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.

Friday, November 23, 2012

On the “problem” of altruism

by Massimo Pigliucci

[It's that time again, Massimo goes on vacation! As a result, we are running "encore" presentations of some of the best essays posted at Rationally Speaking. Enjoy, we'll be back with new material soon!]

[Originally posted on August 8, 2006]

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. Altruism is a biological function of strategic reciprocity which applies to a myriad of different social situations, kin or no kin, short or long term, small or large group, black yellow or or white, etc. etc.

  2. Humans seem to habitually behave with kinship altruism to friends and other "tribal members" who are not genetically related. Friendship and other tribal ties may be more sensibly understood as being a third category because the justification is different. It seems to be "memetic" rather than genetic, with the memetic similarity either found in explicit propositional beliefs, like religions or a local atheist meetup, or in shared experiences and culture, like sports/shopping/bar/workplace friendships.

  3. I don't know if Massimo has written more on this topic since the original blog post, but this post leaves a large hole in the middle of othe argument that kin and reciprocal altruism are sufficient to create a natural moral order. The hole arises not from the altruistic values displayed by sharing and balancing the needs of others, but from the altruistic values that arise when altruism holds for the needs of a group that may have non-altruistic values as its base. The followers of Hitler displayed altruism for his cause (adopted as their cause). However, the values of Hitlers cause were not moral values that all shared.

    What naturally derived principle distinguishes between the ideas espoused by Hitler, and those espoused by his enemies? For that matter, what naturally derived principle distinguishes between freedom of thought, and constrained thought? While one can argue over the values of the principles in those examples, what empirically derived natural facts can be applied? If evolution is the ultimate natural process for determining behavioral traits, then evolution will decide without regard for which principle seems more, shall we say, "naturally compatible with human flourishing"? Free societies that respect human rights may not be what nature favors in the long run, just as altruism in mathematical models of evolution does not always emerge as the prevalent trait of a population that carries it as an alternative (at least for some periods of the time).

    I don't see simple kinship or reciprocal altruism as sufficient for creating a moral order, because at some level moral principles must appeal to an absolute good that all agree to, and those traits do not allow such an absolute good to be clearly delineated when conflicts arise between say a group that has it's own version of moral good, and another group that disagrees. I have yet to learn of a naturally based scientific or philosophical method for distinguishing the absolute moral good that justifies free society over autocratic society. Somewhere in that justification lies an axiom.


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