Jump to content
Objectivism Online Forum

Science for Altruism

Rate this topic


Recommended Posts

I have been given many references in primatology, history, and psychology arguing that there is what is termed psychological altruism. This is distinct from what is termed biological altruism. The later is easier to define so I'll start there. Biological altruism is an act by an agent which has these two properties: 1) It is intended to benefit another organism at a (minimal) cost to the agent. 2) The act is one which the organism has evolved a predilection to perform because all similar organisms which perform it have an evolutionary advantage, and is not due to a concern for the wants or good of the recipient. Because the act is essentially done with intent, it cannot refer to organisms without minimal brain activity. However, it does not require the agent to recognize that another organism has a psychology. I doubt ants understand that fellow ants have any awareness, yet they might act "altruistically" by giving food to the queen rather than eating it themselves. They have a predilection to do this because evolution has instilled it into their brain activities.

Psychological altruism, however, is a concern for the wants and perceived good of another organism, as such. That is to say, the agent does not have concern for them simply as a means of getting the recipient to act beneficially towards the agent at a later time. It is a kind of automatic impulse to care for the recipient upon recognizing any need that it might have, and this concern is important enough to give up some limited values he or she would have retained before seeing the needs of the recipient. A recorded example that is often used is that of one primate which tried to get at some water. The water was in the bottom of a large rubber tire, and that tire was tangled among other tires. The primate tried for some time to untangle the tires and get at the water, but after some time gave up. Another primate saw this, went over to them, untangled the tires, and gave the tire with water in it to the first primate. So it is claimed, it is hard to understand this behavior without imputing onto the second primate an awareness of the desires of the first primate, and a willingness to take action to satisfy those desires. The cost of that action is very small, admittedly. Had the second primate not seen the difficulties of the first, he would have done probably anything except untangle the tires and hand it to the first primate. So the cost was whatever he didn't do while untangling the tires.

It is fine enough if we accept that "He wanted to help the other primate, maybe he had strong affection for the other." So long as he did it not directly for personal gain, it still counts as psychological altruism. Another recorded example is that of mother and daughter primates, where the mother was somehow disabled (I believe actually retarded.). The daughter would go up trees to get food, and give some to the mother--who was completely incapable of returning any benefit.

It is admittedly possible that these were not agents at all and that they had no awareness of the wants of other animals, but that seems extremely implausible. Why would one primate untangle the tires if he didn't think the other were trying to get at something and failed? Likewise, we may argue that the one primate was trying to help the other only because he thought that he would get some reward for it later. That is also possible but implausible, since it seems to impute too much intelligence onto the primate. That's an incredibly complicated set of estimates and higher-order awareness for an organism that can just barely acquire propositional language with the most dedicated training.

It is then argued that humans have kept this concern for the wants and good of other organism and successively refined it through history. I haven't read any of the material I have been referred to, but I will soon and intend to write on it. I was wondering if people have any kind of response to this, particularly if they know of any relevant primatological, sociological, and psychological references.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Why you make such a distinction between biological and psychological altruism? I see psychological altruism as a subcategory of biological altruism; it's just a mechanism that results in biological "altruism". A conscious evaluation of the risks and potential benefits is unnecessary, since, in most organisms, it would be essentially automatic.

In your first example with the primates, the helper was performing a low-cost task, and while it resulted in no direct benefit, in the long term performing such low-cost "altruistic" actions would be in the best interest of the primate, because of the likely reciprocity. Reciprocal altruism (which would not really altruism at all, since it ultimately benefits the "altruist") explains most of the small scale altruism within a community.

The second example is slightly different because it is an example of kin selection. It is in the evolutionary best interest of organisms to help their relatives to the extent that increases the chances of their genes surviving. Again, this doesn't require a conscious decision. Semi-altruistic behavior towards related individuals is nearly always in the organism's genes best interest, so it has evolved to be automatic.

Obviously some of these altruistic tendencies are present in humans, probably to an even greater degree than in other organisms. However, biological altruism is never truly altruistic, otherwise it would quickly die out. As humans, we have the ability to consciously to consider the situation and reject it if it is not in our best interest, thus making the "altruism" even less altruistic.

Link to post
Share on other sites

(Theres a huge risk of confusion here because the modern scientific use of the term altruism isnt the same as what Objectivists mean by it, so I'm going to use the term 'beneveolence' instead, by which I mean a sense of concern and love towards others that doesnt involve self-sacrifice)

I'm not convinced that reductionist explainations are the best way of approaching these questions in humans. In many cases, benevolence is an expression of self-love and world-openness - when a person is in an extremely good mood and happy with his life, he'll often express this in terms of a positive attitude towards others and be more willing to do nice things for them. Speaking very generally, a happy man tries to make others happy while a man consumed with bitterness generally acts in a spiteful way. When youre in the right mood, helping others can make you feel even better - the warm feeling you get and so on. So from the point of view of psychology there isnt really any further explanation needed - people act benevolently because it makes them feel good, and gives them a 'warm feeling'.

So I think the question youre asking is not 'why do people today act benevolently?' but more 'why does helping others make people feel good?' - ie what is the biological origin of this warm feeling? And while hardcore adaptionists would insist that it needs to have an evolutionary explanation, this is an expression of an a priori methodological committment rather than something that theres any real evidence for. Not all psychological traits can (or need to be) explained by adaptionism - they may well just be emergent features of consciousness which emerged once sufficient complexity had evolved.

The problem is that studies of 'altruism' in animals dont really help to explain acts of beneveolence in humans because human beneveolence is a far more complex trait which looks qualitatively different. Firstly, human beneveolence is a cultural trait which is hugely affected by a person's philosophy and belief system - the kind of beneveolence you get in an average person today has little in common with the 'beneveolence' that a Mongol felt. Our notions of human rights, universal love, and so on arent things which exist in humans innately - they took thousands of years of cultural evolution to emerge.

Secondly, human beneveolence is often motivated by the concern that a person has towards humanity considered as a universal rather than towards a particular human viewed as a particular. The idea that all people, purely by virtue of being human, have inviolate rights to (eg) life/liberty/etc is an extremely high level notion which depends on a level of conceptual and philosophical reasoning that has no parallel in animals. An animal isnt able to abstract away from the particular members of his species that he encounters in order to form a general concept, which can then be used as a basis for moral judgements and action. Animals arent able to view their species historically or universally, nor can they justify their acts of 'altruism' by arguments about what is best for their species as a whole, nor can they understand the links between history and morality, and so on. An animal may feel an innate sense of 'benevolence' towards members of its species but this could never be justified or argued for in the way that human morality can, nor could an animal be persuaded about the merits of some particular moral framework.

Edited by eriatarka
Link to post
Share on other sites
Why you make such a distinction between biological and psychological altruism? I see psychological altruism as a subcategory of biological altruism; it's just a mechanism that results in biological "altruism". A conscious evaluation of the risks and potential benefits is unnecessary, since, in most organisms, it would be essentially automatic.

The distinction is drawn because the paper is largely about ethics, and he takes the fact that we have a natural "benevolence" (the term I'll use here instead of "altruism") as evidence that we should act benevolently.

In your first example with the primates, the helper was performing a low-cost task, and while it resulted in no direct benefit, in the long term performing such low-cost "altruistic" actions would be in the best interest of the primate, because of the likely reciprocity.

Quite obviously, though, the primate wasn't thinking of these future returns.

I'm not convinced that reductionist explainations are the best way of approaching these questions in humans. In many cases, benevolence is an expression of self-love and world-openness - when a person is in an extremely good mood and happy with his life, he'll often express this in terms of a positive attitude towards others and be more willing to do nice things for them.

First of all, I would want to know what is involved in an expression: Is it other-directed? Secondly, if people have this by nature or predilection, and this creates a predilection toward caring for other's wants and good, would that not be sufficient to show a predilection for benevolence as defined above (And as an idiolectic matter, let's choose a word for what was originally called "psychological altruism" and stick with it--thus, if we are to use "benevolence" would shouldn't later call something else, like this expression of self-love, benevolence as well.)

So from the point of view of psychology there isnt really any further explanation needed - people act benevolently because it makes them feel good, and gives them a 'warm feeling'.

That would be a concession to benevolence, then.

So I think the question youre asking is not 'why do people today act benevolently?' but more 'why does helping others make people feel good?' - ie what is the biological origin of this warm feeling?

No, no. I'm asking, "DO people act benevolently, by the precise definition above?"

Link to post
Share on other sites

I don't believe there is actually a "psychological altruism" any kind of altruism is done in order to get benifit from at a later time or in the long run. the only other kind of "altruism" that your professor might cal psychological is not really even altruism at all. for example the daughter that feeds her retarded mother might be doing it simply because she loves her. Love not something altruistic. the daughter values her mother for whatever reason (its her own business as to why) and therefore she provides her with food. nothing altruistic; theres no such thing as "psychological altruism", only biological.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Perhaps this is somewhat tangential to the discussion, but I have been reading a lot of papers in this area for class lately. I notice one feature of the literature is that the so-called "rational actor" model or "self-interested" model almost always consists in brute selfishness, or range-of-the-moment behavior to maximize a given outcome. In other words, if you give food away and there is even the chance the person/other animal you gave food away to may not reciprocate, that is considered altruistic behavior because a "rational" individual would always act to maximize their own food intake (in any given instance, with no regard for long-term outcomes). I don't know what this says about the folks who do these analyses, but I see it time and again. They always use selfishness to mean maximizing your gain IN THAT ENCOUNTER.

Link to post
Share on other sites
  • 2 weeks later...
I don't believe there is actually a "psychological altruism" any kind of altruism is done in order to get benifit from at a later time or in the long run. the only other kind of "altruism" that your professor might cal psychological is not really even altruism at all. for example the daughter that feeds her retarded mother might be doing it simply because she loves her. Love not something altruistic. the daughter values her mother for whatever reason (its her own business as to why) and therefore she provides her with food. nothing altruistic; theres no such thing as "psychological altruism", only biological.

I would add that real altruism is the sacrificing of a value for a lesser or non value. The task then is just to consider a hierarchy of values. For example, let's say that you go to the store and buy a loaf of bread. You are not "sacrificing" your hard-earned money for that bread, you are trading for it. The bread is more valuable than the money in your pocket.

On the flip side, let's say that you give your money to a stranger who is a crackhead on the street so that they can go get wasted and meanwhile your child goes without a new pair of shoes because of it. That's a sacrifice.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Guest
Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

Loading...
  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    No registered users viewing this page.

×
×
  • Create New...