In Defense Of Instinct
– Hobbesian Egoism Essay, Research Paper
In Defense of Instinct – Hobbesian egoism1. What is Hobbesian egoism ?First, let me explain what I mean by Hobbesianegoism. Egoism is of course the view that the onlything we ought to do is serve our own self-interest. Hobbesian indicates _what is regarded to be in ourinterests_: physical survival, material comforts,abundant sexual gratification, etc. Hobbesian egoismmay be profitably contrasted with the egoism ofAristotle or Rand, which hold that what constitutesour self-interest is much richer and deeper. Rand implicitly contrasts her view with that of Hobbeswhen she writes that It [the survival of man qua man]does not mean a _momentary_ or merely _physical_survival of a mindless brute, waiting for another bruteto crush his skull. It does not mean the momentaryphysical survival of a crawling aggregate of muscleswho is willing to accept any terms, obey any thug andsurrender any values, for the sake of what is knownas survival at any price, which may or may not last aweek or a year. Man s survival qua man means theterms, methods, conditions and goals required for thesurvival of a rational being through the whole of hislifespan — in all of those aspects of existence whichare open to his choice. Partly, Rand is stating thatwe should look to our _long-term_ rather than our_short-term_ interest (which the Hobbesian egoistwould not necessarily disagree with), but partly she isstating that e.g. only a rational, purposeful, anddignified existence can _constitute_ our self-interest. What practical difference does this distinction make? For one, the Hobbesian egoist would remorselesslykill or enslave another person if the risks were lowand the gain were large. For the Randian egoist,however, this predatory lifestyle would conflict withour interest in being productive, independent, andjust individuals. The Hobbesian egoist, similarly,would happily steal if the gain were large and thepunishment were small; but the Randian egoist wouldrefrain. 2. The PuzzleThe behavior counselled by Hobbesian egoism iswidely condemned by most historical moral codes. The puzzle that I see is that it is neverthelessextremely common. Belief in Christian ethics couldexplain why Christians would try to murder Muslims oratheists; but how Christian ethics would justifyenslaving or enserfing other Christians is difficult tosee. And yet, throughout the entire period ofChristian dominance in Western culture, slavery andserfdom and wars of conquest upon fellow Christianswere extremely common. Of course some cultures moral codes endorsedslavery and wars upon foreigners. The puzzle, as Isee it, is that this kind of behavior has been extremelycommon in almost _all_ historical societies,regardless of their announced moral views. Thus,while Marxist theory could easily justify murderingmillions of people with a bourgeois background, it isunclear how Marxist theory would justify comfortablelifestyles, limosines, and caviar for the ruling elite. And yet, every Marxist dictatorship that I ve everheard of swiftly developed the latter. Primitivedespotisms of China or Egypt justified the ruler s lifeof comfort and luxury by arguing that the ruler wasdivine; but comfort and luxury for rulers seemscommon in societies with announced egalitarianvalues. Why is people s behavior so similar whentheir conscious convictions vary so widely? Why, inshort, is altruistic moral theory almost alwaysaccompanied by hypocrisy?My answer is simply that we have an instinct, aninnate predisposition, towards Hobbesian behavior. Why do I think that it is innate?(1) Hobbesian behavior is common in human beingsin all societies and times. To prove this would take agreat deal of work; a good start is _The ColumbiaHistory of the World_, which details mankind s sordidhistory of using one another as beasts of burdenwhenever it was convenient. (2) Hobbesian behavior is common regardless of asociety s cultural background. Primitive Mongols moral values probably did not discourage them fromkilling and enslaving Christians; but Christians moralvalues probably did discourage them from doing so. And yet, both of them did it, and it is hardly clear thatChristians did so less eagerly than anyone else. (3) Most importantly, there is our evolutionarybackground. Animals which don t try to survive tendto die off, leaving no offspring. Animals which do tryto survive tend to live longer and leave moreoffspring. Every other animal species seems to havedeveloped this self-interested instinct extremely well;and surely with animals at least, their behavior isinstinctive. Why should this instinct, this innatepredisposition, be any weaker in human beings? This is especially clear when we note that the primaryexception to pure self-interested behavior is the carethat animals and humans give to their blood relatives;and it is precisely this exception that evolutionarytheory would predict. (See Dawkins _The SelfishGene_.) 3. Answering Eyala. Eyal mentions that if my view were true, thenprimitive societies would concentrate _more_ onsurvival (and their kin s survival) than modernWestern people do. And indeed, I think this is so:primitive people worked far harder to survive (often16 hours per day, I ve read) than we do, and spent
much less time on leisure. Maybe they worked sohard because they had to just to survive; but that ishardly evidence that they were less concerned abouttheir survival than we are. But I can make my point much more clearly. Whowould find it more difficult to murder a stranger for apound of gold or enslave someone if it were legal orrape a defenseless woman? A primitive tribesman, ora member of modern Western culture? The maindifference is that the tribesman does sounreflectively, while if the modern does it he violateshis announced moral views. b. Eyal argues that if people were really interested intheir self-interest, then they would not have riskedtheir lives to enslave and kill other people. Well,frequently the risks were very low and the gain wasvery great. The Spanish conquered one-and-a-halfcontinents and got a lot of gold and slaves at verylittle risk to themselves. Similarly, most slave-holdersthroughout history had about as little to fear fromslave revolts as we do from auto accidents. Eyal is right that some kinds of wars are high risk, lowgain (for most of the participants). Holy wars,proletarian revolutions, and wars of nationalliberation seem to qualify. But I think that theseresult from people s _conscious convictions_ ratherthan any Hobbesian instincts. Wars with abstract (ifirrational) motivations like these are a fairly latedevelopment in human history. Incidentally, one can interestingly see mankind scultural development from instinct to acquiredconviction in the Bible. The early books appeal to thematerial rewards and many offspring that Jehovah willgive to the Jews if they obey Him; we have to wait forthe later books to see any attempt to motivate theJews out of love of God or justice. c. Eyal argues that almost all historical societies,from the primitive to the Christian, have held someversion of altruistic morality. Well, I just have todisagree. Did pre-Christian barbarians or Mongolhordes loot and enslave weaker peoples out of moralconviction? Or did they just see a chance to livecomfortably at other people s expense? Do muggersmug out of a belief in altruism, or because they wantto get easy money and don t care about the rights ofothers?Moreover, while Rand is perfectly correct thataltruistic morality _sometimes_ justifies murdering alot of people (e.g. Christians should go murderMuslims, or Bolsheviks should murder the kulaks), it_sometimes_ would seem to require _not_ murderingother people. While Christianity might justify Vlad theImpaler s war against the Muslim Turks, it is hard tosee how it justifies killing fellow Christians to get moregold from them. Why then, I wonder, haven tsocieties with an altruistic cultural background livedup to their avowed precepts in _both_ respects?d. Eyal reminds me that Rand thought that ouremotions are either determined by our consciousconvictions (if we choose to think), or by default bycultural osmosis (if we don t choose to think). This isa perfectly fair description of her view; and it _does_seem to deny that human beings have any instincts inthe sense of _innate desires and emotionalresponses_. However, I agree completely with Eyal s point thatimmoral behavior is rooted in the volitional avoidanceof the effort of thinking. But what I am saying is thatin additional to the need to question what our_culture_ tells us, we must also question what our_instincts_ tell us. Admitting that we have instinctsno more commits us to genetic determinism thanadmitting that we have a culture commits us tocultural determinism. 4. Commenting on Brian SchwartzI think you would enjoy Dawkins _The Selfish Gene_,which sheds light on both of your questions. I woulddoubt that there is any strong tendency towardspromoting the interests of our race, simply becausethe odds that a person shares a significant number ofour genes in virtue of sharing our race is very, verylow. Wolves that seek the interest of wolf-kind ratherthan the interests of closely related wolves will tendto have few offspring and die off. I would say thesame for people. The danger is that abstract ideologies will takeadvantage of familial instincts and turn them tohorrible ends. Nationalist and racist movementssuggest that ideologies that try to build upon ourinstincts can be very successful. Probably becausethe leap to family loyalty to national loyalty is (asRand pointed out) a sufficiently simple ideology thateven very stupid people can understand it. 5. To Mike HardyYou are quite right that for most philosophers, _tabularasa_ refers to no innate _knowledge_. However, Ithink that Rand used the concept more expansively. Indeed, in The Objectivist Ethics Rand writes that: Man is born with an emotional mechanism, just as heis born with a cognitive mechanism; but at birth,_both_ are tabula rasa. It is man s cognitive faculty,his mind, that determines the _content_ of both. 6. ConclusionWhile I am on the topic, let me mention some otherinstincts. Many of the emotional differences betweenmen and women are, I think, instinctive. Forexample, men s inclination to promiscuity is, I think,instinctive; just as women s inclination to domesticityis. Women s greater concern for the welfare ofchildren is probably instinctive. There is a wonderfulprogram on the Learning Channel, Desmond Morris _The Human Animal_, which provides grist for furtherspeculation. Against an irrational age, Rand pointed out that weare _rational_ animals. All I am pointing out is thatwe are rational _animals_, and that we canunderstand mankind far better if we recognize thatlike all other animals, we possess instincts, i.e.,innate desires and emotional responses.