Pricing Compassion

Lee Daniel Crocker (
Fri, 21 Feb 1997 20:23:32 -0800 (PST)

Some legitimate questions have been raised here that deserve a
more thourough treatment than Rand's dogmatic dismissals and
Friedman's silent avoidance. In particular, how do we resolve
radical individualist ethics with human compassion and certain
apparently positive aspects of altruism?

Two-person relationships like romantic or filial love can be
treated as mutual agreements, and are pretty easy to fit into
individualist ethics. Love is a contract. Relationships are
a value to both involved, or they are unstable and destructive.
The more interesting question is that of selfless altruism.

First I recognize that there are drives in human nature that
predispose me to certain altruistic practices, whether I rationally
judge them moral or not. If it were my son in danger, I would
risk considerable danger to myself to rescue him, without question.
But I also know /why/ those drives are there, which has nothing to
do with my rational moral choices: evolution. Genes that caused
fathers to rescue their sons prospered, because those sons were
the gene's mode of travel to the next generation. Other altruistic
behaviors not kin-linked can also evolve based on reciprocity.
Birds and apes that groom each other suffer fewer parasites than
those that don't, and so are more successful. But there are also
evolutionary drives of the same sort that predispose me to kill
my stepchildren and cheat on my wife. I therefore reject human
nature, as shaped by evolutionary forces we understand pretty well,
as a valid source for moral behavior.

There is a second reason to do so, even with altruistic behavoirs.
That is the fact that evolutionarily stable strategies are rarely
optimal strategies. The prisoners' dilemma is a classic example.
Even iterated encounters will generally settle into strategies that
are less exploitable, but sub-optimal.

Humans have an advantage over other beings: we can change the rules
of the game. We can jump outside the system. With imagination and
free will, we can find other strategies that we weren't born with,
and practice them, and teach them.

Even if I reject human nature as a source of moral guidance, I might
still accept its existence as a fact in determining personal values.
That is, even if I reject basing my actions upon emotional desires,
I might recognize that they make certain things valuable to me, and
I will act rationally to obtain those values. This offers us no help
in determining what those rational actions might be, so it is still
rather unsatisfying.

There is, I think, a better way to look at certain acts of unilateral
altruism as a positive self-interest, and that is simply to recognize
that interaction with others fills the vast majority of your time on
this planet, and one cannot practically pre-negotiate contracts with
every other human you might meet, it makes sense to create /principles/
of behavior that facilitate everyone's smooth interaction with others.
Non-violence is the most obvious such principle, and a good one. It
serves to maximize the potential of the use of the mind, by removing
from the equation a major restraint. A mind under compulsion is not
a mind at all; it cannot reason and choose freely.

But that alone is not sufficient for positively altruistic behaviors
to arise. Benevolence can still be rational for several reasons: (1)
since you obtain most of your values by trade with others, assisting a
stranger in some way at a small cost to yourself may benefit you in
the amount of that stranger's potential value to you at a later time.
(2) Even with no direct benefit to you, that stranger may be a value
to others, who will then be of more value to you. (3) Even if there
were no potential benefit to you personally, the /principle/ of
benevolence benefits you when generally practiced, just like the
principle of non-violence.

Benevolence and non-violence are probably not evolutionarily stable
strategies, in that they are susceptible to exploitation. But they
are probably optimal strategies, and as humans we can change the rules
of the game--structure society--so that they become standards that
win out by pure numbers, or are held stable by institutions designed
to maintain them.

That still leaves a few situations that might make some individualists
uncomfortable. For one, what is the value to you of more than small
risk in the service of others, i.e., heroism? Is a volunteer fire
fighter rationally moral? For another, why do we judge as immoral or
callous one who simply refrains from a benevolent act, even one of
little risk, when we must assume he is as good a judge of the risks
and rewards to himself as we are?

I must admit that I can find no rational motive for either of these
reactions, despite the fact that I feel them too. I admire volunteer
firemen, but I cannot judge their actions as rationally moral by the
standards I choose. I must judge them self-sacrificing altruists,
because fire protection is a service that the market is capable of
prividing for pay, and providing it that way is likely to lead to more
advances of human potential. I look with scorn at the teenager who
does not give his train seat to an elderly woman; but I can find no
rational justification for this feeling either. I must simply resort
to feeling the way I feel, and try not to act on that. It would be
unreasonable to simply assume that it is moral to do so, and then
stretch for a reason--that's creationist reasoning. I must chalk it
up for now as a quirk of human nature, until I can find some other
rational explanation.

Lee Daniel Crocker <>