About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

On the “problem” of altruism

Some people who read this blog regularly seem to think that I use it primarily as a soap box to declare my ideas to the world, feedback be damned. Well, I'm sure there is some of that in every blog, or for that matter in any editorial-style writing. However, for me writing is actually a major way of thinking. I literally think while I write, in the sense that writing helps me clarify (to myself first) what I think about a certain topic and why. This isn't surprising, given good evidence from the literature on pedagogy that the best way to learn something is to either do it or to explain it to someone else.

That said, let me get to the topic of this entry, altruism. Altruism has bugged a lot of people, from theologians to philosophers, to scientists. And it has bugged me for a long time. Although I am an atheist, I grew up with a Catholic education, and I certainly consider myself a moral person who tries to do the right thing within the limits of human nature. The problem, of course, is that to figure out what “the right thing” is in many circumstances isn't so easy. (Readers are also referred to a previous entry on the multiple philosophical threads that make up my view of ethics.)

Altruism is a “problem” because one needs to explain where it comes from, if in fact it exists at all (depending on how one defines the term), and how far it should go in regulating our moral behavior. Biologists have pretty much concluded that there are two types of “altruism” in the natural world: kin and reciprocal. Kin altruism is the helping behavior we display toward our close relatives, especially but not exclusively our offspring. It is explained in terms of actually increasing our genetic fitness because it helps passing (some) copies of our genes to the next generation. As the famous British geneticist J.B.S. Haldane once quipped: “I will die for two brothers or eight cousins.” Reciprocal altruism occurs in social groups, where most animals seem to adopt a “tit-for-tat” strategy: I'll be nice to you as long as you are nice to me; if you start being nasty, I'll retaliate. Reciprocal altruism can be “diffuse,” meaning not based simply on a one-to-one direct reciprocation, because most complex social animals have a social memory (humans call it “reputation”) that encourages members of the group to be nice or cooperative in general, or they'll be shunned by the rest of the group.

Biologists have shown the existence and workings of kin and reciprocal altruism both theoretically (with elegant mathematical models based on game or optimization theory) and empirically (e.g., with research documenting the highly unusual social behavior of colonial insects through kin selection, or of vampire bats through reciprocal altruism). But what about humans?

As regular readers of this blog know, I'm perfectly aware of the naturalistic fallacy, the idea that one cannot automatically derive an “ought” from an “is,” as David Hume put it. This would seem to preclude adopting the idea that the basis of human altruism is a combination of kin and reciprocal altruism (which, incidentally, do not really qualify as “altruistic” in the strict sense of the word, because the agent derives a benefit, either immediately or in the long run). Nonetheless, it seems to me that if we are claiming that there are additional forms of altruism that are typically human, then the burden of proof is on those making the claim (divine revelation, as usual, is barred from the arena, since it isn't an argument at all).

The best attempt I've seen to reconcile what is known as biological altruism (i.e., kin and reciprocal) and psychological altruism (what we all feel or claim to feel at the intra-personal level) is the book by Sober and Wilson (a philosopher and a biologist respectively), Unto Others. In it they make the argument that there is no contradiction in having genuinely altruistic feelings (at the psychological level) that result in behaviors that are compatible with biological “altruism.” Take the case of our behavior toward our children: (within limits) parents sacrifice resources for them to ensure their survival, and parents “feel good” and selfless while doing so, even though clearly they derive a (subconscious) biological advantage from such behavior. Of course, there are exceptions of people who engage in apparently truly selfless behavior, just as there are cases (not just among humans) of naturally homosexual individuals (obviously a biological disadvantage). But remember that biological, and a fortiori social scientific, theories never aspire to explain more than the general trend, certainly not the behavior of every single individual.

Of course, philosophers from Aristotle to Kant (and beyond) have given all of this quite a bit of thought, and it would require a book to get into the details. The bottom line for me, however, is that the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that kin and reciprocal altruism are not just the only two types that apply to the biological world, they are also the only two flavors that are rationally defensible. I'm perfectly aware that this begins to sound like Ayn Rand, and if that's the case, so be it. (However, I still have little respect for Rand as a “philosopher” -- on account of her amateurish approach -- and even less for her as a human being, at least based on reports of her nasty personal behavior, not necessarily congruent with her own teachings. Then again, to dismiss someone's ideas solely on the ground of her character is to commit the classic genetic fallacy, so we ought to distinguish “the sin from the sinner,” as they say in some religious circles).

Anyway, to avoid the naturalistic fallacy one has to come up with a rational defense of the position that kin and reciprocal altruism are all that one needs to live a moral life. And, frankly, it seems to me that this isn't difficult. Few people would argue against taking care of one's offspring or close relatives, but not many of us are prepared to sacrifice everything for them either – a balance typical of kin altruism. Yes, there are rare cases of mothers sacrificing their lives for their children (and if the children are sufficiently numerous, this makes straight biological sense, see the quote above from Haldane), but the much more common dynamic is one of parent-offspring conflict, in which the older the children become the less the parents are willing to invest resources in them. And why should they? Nobody has ever come up with a good argument for why a complete negation of one's own interests is, in fact, somehow the moral thing to do.

Analogously, (diffuse) reciprocal altruism is what makes the world go round. I am nice to my friends because they are nice to me; should they turn nasty, after a while I would let them go. I contribute to National Public Radio because I get both a direct benefit (I listen to it) and an indirect one (I think intelligent public information makes for a better world). While at the moment I don't need financial or medical assistance, I contribute to charities because of the indirect benefits they bring (a better and more just world means more stability and prosperity for everybody). And so on. It would be hard to make a case that I should give up all my resources in order to help, say, the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflicts (assuming that such an outcome is even theoretically possible). Again, why would such an extreme degree of altruism be moral, since it would deny my own ability to function in the world? I am certainly not more intrinsically valuable than any other human being, but I ain't less valuable either (from a moral perspective, not measured as practical contributions to society). Incidentally, this is part of what makes suicide bombings immoral.

So, it seems to me that the burden of proof is on those who claim that true altruism is morally superior to the kin and reciprocal varieties. These people seem to think in terms of group advantage (it's for the good of society), but they fail to recognize that they need to make a case for why the group is more important than the individual – from the individual's perspective. This represents a fairly big change of my positions from what they were years ago, and it has taken time to get here, but I don't see a way out of this conclusion (again, outside of unsubstantiated divine commandments). Indeed, I don't think it is a bad conclusion at all, because if taken seriously it would bring people to strive for a reasonable balance among one's own needs, those of one's offspring, and those of the rest of society. Hard to think of a better world, really...


  1. I've been checking the blog off-and-on all day today because I had a feeling you would be posting something good.

    I was not disappointed.

  2. I thought you were an adherent determinist Massimo. What point is there in asking ethical questions then? You can presuambly no more choose your own beliefs or proclaim the superiority of such than a Ferrari can blow its own horn for being better than a Toyota. ;-)

  3. No, I am not a determinist. True, "free will" is an interesting problem, but my take on it is similar to Daniel Dennett's in "Elbow Room."

  4. First, let me say that you are at your best with these types of blog postings where you bring your professional knowledge and experiences to bear on a philosophical question or issue. This was a good post.

    Dare I say, however, that to my untrained eye your conclusions lean a little libertarian as opposed to modern liberalism. (Note I say modern liberalism because I think classic liberalism is pretty close to libertarianism in the sense of free thought and free markets).

    Not that one can draw direct political philosophical conclusions from ethical lines of discussion of course.

    I note this because in the past you haven't had much good to say about libertarian thought.

    As I remarked in a comment in the previous post, I myself generally stress the little "l" and the "-ish" when I state my political philosophy runs libertarian-ish.

    Lastly, I just want to point out that Ayn Rand is out of favor with most libertarians. No doubt she was a major early influence for a lot of libertarians, but most "mature" libertarians prefer to refer to the work of more serious philosophers such as FA Hayek and Robert Nozick.

    In fact Hayek is considered in some circles as the father of modern libertarianism. He once wrote a book called "Why I am not a Conservative" to distance himself from conservatives who were attracted to his work. He referred to himself as a "classic liberal", but noted that in the U.S. it was impossible to use the term "liberal" in the old classical sense.

    Also I said in a previous post, I wrestle with what the right balance of social altruism is needed for an optimal society. I referred readers to political philosopher John Rawls, the father of modern liberalism and his work on the Theory of Justice.

    The previous post featured a long argument between Jim Fisher and Robert, but I think they are probably not as far apart as they think. Its hard to have a discussion on taxes, charity, corporations, etc. because the data is so muddled and there are thousands of real world variables that obscure the pure theory.

  5. I agree with anonymous - it seems odd to study what we do, determine why we do it (selfish genes), then, claiming to have figured out the game, use the rules to do what we've been doing all along while claiming it's due to rational choice (all the while knowing that All physical events are caused or determined by the sum total of all previous events.- D. Dennett).

    Good brain food though!

  6. It may seem odd, but what choice do we have? All the physical events since the history of time have made it necessary to type this comment. I could no more of decided not to type this comment than I could have decided not to exist.

    So, we will (some of us anyway - the ones for whom it is our destiny in physics) continue to try to figure out whey we do what we do and then pretend to make rational decisions about how to modify our behavior (as if we had a choice) afterwards :)

    But pretending for a moment we got the free will thing -- how do we feel about the subject of M's post, i.e. the ethics of altruism?

  7. Well, I know that there are a lot of cases where firefighters, police officers, etc, have given their lives for random strangers. There's obviously a hidden benefit (the reputation gained) but this would seemed to be drastically outweighed by the disadvantage (potiental death). The interesting question about those *appearantly* alturistic events are what are the mental processes of the alturist? For instance, it is possible that following the 9/11 attack on the first WTC, the firefighters "thought" the risk to their own lives was slim, and if they knew 100% that they were going to die in the process of trying to save another person, they wouldn't have taken that risk.
    In war, people show a willingness to risk their lives merely for *an ideal* or at worse, just to get paid... I wonder if this should be considered an alturistic action for the country, and if it is, wouldn't seem to have much to do with biological alturism.
    Anonymous, the idea that determinism precludes moral thought is a bit strange. That's like saying because a person can't fundamentally change how they're *ultimately* going to act, all of their experiences don't matter! Well, obviously that's not the case. Human beings can learn and make more apt decisions-- it's just that their process of learning, etc. would also be determinated.

  8. In war, people show a willingness to risk their lives merely for *an ideal* or at worse, just to get paid... I wonder if this should be considered an altruistic action for the country, and if it is, wouldn't seem to have much to do with biological altruism.

    Humans are complex beings and we can often override our biological predispositions (and do everyday to co-exist in artificially large societies)

    We are also subject to other predispositions -- such as xenophobia, peer pressure and pride -- which can override or augment the altruistic components of behavior.

    Typically, during wars the combatants have a heightened sense of nationalism -- and in cases of repelling foreign invaders ware also has a direct effect on their individual interests. Also in battle, the members of your platoon or company become like brothers and I can see where the ethic of fighting for each other has a direct "kin" altruistic effect. If you want to get saved when wounded, you need to be willing to save your comrade when he is wounded.

    I imagine it works similarly with firefighters who live and spend so much time together and are conditioned to be proud of "doing their job" which means they are trained to place the welfare of others above themselves - thus overcoming any natural biological altruistic limitations.

  9. Now if only your description of altruistic morality could be rectified with the posting on emotional vs. rational decision making. You could rule the world. But seriously, people often make an emotional choice even when they know it is immoral (i.e. cheating in marriage because personal needs are not met) when they rationally know their decision fails an institution that society depends on.

    Most people are optimistic thinkers on the outside. They may do apparently unselfish things such as give to charities or help someone in need because it makes society better, and yet when it comes to personal circumstances Selfishness, however immoral it may be, dominates.

  10. I don't see "social" altruism as anymore of a problem than zoological altruism. Its evolution of the SPECIES, not evolution of the individual. Just as omnivores are a curious blend of herbavore and carnivore, we are, as social beings, a strange mixture of what aids our species survivial and also what aids the individuals that make up that society. Its not surprising to me that egoism and altruism are constant battles in the instinctive "hearts" and sometimes logical minds of humans. Morality is almost ubiquitiously motivated as a purely social instinct, although it can be rationally fashioned as well. One cannot be immoral to a rock. One can only be immoral to other sentient beings, and its not surprising either that we consider humans more "important" or of a higher value that other sentient or living beings. This makes perfect biological sense. This translates, of course, in the fact that we tend to hold distinctive human characteristics to be of a higher value than alien characteristics. For instance, we value intelligence and sociability as "better" than the stupid or anti-social. People love 'social being' dogs, but less love (stupid) goldfish. We value the cute and cuddly, but don't generally care about killing spiders or snakes. People get all up in arms and throw paint on fur wearers while wearing leather themselves or after eating chicken that died a horrific factory death. Morals make genetic sense. The thought of raping and killing a five year old girl is abohorant to virtually every human. The reasons for this is obvious, even without any alleged magic ghosts that live in the clowds.

    The Vampire

  11. Ze Danial wrote:
    "Well, I know that there are a lot of cases where firefighters, police officers, etc, have given their lives for random strangers. There's obviously a hidden benefit (the reputation gained) but this would seemed to be drastically outweighed by the disadvantage (potiental death). The interesting question about those *appearantly* alturistic events are what are the mental processes of the alturist? For instance, it is possible that following the 9/11 attack on the first WTC, the firefighters "thought" the risk to their own lives was slim, and if they knew 100% that they were going to die in the process of trying to save another person, they wouldn't have taken that risk.
    In war, people show a willingness to risk their lives merely for *an ideal* or at worse, just to get paid... I wonder if this should be considered an alturistic action for the country, and if it is, wouldn't seem to have much to do with biological alturism."

    I argue that if the firefighter valued the life of the "saved" more than the assessed risk to his own life, then a net gain is arguably not "altruism" as a sacrifice is a net loss to oneself, not an assessed potential gain. Psychological Egoism asserts that one cannot help but act towards one's own interests (presumed to be gains). But I'm a Rational Egoist. I think it is possible to CHOOSE TO LOSE on purpose, as masochists and martyrs often do. This latter point is not one regarding if one can do anything against his own will, but rather whether one's will should be presumed to always be a gain or in one's "interest".

  12. The naturalistic fallacy is an alleged logical fallacy, described by British philosopher G.E. Moore in Principia Ethica (1903). Moore stated that a naturalistic fallacy was committed whenever a philosopher attempts to prove a claim about ethics by appealing to a definition of the term "good" in terms of one or more natural properties (such as "pleasant", "more evolved", "desired", etc.).

    The naturalistic fallacy is related to, and often confused with, the is-ought problem (as formulated by, for example, David Hume).

    As a result, the term is sometimes used loosely to describe arguments that claim to draw ethical conclusions from natural facts.

    Alternately, the phrase "naturalistic fallacy" is used to refer to the claim that what is natural is inherently good or right, and that what is unnatural is bad or wrong (see "Appeal to nature").

    From Wikipedia.

  13. I would challenge the argument that any form of altruism has any more moral highground than any other. That exact thought process goes against what altruism really means. For altruism is simply experienced from the receiver not the giver. It doesn't matter why someone helped you out of a jam, loaned you money when you needed it, called you when you lost your wallet, gave you food when you were hungry. Does it matter to the child with cancer that the founder of the childrens cancer center decided to give a 20 million dollar charity to a local hospital because he/she was a pompus bastard and wanted a hospital wing named after them? Of course not. So the only immoral thing to do is to actually postulate as to why altruism exists. It exists because it does, to question its motives is to question why we were put on the planet in the first place or to guess why the universe was created. When something good comes into your life accept it with open-arms, a caring heart, a warm smile. That being said one could make the argument that the highest and most moral of altruistic behaviors is to accept alturism from another without question. In doing so one will be more apt to give back without motive as well.


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