Fate, impunity and altruism

It is pretended by some that we can destroy without consequence, that we can give without consequence and that we can separate our own fate from that of another, whether we do good or bad. This post is written as a warning, a sort of guide, and an offering of hope that if mankind can make a final and ultimate decision to do no harm, perhaps then, there is a chance for the survival of our species.

There are some who might say that there is no such thing as pure altruism. Here is the Merriam-Webster definition:

Definition of altruismunselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others charitable acts motivated purely by altruismbehavior by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species

I happen to believe that there is no such thing as true altruism, and that it is impossible to do a good deed for another with zero reward. In this one and only respect, I actually agree with Ayn Rand who offers the following analysis:

What is the moral code of altruism? The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value.
Do not confuse altruism with kindness, good will or respect for the rights of others. These are not primaries, but consequences, which, in fact, altruism makes impossible. The irreducible primary of altruism, the basic absolute, is self-sacrifice—which means; self-immolation, self-abnegation, self-denial, self-destruction—which means: the self as a standard of evil, the selfless as a standard of the good.

Note for the record, I'm not a libertarian or even an Ayn Rand fan. I'm simply offering her viewpoint here for analysis. What Rand misses here is that humans are built from the ground up for cooperation for their mutual survival. Cooperation is not a choice, it is a requirement for survival. All animals are built this way, but humans have taken the concept to a level that cannot be conceived by other animals due to the size of their brains relative to any other species (with perhaps exception to certain cetaceous mammals like dolphins and whales).

In the first paragraph, Rand says we're all free agents living in a bag of skin, and that service to others is not required for survival. In another, she recognizes that doing something good or nice for another being has inescapable consequences. Rand seems to have suffered from cognitive dissonance in the sense that she cannot reconcile human beings by their very design and their environment, but urges us to believe that we are indeed free agents in a bag of skin capable of acting without consequence from other humans.

Impunity is the antithesis of altruism. Impunity assumes action against others without consequence. Merriam-Webster, again:

Definition of impunity:  exemption or freedom from punishment, harm, or loss laws were flouted with impunity

Impunity assumes that harms done to another being can be committed without consequence. But as noted above, just as the consequences of good deeds are inescapable, so too are the consequences of a bad deed. For this discussion, we can find a continuum of behavior between altruism and impunity. Both terms have something in common: expressions of altruism and impunity can often be seen as attempts to do something without consequence to oneself.

Humans are motivated to do good for the feelings that come from doing good. We can feel it in our chest and gut. We sort of glow for a day after doing a really good deed. An anonymous good dead, an act of altruism, is often performed without witnessing the the receipt or discovery of such a gift. We leave a gift at someone's door, or we send something nice in the mail anonymously, or we donate to a charity without revealing our identity. No matter how hard we try to separate ourselves from the consequences of a good deed, there are still consequences.

In the same vein, when humans attempt to do harm to another, from slavery to murder, to genocide, there are consequences. Even acts of racial discrimination, collusion, frauds and other abuses, have long term consequences that at the minimum are difficult to calculate and are rarely foreseen by the abuser, yet they are there and they can persist for years if not decades later. And with every act carried out with impunity, the body is shot with adrenaline and other hormones, making ready for fight or flight. Every act of harm done to another takes away resources that could be used for the betterment of ourselves or another. That is the primary consequence abusers fail to contemplate in the heat of the moment.

Abusers who believe they can act with impunity believe that there are no consequences to their actions. But there are. Newton said that for every action, there is a reaction. This is every bit as true in society as it is in physics. It is true in the game of billiards just as it was true in the events leading up to the French Revolution.

In both cases of altruism and impunity, we see actors seeking to act while attempting to escape the consequences of their actions. It is simply not possible to act without consequence. We are inextricably tied to the consequences of our actions, no matter the reason or action.

I am using this line of thinking to understand what is unfolding before us, in an enormous power struggle between the wealthy and the poor, between different faiths and those with no faith at all. This struggle has always existed for the history of human civilization. Against this backdrop of a continuum of altruism and impunity, I see the actions of Congress, and their wealthy benefactors, as a strenuous effort to separate their fate from the people they claim to represent. To a certain degree it may seem they are or even have been successful. But as I will show below, our fates are tied and no amount of effort will untie them.

The effects of global warming, climate change, or whatever you want to call it, are real. They are worldwide and affect everyone on this planet. It is now clear that human inputs of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere play a role in the warming of Earth. Spring has been coming earlier and winter is coming later at places closer to the poles. The equatorial regions are indeed warming up and we are seeing new record temperatures across the world.

Government responses to global warming can be seen as the greatest political blunder in history. We have allowed climate change at our own hand due to the wishes of very wealthy interests to continue to profit from their efforts to extract and sell energy based on carbon. Here in the United States, we know for a fact that the average person has zero influence on public policy at the national level. This condition is a result of public policy choices made by people who already have power and seek yet more power.

The illusion is this: with power comes the ability to separate one's fate from others. Yet everyone will be affected by a warming Earth. There is no escaping that consequence.

Fanatical Christians, Jews and Muslims may believe that they can act with impunity because they believe they can ask forgiveness for their sins and be absolved, but that still doesn't separate their fate from that of others, or even of others they may have injured. Atheists seem to understand this concept better because they do not seek immortality. They have compassion because they believe that this is it, their one shot at a life and that their fate is tied to others, that they cannot separate their actions from their consequences. Buddhists at least understand that we are all connected.

Every drone strike is an attempt to separate the fate of one group from another. A drone strike is a unique example of an attempt to split fates since the operator of a drone is sitting safely and comfortably in a military station while the drone is exposed to harm, and armed to harm another. Yet every drone strike is destructive and not only does it lead to the destruction of the target, it leads to the destruction of the abuser, in this case, the United States for every drone strike gives impetus to at least one more terrorist.

In a similar vein, the people who created Social Security, Medicare and other social safety net programs understood that our fates are irrevocably intertwined. While conservatives bleat that "it's my money", they have little to say when "my money" is being used for destructive purposes, like a drone strike, or worse, a world war. Social safety net programs were created as an acknowledgement of not only the destructive forces of capitalism, but also the creative forces of the same. Visionaries like Henry Wallace, John F. Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt understood these opposing forces and also understood that men who promoted and exhibited destructive behavior could not easily be convinced of the damage they were doing to all Americans.

Another and more subtle example is the business tax break. States and cities all over the country, in an effort to prop up their ailing economies, offer tax breaks to big businesses in the hopes of creating more jobs at home. Such tax breaks are usually geared towards building upscale housing for the wealthy or tax breaks for large businesses to "come hither". Consultants who earn enormous fees for doing essentially nothing, almost always suggest a handout to the private sector. Such handouts are only enjoyed by the upper classes and yet few people in the working classes are even aware of this intervention by the government in the supposedly "free" market extolled in conservative rhetoric.

It would seem ironic then, how few cities (and states) are willing to consider offering a "community broadband" service, public infrastructure that can be enjoyed at a reasonable cost by everyone. As our economy sours in anticipation of another wave of "privatization", a nice word for transferring public monopolies into private hands, little is said in the news of the benefits of community broadband, but a new stadium subsidized at public expense is always worthy of celebration. Once again, we see in a subtle way, how the upper classes try to separate their fates from "the unwashed masses".

In his book Hegemony or Survival, Noam Chomsky took notice of work done by biologist, Ernst Mayr with regards to the prospects for finding intelligent life beyond Earth. Mayr suggested that intelligence may not be favored by natural selection, noted that the average life expectancy of a species is about 100,000 years, and that humans are pretty close to the end of their 100,000 years right about now. We could be at a turning point larger than any of us know right now, and all of us may at last realize that our fates are still irrevocably tied together.

As an intelligent species, we have a choice between acts of destruction and acts of creation. We have a choice between acts of exclusion or inclusion. Whatever we choose to do, if our species which we like to call "homo sapiens" is going to survive any longer, we must recognize that whatever we do will affect ourselves as well as another. We must take heed of the inescapable reality that when we hurt another that we hurt ourselves, and our prospects as a species for survival, and that when we do good to another, we improve ourselves as well as our prospects for survival. This concept is agnostic as to matters of faith and is supported by all of the science we know now. We ignore it at our own peril, and acknowledge it as a requirement for survival.

Originally published on Tuesday, March 21, 2017 at The Digital Firehose.