Altruism, status and liberalism as a fashion

Roll back preconceptions for a minute, and look at history as a series of 3,000-year cycles.

After all, that’s about how long it takes an idea to take hold of a population and be fully acted out, from the highest to the lowest levels. By “idea” here I mean a big idea.

social_reciprocityThe biggest idea of our last 3,000 years, and the only idea steadily gaining in distribution, has been the equality of human individuals.

Our modern governments, institutions and social attitudes are founded on it. It in turn is founded on the idea of egalitarianism, or equality of treatment for all people, which comes from a social impulse — a type of politeness — called altruism, or wanting to do good for others.

Altruism can exist in a selfless form, where you expect no one to know the good things you’ve done for them, or a manipulative form, where you very publicly do good things so people think you’re a good person — and then do good things for you.

The enforcer of this altruism, guilt, is what people feel when they don’t reciprocate when someone has done something nice for them. If I give you a newspaper and say, “It’s free, but I’m trying to sell lemonade,” you’re more likely to buy a glass — if it’s cheap enough to not sidetrack you.

This psychology underlies our social urge to be egalitarian. Others extend to us equality; we should extend it to them. Even more, we avoid conflict this way and as a bonus, we look good to others because we are altruistic.

Eventually we start trying to prove we’re actually more altruistic than they are — a form of social one-upmanship similar to “keeping up with the Joneses” but in moral and not material form — in what is called competitive altruism. This is exclusively the manipulative variant because it’s always public and is done to make the altruist look better, and therefore through guilt, be owed more by the society as a whole.

The object of this competition is called status. Unlike actual ability, status reflects the degree of approval of an individual by his or her fellow citizens, according to the consensual reality of altruism and guilt:

“I Am Charlotte Simmons,” particularly in its notice of the coarse sexuality governing campus life, is a book a liberal would never write, as corroborated in the many negative reviews…he was frankly taken aback by those who took it “as a counterrevolutionary attack on the sexual revolution. . . . Then it really dawned on me that so many people are proud of the sexual revolution, you know, ‘We freed ourselves from those damned religious people and this Puritanism.'”

This is Tom Wolfe’s MO–sorting out and at once demolishing pretension, snobbery, vanity in all its guises. “There is such a thing as intellectual fashion–just as we get our clothing fashions–and often it does not mean anything more,” he says. “One follows fashion in order to look proper, and it’s the same thing with ideas.”


Mr. Wolfe offers a personal incident as evidence of “what a fashion liberalism is.” A reporter for the New York Times called him up to ask why George W. Bush was apparently a great fan of the “Charlotte Simmons” book. “I just assumed it was the dazzling quality of the writing,” he says. In the course of the reporting, however, it came out that Mr. Wolfe had voted for the Bush ticket. “The reaction among the people I move among was really interesting. It was as if I had raised my hand and said, ‘Oh, by the way, I forgot to tell you, I’m a child molester.'”


We’ve plowed headfirst into one of Mr. Wolfe’s great themes. He has long argued American literature was going through a bad patch, and the condition wouldn’t improve until authors engaged with the density and complexity of “this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, Hog-stomping Baroque country of ours.” So any change, 15-odd years later? “No, I don’t see any at all,” he says acutely. “The great emphasis is still put on the psychological novel, and to dig your hands into the dirty social reality is really unrefined . . . as if the social context doesn’t mean a thing.”

That’s the thing, the social context. “All of us are products of this vast plane called the social reality, the weight of the time and place we live, intersecting vertically with the individual psychology, or our impulses. And a person’s psyche, to use a vague term, is the result of the intersection.”

“I think every living moment of a human being’s life, unless the person is starving or in immediate danger of death in some other way, is controlled by a concern for status,” he says.


Tom Wolfe is an astute writer who identifies himself as a Nietzschean in some of his older interviews, not so much from an advocacy perspective as being cognizant of the philosophy and aware of the troubling ideas it brings up:

Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of “world history,” but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die. One might invent such a fable, and yet he still would not have adequately illustrated how miserable, how shadowy and transient, how aimless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature.

On Truth and Lies in a Sense Outside Morality, by F.W. Nietzsche

Nietzsche talks about us inventing knowing, meaning creating a domain in which human thoughts supplant reality for the purposes of assessing what is important, real or meaningful to us.

altruismAfter all, with our big brains, we have a choice. We can decide principle is more important than consequences. We can go into denial, and become narcissistic — or worse, solipsistic. We can pick a pleasant emotion that lets us put our heads down and work without knowing we’ll succeed, or we can use that same denial to ignore our mortality, or even, to push aside reality in favor of moral measurement of intentions, desires or the effects on the individual of necessary parts of reality.

Wolfe takes Nietzsche’s knowing and breaks it down to understand it better. One aspect of our knowing is our certainty that equality, human rights, democracy and freedom are essential to society; even more, in our knowing, is the idea that those who are altruistic are risen in social status over others.

It would be quite the mental trip, then, if we found out that “knowing” in this context had a biological origin, meaning that it’s not a choice of our “free will,” but an impulse from within the intricate nest of hormones, nerve impulses and gestures inculcated by natural selection which forms the part of us that is unconscious, or not under the control of our personalities:

The vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic autonomic nervous system. It is a bundle of nerves that originates in the top of the spinal cord, it activates different organs throughout the body (heart, lungs, liver, digestive organs). When active, it is likely to produce that feeling of warm expansion in the chest, for example when we are moved by someone’s goodness or when we appreciate a beautiful piece of music. University of Illinois, Chicago, psychiatrist Steve Porges long ago argued that the vagus nerve is a care-taking organ in the body (of course, it serves many other functions as well). Several reasons justify this claim. The vagus nerve is thought to stimulate certain muscles in the vocal chamber, enabling communication. It reduces heart rate. Very new science suggests that it may be closely connected to oxytocin receptor networks. And it is unique to mammals.

Our research and that of other scientists suggests that the vagus nerve may be a physiological system that supports caretaking and altruism. We have found that activation of the vagus nerve is associated with feelings of compassion and the ethical intuition that humans from different social groups (even adversarial ones) share a common humanity. People who have high vagus nerve activation in a resting state, we have found, are prone to feeling emotions that promote altruism — compassion, gratitude, love, happiness. Arizona State University psychologist Nancy Eisenberg has found that children with elevated vagal tone (high baseline vagus nerve activity) are more cooperative and likely to give. This area of study is the beginning of a fascinating new argument about altruism — that a branch of our nervous system evolved to support such behavior.

Scientific American

Life must be studied as a process, meaning anything that produces a reward rapidly gets assimilated into the cycle of life, and confers an advantage onto those who have it.

Could it be possible that millenia of biology have shaped us to base our self-esteem on how we are approved of by others, and that the index of this comparison is vagus-stirring altruism?

While there’s no question that there’s a deep human drive for a feeling of self-esteem or competence, this feeling of competence is almost never assessed on its own: we are social beings at the core, and as such our sense of competence appears to be deeply connected to others around us. Self-esteem may not be an accurate way of understanding this feeling of ‘okayness’, when we actually measure this constantly against others. Instead of self-esteem, we need to start thinking about the more dynamic sense of ‘status’.

Status means where are we positioned in relation to those around us: literally where we are in the ‘pecking order’. Your perception of status, and any changes in it, can be a driver of what’s called primary reward or threat. A sense of increasing status can be more rewarding than money, and a sense of decreasing status can feel like your life is in danger. Here’s an excerpt from Your Brain at Work on this whole issue.


Naomi Eisenberger, a leading social neuroscience researcher at UCLA, wanted to understand what goes on in the brain when people feel rejected by others. She designed an experiment that used fMRI to scan the brains of participants as they played a computer game called “Cyberball.” Cyberball harks back to the nastiness of the school playground. “People thought they were playing a ball tossing game over the Internet with two other people,” Eisenberger explained during an interview down the road from her lab. “They could see an avatar that represented them, and avatars for two other people. Then, about half way through this game of toss between the three of them, they stop receiving the ball and the other players throw the ball only to each other.” This experiment generates intense emotions for most people. Eisenberger says, “What we found is that when people were excluded, you see activity in the dorsal portion of the anterior cingulate cortex, which is the neural region that’s also involved in the distressing component of pain, or what sometimes people call the “suffering component” of pain. Those people who felt the most rejected had the highest levels of activity in this region.”

Psychology Today

Fear of exclusion enforces altruism. But altruism itself can be hacked.


For example, if I become a philanthropist and give away lots of money in a very public way, while using the goodwill engendered to get people to look the other way while I do sketchy things on the side, I’ve hacked altruism. The altruism represented 10% of my wealth, and the 90% came from invisible (to most people, who aren’t going to go out of their way to look) bad deeds.

Slowly, however, people are starting to study how the guilt/altruism cycle replaces our desire to perceive reality with a knee-jerk instinct to placate others through potlatch:

Current work on cooperation is focused on the theory of reciprocal altruism. However, reciprocity is just one way of getting a return on an investment in altruism and is difficult to apply to many examples. Reciprocity theory addresses how animals respond dynamically to others so as to cooperate without being exploited. I discuss how introducing differences in individual generosity together with partner choice into models of reciprocity can lead to an escalation in altruistic behaviour. Individuals may compete for the most altruistic partners and non-altruists may become ostracized. I refer to this phenomenon as competitive altruism and propose that it can represent a move away from the dynamic responsiveness of reciprocity. Altruism may be rewarded in kind, but rewards may be indirectly accrued or may not involve the return of altruism at all, for example if altruists tend to be chosen as mates. This variety makes the idea of competitive altruism relevant to behaviours which cannot be explained by reciprocity. I consider whether altruism might act as a signal of quality, as proposed by the handicap principle. I suggest that altruistic acts could make particularly effective signals because of the inherent benefits to receivers. I consider how reciprocity and competitive altruism are related and how they may be distinguished.


None of this will be taboo research, but if we start to apply it to our thinking about how this impulse controls our socialization, economics, politics and even thinking — because it exists at a layer of thought and assumption below our conscious minds — we start to see it as a virus or other parasitic entity, because it manipulates us so that it may live on, oblivious to the consequences to us:

To relate this condition to the prisoner’s dilemma, an individual may benefit the most in a one-time interaction with another by defecting (i.e. receiving benefits without incurring any cost to itself). However, in an iterated prisoner’s dilemma, where individuals interact more than once, if the act of defecting makes the individual less likely to attract a fit mate in the future, then cooperative behavior will be selected for.[1]

This selection for cooperation is even stronger if an individual’s action in an interaction is observed by third-party individuals, for the possibility of forming a reputation arises. Amotz Zahavi, famous for his work with the altruistic Arabian babbler, suggests that this level of “social prestige” will affect which individuals interact with one another and how they behave.


Wolfe again, expanding on how the foundation of sociology is a study in a Nietzschean context of how this altruistic, or maybe we should say “politeness,” reciprocal impulse controls what we’re willing to allow ourselves to realize about the world:

When I was in graduate school, I was introduced to this concept of social status in the work of Max Weber, the German sociologist. And the more I thought about it, the more I could see that status was not simply something that was appearances and houses and automobiles, or even ranks in a corporation or that sort of thing. It invaded every single part of life.

Every time we go into a room with other people, it’s as if we have a teleprompter in front of us and it’s telling us the history of ourselves versus these people. We can’t even think of thinking without this huge library of good information and bad information.

When you get up in the morning, you do not think about triangles and squares and these similes that psychologists have been using for the past 100 years.

You think about status. You think about where you are in relation to your peers. You’re thinking about your spouse, about your kids, about your boss. Ninety-nine percent of your time is spent thinking about other people’s thoughts about you, their intentions, and all this kind of stuff.


In postmodern theory, one area of extensive study is the concept of “narrative,” or how we as individuals formulate a story from the third person which explains our motives, their justifications (usually in terms of altruism, because that is 100% universally absolutely accepted, where anything else varies with the audience), and our goals with the intent of having other people understand us and approve. A narrative is how we explain ourselves to the world:

Imagine I show you a list of 30 words. One of the words is written in green ink. The rest are blue.

Half an hour goes by and I ask you to recall the words on the list. Which word are you most likely to remember?

The one written in green ink, of course. This is the “von Restorff Effect”: Novelty grabs our attention.

It’s basic cognitive hardwiring. Journalists don’t zero in on “man bites dog” stories because they’re perverse. They do it because they’re human.

When a story breaks, grabs the media’s attention, and gets people talking, something else happens. The story ceases to be about a single incident. Instead, it creates a narrative.

The absence of a narrative means a story must stand or fall on its own. And when a story runs contrary to a narrative, it is positively resisted.

The Ottawa Citizen

Another word for narrative is “script,” as in, “since we were looking for guys dressed in black carrying bicycles, he fit right into our script.”

social_rankThe media uses these means to control you: novelty and its stepchild, negativity — since evolution has primed you to first look for threats — and a script into which all news must fit. We could call that script a “justification,” as we do in our manifesto.

When those who have money and power want you to jump, they make a few calls to their friends and business associates. They put out the meme: X is the new threat, or Y is another instance of the current script of threats, whether it be global warming, hackers, racists, Satanists or godless Communism.

That’s how you keep a nation in line when they don’t have much in common as far as ideologies, values, etc. go. You manipulate them with carrot and stick: we free, they bad.

Much as democracy relies on having a horde of people who don’t read or think very deeply about issues, modern society relies on useful idiots to bleat out that the sky is falling any time such a meme comes around.

How does this relate to history at large? Well, as recent research points out, social attitudes shape genetics, and so a culture that chose, say, altruism over competence — picking flattering and conflict-avoiding people to those who want to get the right answer and don’t care who gets upset — might literally breed themselves into docility and lose the ability to solve problems, because they reward those who are docile with better chances of breeding, better jobs, better social scenes and more general approval:

Culture, not just genes, can drive evolutionary outcomes, according to a study released Wednesday that compares individualist and group-oriented societies across the globe.

Bridging a rarely-crossed border between natural and social sciences, the study looks at the interplay across 29 countries of two sets of data, one genetic and the other cultural.

The researchers found that most people in countries widely described as collectivist have a specific mutation within a gene regulating the transport of serotonin, a neurochemical known to profoundly affect mood.


“What we are proposing is that cultural and genetic selection actually operate in tandem, and that you can view human behaviour as a product of culture-gene co-evolution,” she said.


Isn’t that interesting… cultural values determine what genetic combinations are rewarded with reproduction, and as a result, gradually shape the population.

In that view, of course, we’re playing with more than we realize when we look at the importance of not letting a social virus or fashion subvert our values system.

Hear a Tom Wolfe interview about altruism, status and political fashion (coming to us via orgtheory by way of Contexts). Also of note: the Altruism poster designs at Kasia Kaczmarek’s blog.

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