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July 26, 2010

Thankful … for what?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Camassia @ 8:47 pm

Recently a guy at the Cato Institute explained why libertarians need Darwin. The essay ultimately concludes that it’s because Darwinism provides a basis for morality without God, which has been known to be a hot topic here on Musings & Searchings. But what really got me thinking was a five-year-old Wil Wilkinson essay he links called Capitalism and Human Nature.

Wilkinson admits in it that some aspects of human nature make it hard for capitalism to work. I could pick a few bones with some of his points, but I want to focus on the part about the shift from personal to impersonal transactions. In the old days, we knew most of the people we did business with. Nowadays, we have to somehow trust in all the strangers on whom we depend economically. And it is not really in human nature to trust strangers. “We live in two worlds, the face-to-face world of the tribe, family, school, and firm, and the impersonal, anonymous world of huge cities, hyper-specialization, and trans-world trade,” Wilkinson writes.

What to do about it? Wilkinson doesn’t really answer it directly, but his conclusion is suggestive: “Once we appreciate the improbability and fragility of our wealth and freedom, it becomes clear just how much respect and gratitude we owe to the belief systems, social institutions, and personal virtues that allowed for the emergence of our ‘wider civilization’ and that allow us to move between our two worlds without destroying or crushing either.”

This mention of gratitude reminds me of something I’ve been wondering ever since reading a bunch of articles on Ayn Rand, following the recent publication of a couple new biographies. I will admit my knowledge of her is all second-hand, so this may be wrong, but I get the impression that she feels society owes its creative achievers a lot more than they usually get, because their works are so beneficial. On the other hand, I also get the impression she thinks any Ubermensch worth his salt doesn’t do anything for anybody else, but strictly to self-actualize or something. So how much do you really owe someone who isn’t actually doing you a favor?

Wilkinson is right when he says, earlier in the essay, that reciprocity is pretty basic to human nature. But I suspect that equally basic is the importance of motive in reciprocity. Everyone knows that people can do you favors for selfish and even destructive reasons. Con men butter up wealthy women, drug dealers give discounts to get people hooked, politicians dole out pork to gain power, abusers play nice just long enough to keep you from leaving. People are rightly suspicious of such things. At the same time though, reciprocity isn’t altruism; anybody doing a favor in a reciprocal-type society would expect reward of some sort, so favors are always tinged with self-interest. I suppose reciprocity works best when self-interest and other-interest get into a happy muddle, so that people don’t think too hard about such things. That is more difficult when you’re dealing with strangers, which is perhaps why so many commercial transactions involve so much play-acting. Waiters act like you’re at their dinner party, saleswomen pretend to be your shopping buddy, and so on. Why do you and the grocery cashier thank each other after you’ve paid? Are you really grateful? Probably not, but it’s better to pretend you are.

But what Wilkinson is talking about here isn’t really gratitude towards persons, but towards “belief systems, social institutions and personal virtues.” It does seem to me that a common trait of materialists is the ability to feel grateful towards abstractions like that — toward science, toward nature, toward medicine, or what have you. It is, I think, harder for other people to feel that for something so inhuman and lacking any benevolent intent, which I suppose is one reason why gods are ever popular. The urge to thank something when good things happen is a common one, and is perhaps another sign of how deep reciprocity is in us. Yet it’s equally common for gratitude to fade when things become commonplace and taken for granted, and for it to disappear entirely when things go badly. The psalms of lament are nearly as numerous as the songs of praise, and the popularity of capitalism goes up and down with economic cycles. To expect more is asking for an awful lot of faith.

1 Comment

  1. “It does seem to me that a common trait of materialists is the ability to feel grateful towards abstractions like that — toward science, toward nature, toward medicine…”

    It seems as though that today’s Christians, including myself, see too much disconnect between the natural and the supernatural, a distinction not distinct in God’s eyes since everything comes from God.

    Comment by TSO — July 27, 2010 @ 9:43 am

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