Does Capitalism Work If Humans Are Altruistic?

Altruism, or selfless acts that benefit others, have long been a mystery of human behavior. The closest thing to conventional wisdom has been that selflessness is only an illusion of self-interest; we act altruistically because we expect reciprocation. But some anthropologists now argue that millions of years of evolution have hard-wired us for altruism, not self-interest. This theory is the subject of a new book "The Age of Empathy" by primatologist Frans de Waal. What de Waal is challenging is the very idea that our default is Thomas Hobbes's brutish "state of nature," or perhaps that the state of nature even really exists.


Hobbes' famously described humanity before society as total anarchy where life was "nasty, brutish, and short." But Hobbes didn't have the benefit of anthropology or primatology, so he would have no way of knowing that the human animal does not resort to chaos outside the confines of civilization. Indeed, de Waal's studies of both "primitive" humans and of our great ape ancestors indicate that we are genetically ingrained to act altruistically, not selfishly.

We do not choose altruism. Evolution, a series of accidents, has made us this way. We no more choose altruism than we choose to walk bipedally. Both "pre-modern" human societies (such as those in New Guinea) and great apes (excepting the orangutan, of course) consistently form tight-knit social collectives. This is why Hobbes was wrong about the state of nature. Though he likely imagined it as akin to a prison without the guards, in truth the state of nature is quite similar to modern civilization as we know it. Humans form collective social groups and act in ways that benefit the group before the individual. This is as much human nature as collecting honey is in the nature of bees.

But if Hobbes' state of nature is flawed then so are the conclusions we draw from it. Hobbes assumed our default mode is not to act with altruism but rather with pure self-preservation in mind. But we now know he was wrong. Human nature, then, is not all about competition and self-interest, as Hobbes' and his many followers thought. This may sound like pure academia, just throwing around abstract terms from centuries-dead philosophers, but it matters.

How does it matter? The inevitable conclusion of a Hobbesian state of nature, and indeed the direction that Western culture has plunged ahead for centuries based on Hobbes' conclusions, is the free market hypothesis. After all, the logical end of self-interest is that we do best individually as well as collectively when pursuing that self-interest. Given the chance to do the most work and reap the most rewards, the theory goes, free competition will allow each of us to contribute our highest potential to society. But humans, we have demonstrated, are not inherently self-interested. Yet here we are, locked into an enormous global system designed around encouraging and harnassing the power of self-interest. And yet altruism has been shown to routinely overpower self-interest. If we perform best and achieve most through altruism, and indeed if both history and anthropology have demonstrated that altruism is our default, then wouldn't we be far better off within a system designed to harnass that altruism? Shouldn't we find a way to build society around the selfless, generous acts we want and need to perform, and not the selfish motivation we now know to be a myth? I'm hesitant to put a name to such a system -- that's better left to real economists -- but the point is that it's not 100% free market capitalism.

* * *

Don't think I'm arguing, on the basis of de Waal's discoveries, against democracy or on behalf of anything as crazy as communism. Far from it. In fact, there's an interesting implication of all this with regards to class. For better or worse, it is human nature to organize within hierarchies, as it was and remains for our ancestors in "pre-modern" humans and in great apes. We are hard wired to work together, whether that means being led or leading, both of which are in a sense altruistic acts. After all, making the effort to lead others does not immediately or inherently benefit the leader, just as following is troublesome in the short-term and only worthwhile in the long-term. Indeed, behavior designed around self-interest would have us living more like orangutans, as solitary creatures.

This would seem to explain why, as our collective social groups grew from a few dozen to a few billion, simple hierarchies became more complex and more deeply entrenched class systems. Indeed, from government to sports groups to your office, humans ceaselessly find themselves organizing into hierarchies that are many and complex. There's no question that class systems can be manipulated in to incredibly unjust systems of oppression; there's nothing natural or appropriate about, say, apartheid. But any human behavior can be twisted, and just because it manifests in sometimes awful ways does not mean it is not a human behavior. Indeed, properly securing against exploitations of class systems means understanding that class happens for the very simple reason that it is human nature. We constantly force ourselves into class structures because that is how we function best. Purely flat organizations such as those ascribed by communism will never work because humans need and want an organized hierarchy. It's what we are. It's how we work.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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