Political thought in the West today is broadly divided into two camps – the left-wing and the right-wing. Each of these represents a very different worldview, and in order to understand each we have to be aware of the very different premises upon which they are respectively based. These premises, in turn, relate to the respective roles that are played by altruism and self-interest with regard to human behaviour.

Human behaviour, like that of all higher animals, is driven primarily by the individual’s overriding concern for their own survival and welfare – their self-interest. It is not driven exclusively by self-interest, however. Humans are not solitary animals. Because humans are social, and go through an extended period of infancy, they are dependent upon one another. Altruism (the predisposition inherent in human nature for the individual at times to further the interests of other individuals at cost to themselves) serves the biological function of facilitating inter-personal relationships between otherwise self-interested individuals. The altruistic impulse counterbalances the primary self-interest when appropriate, facilitating mutually beneficial cooperation between individuals.

It is at this early point that the left-wing and the right-wing perceptions start to diverge.

The right-wing holds that not only is it self-evident that self-interest is the primary drive behind human behaviour, but is quite happy with this fact. The left-wing, in contrast, holds that, while self-interest may be the primary human behavioural drive, it should not be; altruism should be the primary impulse motivating human behaviour.

The reason that the left-wing asserts this, is because it believes that only if all humans behave more altruistically than self-interestedly, can a moral state of what it calls ‘social justice’ be attained in society. The left believes that not only can such a moral state exist, but that it is vitally important that it do so. Attaining social justice on Earth is the primary objective of all left-wing belief. The distinguishing feature between these two very different views is that the right-wing’s is essentially descriptive (describing ‘what is’ empirically), and the left-wing’s is prescriptive (describing ‘what should be’ morally).

Implicit in these two different views is an acceptance of empirical reality by the right-wing and a rejection of that reality by the left.

In general terms, the right-wing appears to accept human nature as it finds it, whereas the left-wing rejects self-interest as morally unacceptable selfishness and seeks to replace it with morally elevated, self-sacrificing, altruistic behaviour. The left-wing herewith introduces a moral dichotomy; if altruistic behaviour is morally ‘good’, then biologically-determined, self-interested behaviour is by implication morally ‘bad’; i.e. ‘self-interest’ becomes redefined as ‘selfishness’ and ‘greed’.

Given these two very different perceptions, coming to an objective understanding of the actual different biological roles and proportional strengths of altruism and self-interest is necessary.

For example, just what percentage of the normal person’s behaviour is naturally self-interested and what percentage is naturally altruistic, on average? Can this biologically-determined ratio be changed, and is it possible or desirable to change it, in order to make humans more altruistic than self-interested? Would the world be a better place if we were more altruistic than self-interested, or does Darwin’s theory of natural selection tell us that altruism, for all the virtue inherent in it, does not work as primary behaviour and was already selected out as such by evolution, millions of years ago?

Apart from their conflicting views on altruism and self-interest, the left and right differ in one other important, but related, respect; the priority given respectively to the individual’s interests and those of society as a whole.

What are known popularly as the left-wing ideologies, namely, socialism, communism, and to a lesser degree, social democracy, place a greater value on society’s collective interests than on those of the individual, and are thus described ideologically as ‘collectivist’. The individual in a left-wing society is called upon to allow the collective interests of all the other members of society to be given preference over their own individual interest when these conflict, in the belief that this form of social behaviour is the best for humankind as a whole because it creates social justice.

Left-wing collectivism is simply a corollary of the belief that altruism should be the primary impulse motivating human behaviour. If the individual should give altruistic preference to the interests of others over their own, then, by definition, the collective interest is senior to those of the individual. With this, the left-wing ideologies are thereby implicitly asserting, either that altruism expresses a higher moral value or virtue than self-interest and so for moral reasons should be made to override self-interest, or, alternatively, that biologically it would be better for humankind that altruism somehow be made our primary behavioural drive. They thus believe that altruism, rather, than individual self-interest should determine society’s moral, political, and economic organisation. Left-wing ideologies are also egalitarian, in that they favour material equality between individuals over material inequality, and to this end, the better-off individual is expected to support the less-well-off.

In contrast, what are regarded as the moderate right-wing ideologies, namely conservatism and (British) liberalism, or libertarianism, place greater value on the individual’s interests over those of the collective, and are therefore described ideologically as ‘individualistic’.

The individual interest of citizens is held generally to take precedence over that of society as a whole, when these conflict – also in the belief that this form of social behaviour is the best for humankind as a whole. This is not to say that altruism and other people’s interests are held to be of no account, or should not be encouraged; only that it is regarded as natural and appropriate, in the interests of their survival, that any individual would pursue their own interest before that of others under most, if not necessarily all, circumstances.

By generally favouring the interests of the individual over those of the collective, the moderate right-wing ideologies affirm their understanding that self-interest is the de facto primary human behavioural drive. Materially, right-wing ideologies are not egalitarian, believing that the increased productivity arising from the individual entrepreneurship and risk-taking that unfettered wealth creation encourages is by far the best way to improve the circumstances of the less well-off. Inequality in itself is regarded as of little consequence and a small price to pay for the greater material productivity generated for the entire community by individualism.

Of the two sets of ideological beliefs, collectivism is much the older, being the ancient form of tribal social organisation characteristic of humankind’s earliest history. As an alternative form of social organisation, self-interested individualism came to prominence relatively recently, in 16th century Europe.

(Italian fascism and Hitler’s national socialism were ideological anomalies. Although they are both popularly described as right-wing because of their extreme nationalism, they were both in reality collectivist, respectively pursuing the collective interests of the ‘nation’ and the ‘race’ over those of the individual. Economically, they mixed socialism with state-controlled capitalism.)

The available empirical evidence indicates overwhelmingly that self-interest is our natural primary behavioural drive, with altruism an important but nevertheless secondary biological drive. It is, after all, ourselves that we feed daily, our own bank accounts into which we pay our earnings, and our own teeth that we brush at night, not the neighbour’s.

The reality is that, regardless of the fact that we do sometimes choose to serve the interests of others, and particularly those close to us, over a lifetime by far the greater part of our energy and resources are in fact spent on our own personal needs and objectives, which is in accord with our biological natures and the struggle for survival that characterises existence. Furthermore, it is unlikely that anyone who was motivated primarily by altruism would live long enough to be able to do much good for others. While altruism obviously has an important social role to play in human existence, it can never be a viable alternative to self-interest, as the left-wing ideologies imply should be the case. To be frank, how much are we as individuals really prepared to sacrifice on a daily basis for total strangers? It is simply biologically impossible for humans consistently to override their inherent self-interest.

Conscious of what they fear to be their own moral failing in respect of altruism, however, some people believe that others are more virtuous than they are, and are indeed primarily altruistic, and guiltily hope to match such people in virtue. Some few individuals possibly do regularly spend the major part of their earnings and energy assisting others; St. Theresa, for example. They are extremely rare, however, and quite untypical. To anyone who does not wilfully blind themselves to reality, it is obvious that the behaviour of every normal human being is driven overwhelmingly by self-interest.

The left-wing ideologies, however, have enormous emotional appeal for many decent people, because of the compassion and altruism that they give voice to, and which are advertised as the virtuous forces driving them. The two fundamental beliefs upon which they are based intellectually, however, that people’s behaviour should or could be driven primarily by altruism, and that collectivism is a better way of organising human society than individualism, are simply without substance. They appear, in fact, to be little more than the modern world’s pseudo-secularised version of the mystical concepts of original sin and divine redemption: “Your selfishness is bad. Dedicate yourself to helping others and you will be redeemed.”

The West raised millions of people from poverty to relative affluence over the 19th and 20th centuries, not out of compassion, but purely on the basis of its highly individualistic and highly productive laissez-faire economic policies. In the West today, where left-wing governments are able to finance their altruistic social programmes only by means of revenue extracted from their underlying capitalist market economies, such as in Western Europe and Scandinavia, their welfare states appear to be successful. This is misleading, however, as a welfare state inexorably suffocates its market economy host with regulation, debt, over-taxation, and misallocated resources, as is clearly happening now.

Where a left-wing society does not have an underlying market economy to feed off, however, and the economy is run on purely socialistic lines, authoritarian Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea, and Zimbabwe are fair examples of what the outcome is likely to be. Despite its powerful emotional appeal, there is no historical evidence that any society run on altruistic and collectivist left-wing principles, without an underlying capitalist market economy to finance it, is remotely capable of providing anything like the living standards and, above all, the political freedom to which we have become accustomed in the West.

Just as all theistic religions are predicated upon the single, unsubstantiated belief in a supernatural being that supposedly possesses the miraculous power to grant humans everlasting life, so all left-wing ideology is also predicated upon a single, equally unsubstantiated and, frankly, ridiculous belief; namely, that simply because humans are capable of occasional acts of altruism, they should and must generally serve the interests of others before their own.

And why should they do so, even though it is totally against their natures as human beings? Well, of course, they do not actually have to do so, but left-wing politicians understand, correctly, that the noble and compassionate sentiment behind the idea will appeal to all decent people, because it allows them simply by supporting it in theory and at no cost to feel that they are socially virtuous, even though, in reality, they have no serious intention of ever actually putting the interests of strangers consistently before their own. Any ideology that actually compelled people consistently to serve the interests of others before their own would obviously have no appeal whatsoever. It would be called slavery.

Click here for the second part of this series.

Author: David Matthews is a retired Cape Town businessman and author of Our Captured Minds: how religions and ideologies exploit morality to order and control society.

  • nextpkfr

    You point out that Western society could not function without an underlying capitalist market economy to finance it, but ignore the fact that a capitalist market economy could not function without taxation to support it. What is taxation but a collectivist ideology?

    Your entire argument relies on your assertion that left wing ideology is defined by this statement: people’s behaviour should or could be driven primarily by altruism.

    But that is complete nonsense, specifically because of the word “primarily”. The only one advocating for absolute altruism is your left wing strawman. The world is more complex than pure altruism versus pure egoism. Human society can function neither with solely one, nor the other.

    “This is misleading, however, as a welfare state inexorably suffocates its market economy host with regulation, debt, over-taxation, and misallocated resources, as is clearly happening now.”

    Propaganda, and laughable at that.

    • Mike van Zyl

      The ‘left’ will agree with nextpkfr, and the ‘right’ will agree with the author of the article: It is that simple – the world is not “more comlex” than simply that.

      • nextpkfr

        Since the article so grossly misrepresents the left, I find it a bit depressing to think the generalised “right” would agree with it. We have more than enough data in the 21st century to dismiss statements like “a welfare state inexorably suffocates its market economy”. The Cold War is over, this phobia of any and all policies baring any “socialist” leaning has caused enough damage.

        Capitalism is the superior economic model, but it has flaws that lead to ever growing inequality, and those flaws need to be mitigated if a a society is to proper. A nation can forsake its impoverished, or it can utilise their potential. Our current quagmire of suffocating partisanship won’t outlast that fact.