Competitive Altruism and Self-Sacrifice: Status

There’s an article in a recent Time magazine (3 June 2009) suggesting that altruism — in this case, specifically environment altruism — may not be the self-sacrificial action we think:

“Many people on both the right and the left like to portray environmentalism as sacrifice — denying oneself some kind of pleasure… in order to help save the planet.  … But what if environmentalism didn’t really involve sacrifice in the first place?”

The article’s main point: Environmentalism and other forms of altruism may require giving something up, but they also impart a precious commodity: status.

Like a NYT article from mid-May, this article reminds us that status does not always equal buying “the most luxurious product” you can. Studies have shown that “when given an eco-friendly alternative, competitive altruism … compels people to forgo luxury for environmental status.”

It’s not surprising to me that status is always measured by and earned within prevailing standards, whether those of the entire culture or, often, those of one’s small clique.  Bohemians in past centuries, e.g., gained status among their cohorts by forgoing luxuries and rejecting the bourgeois class, in the name of art, the integrity of the individual, an identification with victims, and a rehabilitation of the idea of ‘failure’ itself.  For some of those folks, too, self-sacrifice was part of the status cocktail: when they were treated badly by the “uncomprehending masses,” this proved they were right in their views. So it is today for many of us.

Status (and competition) is part and parcel of mimetic theory: we desire what others have and want, or seem to have and want, and we want to be seen as desirable ourselves, most importantly in our being, for who we are.

In our culture, a large part of the way we try to show and tell others (and ourselves) who we are is through what we buy, what we don’t buy, where we buy it, how we use what we buy, what we pay for what we buy, how we earn money to buy things, etc.  Buying and consuming impinge directly and heavily on the environment.

Our status, and other people’s status, always amounts to the same thing, in any culture, in any time and place:  it’s always how desirable, how valued, how worthy we look in the eyes of others. The ‘others’ might be friends, partners, family, coworkers, acquaintances, strangers, an internalised parent, a fantasised overseer, even (our idea of) God. We see ourselves through others’ eyes; their view of us shows us who we are, for better or worse.

What changes from culture to culture is how we measure what’s desirable, what’s valuable, what’s worthwhile. Some attributes have probably always been seen as desirable, like courage, perhaps. But even with something as seemingly desirable as courage, those in the past who have shown courage have been maligned, ridiculed, and treated as vermin …. I’m thinking about how women and minorities have been and are treated in many cultures, about witch-burnings, about the martyring of saints, about the imprisonment of dissidents, and so on. Courage can be misinterpreted as craziness or stubbornness. When it is recognised as courage, though, I bet it has generally through the ages imparted status. (Seems like there’s more to think about there — something to do with the threatening nature of courage — but I’ll have to come back to that later.)

In our culture, self-sacrifice is usually seen as valuable, status-imparting. That wasn’t always so, in all times and cultures, even for parents; consider that being wealthy in many cultures meant, and still means, that you can hire someone else to do the parenting while you do something else. At some pre-industrial times and places, children were seen as small adults and were brought into the family so they could do work that needed to be done so the family could survive; in this sense, children were sacrificed for the sake of the family, rather than parents sacrificing themselves solely for their children’s sake.

(Or maybe that’s just semantics. I don’t think so, though; I think there’s a real difference between seeing your children as sturdy workers, expected to be useful in meeting the needs of a group or community, and in seeing them as tender beings in need of protection and hoping they will thrive as individuals.  These two views could merge but they could also diverge sharply.)

In some cultures, there is still a tradition of the sacrifice of one twin infant in order to keep peace in a community. In parts of Africa (and perhaps other places) now, children are branded as witches and beaten or killed, even by their family members, to preserve community peace.  Some would say that abortion is another way of sacrificing children for the sake of others’ peace and happiness.

Though we have a culture that accords status to self-sacrifice in some ways, in other ways it honours and encourages the sacrifice of others for the sake of individual and social integrity or health. It’s hard to pull apart all the (apparently conflicting) cultural mores concerning sacrifice and self-sacrifice, all the taboos and prohibitions around sacrifice.

And then within a culture, there are varying perceptions of status, depending on where you are and who you know. For some people, obviously, status is gained by having some of the stuff or the brand names that celebrities have, or being ‘friends’ on Facebook with a celebrity, or ‘tweeting’ with them.  Being connected to someone of status imparts status. The Time article takes this into account in suggesting that “companies find a way to publicize the fact that celebrities buy green products.

For many, status is, as this article notes, imbued with the sense of self-sacrifice, although what should be sacrificed in order to achieve a higher status varies. Status could be found in being seen as a nurturing and highly committed mom, dad, or grandparent, even though that means sacrificing luxurious vacations, a satisfying career, or, if the TV show What Not To Wear can be believed, time for applying makeup, working out, and finding clothes that fit.  (On the other hand, looking like ‘a mom’ is a handy social status signal.) For others, status might be found in being seen as a hard worker who sacrifices her own time and energy for the good of the company or the non-profit and their clients, and for her family’s sake.  For some religious communities, status is gained by sacrificing choice, by sacrificing vanity — dressing plainly and without adornment, and by sacrificing ‘wordly’ entertainment, because God is seen to favour this way of living.

And for some, it’s just as this Time article describes, that status comes from being seen as an altruistic person, someone who cares more about the Earth than about himself and who sacrifices on behalf of the Earth &/or future generations.

I don’t think it’s cynical to explore the mixed motives or the mixed blessings of generosity. We usually give in order to get, or with the knowledge or at least the faint hope that we will receive something desirable in return (like status). Is that so shameful?

Humans desire. Most of us at any one moment desire at least some little bit of another’s being, to be like someone else in some way. That is, there are other people who seem to have more status than we do.  They seem more desirable — after all, we desire what they have, we desire to be like them in some way.  Humans also imitate. We try to achieve the status and being that we desire by doing what the desired others do, by having what they have (even if it’s something as abstract as ‘having’ their perspective on life), by desiring what they desire — all the time hoping to see ourselves as desirable and worthy enough.

Since we see ourselves most often and most arrestingly through our reflection in other people’s eyes, we naturally hope to please and impress others (those friends, strangers, God, fantasy watchers, internal parents), and at the same time to become equal in worth to those others, so that we will feel good. Yet, we know not what we do, because we are already desirable, worthy, valuable.

I don’t really believe that altruism exists as it’s defined,  as “unselfish concern for the welfare of others” or as “behavior that is detrimental to the individual but favors the survival or spread of that individual’s genes.” About the latter, evolutionary definition, since the genes of the individual live on in the spread of those genes, the individual benefits because some part of himself continues to exist. About the former,  I think we can be genuinely highly concerned for the welfare of others, but when the consciousness recognises the ‘unselfish’ nature of that concern, most of us feel rewarded, so we do ‘get something out of it,’ even if no one else notices or praises us.

I don’t see the problem with this. Why is it shameful for us to benefit — even if the benefit is simply feeling we have increased or maintained our status as desirable and worthy people — by doing something loving or kind or generous for someone else? I think there’s something insidious about the notion that to be really good for others we have to be bad for ourselves. If we are truly all related, then what harms one harms all, and what benefits one benefits all, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with acknowledging it. I think it’s more likely to be dangerous to feel that one is sacrificing solely in order to ‘help’ someone else, because therein lies resentment, rivalry, bitterness, and so much sadness.

As the Flight of the Conchords says it best, “I got hurt feelings.”

“I make a meal for my friends,
Try to make it delicious,
Try to keep it nutritious,
Create wonderful dishes.

Not one of them thinks about the way I feel

Nobody compliments the meal

I got hurt feelings, I got hurt feelings
I feel like a prized asshole
No one even mentions my casserole.
I got hurt feelings, I got hurt feelings.
You could’ve said something nice about my profiteroles”


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