The ethics of symbiosis

I was thinking about greed again today. That seems to be a common topic of conversation these days, as the TEA Party and other self-styled libertarians embrace the Randian mantra of the glory of unrepentant greed.

I am not a fan of unrepentant greed. On the other extreme of the scale, though, is utterly selfless altruism, and while that’s certainly more in line with my personal morality than slash-and-burn greed, I also don’t think it’s feasible in a world of mortal beings such as ourselves.

It has struck me as odd that there are no clear terms (in English, at least) for the middle ground between greed and altruism. We do seem to like our absolutes and dichotomies, and leave the moderates to figure out the middle somehow.

Today, though, I thought of a way of fairly accurately describing how I think human society best functions: Symbiotically.

Consider a scale, which is actually a flattened representation of y = 1 – x, where x represents the percent of decision-making that considers the effect on the self and y represents the percent of decision-making that considers the effect on others. At x = 0, decisions are made exclusively on how they’ll affect others, without consideration of the self; that is, full altruism. At x = 1, decisions are made exclusively on how they’ll affect the self; that is, full greed.

Somebody who is truly fully altruistic (to this caricatured level) would die quickly. After all, what would their motivation be for eating, when there are other hungry people in the world? People need to take care of themselves at least enough to be able to effectively care for others. Indeed, in the long run, somebody who is truly and deeply capable of caring for others does more good by caring for themselves enough that not just dietary but also basic emotional needs are met. In short, they have to take care of themselves so they can take care of others.

It’s more challenging to explain objectively what’s wrong with pure greed. Most appeals are to emotion, or virtue, or some form of righteousness. One objective criticism is contained in the prisoner’s dilemma: If you and I both act entirely out of our own self-interest without considering the big picture, we both get harmed more than if we both act out of complete co-operation. It’s a contrived and simplistic scenario, but it’s a useful place to start.

In a more real-world scenario, consider corporate America. The short-term realization is that Third World labor is cheaper than US labor, and therefore it makes sense to move some or all of the manufacturing jobs abroad. The money saved on labor more than compensates for the money lost on setting up new operations and for shipping parts and completed products around.

However, if you’re going to sell products in the United States, you have to have people who are able to buy those products. If all jobs below a certain salary threshold get moved abroad, then there are fewer and fewer people who are capable of buying those products. It’s in every corporations’s best interests to maintain a purchaser base, and for most corporations, that includes people who hold manufacturing jobs.

Even that aside, many on the fiscal conservative side of things insist that welfare and related economic aid programs (even unemployment!) are charity. It’s true that many people abuse those programs, but it’s also true that many people need those programs to survive. The question becomes one of weighing the social costs of taxing some people to support others against the social costs of leaving some people to fend for themselves. The latter is not a trivial cost, or one irrelevant to the government. Desperate people do desperate things.

Some of us conclude that we should be nice and generous to each other because it’s the morally or ethically correct thing to do. Others cling staunchly to the notion of self-interest. However, even in this perspective, the route of greatest self-interest is to make sure that the people around you are comfortable enough not to violently relieve you of your possession, or worse. It is also to make sure that the people you’d like to sell things to are actually capable of buying them. In other words, you can’t help yourself without helping others.

And that’s the symbiotic relationship: You can’t truly help yourself without helping others, and you can’t truly help others without helping yourself.

We can of course argue about whether federal taxation is the best way to accomplish this. There’s certainly a component of human nature that says that we come to resent that which we’re forced to do, even if we objectively realize that it’s the correct thing to do in the first place. To an extent, government welfare programs steel those people who have money against those programs. For that matter, for all their complaining, in general, conservatives voluntarily give to charities more than liberals do (even if it’s from the mindset that giving voluntarily means they have to give less through force).

But the realities of taxation aside, we as mortal beings work best when we all realize that we need both to take care of ourselves and to support each other.

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