Thursday, January 10, 2013

Some Thoughts on Self-Interest, Rationality, Altruism and Reciprocity

Joseph Kaup, an evolutionary psychology post-graduate at London University, asks that the authors consider the modern anthropological theory that altruism is, in many cases, a delayed form of reciprocity. Could these individuals working harder for fewer resources not be expecting delayed rewards? Are they perhaps the one's paying their dues in order to one day have a more cushiony lot?”
Excellent question.  I sometimes think that those pontificating about imagined reciprocity and altruism in pre-history should look ‘outside their windows’ a bit more.  The shallow distinction they make about altruism seems unconnected to the real world, somewhat similar to those claimed by others about Adam Smith on rationality and self-interest. 
First they isolate self-interest/altruism and then develop all kinds of models, rather than see both behaviours of necessity, taking place in context between two of more people, not unilaterally by an individual.  'No man is an island' John Donne) springs to mind. Humans are, and always have been social animals.
To be altruistic/self-interested on ones own is somewhat meaningless in a social context.    It is not about the motives in the minds of individuals in isolation. Necessarily, they interact with others.  Humans are not isolated in self-interest.  They act in social settings with other people (a point missed by Rousseau about 'savages').  They also live in settings where the majority of people nearby are anonymous, not relatives or friends, and likewise, distant people whose co-operation in post-hunting societies is a fact of experience. (The ‘company of strangers’ was a great title).
I applied this self-interest, other regarding behaviour in my MBA ‘Influence’ course (Edinburgh Business School, 1999 - also in a popular-style paperback, ‘Influencing for Results’, Random House, 2000), which rooted influence in how you deal with other people (con-specifics) accidently or for a purpose.
In Professor Robin Dunbar’s “Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language  (Harvard, 2004), we read of the seemingly altruistic role among chimpanzees and humans, despite which evidence we get theoretical abstractions from much modern literature about reciprocity and altruism in long-gone hunter groups that ignore that evidence.  I think that is why we should be careful when disregarding two-person games.That humans and chimpanzees share a common ancestor, it is not surprising that they also share certain social characteristics, albeit in different forms while their earlier species separated.
Chimps groom higher-status chimps within the Alpha power relationships (as observed), but they also use discretionary grooming based on reciprocity and avoid grooming, even refusing, to groom discretionary partners who failed/refused to groom in return (grooming can take 2 hours plus per chimp)., as also observed.  Truly, you ‘scratch my back and I shall scratch yours’. 
Humans interact in discretionary behaviours, as well as in power relationships, but also tend to gossip in discretionary contexts with other regular gossipers (who do you spend more time gossiping in your academic world?)..   They do what they must in work/family contexts, but also do as much or more under their discretion.  This is a step from reciprocity to mutual influence and voluntary obligation.  Gossip groups can contain 2 and up to 5 people simultaneously.  Gossipers exchange gossip.
When Joseph Kaup writes “altruism is, in many cases, a delayed form of reciprocity” he strikes a chord with me.  I would go further and observe that what some see as altruism is actually one side of an (often delayed) reciprocal exchange, and seldom an isolated event. Though unreciprocated behaviours usually terminate the relationship.* 
Likewise, Smith’s self-interest is not expressed solely as a one-act egoistic behaviour (see Smith on bargaining in WN).  Social group life functions in a multitude of exchange actions – which Smith suggested was “the necessary consequence of the faculties of reason** and speech” (WN I.ii.1: 25), i.e., from the beginning of Homo sapiens, uniquely with language, itself a form of exchange (Smith on ‘Considerations Concerning the First Formation of Languages’ (1761; and later editions of TMS; now in Lectures in Rhetoric and Belles Lettres [1763] 1983.
I suggest looking at the altruism debate would be more productive if it was viewed as a part of a discretionary exchange relationship since the time of the hunters, and the myth that Smith had anything to do Homo economicus ideas misleads those modern economists (mostly ignorant of TMS and also misreading WN) and other scientists in other related disciplines who innocently read the extravagant nonsense they pick up from the same modern economists.
[* When I began attending History of Economic Thought conference in 2007, I found few, if any people, spoke to me. Later, as I exchanged social words with one or two and got to know them, they and others initiated exchanges, both social and academic.  These exchanges are a normal progression.  As I am socially very private - a function of age - I have a few strong 'gossip' relationships with a dozen or so senior academics.  If in my 30s still I could identify my 'gossip' groups.  Think about your own 'gossip' relationships.
** “Reasoning” is a function common to all humans; this is not the same as what is claimed by those neoclassical economists who use ‘rationality’ models to derive their restrictive models of Homo eonomicus.]


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