Spirituality, altruism and the right-wing

This is the second of a trio of pieces on my take on modern spirituality.

have been asked once or twice about the “change of heart” which lay behind my “change of mind”, as I became more right-wing. Leave aside that my “radical” or “progressive” or “green” tendencies of the late 1970s were deviations from my previous and more recent thinking, here is an account of where my “heart” was and is, and how it relates to some big ideas of left and right….

To clear away some undergrowth: I don’t feel now more right-wing, or free market, or elitist, than I ever did. Rather, I have felt it wrong and cowardly not to acknowledge, explain and deepen my understandings. To be sure, they are conflicted, and my Right-wing Guide to Nearly Everything is (I dare to hope) a pretty good guide to the confused on these scores.

In my role as pilgrim or poet (as opposed to my overlong sojourn as a pundit or propagandist), I want to get clear how my right-wingery sits with science, socialism, and – above all – spirituality. The issue pivots on the matter of altruism, or – anyway – altruism can be used as useful fulcrum with which to lever a discussion on all these other matters. If you persevere with this little essay, it ends with a look at the trickiest of all the areas it covers: spirituality.

I have always, since I was a boy (writing schoolboy essays on the subject), taken it that altruism is a necessary fiction: it matters as an idea, but it  cannot happen. The human person only has his own motivations; he can’t have those of others. In some real sense, people (with various degrees of success) can empathise with others: we can imagine what other people think and feel. To some extent, again highly variably, we can mimic or experience within ourselves what others think and feel. We may seek to act in their interests, as we see them or they assert them to be. But when some aspect of my consciousness of other people motivates me to act, the action springs from some satisfaction I hope to gain from the action. Such a view survives modern science and modern thought about altruism. Sometimes it is seen as genetically-implanted; at others it is seen as a function of a fundamental reciprocity between persons; but anyway evolution, genetics, neurology, sociology, economics (behavioural or rationalist, Keynesian or Hayekian) all seem compatible both with the idea that altruism matters, and that it is in some sense a fiction.

So the issue of altruism is as old as the hills. It has sat there since the Greeks, and survived – was energised by – Christianity, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and modern science. It has been vital to discussions in every field.

The big question is framed as: how does altruism arise? In a religious era, this was, for instance, a matter of considering whether fallen humans had a sufficiency of the divine to overcome Original Sin. In the hands of ethologists led by Konrad Lorenz, it became a discussion of the circumstances in which animals and humans were aggressive or submissive to – or bonded or were merely co-operative with – one another. In terms of evolutionary biology, it becomes: is there a gene for altruism? In economic discussion it has become: how does our competitive understanding breed a sophisticated sense of the reciprocity needed in the market?

I think left and right can agree about the workings of the facts behind so-called altruism and yet very crucially divide about what to do about them.

Their dispute about the latter hinges on a reading of the human spirit. I have always believed that the left takes an essentially mechanistic view of human life and that the best way of describing my version or view of the right-wing way of thinking is to emphasise the freedom of human volition. I go further: I think the right emphasises the freedom of the human mind. I go even further into the unknown: I think the right can provide a good way of thinking about the human spirit.

In short-hand terms, the left believes that we are driven by biology, by Nature, by evolution, by society, by narratives; and that as individuals we are at the mercy of forces – many of them nastily Darwinian – beyond our control. These forces will tend to produce an unpleasant society unless we bind together and build something bigger, stronger, and nicer than ourselves. This bigger something is usually posited as a welfare state and redistributive tax system, to iron out the social evils which the strong wreak on the weak. As good Darwinians, the left believes that individuals can only become good as a mater of public policy, rigorously and compulsorily enforced.

For many on the left, though, these co-operative activities fit another and neglected aspect of Darwinian life, which we can for brevity’s sake call the altruism gene. For some on the left, as surely as there is a competitive element in us, there is also a co-operative one. Long story made short, the left believes that the competitive element in us has been allowed to run rampant in society because society is controlled by the few amongst it who are rich and powerful.

In resisting the powerful logics at work in the leftist head, the right has several clear difficulties. One is that much of the left’s analysis is common ground. Another is that the rich and powerful do indeed abuse their wealth and authority. (Or is it only that they try to?) Another is that on the right there are some nasty or narrow people.

The right has a couple of enormous trump cards. One is obvious: the left tends to build boring or bad societies. The other is much less obvious: the left dehumanises people whilst blethering on about their essential goodness and above all about their rights.

This is the bit which interests me, especially as I discuss my faltering approaches to spirituality. I take it that this word has some sort of non-transcendental meaning: it has meaning even without a divine other being in play. But for the word to do serious work it must live independently not only of religion (for those of us who are not religious) but also of morality, ethics, psychology, genetics, sociology, and emotion. I mean by saying this that if an activity, a process, or a thought within us is best described in these more obviously scientific terms, then the idea of spirituality is trumped or made redundant.

So. I am interested in the idea of spirituality, and it is linked in my mind to the idea of “necessary fictions”. I think it is boring or useless always to remind ourselves that, actually, scientifically or philosophically, “altruism” doesn’t happen. On the other hand, we ought to behave as though it does, or can. Similarly, I would say, “free will” is a fiction, but crucial to us. Believing in these two fictions makes both sort of happen, and makes both matter more to each of us. Something similar is behind the story, the idea, the fiction, of spirituality.

The important thing about the “free will” fiction is that it is the natural home of the right-wing. Almost always, the right is distinguished from the left by insisting that people do things because they choose to do them. The left is distinguished by claiming a greater, usually a dominant, role for society, the System, Nature, biology, or the dominant narrative (owned by the elite), or whatever. The right says, no: You can punish that man for his sins, or reward that man for his virtues, because they are his, chosen by him. The right can get sophisticated. It can say: Societies do well when they enshrine the idea of choice, and create strong individuals who make good choices which then fructify very widely. But the essential difference will be that the person’s freedom of choice is a crucial part of the right’s philosophy (belief system) as to the human person and the societies people build.

This is a good place to mention that the right-wing has no difficulty with altruism. It has no difficulty with the idea that empathy is a real motivator. The point is, however, that the right will usually resist the idea that it makes good personal, social or economic sense to have an enforced altruism based on state welfare based on taxation whose rationale is mostly redistributive or – worse – confiscatory. That is why the right is rightly characterised as leaning on voluntary, charitable, or familial systems of practical altruism. (I should say I see that these are less powerful generators of cash than big state taxation, and add that I am all for a minimal and marvellous welfare state… but that’s a different argument.) Rather similarly, the right sees that empathy leads one towards some framework of human rights. But it resists having rights of a mechanical, over-stated, over-reaching kind. It prefers rights which are mitigated and disciplined by obligations. This reluctance arises from a sense that, though fellow-feeling is good and ought to be fostered, a rights mentality – just like a state welfare mentality – can lead to an entitlement mentality which weakens the very people the rights or welfare movements seek to strengthen.

So far, I hope I have explained how I see the way that the underlying scientific facts of human life – including the underpinnings of altruism – can be common ground between people of right or left. But the right insists that the necessary fiction of free will should be taken seriously. If we insist that people have free will, the right says, then we have an obvious way of seeing that people have value of a personal kind (or squander it). People can judge themselves, and be judged. The right seeks to build a society based on that understanding, and believes that it is the only way to build good people and good societies.

The left insists on its mechanistic view of the person and society. It says the right will build bad people and societies. And it bases this view on its belief that people and their actions are the product of forces beyond their control, and therefore cannot be judged. They can be restrained, or helped, by social forces, and these need to be organised and mandated. The left thinks the right allows a free-for-all, in which the strong press home their advantage over the weak. The left may refine this by saying that the “natural” altruism of the masses, and its tendency to build a good society, is undermined by the unrestrained power of the few, whose “natural altruism” is overwhelmed by their greed.

To get on to spirituality. I do not claim that spirituality is a necessary fiction of the order of altruism or free will. Even less that the fiction of “soul”, it may not be necessary at all. But as a fiction, I like it because I find that it strikes a blow against the mechanical view of the person, and hence of society. I have, I hope, made clear how I see that there are materialist, mechanical, biological and sociological facts which would explain the whole of human life, if only we knew even more than we now do.

I imagine it is possible that, one day, we will understand “consciousness”. I am inclined to argue that consciousness has dimensions which are quite peculiar. I am trying to get at the ideas and understandings we form which are not obviously related to real world experiences, nor even to our own feelings or motivations. I am afraid I often find myself using religious or mystical language for this area of our inner life. Borrowing those, we can all it, “the desert within”.

I think another way of looking at this area of consciousness , what I think of as its spiritual dimension, is to say that is what one comes across when trying to live “the examined life”. I take it that the Greeks were asking us to consider something more than the business of assessing one’s economic, or moral, or emotional selves. The “examined life” was not necessarily affluent, worthy or happy. One’s examination of one’s life was not abut whether one had clocked-up those things which others could see or calculate. It had to do with whether one had lived-out the fullness of one’s consciousness.

This is all littered with difficulties. The biggest is that I have been writing about the difference between right and left, and I want to continue in that vein. Am I saying the left-winger cannot live the “examined” life, or the “spiritual” life? There are plenty of socialist monks, to cite an extreme example of the difficulty one might find here. (Actually, I think too many monks are socialist, and they are so because they do not properly limit their role to praying for the souls of persons.)

I do think one can argue that a socialist is quite likely to resist the idea of the “examined life” or the “spiritual” life. He will be more likely to say that in the material world of causality, one should no more look for will o’ the wisps such as spiritualty than for free will. He might be that class of left-leaner who believes that God has set out all we need to know, and the relevant  battle lines of our struggle, and that what He wants seems to be a socialist state. Or he might be that class of green left-winger who amalgamates the earthly political value of a socialist state with various approaches to the more or less Pantheistic approach to the inner life. Either way, these left-wingers, whether religious or green, will be at one with the secular left in being sceptical about – or antagonistic to – my version of the spiritual fiction.

But for myself I can say that I think the right’s twin-track approach to the materialist understanding of man – that it is true but a poor guide to behaviour – is capable of being extended into finding a guide for the inner life. I think it is quite possibly true that the inner life is pretty much what we see on the tin: neurology and narratives, and all sorts of known stuff, account for it, and once one has made that matter-of-fact account, there’s nothing much left. I draw the line at “soul”, as being by definition a matter of the transcendental. And yet I persist in being happy with the language of spirituality, “the spirit”, of persons.

Let’s see if I an unpick some of that, and bind it in with other things. I became a right-winger of the kind I am because I thought that that socialism was essentially life-denying. I thought it a very poor guide to achieving a full life or a full view of the human person. I knew I was not religious, so that wasn’t a way out. I came strongly to feel that Nature-worship, however sophisticated, was a nonsense. And yet I found that the oldest questions resonated in the modern world, and that science didn’t answer them.

I found that the idea of a spiritual life – a self-assessment of one’s worth – was important and that nothing in the material world counted toward its calculation. A person might be rich or poor, generous or mean, empathetic or autistic, and yet be capable of being counted spiritual, or seriously wanting to be. Being loving did not necessarily count toward spirituality, and perhaps nurturing hatred might. I can only say that my definition of the spiritual life had and still has to do with one’s living out as best one can the business of a being a host to consciousness.

So I became a right-winger only party because I thought that the right’s policies could be framed to make better societies, and that the left’s policies had been shown to fail over long periods of time and in many forms. I also came increasingly to feel confident that the right’s thinking on the person – that one was free; that strong free individuals make resilient, good societies – was good stuff. And at the heart of that, I found that the right could accept the scientific materialism of the modern understanding, but also see – leant on – the strength of various fictions, and especially free will, altruism, and – a matter dear to my own heart – spirituality.


Colin Newman
"[S]trong free individuals make resilient, good societies"; maybe so - it sounds plausible at least to say that strong free individuals _can_ make good societies. "One is free", though? I find this fairly empty of meaning in practice. Presumably you are not arguing that there are no constraints upon individuals at all; we all live within the constraints of the planet's finiteness and the "laws" of physics. In what meaningful sense is someone suffering from an incurable and life-threatening disease "free"? Yes we are all free within the constraints we are subject to, but that means nothing in practice. Everything comes down to the constraints and what can be done to alleviate or remove them and who can or should do it. I am prepared to accept that some constraints are of our own making, or can be alleviated through our own efforts, but there are some pretty serious constraints that aren't.
Dear CN, Of course your substantial point is true. We are not free in the sense of living without constraints. We live within many of those. But even so, we tend to be happier if we figure ourselves as usually having choices open to us. Even in extremis, we can aim to choose to accept our fate with good grace. I suppose a key test or point is the idea of "positive thought". Of course, it can be self-deluding and even fantastical. And yet, as a working example of free will in action, it is interesting to consider the way that life is to some extent a matter of what we choose to make it. My piece is at pains to accept that free will is a "necessary fiction". And yet I, like most on the right, emphasise the value of persons behaving as though their choices were of their own making. Almost everyone - whether believing in the scientific possiblity of wills being free or not - seems in practice to accept the idea of self-realisation and self-invention. The contention of the right is that societies are likely to better if they nourish this sense of self. Tough love - and even outright punishment - may be a part of that scene for deviation from social norms; "nudge economics" may be amongst many approaches to more or less paternalistic trick in encouraging people in the right direction. And then of course there is the panoply of religious and ethical thought with which we try to educate ourselves into better ways. But the underlying thought of the right in all this is that societies and persons do better if they accept the underlying fiction that wills are free. Hope that helps.

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Publication date

23 May 2014