Being selfish isn't nice, but being selfish and calling out or punishing others for being selfish is worse. I hate hypocrites just as much as you do (#self-hatred), but maybe we should reconsider our judgement and give ourselves some inner peace by seeing them as second-order altruists that actually help society. 🙃
I got the idea of selfishness as second-order altruism from Eldakar and Wilson and this text is really just my reading of their article of the same name published in 2008, where they write:
[…] selfish individuals also have an incentive to punish other selfish individuals, thereby increasing the proportion of cooperators for them to exploit. This behavior […] can even be looked upon as a division of labor, or mutualism, whereby cheating during first-order interactions becomes a ‘‘payment’’ for altruism (punishment) in second-order interactions. A combination of strategies (selfish punisher plus altruistic non-punisher) that split the costs of first- and second-order altruism can be superior to a single-altruist/punisher strategy that bears both costs.
But let's start from the beginning.
Not being selfish, that is, being altruistic obviously has a cost.
If you decide to reduce CO2 emissions by not owning and using a car, you need to deal with infrequent and delayed public transport or sweat on a bicycle to get to the office while your SUV-driving colleague always arrives on time and in immaculate condition.
If you live an
honest life, pay all your taxes and notify the cashier when they give you too much change, you end up with less money then you could have had otherwise.
You loose out on advantages that selfish people enjoy, even if your actions profit society as a whole.
Being selfish, on the other hand, is not for free either. If you don't pay taxes, the state has less resources for providing public goods like infrastructure and education (and there is less money for selfish representatives of the state to embezzle). This might be negligible on an individual basis, but too many selfish actors destabilize the whole system until only selfish actors are left and the group's fitness is minimal (prisoner's dilemma). The best case for altruistic actors is when everybody is altruistic, the best case for a selfish actor is when everybody else is altruistic, so both have an incentive to punish selfish behavior.
Punishing is called a second-order interaction since it is the reaction to a selfish first-order interaction. Punishment negatively affects the fitness of selfish actors and comes with a cost for the punisher, reflecting his effort and the fact that people usually don't like being punished and thus might give the punisher a hard time. This is why punishment is considered second-order altruism. The only fitness advantage a selfish punisher has over a selfish non-punisher is a slightly lower chance of being punished because he doesn't punish himself.
Given these conditions, we end up with the following four groups with fixed strategies, ordered by decreasing perceived moral status:
The article defines a model that captures this simplified slice of reality and analyze it within evolutionary game theory. They find that AN and SP form a stable equilibrium if there aren't too many SN, whereas a stable equilibrium of AP and SN is only possible if we start out with many AP and exclude second-order free-riding (AN) as a superior strategy. In other words, the world modeled by the authors needs selfish punishers to have a chance of maintaining a share of altruists in the population. Without SP, AP are outcompeted by AN, who don't have to pay the cost of punishing others. Eventually nobody punishes the selfish group and we end up with selfish non-punishment as the evolutionary stable strategy. First-order selfishness is the price punishers have to charge in order to be competitive.
Eldakar & Wilson (2008) encourage us to view human social systems like feudalism,
mafia-like protection rackets or
the formal compensation of specialized punishers (police) for their services in the light of selfish punishment.
I'm not sure how the idea of selfishness as second-order altruism relates to other accounts of altruism and what exactly its place is in the current scientific consensus, but I found it an interesting twist worth considering.
Eldakar, O. T., & Wilson, D. S. (2008). Selfishness as second-order altruism. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(19), 6982-6986.