As an intellectual child of “the rational actor model” (or “homo economicus”), who has at times argued that it makes most sense to conceptualize all individual actions (even apparently altruistic ones) in terms of self-interest, yesterday was one of those grand days that come with decreasing frequency, when some fundamental thread in my understanding of the world underwent a slight but significant modification.
“Homo economicus” wasn´t where I began, but rather, after exploring the universe of social theory, where I landed, retaining an interest in (and inclusion of) some elements that did not come with it (e.g., epistemology). And, though George Lakoff´s The Political Mind has just influenced me in a new way, I still do not quite so thoroughly renounce the rational actor model as Prof. Lakoff does. Rather, I see a subtler position that draws on fewer assumptions, harmonizes with a broader range of thought, better incorporates the findings of cognitive science, retains everything of value in “the rational actor model,” but supplies both a more useful and more accurate metaphor: “Thrive-interest” instead of “self-interest.”
Evolution is indeed driven by the challenge of thriving, reproducing, and ensuring that one´s offspring thrive. But the metaphor of competition that has dominated the representation of this process has been modified away from within (with non-zero-sum reasoning and acknowledgment of the emotions as mutual commitment mechanisms) and undermined from without (with cognitive scientists discovering a predisposition for empathy as perhaps the more basic cognitive fact than a predisposition for selfishness). Both the rational actor model itself, and cognitive science, have proven that cooperation is at least as salient as competition to the challenge of “thriving,” at least as “natural,” at least as basic.
Thriving involves competitive and cooperative aspects, both of which we are variously predisposed to engage in, depending on which best serves the goal of thriving. Neither is more primary than the other, except that, in nature, all thriving depends on cooperation, whereas not all thriving depends on competition, and species range from those hard-wired for cooperation (e.g., bees and ants), to those more flexibly imbued with the capacity for cooperation (e.g., mammals).
Thriving clearly implicates something very different from self-interest. As someone who had his first child at the age of 44, and lived a remarkably rich and adventurous life prior to that, I can attest to the fact that I have thrived far more deeply as a result of the huge burden on one´s narrow self-interest that is a child. But it is not just in the evolutionarily predictable context of profound and selfless love for one´s offspring, but in more general ways, that we can readily see that thriving is almost invariably served best by love and generosity. One can even, paradoxically, thrive better by net self-sacrifice than by net self-serving, even at times via the ultimate sacrifice, in which one ceases to exist as an individual organism, but thrives mightily as a member of society.
Scrooge was rich but not thriving prior to Marley’s and the three spirits’ intervention, and George Bailey was thriving far more robustly for having sacrificed his very attainable dreams of adventure and individual ”success” in favor of altruism and extreme self-sacrifice to the welfare of others. Misers are miserable, egoists shrivel from within, misanthropes miss the boat, but generous souls thrive, even if childless and poor, even if in death.
Artists often suffer materially (and emotionally) for their commitment to a romantic or aesthetic vision, but occasionally thrive centuries after their death for having done so, a fate not unattractive to many such souls. Neither comfort, nor survival, nor procreation, nor even being remembered define thriving. Leaving an indelible positive mark on reality does. And that is a more inherently altruistic than egoistic goal to pursue.
“Thriving” is not an arbitrary concept, not a way of squinting and pretending that self-interest isn’t at the root of it (it isn’t), nor devoid of analytical power (it is equal to self-interest on that front, and retains all of the modeling produced by the rational actor assumption, since it still involves an individual actor making autonomous choices). It simultaneously incorporates individualism and collectivism as essential motivators, not necessarily privileging either, reorganizing both into a single coherent concept. It retains all the insight produced by economic and evolutionary reasoning and modelling, and all the value produced by both conceptualizing the world as comprised of robust competitors and demanding of people that they be robust competitors, by continuing to recognize and emphasize a fundamental motivating force at the individual level. But it avoids an unnecessary and counterproductive (and inaccurate) false dichotomy of, and false distinction between, ”self-interest” and “altruism.” It is, in some profound way, simply “more true.”