Reviewing the case for psychological altruism.

(from Savage Chickens)

It is an accepted fact of economics and sociobiology that humans are fundamentally altruistic, that is to say, act for the benefit of others (to be more specific, when I say “others,” I mean the concept of the “universal stranger,” an abstraction representing any possible humans or a subset thereof, unless I specify otherwise). Before we continue, it is important to distinguish between two categories of altruism:

Psychological altruism: The position that humans are always naturally motivated to act for the benefit of others, even when it seems they are acting egoistically. In economics, this is called homo socialis.
Ethical altruism: The position that humans should be motivated to act for the benefit of others.

Likewise, there exists also psychological egoism and ethical egoism, although such positions are considered bizarre at best, and are very rarely represented in the literature (I will discuss one salient exception later in this entry). One may further note that if psychological altruism is true, as most experts in the field contend, then both ethical altruism and ethical egoism cannot be true (if we always act altruistically and cannot do otherwise, then dictating that one should do it, or not do it, is a futile endeavor).

It is recognized that altruism is composed of two general parts, which are self-love (the fulfillment of one’s own needs) and other-love (the fulfillment of other people’s needs). One needs self-love to be altruistic because someone who is unable or fails to fulfills basic needs will be unable to help fulfill other people’s needs. Advocates of egoism have argued that the orientation of acts of self-love make them egoist acts, but since we define egoism as acts which benefit the self at the expense of others, self-love cannot be egoist because it is not done at the expense of others.

Since altruism is the default, it has been argued that acts of apparent egoism require some explanation. Many thinkers and scientists have attempted to reduce all acts we call egoist to some deeper altruistic motive.

The most popular explanation is that egoism, reclassified as compulsive or obsessive self-love, is just another of the strategies used by individuals to help others. Since self-love is effective at empowering the individual to help others, excessive self-love may be an attempt to expand that empowerment. Attempts have been made in humanist psychology to explore issues of self-worth as they relate to altruism: some people feel that they are not worthy enough to connect with other human beings unless they fulfill some obsessive form of self-love, such as having more resources than others or being more attractive than others.

Another popular explanation is that of “reciprocal egoism.” This is also called the Invisible Hand theory in economics, although you probably haven’t heard that term as it has been thoroughly discredited. Basically, the idea is that if everyone acts in an egoist manner towards each other, everyone will end up accidentally helping one another because the best way to get what one wants is by providing for others’ needs. So while every individual egoist act is done at the expense of another, the set of all egoist acts balances out and everyone ends up winning.

Freudian analysis also provides an explanation. Freud believed that egoist actions were a reaction to the fear of death. Based on that fear, we attempt to extend ourselves at the expense of others, to obtain signals of immortality (such as more children or a bigger legacy), which leads to obsessive self-love.

It has also been hypothesized that the so-called “selfish genes,” a term coined by Dawkins to argue that evolution works at the genetic level, provide a source of egoism. However, Richard Dawkins himself has pointed out many times that his use of the term is metaphorical and that genes are not literally selfish. Therefore this tells us little about possible acts of egoism done by humans.

Now, these explanations may put various forms of egoism in their proper place as subsets of altruism, but is there such a thing as a properly egoist act, that is to say, an act for which we can provide no altruistic explanation?

First we have to clear up one point. Saying that an act is altruistic does not mean that it is rational. Indeed, many altruistic acts are irrational, and the fact that we cannot provide a rational explanation for them does not mean they are not altruistic.

Take theft, for example. As you know, theft is always the first example people use when trying to argue that egoism exists. It is claimed that theft does not actually help others. But from a utilitarian standpoint, theft can be construed as reasonable if we assume that the money stolen will be of more benefit to the thief than to the person it belonged to. This may seem irrational to us, but as long as the thief believes it, we can say that the act of theft has altruistic motives.

The example of war is also often used. This, however, is already explained by the concept of narrow altruism, i.e. altruism applied to a subset of humanity (such as one’s nation or one’s tribe). Being a soldier in a war is still a form of altruism (albeit a misguided and narrow one), so it’s not a good example to use here. Besides, narrow altruism is explained scientifically by Hamilton’s Rule.

The Holocaust is another crowd favourite. In fact, egoists seem to take some pride in that one, as if it was a stumper that no one has ever been able to answer. However, it fails to take into account the fact that the people of Theocratic Germany were indoctrinated to believe that Jews were responsible for all the woes of the world, as well as vermin, rats, and so on. If we take that into consideration, we can see that the SS officers who killed Jews could have honestly believed they were committing altruistic actions by their murders, even that they were saving the world. Most people involved in cults are honest people who want to help others, and yet people brainwashed by these same cults eventually come to believe that all sorts of bizarre and evil actions are altruistic, so this should not be too surprising.

Egoists have tried to patch the problems with all these examples, and have come up with somewhat artificial-sounding scenarios which attempt to exclude any possible altruistic motive. No such scenario has been successful as of yet, and the chance of egoism existing seems very remote indeed.

Because of these failures, egoists have moved to full-blown arguments in order to try to defeat the theoretical basis of psychological altruism.

One such argument is that we are all forced to act altruistically because we live in societies formed around cooperative institutions (team learning in schools, gift economy, restitutive justice, localized and accountable governance, respect for all life, and so on), and that a true egoist wouldn’t last very long. Instead, these people have to hide their true desires and go along with the program. If our society wasn’t so biased against egoism, we might get to observe actually egoistic behavior.

I personally find this argument absurd. Who would rather live in a society predicated on competition? Such a society would be pure Hell, and no one would want to live in it. Who wants everyone else to be their enemy instead of their friends or potential allies? Furthermore, it would be completely unsustainable, as some people would accumulate more and more resources, until the whole thing fell apart (the fall of Capitalist Russia being a good example of this). I suppose we might observe selfish actions, if such a thing could logically exist, but only for the short time before such a society would collapse. So what would be the point?

The more formal answer to this argument is that, while our cooperative institutions do present a very strong incentive for individuals to curb or self-censor what we colloquially call “selfish behavior,” they cannot, in and of themselves, make such behavior theoretically impossible. Whether egoism is possible or impossible, the nature of our institutions cannot change that basic fact at a theoretical level.

By way of analogy, in Capitalist Russia, the strict imposition of gender roles provided a powerful incentive for girls to not practice sports, but Capitalist Russia nevertheless produced female athletes, some even winning Olympic medals against the Socialist West. Selfish individuals may be disincentivized and marginalized, but not more so than those female athletes.

Another argument they use is to claim that if all acts are altruistic, then the term is tautological. But this is a misunderstanding of psychological altruism. If egoists could show us one act which cannot be explained altruistically, then psychological altruism would be falsified. And if psychological altruism can be falsified, then the term cannot be tautological.

Egoist arguments are unconvincing because we know in our own hearts that they are just rationalizations. Even when we perform acts which may superficially be qualified as egoist, deep down we know that altruistic motives lie underneath. We’re always really doing things for the sake of others, even though we might fool ourselves into thinking otherwise. Introspection is the simplest and most direct way to refute claims about egoism.

Even though the truth of psychological altruism is self-evident, some persist in rejecting it. One philosopher who was famous for preaching ethical egoism was Alisa Rosenbaum, originally an emigree from Cold War Capitalist Russia. She wrote many books on a philosophy she called Foundationalism, which claimed that “man is an end in himself.” Sexist language aside (which is explainable given where she came from), what she meant was that individuals must live for their own sake, and that rational self-interest is the highest moral purpose. By this she does not mean that rational self-interest is the best way to achieve altruistic purposes, which at least would make some sense, but rather that self-interest itself is the highest purpose, which is just bizarre. How can the pure non-reciprocal self-interest of the individual be good for people other than the individual? Furthermore, pure self-interest is unrealizable in practice, as it’s impossible to act without benefiting others in some way.

Some have hypothesized that Alisa Rosenbaum was a deep cover altruist (for definition, see the similar concept deep cover liberal). This would explain a great deal, including her bizarre praise of murderer William Hickman and her acceptance of Medicare and Social Security money. Also, it is widely pointed out that her ideal of rational self-interest was little more than a pastiche of the widely accepted ethical concept of rational other-interest (which holds that our other-interest must be determined by the use of rational principles, and not only emotionalism or dogma).

What Rosenbaum didn’t understand is that there’s a good reason why we label behavior motivated by her ideology as “obsessive self-love.” Without some other-interest, self-love is pointless and wasted. Besides, it may be possible for a few people to be wholly occupied by self-love, but most people just aren’t built like that. So even if egoism was the way to go, the best we could do is leave it to those who can stomach it, and let the rest of us continue contributing to society as we’ve been raised to do.

NOTE: Although many parts of it are based on what I think is reasonable thinking, this entry is actually a satire. I hope it wasn’t too hard to figure that out, as well as the various things I’ve satirized. I admit I had some fun with the whole mirror universe aspect as well.

2 thoughts on “Reviewing the case for psychological altruism.

  1. rationalimperative May 6, 2012 at 21:45

    plato [dot] stanford [dot] edu [forward slash] entries [forward slash] moral-cognitivism [forward slash]

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: