers. Maria Lugones, as I remember, has been concerned that “our” faith in belief-desire explanation is actually quite political, perhaps because in counting them as explanatory we implicitly suppose the person had alternatives. Joee, that seems to be one way in which we can see material culture giving rise to some things nearly as buried as implicit assumptions.

    SK, I wish I knew what to say about intuitions. I think in retrospect that for much of my philosophical life I tried to find some bedrock that wasn’t intuitions. Hence, neuroscience now, but there have been other foundations in the past, including historical texts. I’m willing to bet that I felt this because women who do not have the standard intuitions may not get a voice at all. In any case, this post started with my remembering a meeting long ago when I said something about the value of family bonds and all, without exception, of the men maintained I was being irrational.

  17. H.E:

    I find it very difficult to defend common good considerations to the Ayn Rand-set.

    However, that does not negate J.J. post about our “innate selfishness” being a socially constructed or conditioned (whatever the correct term is) ideology rather than something “natural” or “genetic”.

    By the way, it is interesting that Ayn Rand, as far as I know, does not sell well outside of the U.S. I’m not claiming that people outside the U.S. are less selfish, but simply that the ideology that selfishness is innate is not necessarily a part of all cultures. For example, there is the Aristotelian position that human are basically social animals, creatures of the polis.

  18. @ S. wallerstein, please let me make it clear that I have no sympathy for Ayn Rand intellectually. It’s pop poop. But I think that to respond to her followers you need to understand her appeal–and respond.

    I was an Ayn Rand follower–when I was 15. I read everything she wrote. By the time I was 16 I realized that it was b.s.

    But it’s important to understand the appeal. What’s appealing about her is that she represents herself as being tough and rational vis-a-vis the brutal irrationality of fascists and traditional conservatives and the sentimental some liberals. Of course this is baloney and we need to respond–IMHO by making the case that one can be a tough-minded liberal, that liberalism isn’t soft, that we can be hard, angry and aggressive.

    I can (I think) and do defend good left ethics and politics to the Ayn Rand set. I know where they’re coming from and understand their taste for the hard, angular and angry because I feel that way myself.

  19. H.E.:

    Don’t worry. I’ve read comments from you here in the past, and as I recall, even in the Guardian Comment is Free section and I am very aware that you are not currently an Ayn Rand follower.

    I live in Chile and I am always amazed to read that Ayn Rand is one of the most influential writers in the U.S. While I have seen her books in the public library, I have never run into anyone here who is a follower of her philosophy nor have I seen her works featured in bookstores or even in the same public library. Not that there aren’t people here who think exactly as Ayn Rand suggests that we think, but they don’t mention it to others.

    Of course, if you’re looking for a left ethics that is hard and angry, you need look no further than Marxism or some version of radical feminism. Ayn Rand has no monopoly of anger: she and the “harder” leftists are just angry about different things. I’ve never read anyone angrier, more full of righteous indignation than the classical Marxists or even the classical leftist critics of standard Marxist-Leninism, for example, Orwell. I read Orwell when I was 15 or 16, the Road to Wigan Pier: that’s the book that “converted” me.

  20. She’s not one of the most influential writers in the US–thank God!

    She’s more influential in the US than elsewhere because she wrote in the US, in the American idiom. And because her followers have succeeded into buying or butting their way into public, respectable places: they’ve managed to get their “objectivist” group meetings onto APA programs–which is comparable to chiropractors, acupuncturists and homeopaths getting a hearing at the AMA.

    It isn’t just anger we need but, even more so, rationality: tough-mindedness. And I’ve never been particularly impressed by Marxism or other departments of Continental “philosophy” in that regard. But I’ve been following the union activities in Wisconsin and hope something will emerge from that.

    The real disappointment for me is Obama. Not that I ever cared for him. We need someone who will beat the shit out of the opponents taking no prisoners. No “civility.” Just beat the crap out of conservatives by fair means or foul–humiliate and destroy them. I’m a utilitarian. Kill!

  21. “Maria Lugones, as I remember, has been concerned that ‘our’ faith in belief-desire explanation is actually quite political, perhaps because in counting them as explanatory we implicitly suppose the person had alternatives. Joee, that seems to be one way in which we can see material culture giving rise to some things nearly as buried as implicit assumptions.”

    Very much so. I want to say this observation dovetails with Levi Bryant’s observations on how New Atheists attack religion too much on the level of belief to the neglect of examining the lack of alternative communities.

  22. Actually, the Marxist tradition, if you ignore the Hegelian bullshit, is tough-minded and rational. Try Gramsci, but you probably have already read him.

    Marxism is not about preaching to those in power or about good intentions, but about taking power, about getting ordinary people to wake up to the fact that they are being screwed by the elites, about expropriating the expropriators, as Marx says.

    Easier said than done, you say, and you’re right.

    Obama: well, after reading Dreams from my Father, I can’t help liking him as a human being, but he faithfully represents the interests of the power elite, to be blunt and to expect otherwise is utopian.

  23. Don’t flatter me. I never even heard of Gramsci (though I’ll now have a look). I don’t do ethics or political philosophy.

    I never read Obama’s books either, but I detest stand him as a human being. What could be more of a turn-off to the working class than his remarks about their “clinging to guns and religion” or Michele’s campaign against childhood obesity in a country where fat is a class marker? Yeah: it’s easy to be skinny when you’re 6 feet tall. Right: grow you cute little garden on the Whitehouse grounds and preach about eating healthy. Most us don’t have the time or energy to crap around with this bullshit.

    C’mon, we need some real working class leftists, not these effete snobs. Something more on the lines of Lula–who rose form the union movement, lost part of a finger working as a machinist.

  24. Gramsci was working class, Italian, spent most of his adult life in Mussolini’s jails.

    His writings are mostly notebooks, with the virtues of notes, brevity and lack of dogmatism, but with the defect of notes, lack of continuity.

    Since they are notes, there is no one work of Gramsci that I can recommend. I have them in Spanish, and they are often organized
    (in Spanish) under various topics, on art, on history, on literature, etc.

    Gramsci basically puts what people think back into Marxism. He explores the concept of hegemony, how the dominant class (or elite)
    generates or creates an ideology, one which serves its interests and how that ideology becomes hegemonic in a given society. He also goes into what he calls “common sense”, that collection of folk “wisdom” which guides people’s lives and which is the product of a given culture, of a given class hegemony: for example, common sense tells us that everyone is basically selfish and that those without money are losers. Such beliefs are only “common sense” in the context of a certain type of society and in general serve the interests of the elites: in another society, those without money may be seen as holy, etc.

    Lula may come from the working class and may not be skinny, but after scaring capitalism with his former radicalism, once in power, his economic policies made the stock markets soar.

    Obesity, by the way, is a class marker in Chile too.

  25. this discussion is awesome.

    but might i submit, humbly, that what gramsci describes as common sense is really quite indebted to that hegelian bullshit. and if you’re looking for tough-mindedness, you could do much worse than hegel; what’s more tough-minded than the slaughterbench of history, anyway? that might indicate, however, reason enough to be skeptical as well of tough-minded rationality. not that i don’t appreciate the sentiment, h.e. baber! i would like to see some real commitment to political struggle as well.

    now i’m off to re-read my gramsci!

  26. Interesting stuff!

    In the argument about disappointment with Obama, it’s worth pointing out that “left” in mainstream US politics is to the right of most European centre ground, for example. (I can only speak of Europe; I don’t know enough about other continents’ politics.) For example, most left/centre-left parties in Europe will have some nodding acquaintance with Marxist class politics, but I doubt that the (US) Democratic Party has any sort of Marxist wing!

    H.E.B. I think indirectly points to part of the issue. Philosophers (well some philosophers!) like to present themselves as following where the rational argument leads.

    But I think the reality of philosophy, and most of our non-philosophical lives, is that we make decisions based on emotion (or intuition) then later we use rational argument to either confirm the decision, or to provide an intellectual justification. In fact, neurologically this is definitely the case: normally the left hemisphere of the brain concocts a plethora of possible explanations of the outside world and the right hemisphere reviews these explanations and rejects those which don’t hold water. Without the right hemisphere “editor” the left hemisphere’s wacky explanations will not be rejected and sufferers of right hemisphere lesions are prone to fabulation.

    That’s digressing, but (picking up H.E.B.) I think it’s true that we read and accept stuff that agrees with our pre-conceptions. We might revise our views but we rarely form our conclusions from the arguments.

    I think we are against child abuse, slavery, etc. not “because of X, Y and Z” but more because we feel that they are “wrong”, and we find arguments to support our views. It’s difficult to imagine a Marxist philosopher accepting an argument that capitalism is brilliant for everybody or a feminist philosopher agreeing that women are innately inferior, however good those arguments were.

    In science, there is a truism that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” (which is a natural concomitant of a Bayesian view) but there is a lesser appreciated effect that we do not critically review arguments or results that agree with our pre-conceptions with anything like the vigor that we employ against those that we disagree with.

    As an amusing and trivial f’rinstance from a couple of minutes ago: there’s a poll on going to conferences on this blog which I am not interested in: my eyes fooled me and I thought I noticed “Head lice” as one of the reasons – so I immediately looked properly and realised that this was just a brain fart, some random little bit of chaotic word association in my head. Had my brain thought it said “High prices” I wouldn’t have paid any attention, because (whether or not that’s actually an option) it’s entirely plausible.

    The big question is where we get our pre-conceptions (or intuitions?) from. To my eyes, it seems to be largely cultural. We are our parents’ children, our friends’ friends. But we don’t see that: ask most religious folk why they follow their religion and they’ll talk about the basis of their beliefs without recognising the obvious truth for most: they believe because that’s what their family and community do.

    The five word precis of the above: we are not fundamentally rational.

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