Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Altruism and Multiculturalism

Bill asks, "Is there such a thing as altruism? Or does all apparent altruism reduce to enlightened (or instinct-driven) self-interest?"
The basis for the question here is that for any act, we can always -- if we work hard enough -- find some advantage for the person acting. The usual move is to go psychological and say, "Well, it made you feel good." Since that advantage is there, we can never claim that the reason for acting is completely care for another.

There are two points worth making. First, claims about motivation are always notoriously on the fringe of unfalsifiability. If you don't find exactly what you want, the temptation is always there to go Freudian and pack it into the unconscious where there is no possible way to disprove it. Are there ulterior motives for people's actions? Sure. Are they always completely aware of them at the time of acting? No. But the move to automatically manufacture self-interest worries me.

Secondly, the move resembles bad evolutionary explanations. It is true that natural and sexual selection select for certain traits based on their advantages, but that does not mean that just by finding any advantage, no matter how minimal, in a trait that it was selected for much less that it was selected for that advantage. The move from genetics to expression involves a complex interaction of genes and many traits are accidental results. Similarly, an action may have been perfectly other-oriented in its motivation, but happen to have come along with advantageous fringe benefits.

I'm an optimistic cynic and have no problem with the idea of mixed motivations, but still saying that the primary motivation from people who do unpleasant, but nice things from a sense of duty are being morally good, if not altruistic, despite the fact that it might have some positive results for them that they could foresee.
P&C asked, "is there an ethics to multicultural? and what do you think about the argument that neo-racism appears in the form of cultural racism?"
A case of unintended consequences and a very tricky pair of questions. There is indeed an ethics to multiculturalism. It is based on two fundamental insights: (1) certain cultures, this one in particular, has a legacy of injustice attached to the unfair power distribution that was and in part still is) in place, and (2) there are positive contributions to be made to the culture by those with other experiences and perspectives. Since those who are suffering from the injustice also happen to be those who have a great value, it is doubly in the interest of the culture as a whole to level the playing field. This means erasing disadvantages by conveying local advantages. It is as if there was a race and half the people were forced to carry heavy weights where the other half weren't. After a while, someone calls foul and they are allowed to drop the weights, but they are already far behind in the race -- most of them, sure, there will be some incredible individuals who will be able to keep up despite the burden. If we then allow those who had the weight to advance, but not those who did not. It may look unfair to those who had the advantage, if they fail to take the long view, but in the larger scope, it is perfectly fair.

Now it is also true that this move may have the unintended consequence of leading people in either group to think that this correction means that these folks are naturally in need of help, that they are inferior and without aid could never keep up on their own. This is simply blindness to privilege. The best advice that was ever given to me was never do the same favor for anyone the first two times they ask. After the second time, it will cease to be a favor and become expected. Some folks, because of their place in society, have always had favors done for them. This doesn't mean they didn't have to work hard to get where they are, but they see only the hard work and not the favors that are done for them. Yes, the fear is always there that this leveling of the playing field will lead to the soft racism of low expectations and that blindness to privilge will cause some to think that their local advatage is unfair, and in some cases it is (Clarence Thomas, might be one such example), but overall I think these cases are far in the minority and that morality and justice are served in the large to a mauch greater extent despite the imperfections.