Last year I struggled through Thomas Nagel’s The Possibility of Altruism.
It’s been long enough since I read it that the impressions I have of it now are the lasting impressions, not the superficial regurgitation of a recently read book that falsely gives others the idea that you actually followed the entire argument. It is at this point that I realize I have abandoned my negative reaction to the text, based mostly of a visceral dislike of Kant and Kantian style arguments, and can see what of the book is useful to me and my evolving personal philosophy, regardless of authorial intent.
So here is a summary of what I took from Nagel:
Just as there is a rational case to made for prudence, there is an analogous rational case to be made for altruism.
Prudence requires that we recognize the reality of times other than the present. Although the demands and distractions of the present moment are compelling, we remember the past and anticipate a future and make plans accordingly. Through prudence, we are able to delay immediate gratification in an attempt to secure some future benefit.
Altruism requires that we recognize the reality of people other than ourselves. Just as prudence allows us to imagine time other than the present, altruism allows us to imagine selves not our own. Altruism allows us to do things unselfishly and for the good of others.
I like to take these twin ideas of prudence and altruism and add to them the gospel notion of stewardship. Prudence and altruism combined allow us to delay personal gratification or even make sacrifices for the benefit of future people who have not yet been born. The hearts of the fathers must turn to their children, but in this case, we are the fathers. Instead of focusing all of our efforts on genealogy, and looking to the past, we must also plan for the future. After all, the sins of the fathers are visited on future generations, not out of God’s malice, but because of natural consequence. The good, prudent decisions of parents give advantage to their children. The wasteful, short-sighted choices very often rob them of opportunity.
So let us consider ourselves stewards, called to act with temperance and altruism. Let us make decisions so that the things we enjoy now, our gardens and wild spaces, our neighborhoods and congregations, our very family ties themselves, will extend to those we have not yet met, those we have not yet learned to love. For we are but laborers in the vineyard, and we will be held to account for all that we do. And if we have not acted with prudence and altruism, I cannot think that it will be well with us.
This principle of stewardship must apply to our inequitable use of resources, which has been made so thoughtless and easy in our American consumerist society. For this reason, I am excited about Sam’s Approaching Zion project (see also today’s post). Nibley did not cut us any slack in this regard, and his voice is just the kind of sharp reprimand that we need so that we may see how we have strayed from the path we intended to be on, and perhaps even thought we still were traveling. Too much, we are forgetting what it is to be prude
Even after making the case for altruism, Nagel is very pessimistic. He ends his book thus:
To say that altruism and morality are possible in virtue of something basic to human nature is not to say that men are basically good. Men are basically complicated; how good they are depends on whether certain conceptions and ways of thinking have achieved dominance, a dominance which is precarious in any case. The manner in which human beings have conducted themselves so far does not encourage optimism about the moral future of the species.
I hope the principle of stewardship can become dominant so that Nagel’s pessimism will not be justified. What are your thoughts?
Brilliant. Very well-said Rachel.
I’m sorry you have such a strong aversion to Kant. But otherwise a very good post.
The notion of recognizing the reality of times and persons that are not our time/our selves reminds me of this quote: We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.
Evidently, the attribution is complicated: http://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/01/22/borrow-earth/
I know this is slightly off topic, but I was so impressed. I watched a TV programme from England where 3 young women offered to have surrogate babies for women who couldn’t. England does not allow payment for surrogacy except reimbursement of expenses. We would look down on these young women because of their tats piercings etc, but there altruism was incredible. Christlike. Powerful.
Each gave up the child to it’s mother at the birth.