[N]othing is so soon corrupted by power-seeking as altruism."
— Odo "The Day Before the Revolution"
"Since when was altruism an Odonian virtue?”
"I am no altruist!" — Shevek in
The Dispossessed (chs. 8, 11)
Odo may misspeak in her reservations about altruism (it turns out she's dying and may be confused), and Shevek is the hero of The Dispossessed but definitely fallible. Still, as Dan Sabia points out in a fine passage on altruism in "Individual and Community in Le Guin’s The Dispossessed" (pp. 119-20 [pdf 147-48]) — and I argued about the same time — the upshot is that Le Guin's Odonianism isn't keen on altruism, and Le Guin herself is at least skeptical.
That may surprise people who sensibly assume any communal society requires a good deal of altruism and that an anarchy (pure society: no State, no government) would require a great deal of altruism. That may be the case, but Le Guin presents a thought-experiment where an anarchistic culture, society, and economy work with normal humans: a species — well, genus in these stories — that's clearly social but whose members are not reliably altruistic.
I liked the doubts on altruism when I came across them in Le Guin's work, in large part for the good human reason that even in my early 30's when I encountered the stories, I had long shared such doubts.
A relatively quick story.
Arguably, I'm about as pathetic as Al Bundy on Married … With Children insofar as I pretty well peaked at age 17. I wasn't some Bundy-esque high school jock, but, about 1960, at age 17 or so, I became president of The Merton Davis Memorial Foundation for Crippling Diseases of Children. Relevant here is the election meeting and, so to speak, my inaugural address to our executive committee.
I was later told that the outgoing officers who'd engineered my selection had been somewhat worried about me. I'd been a good soldier under their command — hard-working, obedient, and respectful and all — but the obedience and respect part, and some perceived excess of idealism, had them a little concerned: they thought I'd be too diffident to lead.
My little speech dispelled that belief. I'd been a good soldier and carried out orders, and I wanted people to do that for me now that I was in charge.
I also wanted my executive committee to work hard and explained that idealism and altruism probably wouldn't be enough for the necessary level of work.
I served the organization is part out of youthful idealism but only a small part. My major motivation was that I'd had Legg-Perthes disease as a child and had only fully recovered from it a couple years earlier. By coincidence, just as in a matter of chance, my father had also had Legg-Perthes disease at the age I got it, possibly triggered in each case by the same sort of accident (he'd fallen while climbing a tree; I'd fallen off a swing set while trying to walk across the top bar of the swing set). The difference in our experience was that my father had been put into a cast and traction and had a year pretty well cut out of his life; my parents, on the other hand had been lucky enough — and maybe my father had been insistent enough — to find an orthopedist who was trying a "First, do no harm" approach and just kept watch on the disintegration of my left (or maybe right) hip joint. Basically I was told to "Let pain be your guide" and led a normal life, except insofar as I got most of my serious exercise swimming rather than on land.
The passive medical approach took some chutzpah on the part of the orthopedist; the X-rays looked really scary, and, of course, hotshot physicians in the Cold War Era were (and remain to this day) supposed to DO SOMETHING!! about scary diseases.
Anyway, the ball and socket on my hip grew back so well I'm not sure which hip was affected, and the only serious concern is if there were any ill effects from a decade of hip X-rays at 1940s-50s standards for exposure to radiation, X-rays that necessarily passed through my genitals. (Only in my last set of X-rays did the lab tech get around to putting a shield over my testicles.)
My father and I had both been mildly diddled by the Goddess Fortune — I've linked to at least one image that will help you picture Her with a suitable Wheel — in getting a rare disease at all, but compared my father, I had seriously lucked out.
So I owed. And serving The Merton Davis Memorial Foundation for Crippling Diseases of Children went a long way toward paying the debt.
That part of my motivation had to do with my sense of self, my integrity, my honor: which, in themselves, have nothing to do with altruism since I didn't have to give a rat's ass about crippled kids; I had dues to pay.
Actually,I could identify with and did care about crippled kids, but more important was that Pride thing in my not wanting to owe nobody nuthin', plus whatever standard weird psychodynamics were going on with my relationship with my father. And there was the Pride thing big time in being president of a charitable foundation at 17.
I told my executive committee I wanted them to have similar motivations: some idealism, a touch of altruism, but enough of the down-and-dirty basic human motivations of being on the executive committee of a charitable foundation while still in one's teens and being pretty hot shit, as we used to say, in the world of Chicago North Side (mostly Jewish) high school fraternities and sororities.
By junior/senior year of high school, I'd observed enough human behavior to know that altruism exists and is a beautiful thing, but I'd learned that altruism isn't to be depended upon for the long haul, or even a year's service running a charity.
Self-interest, preferably — not necessarily — enlightened self-interest, provides a more solid basis for human action, including doing good.
At least in the world Le Guin created for The Dispossessed and "The Day Before the Revolution," communist anarchism could work because it served most people's self interest well, and in any event better than capital "C" State Communism and Capitalism.
You don't have to accept Odo's ideas or Le Guin's or mine on how to move toward The Good Society, not here anyway. The point here is on motivating people and that offering rewards for people doing what you think is right is better — more effective to start with, but also better — than appeals to altruism or, I'll now add, to guilt.
This is part of what ticks me off about too much stress on victimization of women, African-Americans, Native Americans, Jews, et al.
Consider the following literally pragmatic argument (what respectable thinkers would call vulgar pragmatism, to which I'll cheerfully admit).
If the more militant analyses of US culture by the most radical women and Blacks of the 1970s were correct — and there is much to be said for those analyses — then White privilege and patriarchy operate to direct most wealth to White males and leave everyone else relatively poor and pretty much powerless. Okay, but if that is the case, action by White males would be necessary for any significant changes since a revolution from below would be doomed — see that bit about powerlessness — and the only motivation to help would be either an overpowering sense of guilt or altruism.
So long as radical women and Blacks could plausibly threaten disruption and even property damage, there was the possibility of more centrist sorts wringing concessions out of the power elite (those old White men).
There's only so long that militant enthusiasm can operate, however, and a time limit on how long mass movements can move: people leave the streets; the power elite and their bureaucrats stay; and we see "Backlash" (under Richard M. Nixon) and then "Rollback" (Ronald Reagan through today).
You end up better off then you started — "Two steps forward, 1.7 steps back" — but there is only rarely radical change: change from the roots up.
Most of the time that's just as well with radical ideas and mass movements since, to recycle one of George F. Wills's correct ideas, most new ideas are wrong, and mass movements do tend to get nasty. The goals of the Movement of the mid-20th c. however, were right, and they were important.
It is necessary to vent gripes and publicize past and continuing wrongs. And it's necessary to do so frequently since the American people are chronically amnesiac, and American media have the attention span of beagle puppies. After that, and while doing that, however, to implement necessary changes one needs nuanced analysis, and building of coalitions.
Some basics for those projects:
* "The White Man" and "The Man" are abstractions. Actually-existing Whites and men (or whatever) share privilege and power very unequally, as it is becoming fashionable to point out.
* White privilege and patriarchy are ways to bring together groups of people who can feel privileged because they/we are — relative to the nearest sets of "wogs," including women. These abstract mass groupings (these binary opposites) however, are a thin overlay over a much more significant social model of the power-and-economic pyramid. At the top of the pyramid are those who have, and nowadays again have big; while further down is everybody else.
Indeed we are not beyond racial and sexual divisions; but it is time to get back to that old time Leftism that notes that White guys with a little bit of power and privilege — guys with a decent union, say — have only a little bit of power and privilege and might have more with more equitable distribution of wealth.
Or would locally: things get more complex if one wants "All men" and women "created equal" and living somewhat equally, and want to bring into the equation, say, most Africans or most humans generally.
At least in terms of American politics, we could use less slathering on of guilt and implicit reliance on altruism and more appeals to Pride-based honor and self-interest. "Guilt isn't inherited, but the loot is"; and we non-African-American Americans can be reminded that we've got a debt of honor to pay Blacks and that the serious issue is how best to go about paying it down a bit. Meanwhile we White guys should be dealing with reparations and other issues of fairness and wealth-distribution not out of altruism, and not only as a matter of honor, but also from self-interest.
Maybe not 99% of us, but most of us will be better off in a world that is fairer, more just, more equal.
Altruism exists, and it's a beautiful thing. Holiness also exits, though I found it as upsetting as beautiful, but I've encountered holiness exactly once. You should count on altruism only slightly more than actual holiness for politics.
As a practical matter, activists must count on coalitions, and the technique of building them starts with getting your grievances out there quickly and then talking to ordinary people, who always have near the core of our basic motivations that crucial question, "What's in it for me?" The question isn't just nearly inevitable; it's also legitimate, and people who want major social changes need good answers.