This is part 2 of a 2 part post. For the first part, click here.
What is the general valuation by which we measure human flourishing? We tend to think in terms of “human progress”. A nebulous word, but it tends to encompass societal, and not personal progress. We measure the general ways in which society has improved for the people in it, and not the exact progress of individual people.
After all, a monarch in the middle ages might still be considered “well-off” by today’s standards, but virtually no one (aside from willfully ignorant neoreactionaries) suggests that we should simply return to a medieval structure of running things.
The general level of living standard was simply so much lower compared to today. Today, so many more people have relatively easy lives, don’t have to work hard physical labor, and are well fed and get to have smartphones and televisions. So when we tend to think of human progress, we don’t think in individual terms, but in terms of the progress of living standards as a whole.
What is the single thread of history which has defined all human progress to this point? I would call it the thread of cooperation.
In the prehistoric ages, humans were confined to relatively small groups. They barely had spoken language, or if they did, it was probably very crude by today’s standards. Humans, like the animals before them, were organized into small local tribes. They hunted and foraged for food. They fought other tribes for local dominance.
At each increasing level of society, we can see increasing levels of communication. As people begin to evolve more complex linguistic forms over time and practice, they can communicate more effectively. They use this language to collaborate and cooperate. They work together to hunt food more effectively. They experiment and figure out how to farm. They make up stories to tell each other, and have interpersonal drama.
Agrarian societies require greater levels of communication. Complex coordination is required for people to build houses together, plant crops together, measure the seasons and figure out when the best and worst times to plant and harvest are. People don’t move around so much. They work together to provide for self defense against natural disasters and the possibility of being attacked by other tribes who want the valuable crops they grew from their own effort.
Over time, agrarian societies become more complex. They form into cities. Hierarchies have to form so that people can perform specialized labor. This all has to be coordinated with a common language. Written records become useful for settling disputes and keeping valuable information for later.
Politics comes into play. Societies fight with each other on a greater scale, and this leads to alliances of cities into common cultures. The Egyptians start using slaves to construct vast monuments to their religion and culture. The Greeks work out democracy and the Greek philosophers start having debates about the good life.
As states grow larger, faster and more effective forms of communication are needed so that everyone can work together efficiently. You have messengers by horse and merchants to carry information and goods between locations. Better roads reduce travel times and thus increase the speed of communication. Boats allow travel by sea. Feudalism arises as a way of organizing different territories into a hierarchy.
Eventually we start entering the modern era. The steam engine and the railroad vastly reduce travel times, further enhancing communication. The telegraph. The personal automobile. The telephone. The airplane. The personal computer and the internet. The cell phone. Translation software.
It would be a bad idea to say that there’s a causative connection between communication and human progress. Enhancing the possibility of communication doesn’t always mean instantaneous progress. But as societies grow, communication is a necessity. Without communication, societies can’t continue to grow bigger. One could consider it one of the necessary catalysts for progress.
One side effect of this is the growth of hierarchies. Flat hierarchical structures work well on a small scale (say, when you and your friends are deciding where to get take out) but don’t work so well for larger organizations (large companies, governments).
In order to limit the need for unnecessary communication between all parties (which can really slow things down - imagine if a CEO of McDonald’s had to spend all day listening to the issues that their burger flippers), hierarchies form to help better organize people into cooperative units. Likewise, division of labor ensures that people are roughly organized into efficiently performing the tasks that they're good at so that we can avoid the effort of teaching everyone to do little bits of everything.
Problems arise when communication breaks down. Hierarchies may not be well designed or organized. People may not want to listen to criticism about their job performance. One person might secretly be embezzling money from their company.
When clear communication and proper behavior breaks down, the whole system ceases to work, even when most of the people involved in the system aren’t necessarily at fault. Sometimes, it doesn’t take much to throw a wrench in the system, no matter how well-designed the system is.
Human beings accomplish by cooperating. When we build a building, this is the work of a lot of people working together - an architect (or team of architects) to design the building, a construction company to build it, and someone to pay for it.
Then, of course, there are lots of other societal structures that have to exist in order for that building to be able to be built. A government system of roads exists which allows us to transfer materials from one place to another, and this is paid for by taxes. Likewise, taxes pay for police who (generally) keep crime low so that your materials aren’t stolen en route.
A truck exists because we investigated the component pieces of science that make it move. The materials have to be purchased (where did the money come from?) from companies that have to gather them. The workers which the entire project employs are all paid in money for their labor, and then their money is paid to other people for food, shelter, clothing - you can see where this is going.
Virtually all industries are interconnected with all other industries. The whole system works because of generally agreed upon societal rules - no killing, pay your taxes, no speeding, etc. - that help to organize all of our efforts. Everything works because we have this unspoken value of cooperation. When people violate the rules, it causes problems. The systems break down. People don’t get a fair deal.
An unfortunate side effect of the interconnectedness of everything is that we can't always make easy changes to the entire system. It would be great if we could cut greenhouse emissions overnight, but even if this were possible, the disruption to all existing industries would be immense.
In 2009, all it took was one crooked market (housing) to send the entire United States into a recession. I don't directly have anything to do with the housing market, but I sure was impacted by the choices others made.
Meanwhile, auto bailouts weren't necessarily a good thing, but letting those businesses crash might have also caused huge shockwaves to an overall system that was in recovery. It's very hard to tell what the exact cost of such a possibility would have been, but suffice to say it would have been huge.
It doesn’t take much of a jump from here to realize that human beings only exist cooperatively. I can think of myself as the greatest thinker in the world, but this doesn’t really mean anything unless other people agree on this. On my own, my chances of inventing a car (without any previous knowledge of science or how physics works) are next to nil.
The reason that we have knowledge in general is because we communicate important gathered knowledge downwards across generations. I only know what physics is because lots of people who came before me bothered to sit down and spend a lifetime hammering out the rules. I can go to school to learn physics quickly thanks to their work, and then once I’m up to date on the current information, I can start muddling through the process of adding to the pile.
Likewise, if I’m a physicist, any contribution I make to the discipline will be passed down to future generations, who will be able to accomplish things I couldn’t dream of because I saved them this work.
The entire reason that we have all of the advancements that we have, as a society, is because we work together with each other. We only achieve things because others recognize our achievements, even if we put in all the work.
Ayn Rand sort of realizes this, even though she doesn’t go far enough to admit it. One of Rand’s favorite social constructs to define human interaction is the contract - a written or unwritten pact in which two people agree to cooperate for the sake of mutual benefit. Rand sees this as a way of preserving individuality in the face of the necessity of cooperation, but I would simply say that the contract itself is a kind of cooperation.
What Rand fails to recognize is that just because something is mandated contractually, doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily beneficial for both parties. Contracts can be flawed in the same way that all human interactions can be flawed.
People can be forced to sign contracts they don’t want to, or be tricked into signing contracts with worse deals than they thought, or they may willingly take personally damaging contracts because they have no other option. When I sign a job contract, I may or may not actually want that job - what matters is that I need the job, however much I might hate the work I’m doing.
Likewise, if I'm taking out an auto loan, I may not like the rate of interest, but it's probably the only one I can easily find in my area. If I need a car because my old one broke down and I have to get to work, I may be pressured into taking this deal even though I know that it's going to cost me more money than I would like in the long term.
Another form of cooperation that Rand adores - the exchange of money - can also be equally flawed. The price of goods may be set higher than their actual value in order for the seller to make a profit, and the price of my labor might be set lower than its actual value in order for my boss or company owner to make a profit. However, whether or not the exchange of money is actually a beneficial act for me (or for the person on the other end), it’s still a form of cooperation more than egotism. It’s a common agreement for the purposes of exchange.
Some people are smarter or more well-known than others. Exceptional performers in many fields stand out for a long time and are remembered through history. But - while they may be singularly astounding in their accomplishments, they’re also only capable of making those accomplishments thanks to the entire system which allows their accomplishments to take place. They’re not admirable for their own sake.
The reason that I find Arnold Schwarzenegger so impressive, for example, is that I'm a lifter and I recognize the hard work that went into his physique, as well as the luck of the draw when it came to having good genetics. To me, he's impressive. To someone who doesn't lift, or doesn't appreciate physical prowess, his accomplishments don't mean as much. Some people have never heard of him.
On a more practical level, many people are relatively famous or well-known or respected within certain circles, but are entirely unknown outside of those circles. I may be the best physicist in the world, but you can bet that I'm probably not running into people who recognize me on the street for my accomplishments. My accomplishments as a physicist only really matter to other physicists, or potentially to the general public if my scientific accomplishments have some practical benefit to their regular lives - if I made a technological breakthrough that enables Apple to make vastly improved smartphones, for example.
In short, even the most egotistical position is a cooperative position, in that being an egotist is only possible as a sort of position towards the general human state (cooperation). Likewise, altruism is also a cooperative position. Egotism and altruism are ways of defining your cooperative stance. It’s like saying you prefer the heads or the tails side of the coin - neither is more valuable than the other, and both are still just sides of the coin. This isn’t to suggest that they’re diametrically opposed, but just to suggest that they are always linked.
What does this mean for me?
If there should be one takeaway from this post, it’s that egotism and altruism aren’t really good ways of thinking about our actions within the world. Instead, we should be asking ourselves what kind of impacts our actions have.
If I perform action A, what effect will that have on myself? On the overall system? Is it possible that actions which benefit myself will also harm the overall system, leading to later harm to myself? Is it even possible to get free from (exist outside) the system? Is my overall effect on the system the kind of effect I want to have? Is it possible that I’m having effects on the overall system that I didn’t know about or consider before?
A really good book for considering systems theory is Donella Meadows’ Thinking In Systems: A Primer. It covers the ways in which basic systems (physics, chemistry) add up into more complex systems (organisms), and those into even more complex systems (culture, religion, scientific thought).
It also analyzes the ways in which these systems interact and the typical behavior of systems which come into contact with each other. It’s a bit hard to get through at times, but it’s easily one of the most comprehensive texts on the subject. It’ll get you an amazing overview of, well, how to think in systems.
What is the best path of behavior? I don’t think that there necessarily is one. Nor do I think that "ethical egotism" is really a possibility. But, by thinking intentionally about our behavior, and the kinds of effects our actions have, we can ensure that at the very least, we’re taking actions that are more optimal for both ourselves and for others.
- We consider human progress on cultural and societal, not individual, levels.
- Increasing levels of social progress require greater amounts of communication and cooperation.
- Hierarchies evolve as a way of ordering societies and streamlining communication.
- Virtually everything in a society is connected down to the smallest level. Significantly changing one variable can have impacts that affect the rest of the society whether they want to or not.
- Human actions only really make sense in a cooperative context which assumes that others exist.
- Human knowledge and achievement exists because our work is passed down to our descendants, who are able to add to the process piece by piece.
- Most people aren't just independently revered and respected - they only achieve things because other people value the kinds of things that they're capable of accomplishing.
- In this context, egotism and altruism are just two ways of thinking about cooperation.
- Learn to think in systems. Learn to evaluate your actions based on their context within the greater system, and not simply in terms of right and wrong, egotistic or altruistic.
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