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January 10, 2003

Heroism and "national self-interest"

HEROISM AND "NATIONAL SELF-INTEREST" are the subject of a post by Brink Lindsey (via Instapundit). Lindsey's comments are inspired by a reading of Peter Green's The Greco-Persian Wars, and specifically Green's account of Themistocles' leadership of Athens against Persian domination. Was Themistocles right - let alone heroic - in his decision to risk the safefy of Athens in a bid to resist Persian hegemony? Or would the wiser course been to capitulate? Can we judge his decision at all with the benefit of a hind-sight Themistocles could not have?

Lindsey is right to draw a comparison between Themistocles' decision and that of Churchill's England to face down over-whelming odds to defy Nazi Germany. Virtue and self-interest may seem to be opposed when "doing the right thing" is a choice in opposition with survival. Lindsey opens the question for debate rather than suggesting an easy answer. I believe, however, he and some of his readers reach too quickly for biological grounds to justify this or that moral choice or one or another survival-related decision.

I have a friend whose favourite pointless bar-argument is to claim loudly that everyone always acts selfishly. Even apparently selfless acts, he claims, are ultimately grounded in self-interest or for personal pleasure. He never fails to find someone who is willing to argue the point. My friend's argument is grounded in the claim we are all "only" animals acting for our personal survival and that any interpretation of an individual's acts to be selfless is to deny a fact of our biology. In this light, selflessness is delusiory and a kind of false relationship to ourselves and the world.

I believe he is mistaken on two points. First, there is no inconsistency between apparently selfless acts and the fact of our biology. The theory of inclusive fitness can account for the evolution of selflessness as an adaptive strategy. Simply put, the genes of which we are composed are shared with other humans (particularly close relatives) and in acting for the benefit of other humans (particularly those we perceive to share our genes) our genes may be passed on even if we as individuals risk death that they may do so. I would take the argument further. We share something like 70% of our genes with banana trees... perhaps inclusive fitness is a property of adaptation which extends ultimately to all living things (if somewhat tenuously the less obvious the genetic relationship). My addition is intuitive, arguably mystical and difficult to support given the chicken I ate today, thereby hampering that chicken's adaptive success. Even if this last point is open to debate there is little controversy among biologists that inclusive fitness can account for many apparently selfless acts. On this point my friend's recourse to biology in his apologia for cynicism is unwarranted.

But he is wrong on a more important point: we are never "only" animals. I do not mean by this that we humans are qualitatively different from other animals in some moral relationship to evolutionary processes. I mean that in even the most cynical interpretation of evolutionary processes we as animals never experience those processes directly. Yes, I can know intellectually that the majority of my ancestors were anaerobic bacteria. Yes, I can know I am something like 98.6% chimpanzee. I can even know my every action is guided by "selfish genes" blindly replicating in a host - my body - whose experiences are only ever secondary to the success or failure of those genes to replicate. But those experiences are never secondary to me. Perhaps I am nothing more (or less) than an illusion sustained as an emergent process of a multitude of chemical reactions, the happenstance of the laws of physics in this universe and ephemeral given the time-span of events going on around me. So what? If acts are selfless "only" in relationship to our limited human perspective I ask: what other perspective are we supposed to have? Far from being naive or credulous in the face of blind biology I say that it is our human experience of heroism and selflessness which best defines us. Biology produces the very heroism my friend would ascribe to false consciousness. His nihilism finds no analog, let alone justification, in nature.

I posted a comment to Lindsey's blog:

"Themistocles' heroism not only saved his city and heralded a golden age. His heroism saved a future - our civilization - of which he could not have been aware. How great then is our duty to safe-guard an unknown future?"

Posted by Ghost of a flea at January 10, 2003 06:22 PM