In Defense of Instinct - Hobbesian egoism 1. What is Hobbesian egoism First, let me explain what I mean by Hobbesian egoism. Egoism is of course the view that the only thing we ought to do is serve our own self-interest. Hobbesian indicates what is regarded to be in our interests: physical survival, material comforts, abundant sexual gratification, etc. Hobbesian egoism may be profitably contrasted with the egoism of Aristotle or Rand, which hold that what constitutes our self-interest is much richer and deeper. Rand implicitly contrasts her view with that of Hobbes when 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 brute to crush his skull.
It does not mean the momentary physical survival of a crawling aggregate of muscles who is willing to accept any terms, obey any thug and surrender any values, for the sake of what is known as survival at any price, which may or may not last a week or a year. Man's survival qua man means the terms, methods, conditions and goals required for the survival of a rational being through the whole of his lifespan - in all of those aspects of existence which are open to his choice. Partly, Rand is stating thatwe should look to our long-term rather than our short-term interest (which the Hobbesian egoist would not necessarily disagree with), but partly she is stating that e.g. only a rational, purposeful, and dignified existence can constitute our self-interest. What practical difference does this distinction make For one, the Hobbesian egoist would remorselessly kill or enslave another person if the risks were low and the gain were large. For the Randian egoist, however, this predatory lifestyle would conflict without interest in being productive, independent, adjust individuals. The Hobbesian egoist, similarly, would happily steal if the gain were large and the punishment were small but the Randian egoist would refrain.
2. The Puzzle The behavior counselled by Hobbesian egoism is widely condemned by most historical moral codes. The puzzle that I see is that it is nevertheless extremely common. Belief in Christian ethics could explain why Christians would try to murder Muslims or atheists; but how Christian ethics would justify enslaving or enserfing other Christians is difficult tosee. And yet, throughout the entire period of Christian dominance in Western culture, slavery and serfdom and wars of conquest upon fellow Christians were extremely common. Of course some cultures moral codes endorsed slavery and wars upon foreigners.
The puzzle, as Isee it, is that this kind of behavior has been extremely common in almost all historical societies, regardless of their announced moral views. Thus, while Marxist theory could easily justify murdering millions of people with a bourgeois background, it is unclear how Marxist theory would justify comfortable lifestyles, limousines, and caviar for the ruling elite. And yet, every Marxist dictatorship that I ve ever heard of swiftly developed the latter. Primitive despotisms of China or Egypt justified the ruler's life of comfort and luxury by arguing that the ruler was divine; but comfort and luxury for rulers seems common in societies with announced egalitarian values.
Why is people's behavior so similar when their conscious convictions vary so widely Why, in short, is altruistic moral theory almost always accompanied by hypocrisy My answer is simply that we have an instinct, an innate predisposition, towards Hobbesian behavior. Why do I think that it is innate (1) Hobbesian behavior is common in human being sin all societies and times. To prove this would take a great deal of work; a good start is The Columbia History of the World, which details mankind's sordid history of using one another as beasts of burden whenever it was convenient. (2) Hobbesian behavior is common regardless of a society's cultural background. Primitive Mongols moral values probably did not discourage them from killing and enslaving Christians; but Christians moral values probably did discourage them from doing so.
And yet, both of them did it, and it is hardly clear that Christians did so less eagerly than anyone else. (3) Most importantly, there is our evolutionary background. Animals which don t try to survive tendto die off, leaving no offspring. Animals which do try to survive tend to live longer and leave more offspring. Every other animal species seems to have developed this self-interested instinct extremely well; and surely with animals at least, their behavior is instinctive.
Why should this instinct, this innate predisposition, be any weaker in human beings This is especially clear when we note that the primary exception to pure self-interested behavior is the care that animals and humans give to their blood relatives; and it is precisely this exception that evolutionary theory would predict. (See Dawkins The Selfish Gene.) 3. Answering Eyal. Eyal mentions that if my view were true, then primitive societies would concentrate more on survival (and their kin's survival) than modern Western people do. And indeed, I think this is so: primitive people worked far harder to survive (often 16 hours per day, I ve read) than we do, and spent much less time on leisure.
Maybe they worked so hard because they had to just to survive; but that is hardly evidence that they were less concerned about their survival than we are. But I can make my point much more clearly. Who would find it more difficult to murder a stranger for a pound of gold or enslave someone if it were legal or rape a defenseless woman A primitive tribesman, ora member of modern Western culture The main difference is that the tribesman does so unreflectively, while if the modern does it he violates his announced moral views. b. Eyal argues that if people were really interested in their self-interest, then they would not have risked their lives to enslave and kill other people. Well, frequently the risks were very low and the gain was very great. The Spanish conquered one-and-a-half continents and got a lot of gold and slaves at very little risk to themselves.
Similarly, most slave-holders throughout history had about as little to fear from slave revolts as we do from auto accidents. Eyal is right that some kinds of wars are high risk, low gain (for most of the participants). Holy wars, proletarian revolutions, and wars of national liberation seem to qualify. But I think that these result from people's conscious convictions ratherthan any Hobbesian instincts. Wars with abstract (if irrational) motivations like these are a fairly late development in human history. Incidentally, one can interestingly see mankind cultural development from instinct to acquired conviction in the Bible.
The early books appeal to the material rewards and many offspring that Jehovah will give to the Jews if they obey Him; we have to wait forthe later books to see any attempt to motivate the Jews out of love of God or justice. c. Eyal argues that almost all historical societies, from the primitive to the Christian, have held some version of altruistic morality. Well, I just have to disagree. Did pre-Christian barbarians or Mongol hordes loot and enslave weaker peoples out of moral conviction Or did they just see a chance to live comfortably at other people's expense Do muggers mug out of a belief in altruism, or because they want to get easy money and don t care about the rights ofothersMoreover, while Rand is perfectly correct that altruistic morality sometimes justifies murdering alot of people (e.g. Christians should go murder Muslims, or Bolsheviks should murder the kulaks), it sometimes would seem to require not murdering other people. While Christianity might justify Vlad the Impaler's war against the Muslim Turks, it is hard tosee how it justifies killing fellow Christians to get more gold from them. Why then, I wonder, haven societies with an altruistic cultural background lived up to their avowed precepts in both respected.
Eyal reminds me that Rand thought that our emotions are either determined by our conscious convictions (if we choose to think), or by default by cultural 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 emotional responses. However, I agree completely with Eyal's point that immoral behavior is rooted in the volitional avoidance of the effort of thinking. But what I am saying is that in additional to the need to question what our culture tells us, we must also question what ourinstincts tell us.
Admitting that we have instincts no more commits us to genetic determinism than admitting that we have a culture commits us to cultural determinism. 4. Commenting on Brian Schwartz I think you would enjoy Dawkins The Selfish Gene, which sheds light on both of your questions. I would doubt that there is any strong tendency towards promoting the interests of our race, simply becausethe odds that a person shares a significant number of our genes in virtue of sharing our race is very, very low.
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 the same for people. The danger is that abstract ideologies will take advantage of familial instincts and turn them to horrible ends. Nationalist and racist movements suggest that ideologies that try to build upon ourinstincts can be very successful.
Probably becausethe leap to family loyalty to national loyalty is (asR and pointed out) a sufficiently simple ideology that even very stupid people can understand it. 5. To Mike Hardy You are quite right that for most philosophers, tabular asa refers to no innate knowledge. However, Think 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. Conclusion While I am on the topic, let me mention some other instincts. Many of the emotional differences between men and women are, I think, instinctive.
For example, men's inclination to promiscuity is, I think, instinctive; just as women's inclination to domesticity is. Women's greater concern for the welfare of children is probably instinctive. There is a wonderful program on the Learning Channel, Desmond Morris The Human Animal, which provides grist for further speculation. Against an irrational age, Rand pointed out that weare rational animals.
All I am pointing out is thatwe are rational animals, and that we can understand mankind far better if we recognize that like all other animals, we possess instincts, i. e., innate desires and emotional responses.