Self-interest goes a very long way to explaining human behavior. Yet when we educate our young, we prefer to bias them, focusing their attention on the virtues of undiscriminate altruism. Why?
In Friday’s issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education David Barash accepted (temporarily un-gated version here) Nietzsche’s claim that “society encourages self-sacrifice because the unselfish sucker is an asset to others,” and Freud’s complaint that
[Education] does not prepare [children] for the aggressiveness of which they are destined to become the objects. In sending the young into life with such a false psychological orientation, education is behaving as though one were to equip people starting on a Polar expedition with summer clothing and maps of the Italian Lakes.
Nevertheless, Barash prefers that we discuss self-interest as we do sex: too little too late:
The teaching of sociobiology (or evolutionary psychology) should be undertaken only with great caution. The renowned primatologist Sarah Hrdy … questioned "whether sociobiology should be taught at the high-school level … … The whole message of sociobiology is oriented toward the success of the individual. … Unless a student has a moral framework already in place, we could be producing social monsters by teaching this." … Preferable, I submit, is to structure the teaching of sociobiology along the lines of sex education: Teach what we know, but do so in age-appropriate stages. Just as we would not bombard kindergartners with the details of condom use, we probably ought not instruct preteens in the finer points of sociobiology.
What reason does Barash give?
There is an altruistic as well as a selfish side to the evolutionary coin. A half-baked introduction to the discipline, which pointed only to the latter, would therefore do students a substantial disservice. … Writes the gene theorist David Haig, "… even though genes may cajole, deceive, cheat, swindle, or steal, … this does not mean that people must be similarly self-interested." … The real test of our humanity might be whether we are willing, at least on occasion, to say no to our "natural" inclinations, thereby refusing go along with our selfish genes. To my knowledge, no other animal species is capable of doing that.
I’m skeptical that humans are special in this way. But more important, Barash fails to say why the possibility of such a special ability suggests that we should wait to teach children about self-interest. It seems to me that Barash has failed here to otherwise rationalize his own apparently self-interested behavior in encouraging others to be “unselfish suckers.”
Nevertheless, the key question remains: what price do we pay, individually and socially, for overcoming bias?
Hat tip to Keith Henson.
Addendum: I’ve fixed the Freud quote, which was completely wrong. Sigh.