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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It's in your interests to be nice, 23 Sept. 2012
This review is from: The Origins of Virtue (Penguin Press Science) (Paperback)
We are the only species on earth that cares about the difference between right and wrong. There is plenty of human wickedness in the world but we are not unique in this respect, when compared to our closest primate relatives. The question is why there is any human virtue at all. On the face of it, there shouldn't be any such thing. First of all there are our selfish genes. The right thing to do from their perspective is to take what we can get, and damn everyone else. Arguably it is rational to be immoral, if to be moral is to harm your own interests. We see in countries with entrenched corruption. You loathe the idea of paying a public official to provide a service that he is already being paid to do. But if you don't, someone less fastidious will jump the queue. The rational thing to do then is to swallow your distaste and pay the bribe. Game theorists have much to say about this. Much of what we call immoral is a rational response to situations that leave us little other choice.

But we know that the world is not this bad - not at all places, at all times. Networks of trust and reciprocity do exist. The world simply could not function if this were not so. Altruism is a fact of life. Can a natural explanation account for it? Yes, it can.

Paradoxically, our selfish genes can make us altruistic. Genes themselves are neither moral nor immoral. They want to replicate themselves. When it comes to humans, forget all that stuff about rugged individualism. An individual in a state of nature is a puny, fragile being at the mercy of the elements and predators. Humans must live in a society to survive. So it makes sense for genes to select for social tendencies in order for humans to combine in a society and hence survive to pass on their genes. Otherwise those genes end up in a predator's stomach.

Society provides protection but that is not all. No man is an island. None of us alone can provide for all our needs - food, clothing, and shelter. To overcome this, society has a division of labour. Even `primitive' societies have complex gradations, in which individuals pool talents and abilities to create networks of reciprocation. A team of hunter-gatherers out on the hunt will consist of men of different abilities and talents. None could catch a big game animal alone. But together they can pool their talents to do the job. For this sort of teamwork to function, we need trust. We want to be seen as someone who can be trusted, can pay our social debts so we in turn call on others to pay their debts to us. To renege is to violate trust. To lose trust means to break the social bonds that sustain you. Ostracism from society for our ancestors would have meant a death sentence and the extinction of the genes of those so excluded. Keeping your word and your reputation is in your interests.

However, genes combine to form groups for their own advantage, not the group's. The downside of such behaviour is of course the in-out group distinction and the tendency to dehumanize the outsider and exalt the insider. Our xenophobia and group chauvinism are not expressions of individual but group selfishness. They emerge alas from our social natures. In warfare, our selfish streaks can be given full vent to those who are considered outsiders and for whom ties of reciprocation and obligation do not apply. But groups are not necessarily doomed to be locked into such competition if they can trade - i.e. generalize the division of labour within groups to comparative advantages between groups, exchanging things that your group cannot provide for itself with another group that can. Ridley shows that hunter-gatherer groups practised the division of labour and comparative advantage long before Adam Smith and David Ricardo theorized about these things.

Individual genes want to go their own way of course and overtly selfish and anti-social people have not disappeared from the gene pool. Society is a compromise after all between our own desires and social demands. Occasionally, the benefits of cheating outweigh those of compliance with social norms. It is often an uneasy balance. There is no way the tension can be neutralized. The best hope is to make altruism pay - literally. It is better to trade with a rival society or group and both be enriched in the process, rather than to indulge in a mutually ruinous war of conquest. It is better to keep your customer happy by offering him discounts rather than to cheat him. Self-interest means we can curb our worst instincts. We do not need religion or the heavy hand of an oppressive police state to achieve this.

All this is a cool, pragmatic view of the possibility of altruism. Some cannot accept that altruism is possible if it is the outcome of conscious or unconscious self-interest, rather than purity of motive. But this objection is to wish that human beings were something that they are not. It can be plausibly argued that even altruistic actions are selfishly motivated. But some things we do are worthy of praise while others are not, regardless of our motives (which are difficult to discern anyway). We cannot be indifferent to this distinction. This is because some actions have bad consequences and some have good ones. By your deeds you shall be known. Make them good ones. It's in your own interest.
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Showing 1-4 of 4 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 23 Oct 2012 02:05:06 BDT
Tink says:
"By your deeds you shall be known. Make them good ones. It's in your own interest." Jimmy Savile certainly had that motto down!

In reply to an earlier post on 23 Oct 2012 06:07:30 BDT
Last edited by the author on 23 Oct 2012 17:58:30 BDT
F Henwood says:
I'll presume you are being facetious. He clearly didn't live by that motto if his deeds included, among other things, rape and sexual assault.

In reply to an earlier post on 23 Oct 2012 17:58:48 BDT
Tink says:
You misunderstand me, my meaning is... he ensured that he was known in the public eye for his good deeds, charity works etc because it was in his own interests to be perceived as such (to the point of being Knighted) in order that he could get away with his real motives, the ones of raping and sexually assaulting children. He was so known for his good deeds that they acted as a shield and gave him power enough that not one dared to speak out about him. None of us (the wider population) were any the wiser. Until recently. So his good deeds certainly worked for him in his lifetime because they covered his tracks and ensured nobody ever spoke out about him, which meant he never had to pay for his crimes, and unfortunately he never will since he's dead. So what you said, "By your deeds you shall be known. Make them good ones. It's in your own interest," is right. And unfortunately, Jimmy Savile (So-vile!), used good deeds for his own interest. Do you see what I was meaning now?

In reply to an earlier post on 23 Oct 2012 20:28:06 BDT
Last edited by the author on 23 Oct 2012 20:28:26 BDT
F Henwood says:
Yes I see what you mean and it's a valid point and thank you for raising it, because it points to a weakness in my review so I think it is best I clarify. You are right to say that it is possible that bad people do good things merely to conceal the fact they are doing bad things because it is in their obvious interests to do (i.e. escape shame and punishment). In one sense, this description fits Savile.

The point about my quote however at the end of the review is not that you should be nice to conceal the fact you are doing evil things. It is that, if there is no god or religion to validate morals, as I don't think there is, it is good for you that you treat others well. If we don't then we deserve punishment and ostracism in this life. This is what Savile deserved but did not receive while he was alive. However I think it would be mistaken to claim that he got away with it solely because he superficially seemed to do the right thing. He got away with it partially because of an assiduously cultivated public persona but also because powerful people were prepared to indulge him or turn a blind eye. Those people can and should have known better. You say the wider public were none the wiser. I think that is an exaggeration. Aside from those in the BBC who were complicit, either by omission or commission, his victims would have known who the real Jimmy Saville was and none of his do-gooding would have washed with them. If his victims could have found a voice while he was alive, then Savile would have probably died in jail. There is no reason to think that this could not have happened when he was alive. Savile was not invincible and justice could not have been done this side of the grave - people can and do get caught out while they still have a pulse (think of Lance Armstrong or think of numerous Catholic priests who have got their come-uppances in this life).

As I said, it's deeds that count. By your deeds you shall be known. Savile will indeed be known for what he did. It is deplorable that all this should have come to light after he was safely out of reach of justice. Having said that, even though he is dead, the posthumous destruction of his reputation will mean something to his victims. They will surely feel vindicated. The balance sheet will have been redressed at least in part. Some justice will have been done.
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