Could we all actually be altruistic?

So here’s what I’m wondering. After participating in this thread, inspired by this Web site, I found that many folks feel that an important reason to become vegetarian is out of altruism. The logic goes like this: we shouldn’t want to eat meat because it harms animals. If everyone agreed not to eat meat, many fewer animals would be harmed, and the world would be a better place.

Now, my argument was that there’s no way everyone is going to be altruistic, and so if a few people went vegetarian, all that would happen is the price of meat would go down, and then everyone else would buy more meat, and we’d be back at square one.

I could be wrong about this, but the question got me wondering: what would happen if everyone was altruistic? How would we actually live? We’d constantly be thinking about how our actions affected everyone else on the planet, and trying to select the actions that served the greatest common good. Let’s assume for a moment that the scenario Asimov envisioned in I, Robot wouldn’t occur and everyone wouldn’t go around literally sacrificing themselves for the sake of others. I’m just wondering whether there wouldn’t still be some sort of paralysis of action.

Would I stop myself before buying a new computer and wonder about the labor conditions in China where the computer was manufactured? If I decided the conditions were indeed oppressive, should I buy the computer, figuring perhaps that even this menial labor on the part of the factory workers there was better than nothing? If everyone was equally altruistic, we could literally shut down the factory by collective action. And if we did that, then those workers would be out of a job, and it would literally be my personal fault. What economic action could I take to improve the lot of workers on the other side of the world?

Perhaps my action would be to not buy the computer at all: after all, computers consume precious natural resources. The electricity powering them is made by coal-fired generators or nuclear power plants that pollute the earth, making life worse for everyone. Perhaps it would be better not to participate in the economy at all, and just live a subsistence level of life.

But if we all did that, then the earth couldn’t sustain 6 billion people, most of whom live in cities and rely on farms and the industrial infrastructure. Billions would starve to death.

Maybe the true altruism would be to buy products that were produced in marginally better conditions — never to not buy the computer, but to buy the computer manufactured by the company with, on balance, the best business practices. This would encourage all businesses to improve their practices and therefore improve sales among their altruistic clients.

Naturally, this would drive up costs, and eventually computers would become so expensive that no one could afford them. There would be massive layoffs in the computer industry, and we’d be back to square one again.

This is not to say that I’m in support of unbridled capitalism. It’s just that I think we can use human selfishness as a tool to improve things for the benefit of all. And I think that’s probably a more effective way to do it than to rely on altruism. Even if everyone really were altruistic, there’s clearly no guarantee that the world would be a better place.

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