I recently read an article about altruism (not In English or I'd link), which stated there is actually no such thing.

While humans do not have ability to relay tangible things to each other by means of words – for instance, you will never be able to describe the color red to a blind man – we do have the ability to relay emotions. We see a movie and relate to the characters. They make us cry when they cry, and when they feel pain- we feel pain. Similarly, when we see a wrong being done, we get emotional, as if this wrong was done to us. We relate to the pain, and make it our own – and that prompts us to action.

The article stated that what prompts us to act isn't actually the urge to end the other guy's   suffering - but rather our own. Our empathy causes us to feel as if the pain is actually ours, and the desire to right a wrong is the desire to make OUR pain go away. Thus there is no such thing as altruism. Things that may seem to an outsider as selflessness are actually a very selfish desire to rid one's self of pressing negative emotions caused by empathy.

It's a great evolutionary tool for assuring cooperation.

In another discussion,Adriana posted on Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon who found that people will donate twice as much money when presented with a human story rather than with dry statistics. I think this related to the same point.

Another relevant experiment Is the Milgram experiment, which showed that people are far more likely to hurt others if they can't hear or see their victim.

Your  thoughts?

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so in other words, morality and altruism are simply one more of those things we make up to feel superior...


great comment!

I am not an anthropodenialist

I am a subjectivo-lingui-denialist on issues of science.

I am a subjectivo-lingui-denialist on issues of human morality.

Yes inventing words is fun!

I have no doubt that if an alien species came to study human behaviour, they could easily encompass all of ours within the present sphere of biological knowledge. We ourselves can't see it of course, we have conflict of interest.

Human's use of subjective terminology to describe human behaviour was inextricably entwined with our desire to transcend the rest of the animal kingdom and life on earth. "We are better" "altruism", etc. But we've never been 'better' than other animals, we are the them.



Three types of reciprocity have been studied extensively:

  • Direct reciprocity
  • Indirect reciprocity
  • Network reciprocity

Of course all words are human in origin, but my point is that since we already had useful and efficient terminology to describe behavior, why add other more subjective terms on top of them. Reciprocity has objectivity to it, it can be measured, calculated. Morality and good/bad are subjective notions which do not aid in our understanding of primates.


This category of anthropomorphising started with my beloved Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall. Neither were zoologists or biologists when they started studying apes. Their open minds and creative insights were rewarded because there was so little known about great ape behaviour.


I think we humans, especially scientists should focus on using biological terms such as reciprocity to describe our own social behaviours and relegate subjective terminology to subjective conversations. Humans in tune with nature have always known that animals' behaviours are much like humans. This was mostly forgotten when white-Euro-male-experiment-driven-science took over the knowledge process in the middle ages and relegated the rest of knowledge to the trash bin.

In every single one of these debates we've pretty much ended up agreeing that right/wrong varies entirely per culture, and per cultural subgroup. How can one biologically quantify a behaviour what is constantly changing definition? Whereas sticking to more objective terminology like cooperation/reciprocity we are able to keep behaviours in perspective. Biological understanding of the mechanics of reciprocity cross cultural barriers, they mean essentially the same thing to anybody. This is the modern essence of why the field of evolutionary psychology has not gained acceptance by a large swath of biologists. Because so much of it gauged on subjective landmarks.
My layman conclusion is that your title could be true if you were only to complete it thusly; "there is no such thing as altruism for the philosophical pedant".

Of course not! Without our empathetic sense, what basis would there even be for morality?  We'd still recognize, probably, that sometimes something that's good for me is bad for you, but there'd be no reason for ever putting anyone else's concerns ahead of your own.  The concept of pure altruism excludes empathy by definition, since that would be a personal motive, so all that's left is doing something 'altruistic' grudgingly or indifferently just because you know it's right, and yet that still must stem from a basic understanding of other people's pain.


Try to imagine the most altruistic things you can.  Perhaps you hit upon the example of someone who volunteers at an animal shelter.  Can't be motivated by propagating their genes, right? Can't be motivated by money, can't be motivated by hope for future reward; could be motivated by the social need to look a certain way to others, but we'll assume for the argument that this isn't the case.  What but altruism, then, could explain his actions?


There is a well-established principle in cognitive evolutionary science that mechanisms evolved for certain purposes are 'blind', in that they don't discriminate between doing things for survival or just doing them.  The classic example is eating: we evolved for a low-carb environment, and the mechanisms like hunger, the constant desire to be eating, and the pleasure of tasting things are well-suited to keep us alive in such an environment.  However, placed in our modern carb-rich environment, these mechanisms continue to operate as they were designed, blind to the new reality, and the result is widespread obesity. 


A bit of relevant background on modern evolution:  We understand evolution in the context of Dawkins' book The Selfish Gene, which elegantly explained many oddities of behaviour by ascribing the need to reproduce not to the individual, as it was traditionally, but to the genes themselves.  Basically; genes that are good at making copies of themselves spread, and they do so via creating organisms that are good at spreading them.  This explains why it's evolutionarily OK for a praying mantis to have his head bitten off while mating, or why most animals don't eat their young.  The genes that design animals who eat their young don't typically make it very far. 


Now, consider empathy, a mechanism evolutionarily selected for because it gives an organism a means towards not eating other organisms that share its genes, the same way food tastes good because that gives us a good reason to eat it.  (Flight of fancy: it's equally possible that, instead of empathy, we might have just evolved in such a way that our closer relations taste more repugnant to us!) Similarly, and especially at the dawn of agriculture, it would have been evolutionarily useful to not want to harm other people, even those not directly related to you, because this would increase the chances of your genes spreading.  This, in theory, gave a selective advantage to those who would generalize their empathy from its strictly evolved-for purpose, i.e. not killing the vessels of their genes, to other people who didn't necessarily share your genes.  With that in place, we now have something which Sam Harris calls 'the expanding moral circle'; evolution's blind design allows us to expand it as far as we want, even when it stops serving the purpose of spreading our genes.  The proverbial long and bendy arc of history is actually the edge of that circle expanding (perhaps we should say it's unbending, then, but whatever); first it was your family, then your clan, then your village, then your city-state, ethnic group, country... now it's not uncommon for people to talk about the good of all mankind, even if it would be in the better interest of their genes to talk or behave otherwise.  Some people even extend their circle beyond humans; animals, yes, but also things like the ocean, the environment, the planet, this lovely old building, this Japanese sex pillow...


What this should tell you is that, no, there's no such thing as pure altruism, but really don't worry about it.  There's a well-established basis for ethical and selfless behaviour, and anyone who is committed to being ethical and selfless would probably agree that no dubious discovery about the ignominious origins of moral behaviour will ever cause them to abandon their principles. 


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