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Conservatism, love, evolution - and why reciprocal altruism just doesn't cut it

By Paul Goodman

Daniel Finkelstein wrote an arresting post recently in the wake of a public debate with Roger Scruton.  According to Finkelstein, Scruton argued that at the heart of conservatism is love.  Finkelstein regards this as true, but as an "incomplete explanation", and asks: "what produces love"?  One answer - God - "satisfies some, but has been increasingly less convincing as religion has been on the wane".  Another - "the ideas of evolutionary psychology" - are a source which "many Tories now seek an explanation".  He writes -

"What produces love for others who do not share our genes is reciprocal altruism. We have developed the capacity to co-operate and even love others because reciprocity has proven a good evolutionary strategy."

Finkelstein continues by writing that Scruton "said publicly that he thought much of this nonsense, and to me afterwards merely that he regarded it as overdone."  He concludes: "But I think reciprocal altruism an idea of front rank importance. If it is correct it suggests that Tories can develop a distinctive Conservative idea of fairness, an explanation of social cohesion, insights into how to strengthen it and a theory of when to wage and how to avoid war.  Love by itself just doesn’t cut it."

I think that Finkelstein's right in some ways - but that going further shows up the limits of reciprocal altruism as "an idea of front rank importance".  (Let's leave aside the question of whether God's love produced reciprocal altruism, or whether reciprocal altruism produced human love - which, thankfully, is outside what I'm taking as my remit.)  He's right to suggest that the God answer has been increasingly less convincing to many people.  And he's right again to say that reciprocal altruism helps with explanations and insights and all that.

But imagine a country from which the idea of love was absent.  And imagine again trying to persuade someone to help staff a shelter for homeless people, set up a free school, take over the running of a local authority swimming pool, volunteer for a project which helps those with alcohol or drug dependence problems, and so on: in short, play a part in building up the Big Society.  Now imagine, finally, trying to talk him into doing so on the basis of reciprocal altruism.

On the one hand, he might agree to help staff the shelter because he might one day be homeless himself, and that the homeless people that he's helped might then help him.  Or because helping to staff the shelter might somehow help him or his children or his children's children in some way at some time.  On the other hand, however, he might not.  He might well answer that he's better off as a free rider - in other words, that he'll benefit from others acting in an altrustic way, even if he doesn't do so himself.

To which there's an obvious retort: that he might not be persuaded by love either.  But this isn't quite what I'm getting at.  My point is: reciprocal altruism is an idea, which can be considered in the mind.  Love's both an idea and an emotion: it's felt in the heart, or at least the gut, as well as in the head.  So's duty - a concept to which love is closely related.  I contend that people help their neighbours primarily because they're responding to such instincts, rather than because they've worked through an idea.

In other words, reciprocal altruism's fine for politicians and journalists such as Finkelstein and myself, or for policy wonks trying work out how social cohesion can be improved or war avoided.  But it won't play a major part in persuading people to join the little platoons - and if they aren't integral to conservatism, what is? - because man is the "paragon of animals", not a calculating machine.  Which is why reciprocal altruism just doesn't cut it.


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