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Individualism, the original ubuntu
Dawkins' "selfish gene" explains
Ubuntu, “humanity” or “I am because you are” is an ideal in South Africa. I only ever hear it spoken about with reverence. It is treated as right because it is nice. It is communal. It feels kind.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in his book, No Future Without Forgiveness, describes a person with ubuntu as "open and available to others, affirming of others [with] a proper self-assurance."
In business, my appreciation of ubuntu is that we need to ease back on our selfish goals and focus on the collective.
“But I don't believe just 'cos ideas are tenacious it means that they're worthy” - Tim Minchin.
I argue that ubuntu is biologically unsustainable and counterproductive.
The first clue is in the title. The opening two words. “I am”. I don’t think that is an accident. It betrays our built-in selfishness that science confirms.
Richard Dawkins, among others, has demonstrated that the relevant unit of analysis of human motivation is individualistic. Not at a human level. At a genetic level. In short, we act the way we do in order for individual genes to survive.
This helps to explain why we act so selfishly. That ranges from simply taking care of ourselves on a daily basis, all the way to the most terrible violence and fraud against other people to better our own lot.
It also explains acts of altruism. Even if that sounds perverse and anomalous. Why might I sacrifice my life for my sister’s? Why does the worker bee, with no ability to pass down his genes, sacrifice his life for the queen bee? It’s pretty simple: the selfish gene. The individual human is not the level to think about our actions at. It is the gene.
At the near-certain risk of woefully oversimplifying the concept, we act selflessly only where that action is, in fact, selfish in its ability to pass down our genes better than what might seem like the more selfish act.
Dawkins captures the way selfish genes produce generous behaviour in his chapter Nice Guys Finish First.
The evolutionary biologist and Oxford professor goes on to explain why trying to manufacture societies of “ubuntu” is unsustainable and bad: “Any altruistic system is inherently unstable, because it is open to abuse by selfish individuals, ready to exploit it.” #BBBEE #StateCapture
Economics can also explain why forced altruism is unproductive. I refer the Austrian school. This tradition analyses economies chiefly at the level of the person, the decisions he makes and how those accumulate dynamically across many people to create markets.
With intellectual origins in Vienna, us Austrians are wary of big data. We prefer thought experiments and laws of universal application. If you’ve done any economics classes, you’ll likely have studied the Austrian-developed principles of diminished marginal utility as a tool to explain individual buying decisions.
In a similar vein, Adam Smith, the father of economics explains how individual motivation is the best way to raise the tide for all ships. His “invisible hand” metaphor has become the universal capsule for this.
“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.”
And the invisible hand that “directs” all of this is the aggregate of all of the individual, self-motivated actions.
Austrian economists and others free market proponents thus make the case that individual action and free markets produce the best outcomes for us all. Of course, that fully incorporates the need for rules of the game. Laws preventing abuse of freedom are not, as some have argued, anathema to Austrian economics and free markets. They are inherent.
Additionally, we all know how to act in self-interest. And our theory of mind naturally knows how that is the way other people are motivated. Imposing some vague notion of “collective, altruistic motivation” obscures this. I don’t know how to do “ubuntu”. Perhaps that’s just me. But, using the above arguments, I submit it is hardwired by evolution into all of us.
If our biology says we can’t sustainably act altruistically (anomalies notwithstanding), self-interested action builds the best results for us all, and we can’t reliably use collectivism to guide our behaviour even if we try, individualism is the original ubuntu. Individualism beats ubuntu. Because I am. Because you are.