Only Human

We should never underestimate the pervasiveness of human nature. Among the many drives that motivate us is the desire for status, which in primate groups like ours is obviously correlated with one’s reproductive prospects. This yearning to increase our standing in the group affects our behavior even in the most rarefied spheres of endeavor, for example the practice of philosophy.

You’d think that philosophy would be just about the ultimate non-zero-sum game. When people gather to examine philosophical questions, presumably they are all interested in just one thing: discovering the truth. We each have a particular set of blind spots, unexamined assumptions, prejudices and partialities, and our own unique skein of knowledge, with its corresponding set of gaps. By getting together to compare our thoughts, to offer our suggestions and criticisms, we can triangulate the truth in a way that none of us can do alone. Everybody benefits, right?

But what can creep in, even in this purest of enterprises, is the hunger for status. I see this in myself – I participate in some online philosophical forums, and the wish to be the one who makes the most penetrating comment, who brings the insight that others overlooked, is strong indeed. The payoff is the respect of the others in the group, and of course if one really hits it big, and comes up with the new paradigm that will cut some ancient Gordian Knot, one wins the existential jackpot – cultural immortality. (Of course, all of this is just variations on a theme; as I have suggested in a previous post, the currency that we are really dealing in here – as is true always and in everything – is attention.)

So what ends up happening is that philosophical discussions, instead of being a cooperative, non-zero-sum effort to unravel what fictional detective Guy Noir refers to as “life’s persistent questions”, can become a battle royal in which some of the participants begin to worry more about their status in the group than about the question at hand. Instead of making points, they are more concerned with scoring points, and instead of being exemplars of sweet Reason, they become, in a sort of academic pratfall, mere schemers for personal gain. In a closed group, relative status is a purely zero-sum game, and I can only raise my own by lowering someone else’s; cooperation gives way to competition. There are complex dynamics in play, of course: competition can be a powerful engine for hard work and innovative thinking, and can drive people to levels of excellence that they would never achieve on their own. But it may also twist what should be a team of minds working together toward truth into something more like a sporting event, to the detriment of all.

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  1. Mike Z says

    Rather ironic.

    – M

    Posted May 22, 2006 at 10:11 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Mike,

    Well, it’s no worse than we ought to expect, really. We are what we are, and the only way begin to bring this sort of thing under our conscious control is to be attentive to it. In the waking sleep of our ordinary lives we can “do” nothing; it all just happens.

    Posted May 22, 2006 at 10:19 am | Permalink
  3. Bob Koepp says

    Malcolm –
    Having spent a good part of my life in philosophy departments, I can vouch for the reality of status wars. But I don’t think wars about status are zero-sum games. It’s not like there’s only so much status to be distributed among too many hungry egos.

    Also, even though I find worries about status to be an unwelcome distraction from the pursuit of truth, we need to be careful not to project ideas about status mongering onto philosophical exchanges that might be better understood as embodying the “adversarial method” of purusing truth. I’m not a fan of how the adversarial method usually plays out, whether in the courtroom or the seminar room, but I can’t deny that it occasionally works to bring us closer to the truth.

    Posted May 22, 2006 at 10:52 am | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Fair point, Bob, about the adversarial method. As I mentioned in the post, it is only by critical examination of each others’ positions that we are able to expose the blind spots and tacit assumptions that we are unable to see in ourselves. What I was pointing out is that it seems sometimes that the underlying motivation shifts from a pursuit of truth to a pursuit of status, and with a different goal we can expect different behavior, and often different results.

    I disagree with you about status itself, though; there is an implicit ladderlike ranking in our sense of status, and such rankings are always the subject of immense interest in human groups, as evidenced by all the “Top 100 Greatest [X] Of all Time” lists we are always seeing, the league standings in the sports pages, expressions like “top dog”, “king of the hill”, and so forth. And as we know, it’s the alpha gorilla who has the harem. So I think that competition for status is much more of a zero-sum game than it may seem.

    Posted May 22, 2006 at 11:10 am | Permalink
  5. Bob Koepp says

    Malcolm –
    I’m probably being excessively pedantic, but in most contexts, status is guaged in relative rather than absolute terms. The fact that there are not degrees of being alpha, top dog, king, etc., can just points to those categories as oddities in the world of status. So even if some status wars are fought as zero-sum games, that’s not typical of status wars generally.

    Posted May 22, 2006 at 12:19 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    I agree absolutely, if you’ll forgive the pun, that status is relative. But you must admit that status is often, if not usually, acquired by climbing over someone else, and even in ranking arrangements where there are many members of equal status, very often there is a secondary ranking system such as seniority. People are forever trying to “one-up” each other, and I can only be “one-up” if someone else is “one-down”.

    But my point was really about the shift in motive from cooperative criticism in the pursuit of truth to adversarial self-promotion, though I am by no means suggesting that a person’s motivation has to be exclusively one or the other; in fact I expect that is very rarely the case.

    Posted May 22, 2006 at 12:38 pm | Permalink
  7. Malcolm,

    Your use of ‘pratfall’ reminded me of a mutual acquaintance. I’m sure your pun was intended. But I think the guy was being unwittingly offensive, whereas you see it a little differently.

    Posted May 22, 2006 at 3:07 pm | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    Hi Bill,

    Figured you’d spot that.

    No, I think “unwittingly” offensive is probably just about right. We often don’t acknowledge to ourselves why we are doing what we’re doing, and I took it upon myself to dig down a bit.

    I certainly harbor absolutely no resentment at all – the dog barks, the caravan passes, and after all, the party in question is in many ways quite a likeable fellow – but it got me thinking once again about human nature, and since becoming a daily blogger I tend to have fewer unexpressed thoughts.

    Posted May 22, 2006 at 3:37 pm | Permalink