Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Veganism, solution to world hunger? Is it all it's cracked up to be?

A couple of interesting posts on the subject:

and a follow-up post.

There is a lot of data, and extrapolation from data in the two posts, but fascinating nonetheless.

Altruism, Selfishness and the non-falsifiable hypothesis.

This interesting post at the NYT philosophy blog raises many interesting points with regard to the motivations human beings have for altruism. Among the questions it raises, is an old one: Is it always the case that we behave altruistically in order to acquire something for ourselves (be it "warm fuzzy" good feelings, reputation, or the more complex acquisition of 'becoming the sort of person we want to be')?

According to the psychological egoist (PE), we always act from self interested motivation, even if we are not aware of it, even if we vigorously protest that we are not acting from self interest.

Consider each of the alleged desired acquisitions listed above. The PE has a ready answer to the altruist's protestations.

Look, you give to the charity, work at the soup kitchen, do something to save lives, run to the rescue, even jump on a grenade because at some level, you really desire the warm fuzzy feelings that result. Acquisition of those feelings is your true goal. Some desire the increased reputation that will accrue to them as other people see what they have done. Still others wish to avoid being of a personality type they detest, so they take pains to develop the character traits opposed, so, among other things they behave altruistically in the interests of that primary goal.

Now, ask yourself, 'is there any way to show that these explanations provided by the PE theorist are false?'

No matter what you say in protest, the PE can say, either that there is some hidden self-interested motivation, or he can say that you are in denial, or simply unable to see the unconscious motivations.

How to respond to the PE? Two different ways. One, comes thanks to Karl Popper, Austrian philosopher of science. He says something like this: Look Clyde, just because you can make use of your theory to craft explanations of all possible data, does not entitle you to concluding that your theory is true. Here's a silly example to illustrate. Behold, the Plant Genie Theory of Plant Growth:

Chemistry and physics tell us, or rather summarize for us observable behaviors of the molecules and cellular machinery that allows plants to take up material, metabolize, and construct themselves. BUT, all of that high falootin'stuff simply does not explain how it is all those constituent parts of the plant are moving around and carrying out all the tasks. Well. They are being moved around by invisible and undetectable plant genies that have tiny and invisible plant genie hand-trucks, and what not, with which they move the things. You cannot possibly show that this theory is false. What is more, it is able to explain all plant growth behavior. It can also explain how it is plants stop growing and die. Simple. The genies leave the plant, move on to others. There is no need to do further research in biochemistry, that's all surface stuff anyway. The plant genies are where it's at.

Popper's point: this theory can explain everything, and we cannot ever show that it is false. Therefore, as an explanatory theory it is perfectly useless. For the exact same reasons psychological egoism is a perfectly useless explanatory theory.

Way #2 to respond to PE. One has to ask, with reference to the good feeling, and the value put upon altruistic character traits, why it is that beings purportedly hard-wired to be motivated only by self interest, would tend to have warm fuzzy feelings when helping others, and also tend to value and admire such character traits, in the first place. Shouldn't that in fact be psychologically impossible? A bit like a cat seeing color. If our hardware does not allow us to "see" or experience something, then how the hell can we "see" or experience it? It is much easier to explain the feelings and valuations if we posit them as the natural result of satisfying essentially altruistic motivations. We get good feelings any time we satisfy desires or motivations, be they selfish or not. The most direct route to explaining the 'warm fuzzies' is to posit the altruistic motivations as equally basic and well, the selfish (even if they are not as strong as the selfish.) It seems reasonable to argue that we are a mixed bag motivation wise. We are at essence both social and self-interested. Aristotle says as much.

I think it's a dodge to say "oh well, all that has been socially conditioned. If it were not for education and socialization, there would be no such valuations and feelings." For, that really only pushes the question back a step. It may be the case that political society was formed as a sort of Hobbesian contract between self-interested players, but even then, altruistic character traits are admired, warm fuzzies accrue, and people are quite attached to thoroughgoing modes of behavior that are social. Most do not take advantage in Ring of Gyges type situations, and, what is more, condemn such behavior. If you ask them why, they do not all say "because if we don't condemn it, more people will behave that way and it might hurt me'. Instead they often condemn on the grounds that such behavior hurts others, knowing full well it does not hurt them individually, and poses no risk of future harm for them.

The question really boils down to this for the PE: Why would cooperation even occur as an intelligible option to thoroughly selfish beings. In nature there are many species that are "social" only briefly, long enough to raise the young. Adults live in basic isolation from one another, and are territorial, and will fight or flee when seeing others of their species. Think Grizzly Bear.

So, why, if we are indeed hardwired to be selfish, are we not rational creatures, but rational creatures that live in isolation from one another, quite literally concerned only with our own several 'well beings'? It seems to be the case that IF we were such thoroughly selfish creatures as the PE represents us to be, we'd be more than willing to forgo the benefits of cooperation and its attendant ceding of power, or social cooperation would tend to be intermittent and prone to dissolution much more often than it is.