What Is Mutual Altruism?

by | Jan 18, 2022

According to Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, theft is “selfish,” while trade is “mutually altruistic.” If genes and people are “selfish,” as Dawkins believes, why does mutual altruism, which includes all forms of cooperation, ever happen? He replies that it happens because mutual altruism benefits the parties more than “purely selfish” behavior would. This is an astounding acknowledgment.

If that’s so — and I believe it is — why not call cooperation mutual selfishness, mutual self-interest, or something like that? Why introduce the idea of mutual altruism if in fact such actions are more “selfish” than what Dawkins thinks of as pure selfishness.

I admire Dawkins a great deal, but here is a case where better philosophy would have made for better evolutionary theory. As he would have it, altruism, at least in its mutual mode, is more selfish than selfishness, and that makes little sense.

No one shed more light on the mutual self-interest of cooperation than Ludwig von Mises in Human Action. See the section titled “The Harmony of the ‘Rightly Understood’ Interests” in chapter 24, where he writes, “The fact that my fellow man wants to acquire shoes as I do, does not make it harder for me to get shoes, but easier.” Thus human beings convert competition for consumption, which is the rule in the rest of the animal kingdom, into competition for production, which benefits all people.

About Sheldon Richman

Sheldon Richman is the executive editor of The Libertarian Institute and a contributing editor at Antiwar.com. He is the former senior editor at the Cato Institute and Institute for Humane Studies; former editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education; and former vice president at the Future of Freedom Foundation. His latest books are Coming to Palestine and What Social Animals Owe to Each Other.
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