Introduction // Altruistic Symmetrism: Thoughts about the Ethics of Socio-Economics

In a grove in a forest in the middle of nowhere two near-starving humanoid beings stumble upon a meal for one. How shall they decide who gets how much?


Let us assume for the sake of simplicity that these humanoids are equal on all accounts — equal sex, equal race, equal height, equal strength, equal education, equal everything. We can assume, in fact, that in their world all humanoids are like this. And yet let us assume, though they could be twins in how they think and act, they do not know each other, but know that they are in no way related to each other. Let us in other words abstract everything away that makes them different from each other except their actual relations to one another, and be reminded that these are humanoids, to whom we have no relations beyond our similarities. Let us furthermore assume that it is unknown how long it will be to the next meal; it could be that each — having their own reason to go in the opposite direction — stumbles upon another meal of equal size the very next day, and every day thereafter, or that both starve to death exactly one week later, never tasting a single morsel ever again, or that one finds civilisation while the other dies, or that at least one would have found civilisation if they had eaten the whole meal, or the one ascends to heaven while the other falls into hell. Finally let us assume the meal belongs to nobody, and the two humanoids know it. We are in other words in a situation of nearly pure scarcity and nearly pure uncertainty, trying to decide for third persons what is to be done with the resources at hand.

I propose the following as the only moral distribution of those resources: The meal is divided into two exactly equal portions, and each humanoid takes exactly one portion. I propose, furthermore, that — while our socio-economic system is in fact riddled with exceptions, and political-economics has traditionally sought to justify these exceptions — there are in fact, if we do not weaken any of the assumptions, only very few exceptions, and they are all of a similar kind. To that kind of justified exception: One of the humanoids, under no coercion or manipulation whatsoever, adamantly refuses to eat their share of the meal and insists on giving it up to the other, who in turn makes a concerted effort to convince the other to split the meal evenly.

I propose, in other words, that there is a morally correct way of distributing resources, a reference point to which we can always look when in doubt, and that this correct way of distributing resources can only be altered through democratic consent. This morally correct way is the doctrine of altruistic symmetrism, the notion of each looking to the other person to altruistically see that they have the same as the other, and consensually redistributing according to their wants and needs as discussed openly and honestly to symmetrically reflect their mutual satisfaction.

What is my justification? The purpose of this essay is to touch upon it, though I must admit I question the question itself. I would prefer to ask, why does it need to be justified? But as evidenced by the inequalities today, by the socio-economic system in which I readily admit I have a privileged — and yet I hope humble — position, too many people seem to believe in the “human nature” of self-interestedness. Whenever human nature pops up, I become skeptical, not least because the term is most often used by those who have never studied — and indeed have little interest in — actual human beings. Whenever human nature is mentioned with regards to self-interestedness, that is when I know a person is in fact trying to justify their own selfishness, even if they do not know it themselves. Let me therefore be perfectly clear on the matter: Yes, insofar as we can say that there is a human nature — a very misleading term — there is a tenuous link between that nature and self-interestedness qua selfishness. Self-interest as we know it, however, is a cultural phenomenon that has been developed over centuries and millennia into a doctrine I call asymmetric self-interest. Asymmetric self-interestedness is not, as we may believe, the driving motivation of human economic activity, but rather it is the greatest hindrance to economic achievement and specifically to removing suffering from our world. Asymmetric self-interestedness really it is nothing more than self-justifying selfishness, perpetuated through construing human beings as other than human, coated in milk and honey, and served by those who serve and those who serve themselves alike. To be plainer: Asymmetric self-interest describes the underlying state of the system we are currently in, which has transcended every socio-economic system from slavery to feudalism to capitalism, systems that justify inequality in the distribution of resources through self-interested means to self-interested ends.

Yes, I am making a lot of claims about self-interestedness and human nature that need to be justified in turn. But this is not the place to do so. It is enough to say that our conception of human nature, as mentioned, is misleading, and that our notion of self-interestedness is in fact more akin to a belief system tied to certain evolutionary-biological emotional states than it is an actual mode of being and driving force of human activity. I am writing this essay, and you are most likely reading it, out of interest, but not out of self-interest. Reading further requires that you suspend your belief in self-interest — and its precarious relationship to altruism — from here on out. It will serve you well.

To return to the question at hand: what is my justification of altruistic symmetrism? The rest of this essay will be devoted to this question, but in short it has three parts: First, we are consigned to a world in which there is in fact no such thing as equality. We are not the humanoids from above, but human beings, a species among other species whose members differ, however slightly, in every conceivable aspect except that we (usually) recognize each other as human beings. Fair distribution according to every person’s wants and needs in such a world is impossible, but we can very well distribute (nearly) equally; it is only a matter of long-division, which we have mastered with the very smartphones built by underpaid labour. Second, that one thing that arguably really is in our human nature, our ability to speak language and communicate culture, enables us not only to state, “I want more”, but also to ask, “Do you have enough?” Altruism is the self interested in the other’s self, the implication being that two human beings communicating their own self-interest can only come to terms if at least one of them refrains from acting upon it. The altruistic — moral — person refrains, and when both persons refrain nothing is taken. Deciding how to proceed therefore makes recourse to the previous premise: we can always easily distribute equally. Finally, the convergence of the underlying component of the first part — equality — and the underlying component of the second part — language — leads to an equality of language and a language of equality: free, democratic decision-making.

As per the first and second parts, we are not equally capable of seeing the needs and wants of others, nor are we equally capable of communicating our own wants and needs, but we are (almost) equally capable of judging and stating what is equal. From the symmetrical position of equality looking towards the altruistic position of language, we can coordinate the distribution and redistribution of goods and services so long as we do not merely seek more for ourselves, and in doing so others will provide for us, as they do and have to do anyway. From these two positions, the symmetrical position of equality and the altruistic position of language, we recognize that we each have claim to just as much freedom as any other, but also that the true exercise of freedom is to decide for the sake of others, and not just for our own sakes. Altruistic, symmetrical freedom is not “live and let live” but “do unto others as you would have done unto you”, an age-old and long-ignored maxim. To repeat, the true exercise of freedom is the freedom to choose to do for others when it is not in your own selfish self-interest, and this is the only choice that genuinely allows everyone to do the same, which makes it the only moral choice. To briefly back up this point, imagine the two humanoids selfishly fighting each other over the meal; who wins?

It will be said, as a criticism, that altruistic symmetrism is a utopian ideal. But utopia was always just a city upon a hill, to which we look to see if we are headed in the right direction, and not somewhere any of us will ever go. We remain here to build our own cities together, and just as our cityscapes evolve, so surely would the utopian ideal evolve, so that the city on the hill is different every time we look at it to make a comparison with our own. Altruistic symmetrism does not mean every person has to have the same things, and that any person can take the possessions of another. It means that someone who has more freely gives to someone who has less, and that everyone can freely decide that their needs are as equally fulfilled as the others’. Altruistic symmetrism does not mean every decision must be made as a group, or that there will be a tyranny of the majority over minorities and individuals. It means that those who decide for themselves look to the group’s needs as well as their own, and that privileged minorities and individuals are no longer able to appeal to our differences in order to set us against each other. Altruistic symmetrism means that even if human beings are self-interested by nature, that human nature does not give credence to the doctrine of asymmetric self-interest. In other words, nothing is justified if it does not first look to the equal standing of human beings. The humanoids from above would find this easy, because theirs is a world where recognizing equality is a matter of opening their eyes. Our eyes can see only differences, and so we must, in order to act morally, both recognize and look past these differences. We do not need to appeal to any higher power, logical system, or scientific evidence in order to do this. We only need to appeal to simple math, as our differences cancel each other out in the end.

The question remains, how do we get everyone to do the math? The answer is we do not have to; it is enough that we are morally bound to do the math ourselves.

// This is an introduction to something that will be much longer. //

Robert Pyotr Wolff

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