The Truth About Altruism

By Judith Lichtenberg

Contemporary discussions of altruism quickly turn to evolutionary explanations. Reciprocal altruism and kin selection are the two main theories. According to reciprocal altruism, evolution favors organisms that sacrifice their good for others in order to gain a favor in return. Kin selection—the famous “selfish gene” theory popularized by Richard Dawkins—says that an individual who behaves altruistically towards others who share its genes will tend to reproduce those genes. Organisms may be altruistic; genes are selfish. The feeling that loving your children more than yourself is hard-wired lends plausibility to the theory of kin selection.

These evolutionary theories explain a puzzle: how organisms that sacrifice their own “reproductive fitness”—their ability to survive and reproduce—could possibly have evolved. But neither theory fully accounts for our ordinary understanding of altruism.

The defect of reciprocal altruism is clear. If a person acts to benefit another in the expectation that the favor will be returned, the natural response is: “That’s not altruism!”  Pure altruism, we think, requires a person to sacrifice for another without consideration of personal gain. Doing good for another person because something’s in it for the do-er is the very opposite of what we have in mind. Kin selection does better by allowing that organisms may genuinely sacrifice their interests for another, but it fails to explain why they sometimes do so for those with whom they share no genes, as Professor Librescu and Mr. Autrey did.

When we ask whether human beings are altruistic, we want to know about their motives or intentions. Biological altruism explains how unselfish behavior might have evolved but, as Frans de Waal suggested in his column in The Stone on Sunday, it implies nothing about the motives or intentions of the agent: after all, birds and bats and bees can act altruistically. This fact helps to explain why, despite these evolutionary theories, the view that people never intentionally act to benefit others except to obtain some good for themselves still possesses a powerful lure over our thinking.

The lure of this view—egoism—has two sources, one psychological, the other logical. Consider first the psychological. One reason people deny that altruism exists is that, looking inward, they doubt the purity of their own motives. We know that even when we appear to act unselfishly, other reasons for our behavior often rear their heads: the prospect of a future favor, the boost to reputation, or simply the good feeling that comes from appearing to act unselfishly. As Kant and Freud observed, people’s true motives may be hidden, even (or perhaps especially) from themselves. Even if we think we’re acting solely to further another person’s good, that might not be the real reason. (There might be no single “real reason”—actions can have multiple motives.)

So the psychological lure of egoism as a theory of human action is partly explained by a certain humility or skepticism people have about their own or others’ motives. There’s also a less flattering reason: denying the possibility of pure altruism provides a convenient excuse for selfish behavior. If “everybody is like that” — if everybody must be like that — we need not feel guilty about our own self-interested behavior or try to change it.

The logical lure of egoism is different: the view seems impossible to disprove. No matter how altruistic a person appears to be, it’s possible to conceive of her motive in egoistic terms. On this way of looking at it, the guilt Mr. Autrey would have suffered had he ignored the man on the tracks made risking his life worth the gamble. The doctor who gives up a comfortable life to care for AIDS patients in a remote place does what she wants to do, and therefore gets satisfaction from what only appears to be self-sacrifice. So, it seems, altruism is simply self-interest of a subtle kind.

The impossibility of disproving egoism may sound like a virtue of the theory, but, as philosophers of science know, it’s really a fatal drawback. A theory that purports to tell us something about the world, as egoism does, should be falsifiable. Not false, of course, but capable of being tested and thus proved false. If every state of affairs is compatible with egoism, then egoism doesn’t tell us anything distinctive about how things are.

A related reason for the lure of egoism, noted by Bishop Joseph Butler in the 18th century, concerns ambiguity in the concepts of desire and the satisfaction of desire. If people possess altruistic motives, then they sometimes act to benefit others without the prospect of gain to themselves. In other words, they desire the good of others for its own sake, not simply as a means to their own satisfaction. It’s obvious that Professor Librescu desired that his students not die, and acted accordingly to save their lives. He succeeded, so his desire was satisfied. But he was not satisfied — since he died in the attempt to save the students. From the fact that a person’s desire is satisfied we can draw no conclusions about effects on his mental state or well-being.

Still, when our desires are satisfied we normally experience satisfaction; we feel good when we do good. But that doesn’t mean we do good only in order to get that “warm glow”—that our true incentives are self-interested (as economists tend to claim). Indeed, as de Waal argues, if we didn’t desire the good of others for its own sake, then attaining it wouldn’t produce the warm glow.

Common sense tells us that some people are more altruistic than others. Egoism’s claim that these differences are illusory—that deep down, everybody acts only to further their own interests contradicts our observations and deep-seated human practices of moral evaluation.

This article is excerpted from the New York Times’ Is Pure Altruism Possible?


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One Response to The Truth About Altruism

  1. The logical lure of egoism is different: the view seems impossible to disprove. No matter how altruistic a person appears to be, it’s possible to conceive of her motive in egoistic terms. […] A theory that purports to tell us something about the world, as egoism does, should be falsifiable. Not false, of course, but capable of being tested and thus proved false. If every state of affairs is compatible with egoism, then egoism doesn’t tell us anything distinctive about how things are.

    Since the “egoism view” of altruism cannot consider subjective experience, it cannot be objectively verified (tested). As the author explains, it is difficult to know the true motive of another’s actions.

    However:

    From the fact that a person’s desire is satisfied we can draw no conclusions about effects on his mental state or well-being. Still, when our desires are satisfied we normally experience satisfaction; we feel good when we do good. But that doesn’t mean we do good only in order to get that “warm glow”–that our true incentives are self-interested (as economists tend to claim). Indeed, as de Waal argues, if we didn’t desire the good of others for its own sake, then attaining it wouldn’t produce the warm glow.

    So there must be some form of altruism that cannot be explained away by the logic of egoism: an altruism that at least produces more “good” for others than the altruist, or produces “good” outside of the conventional understanding of what “good” means.

    (This article rerferences Frans de Waal’s “Morals Without God?”.)

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