December 18, 2012

Two Types of Self-Interest

          Well, I haven't posted in a while, but that will change, as I've written a few essays for different classes that I will post soon. I recently was listening to Point of Inquiry and Richard Wiseman mentioned how people would come up to him and ask him how to write better, and he just asked them, "Have you written anything today?" To become a better writer...write! That was his message, and even if Gladwell was wrong about 10,000 hours, it still takes time doing something to become good at it. 

          Anyway onto the topic at hand, I was recently watching a presentation that first started talking about self-interest, and it threw the term around without ever really explaining what it meant, and in what sense he was using the term. More specifically, was talking about two different types of self-interest without ever distinguishing between the two different types.  There is a rational self-interest in an understanding of what would be the best for the individual in a given situation (if there was a plate of cookies it would be best for me to take them all and not share any) and a biological self-interest that isn’t a single calculation, but one ran over numerous generations (trimethylamine oxide being developed in the cells of the Greenland Shark due to it spending time in areas where those cells would normally freeze). The presentation talked about the self-interest of bee's and compared it to self-interest in people, but never took the time to explain the distinction made above.This led me to ask a question after the presentation, and I received a really strange response.

The question in question was, “There is a difference between biological self-interest that is calculated over thousands of generations and a rational self-interest in what you think would be best for yourself. People cannot make biologically self-interested choices, as they don’t have access to what would be successful in that way, so in what senses are what you talked about self-interested?”

The answer I received was a strange one, “First, I disagree with your premise that people don’t make biologically self-interested choices, and second I think that the poem on talks more about biological self-interest.”  Now this left me baffled, as it seemed apparent that this person thought that to make a moral decisions (it was a class is ethics) someone consciously weighted out all the evolutionary advantages to doing something, and acted on what was best, or they innately knew what was a good evolutionary decision and always acted on it.

The first way is easily shown to be flawed because, 1) even if someone made a calculation there is no way to be sure of what the future holds, so it necessarily has to be something that is determined over time and never at a single instance and 2) there is no way to way a person has access to all the information needed to make the decision in the first place, or even enough to consistently weigh a small portion of that information to make a quick decision.

The second way is also just as deeply flawed, as Dawkins shows when he talks about society and biology in The Selfish Gene when he points out the ‘unnaturalness’ of the desirable welfare state. He explains that, “What has happened in modern civilized man is that family sizes are no longer limited by the finite resources that the individual parents can provide. If a husband and wife have more children than they can feed, the state, which means the rest of the population, simply steps in and keeps the surplus children alive and healthy. There is, in fact, nothing to stop a couple with no material resources at all having and rearing precisely as many children as the woman can physically bear. But the welfare state is a very unnatural thing.”

This pretty much sums it up, if people innately knew what was naturally best for them then they would be acting in accordance with what Dawkins said and be completely abusing the welfare state, until it became a version of the tragedy of the commons.  There is a commonly understood ‘evolutionary lag’ where evolution is always a step behind changes to the environment, as it takes time to have the number of generations that adjust to it. Another phenomenon is that evolution is limited to what is available in positive genetic changes: evolution can’t take backward steps. This means that evolution can’t go in a different direction that would be better in the long run, if it would cause decreased fitness for an extended period. This means that even if evolution determined decision making existed with no evolutionary lag, the process of evolution still wouldn’t necessarily be able to make evolutionarily optimal decisions.   

All this reminds me of J. B. S. Haldane quote when asked if he would risk his life to save a drowning brother, he responded, “No, but I would to save two brothers or eight cousins.” I think this quote alone is enough to point out the point out the absurdity of evolution directly controlling moral decision making, as no one thinks in this way and that’s why it’s funny. It doesn't have to micromanage each individual decision, as it can instill general principles that are effective. This is different than making evolution the decider of morality, and instead makes it create a general framework.
       Anyway, people can make decisions that they view as in their self-interest and this may or may not be in line with peoples biological self-interest, but if you’re talking about what self-interest is, especially when jumping back and forth between people and animals, it would be important to note the distinction.