Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Selfish Selflessness?

Is altruism/selflessness possible? Or is everything we choose to do selfish by definition? I think the only plausible answers are: yes and no, respectively. To suggest otherwise would be to rob the words of all meaning.

People sometimes suggest that because we do what we choose, and choose what we want, it follows that we're 'selfish' - after all, we're merely doing what we want to do. But I think what this argument really shows is that 'doing what you want' is a poor definition of selfishness. If you want to help others, that isn't selfish - not according to what I mean by the word, anyway.

Common usage suggests that there is a meaningful distinction to draw here: some acts are selfish and others aren't. When the egoist denies this, it makes me suspect that he is talking about some other concept altogether, and mistakenly using the same word 'selfish' to refer to it. Further, since every act is vacuously 'selfish' (by his definition), I can only think that the concept he has in mind is not a very interesting or useful one.

A year ago, on the Internet Infidel forums, I suggested some definitions which I think help clarify - and thereby resolve - the altruism debate. A slightly edited version follows:
Desire: A "desire that P" is a motivational disposition to make a proposition P true, and keep it true.

It is important to note the difference between self-regarding desires, and other-regarding desires. The difference concerns who (me, or someone else) is the subject, or primary beneficiary, of the proposition P. (E.g. a desire that I win the lottery is self-regarding, whereas a desire that African children not starve is other-regarding.)

Action/Intention: No need for definitions here, we all know what they mean. Instead, the important thing to note is that people always act so as to (attempt to) fulfill some of their desires, according to their beliefs (false beliefs will obviously impede this).

Best/Self interest: That which will in fact serve to bring about (in the long term) the greatest fulfillment of ALL of your own desires.

Note that action/intention will (alas) not always be consistent with what is in fact one's best interest.

Selfishness: An inappropriate degree of self-regarding behaviour. Acting only according to self-regarding desires, with an inappropriate disregard for others (i.e. lack of other-regarding desires).

Altruism: The opposite of selfishness: Acting in the interests of other people, at the cost of your own best interest. Extreme altruism may be characterized as acting in accordance with your other-regarding desires, with total disregard for yourself (i.e. lack of self-regarding desires).

These definitions make it clear that if you genuinely want to help other people, then acting on that desire is selfless, not selfish. Sure, you're doing what you want (in a sense), but since what you want is admirably altruistic, so is the resulting action. There is a meaningful distinction to be made here; one that psychological egoists neglect.

Egoists often suggest that our apparent acts of altruism are really, deep-down, motivated by a desire to make ourselves feel good. But even if satisfying our desire to help others does bring pleasure, it does not follow that the original cause of our action was a desire for the pleasure. That would be to confuse the true aim of our actions with a beneficial side-product. Just because something good results, it does not follow that this something must have been our motivation all along.

Compare the following two cases:
1) S desires that the old lady gets across the road safely.
2) S desires that he feel good about himself.
Let us stipulate that in both cases, S believes that helping the old lady cross the road will achieve his desire. So S helps the old lady cross the road, in either case.

It should be clear that - despite the identical consequences - these are two quite distinct motivations driving S's actions, and either case is possible. Contra GeniusNZ's comment, the most simple explanation is to take this result at face value, and recognise that not all desires are selfish. The sort of "reduction" he seems to have in mind would require denying the very possibility of other-regarding desires, suggesting instead that we "really" just desire warm fuzzy feelings, and use helping other people as a means to that end.

I find such a "reduction" completely unmotivated. It involves rejecting our common-sense understanding of human action, and implies that we are engaged in massive self-deception. Further, it conflicts with the thought-experiments described in my desire-fulfillment post, which demonstrate that we sometimes care more about how other people really are than how we think they are (and therefore how we feel about it). The results of such thought-experiments seem inconsistent with the idea that what we "really" desire is just our own pleasure.

I don't see that anything is gained by denying the existence of other-regarding desires - certainly nothing that can counterbalance the costs of such a revisionary theory! So why the perverse insistence that everyone is (deep down, "really") selfish? Such a position strikes me as silly and entirely unmotivated. But maybe someone else can explain what I'm missing here...

A couple of clarifications are in order. Firstly, we might desire something merely as a means to fulfilling another desire - lets call the former an 'instrumental' desire. Compare this to 'intrinsic' desires, the content of which we see as an end-in-itself, to be fulfilled for its own sake, not for any derivative purpose. The difference here can be highlighted by considering a counterfactual: Suppose you could attain everything else you wanted (e.g. warm fuzzy feelings, etc.), would you still want to fulfill the present desire? If so, then it is intrinsic.

Psychological egoists claim (in effect) that we have no intrinsic other-regarding desires. Whenever it seems like we want to help someone else, our "real" aim is to make ourselves feel better (or whatever). I think this claim is absurd. I see no reason at all to doubt the possibility of intrinsic other-regarding desires, and hence the possibility of altruism.

Secondly, many people seem a bit confused by the teleological metaphors used by evolutionary theory (e.g. 'selfish' genes 'aiming' to replicate themselves), and have conflated the distinct concepts of biological and psychological selfishness. For example, after a good discussion of how 'selfish' genes could give rise to altruistic behaviour, No Right Turn writes:
So according to biologists, we're not really altruistic. All that money is being contributed not because we genuinely care for the victims of the tsunami, but because we expect them to one day pay us back.

The problem with this is that selfishness and altruism (as used in the present discussion) are psychological categories, and so are beyond the expertise of biologists. (One might as well ask a physicist: he could tell us that atoms aren't selfish, but that doesn't imply anything about the properties of higher-level entities.)

Biological altruism is improving another organism's survival chances at the expense of your own. Such behaviour undeniably exists. Moreover, it can be explained by appeal to purely 'selfish' genes. So we might say, speaking loosely, from the gene's 'point of view', that organisms "behave altruistically, but from selfish motives". For the sake of conceptual clarity, it is critical that one realises such 'loose talk' is not meant literally. 'Motive' is a psychological category. Genes don't really have minds. Hence, any literal attribution of motives to genes would be a category error.

Now consider psychological altruism - the original topic of this post. We might characterise this as being motivated to help other people. This matter is entirely independent of biological and genetic altruism. Selfish genes might build altruistic minds, and that's no disgrace for the latter. One must be careful not to confuse our psychological motivations (i.e. desires) with the metaphorical analogues we attribute to genes. We (qua psychological agents) might act from genuinely altruistic motives, despite the ultimate explanation for both the behaviour and the motives being found in our 'selfish' genes.

So biologists cannot disprove altruism after all, because we're talking about two completely different things. Kind-hearted people donate aid because they really do care (at least some of them). Their genes might not care, but as only a fool would identify himself with his genes, I don't see that we have any problem here.

[15 Jan: First section edited significantly to improve clarity.]


  1. I think the difference here is that you want to define a selfless act in an external way. Ie "somthing that has a rewarding feeling but helps others" is selfless.

    I find that rather unsatisfying because it is rather like saying "there are two types of walking walking when you go uphill and walking when you go down hill". (or worse yet "where you INTEND to walk down the hill") That seperation does not seem to add value.

    while it may be simple (as in saving our brain power simple) to take such comments at face value it is not simpler in theory. in the same way as E=mc2 is simple in theory but just saying "a spade is a spade" is "simpler".

    so you can say
    >all this requires is that your other-regarding desires are stronger than your self-regarding desire.

    I don't dispute that you could define certain desires as "other regarding" because they tend to result in others being better off or attempts to make others better off, and then declare you have observed the effect above, but your conclusion is directly defined by your assumption. We could equally discuss up hill desires and down hill desires as fundimentally different.

    > It involves rejecting our common-sense understanding of human action.

    common sense is good for proposing potential solutions but they should then face the rigours of scientific debate jsut like any other idea.

    > and implies that we are engaged in massive self-deception.

    But we are! Self deception is postively rampant in human society.

    > we (at least sometimes) care more about how other people really are than how we think they are.

    Now the first think is that I accept we do not rationally react to these desires.
    For example we cannot weigh up reward now and reward in the future in a “fair” manner.
    A person who made the decision to not have his family killed and then think that they were is making a decision similar to an overweight prson who cannot exercise. They desire to be fit but they cannot bring themselves to do it becaue the benefit is in the future but the pain is immediate.
    Anyway the person cannot properly internalize the concept of "not knowing".
    Similarly we don’t weigh up the welfare of others in a fair manner ie we tend to prefer those who are most likely to effect us (relitives etc) to those who are less likely to (eg starving sudanese) often it requries a mental trick (like imagining them as your own children) to start getting worried about the far off people.

    None of this changes the fact that we SHOULD see saving the family as the right decision even if it is irrational and punish the man if we found that he took the other option

    > I don't see that anything is gained by denying the existence of other-regarding desires

    just insight – in a sense nothing is gained from philosophy at all one could argue maximum utility would be achieved by making philosophy illegal and replacing it with a perscribed text designed to achieve utility maximization.

    > Certainly nothing that can counterbalance the costs of such a revisionary theory!

    Ahh I see you are saying that it has a social cost for example in the same way that studying racial differences could have a social cost.

    i can see that argument as indicated above but from my point of view knowing that peopel are selfish does not make any difference at all to the moral aspects of your more liberal definition of selfishness. For example if I meet an altruistic person the fact that I might see that as somthing "programed into his brain" or "as a result of his mother" does not change the fact that i want to associate myself with such a generous individual and reciprocate his generocity.

    From societies point of view it may matter (I am not sure) but as noted above the same logic could be used to outlaw philosophy all together. I prefer to deny self deception on principle even if that in itself seems to reflect a little self deception itself.

    Posted by geniusNZ

  2. No, I meant philosophical cost, not social cost. (I thought that was clear from the previous paragraph.) Trying to redefine all human action into a selfish mould prevents us from making important and worthwhile distinctions, of the sort I described at the start of the post. What "insight" is gained by doing this?

    Incidentally, denying other-regarding desires does not in any way encourage theoretical simplicity. At the core of the theory, there just are desires. As you note, 'self-regarding' and 'other-regarding' desires are not two completely distinct theoretical entities, but simply a semantic distinction we can make within the single entity-type of "desires". I am NOT suggesting that the two are "fundamentally different". Instead, I suggest that it is a useful distinction for us to make, given our purposes.

    (You're right that we could just as well distinguish 'uphill' from 'downhill' desires, etc, the difference of course being that we have no practical reason to do so. But it wouldn't complicate the theory at all: the theory rests on the fundamental entity of a desire with propositional content: a 'desire that P', for some proposition P. We can, on top of this, draw whatever distinctions we want based on the semantic content of P. So one shouldn't deny that the uphill/downhill distinction exists - for it surely does. Instead, one should ask why anyone would bother to talk about it.)

    "'somthing that has a rewarding feeling but helps others' is selfless."

    No, it depends on the motivation. In the old lady example, (1) is selfless, whereas (2) is not. This is just what the concepts of selfishness and selflessness amount to. If you don't think these concepts have any practical value, then you don't have to talk about them. But you can't redefine them to mean something completely different from what everyone else is talking about when they use these words...

    Incidentally, I think your response to the thought-experiment is bizarre and somewhat atrocious. But we'd perhaps better continue that conversation in the relevant post... 

    Posted by Anonymous

  3. Oops, that last comment was by me (Richard), I must have forgotten to enter my name (unless the comments are playing up, I guess we'll see from whether this one works...) 

    Posted by Richard

  4. "I think it is entirely possible to help someone even though you know you won't enjoy doing so.* All this requires is that your other-regarding desires are stronger than your self-regarding desire for pleasure. I see no reason to doubt the possibility of that."

    This is my personal experience: If I donate blood it's because I'm feeling guilty and I don't like feeing guilty - so I do it to improve the way I feel... even though I know I'm not going to 'enjoy' it. Therefore I consider it self-regarding and only incidentally other-regarding.

    'All this requires is that your other-regarding desires are stronger than your self-regarding desire for pleasure.'

    I consider my 'other-regarding desires' to manifest in the form of 'guilt' and 'feeling sorry for'. 'Guilt' and 'feeling sorry for' I find unpleasant, therefore they're self-regarding and only incidentally other-regarding.

    I don't accept that S can 'just' desire that the old lady gets across the road safely - in the same way that I don't accept that we can 'just' desire ice-cream. If I'm in a hurry, I might think that I desire to get the old lady across the road, but if i have time to stop and think, i realise that I desire to relieve a feeling that I find unpleasant - probably anxiety.

    But that's just my personal experience.

    Your answer to Genius seems to be that you experience other-regarding desires in a way that aren't either unpleasant or pleasant. Is that correct - you experience these desires in a way that isn't what I'd call a 'feeling'?


    Posted by consciousrobot

  5. I don't buy your definition of "best interest" because I don't think you can quantify desire fulfillment, especially with a temporal aspect. However, you have previously said that it all just boils down to happiness, and so why not define best interest rather as the area under a happiness graph over time? That way it's easy - if altruism makes you happy, then you will behave altruistically. Altruism can then be easily defined as the desire to sacrifice things that would otherwise make you happier to increase the happiness of another.


    Posted by Tennessee Leeuwenburg

  6. "you have previously said that it all just boils down to happiness"

    Where did I say that? My previous posts were supposed to be arguing against a hedonistic view of welfare.

    But I don't see why quantifying the strength of desires should be any more difficult than quantifying happiness (which is not exactly easy). You're most welcome to explain your objection in more detail in the comments of my 'flourishing' post (where 'best interest' is the central topic).

    CR - I'm not entirely sure, it's difficult to isolate a single desire from experience in this way. They're usually accompanied by emotions, as you note, but I don't see any reason to doubt that the alternative is at least possible. And even if it's not, there's the points I raised in the asterisked section...

    What I do disagree with is any suggestion that my reasons for acting must always be self-regarding ones:

    "I don't accept that S can 'just' desire that the old lady gets across the road safely"

    Why not? You can clearly 'just' desire that you not feel guilty/anxious/whatever. What's the difference? You're going to need to provide an explanation for why (genuine) other-regarding desires are impossible. BDI theory offers a very general framework for us to work within here: we can have a 'desire that P' for any proposition P whatsoever. Now, any alternative theory that instead limits the possible contents of P is thereby complicating itself (GeniusNZ, take note). To my mind, such complications are unnecessary. Do you disagree? 

    Posted by Richard

  7. So why the perverse insistence that everyone is (deep down, "really") selfish?Perhaps what the ‘perverse’ are insisting is not that ‘in fact’ all actions are selfish, but that all actions can be reducible to self-fulfilling motivations. “What "insight" is gained by doing this?” this is a very good question and one I think I will go into more depth at my blog.Loving wife Jane, prepares and cooks dinner for Harry every night. Ostensibly there are many desires being acted upon here, self-regarding and other-regarding.
    Jane wishes to please Harry
    Jane wishes to be praised by Harry
    Jane wishes to feed Harry
    Jane wishes to feed herself. Etc.

    Now all of these are consistent with her actions and there is know way of identifying which one is the ‘real’ motivation. I agree with Conscious Robot in suggesting that we cannot simply isolate desires ‘A’ & ‘B’. I also think it is odd that CR could go his whole life donating blood for (what appear to him as) selfish reasons and thus be acting selfishly even though non-one else in his life (unless he told) would regard him so.

    I think that it is fruitless to attempt to extract the ‘real’ motivation due to the subjectivity of the subject, however we might deem as our goal some level of incisiveness. That is, Richard you seem to reject the reduction to selfishness because it offers no insights. I would argue the opposite.

    We can suppose that Jane really does care about Harry more than herself and that whilst she benefits from cooking the meals, here actions really are selfless. But to my mind all this does is paint a very romantic and rosy picture of Jane. So let’s take the other tact, suppose there is something even more selfish underlying her actions, we interview Jane and we discover that her last memory of her father was at dinner, before he died when she was six. Now Jane cooks every meal in the subconscious hope that she will please her father so he won’t abandon her.

    Certainly here we may benefit from the incisiveness of the model. I suggest this not as a whacky psychobabble example without philosophical merit, but even if this is without philosophical method I have applied this model to my own life and seen it applied to others and witnessed the benefits of the results.

    I think that if we “redefine all human action into a selfish mould” we would be unable to make worthwhile distinctions, part of my says that this is right that we should be able to distinguish and praise those people genuinely motivated by altruistic desires. Another part of me suggests that the genesis of those altruistic desires may well be selfish ones. I think that it is probably only worthwhile crediting people with altruism by means of action, (this is all we can judge them on anyway) CR gets points because he donates blood to the benefit of others, regardless of what he might be telling himself about it.

    It involves rejecting our common-sense understanding of human action, and implies that we are engaged in massive self-deception.Definitely, why would you suppose that common-sense understanding of the human mind in reference to how we act just happens to be the best and most accurate model. 

    Posted by Illusive Mind

  8. You're right, I wasn't accurate about the happiness thing - you describe a desire as being some kind of will-to-pleasure (if you will) but do make it clear that happiness is not the goal.

    I still like my definition of altruism as the desire to sacrifice things that would otherwise best fulfil your desires in order to fulfil the desires of another.


    Posted by Tennessee Leeuwenburg

  9. "my definition of altruism as the desire to sacrifice things that would otherwise best fulfil your desires in order to fulfil the desires of another"

    Yes, that sounds good to me too.

    IM - you're certainly right that sometimes the selfish description will be more accurate and incisive. My problem is with assuming that this is always so.

    "the genesis of those altruistic desires may well be selfish ones"

    I think what really matters here is whether the (apparent) altruistic desires are now self-standing. By 'self-standing' I mean that we do not require the positive feelings (e.g. pride, relief of guilt, etc) in order to retain the desire. Suppose you could feel just as warm and fuzzy via some other means. Would you continue to have the original altruistic desire? If so, I say it counts as a genuine ('self-standing') one. If not, it is a mere means to your own self-satisfaction, and not truly considered by you as an end-in-itself.

    My claim then, is that it is possible for us to have self-standing other-regarding desires. It is possible for us to consider the welfare of others as an end-in-itself, and not merely (even though it may be additionally) a means to our own happiness.

    "why would you suppose that common-sense..."

    All else being equal, it counts against a theory if it is counter-intuitive. Similarly if it implies that most of our beliefs are false, that we are engaged in massive self-deception, etc. This isn't a decisive objection, of course, but such uncharitibility does count against a theory. (The Brain-in-a-Vat hypothesis can account for all the data, but we reject it because it implies that all our common-sense beliefs are false. Simple realism is an alternative theory that serves much better in this regard. I have two hands, and I have other-regarding desires. We prefer theories that don't contradict these core beliefs.) So the onus is on the theory's proponent to show there is some advantage which makes this cost worth bearing. 

    Posted by Richard

  10. Your own definitions hold the path to the answer you seek. By making desires non-homogenous - viz rejecting the happiness hypothesis - you can simply say that the altruism desire is a motivation of itself, and is of different kind to other desires.

    Oh, that's exactly what you say in the next sentence.

    I think it's clearly true from introspection that the fulfilment of different desires feels different. Perhaps, that is how we distinguish them?


    Posted by Tennessee Leeuwenburg

  11. Hey man, it's Zane. I wish you'd posted this a little earlier, I
    remember trying to come up with words to describe this exact concept
    during a Philosophy tut earlier this year. 

    Posted by Mea Culpa

  12. Richard, I accept your point. It’s ‘possible’ that one could ‘just’ have a desire to help an old lady across the road without emotion attached. However, I don’t think it’s very likely.
    I have (from my personal experience) no doubts that ‘how I feel’ is ultimately controlling my goals – only the detail is ever unemotional or ‘intellectual’. So, if I were a ‘lollipop lady’ and my job were to help old ladies across roads, I’d probably do most of them without ‘feeling’ about it.
    But given that I’ve never in my life helped an old lady across a road, I’m pretty convinced that if I ever do it’s going to be a pretty emotional moment.

    Posted by conscious robot

  13. >Instead, I suggest that it is a useful distinction for us to make, given our purposes.

    I think our two arguments are despite their aparent contradiction able to live side by side.
    But I think it is important to note that it may well be that they reduce to each other - because while we often make false assumptions for various purposes - it is useful to know exactly what those assumptions are becaue they may well lead directly to the conclusions. If so we can only check back to see if this has happened if we understand those assumptions. Your position on your blog however gives the impression you want to reject the reduction hypothesis as opposed to just use your own for your own purposes.

    Besides that Illusive Mind said it all.
    Then using Tennessee Leeuwenburg's definition of altruism we can have a practical model for how to look at people philosophically even though we may KNOW that CR's logic is behind it.

    > Would you continue to have the original altruistic desire?

    Again I wil probably look deeper than you care to look.

    every desire I know if "lingers" you will continue acting to do things even after you are no longer geting the brain chemical reward. Do we accept this?

    Some might term this a "not changing the way of doing things" reward. and still see it as a reward (or at least an avoidance of punishment)

    but if you dont do that you can create a third catagory terming some desires neither self regarding NOR other regarding in that they are just "lingering" desires.

    > but we reject it because it implies that all our common-sense beliefs are false.

    I thought we rejected it because of occam's razor 

    Posted by GeniusNz

  14. I managed to get through the previous comments without mentioning evolution, but it was possibly the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. All good things come to an end, however, so here goes:

    "Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof" - why I assume all behaviour is selfish until proved otherwise:

    The magician James Randi offers a US$1 million prize to anyone who can demonstrate paranormal powers under scientific conditions. He says that if an event appears to defy the known laws of physics/science we must assume it to be untrue unless we have overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

    ‘Every action is selfish’ is the ‘ordinary’ explanation provided by science – it is the most likely explanation. Genuine altruism is a considerably less-likely explanation and therefore requires extraordinary proof.

    We would always look to ascribe a ‘selfish gene’ explanation to any (non-human) animal behaviour – so what gives us the right to ascribe ‘genuine altruism’ to human behaviour? Gouldian spandrels are only used to explain occurrences for which there is no apparent ‘natural selection’ advantage. So given that all human behaviour can comfortably be ascribed ‘selfish gene’ motivations, shouldn’t ‘selfish’ be our assumption?

    Sure, genuine altruism is a ‘possibility’ given the observed evidence… but ‘possibility’ isn’t good enough in this case. We must assume the action to be selfish unless we're unable to suggest a selfish explanation for it.

    So how does this impact on your definitions? “These definitions make it clear that if you genuinely want to help other people, then acting on that desire is selfless, not selfish.” We must assume, if we follow the ‘most likely assumption’, that helping other people is only a means to an end. Humans work together, just like ants and vampire bats do. Each individual is required to make a contribution to others, in return for which he gets reciprocal help.
    He is described as ‘selfish’ if he is regarded by others as receiving more than he gives, and ‘selfless’ if the opposite appears to be true. If I were to attempt to enhance your definitions, I’d imagine I were describing the behaviour of vampire bats rather than humans.

    Posted by conscious robot

  15. from the other thread

    You talk about these

    i) S is motivated to do those things (and only those things) that are good for S.
    ii) S's pleasure (and only S's pleasure) is good for S.

    1) "S desires P" means that S is motivated to make P true (ceteris paribus).
    2) S is well-off to the extent that S's desires are fulfilled.


    You note that achieving Not P and still enjoying it is probably a result of achieving a further goal (Q).
    Now this is true but then one could equally say a desire tp achieve P is actually a desire to achieve R,S and T.
    P has just become seen as a required step and at some point that assumption is made without thinking.

    In fact one might say this is ALWAYS true. In essance your answer to the question is the same sort of deeper analysis that CR and I are doing resorting to root causes and effects as opposed to perception. 

    Posted by geniusNZ

  16. Hey Zane, good to hear from ya! I didn't know you have a blog - do you plan to write about philosophy there at all?

    GeniusNZ - The desires you describe as 'required steps' are simply the opposite of what I called 'self-standing' desires. Both are possible.

    Just to clarify: those four claims come from the 'flourishing' thread, wherein I accept (1) & (2) but reject (i) and (ii).

    CR - You're equivocating between biological and psychological selfishness. These ought not be confused. Genes are 'selfish' only in a metaphorical sense, in that we can understand them as if they were aiming to reproduce themselves. But of course they don't really have minds and so cannot really 'aim' at anything, nor be 'selfish' in doing so.

    Biologically 'selfish' genes can create psychologically (and genuinely) altruistic minds, if such altruism would tend to help those genes. (Think of kin selection, reciprocal altruism, etc.) See also the points raised in Genes, Brains, and Behaviour

    Posted by Richard

  17. No, no philosophy at my blog, at least, not in prose form. Poems and pictures mostly, might rant about America, or pot if I feel the need :) 

    Posted by Mea Culpa

  18. I think you would enjoy reading "The Meme Machine" by Dr Susan Blackmore. It deals with the exact problem you are mentioning, and gives a very good solution with the meme theory.

    Here is an introductory article on memes: 

    Posted by Doug

  19. "Biologically 'selfish' genes can create psychologically (and genuinely) altruistic minds, if such altruism would tend to help those genes.""

    It seems like you might be agreeing with me here, but I'd better check: are you saying that all human behaviour should be assumed to be the result of natural selection until proven otherwise?

    If not:

    "Genes are 'selfish' only in a metaphorical sense, in that we can understand them as if they were aiming to reproduce themselves. But of course they don't really have minds and so cannot really 'aim' at anything, nor be 'selfish' in doing so."

    Richard, I don't accept this difference between genes and the human mind - they're both chemical reactions and hence the same language can be used.
    Do you accept that nothing inside a human being can happen without a chemical reaction taking place? Do you accept that thoughts and desires could not happen without movements or alterations of electrons/atoms/molecules in a manner that would be accepted as 'normal' by a biochemist?
    If so, why do you find it so easy to separate gene behaviour from human behaviour? Gene behaviour can be entirely explained by chemical reactions... but it seems to your mind that human behaviour doesn't follow the same rules and therefore you can talk about 'psychological selfishness' being different from 'gene selfishness'. Surely we only need a 'psychological' explanation to keep us going until we've understood the chemical explanation. 100 years ago we knew vaguely that kidneys 'cleaned the blood'. Now we can explain precisely why (emphasis on 'why' not just how) a kidney cleans the blood in terms of chemical reactions. Currently we can't explain the chemical reactions involved when someone decides to help an old lady across the road. But this is surely just a matter of time.

    Note the use of 'why' kidneys clean the blood. Kidneys clean the blood because chemical reactions (and diffusion etc) take place when
    blood passes through a kidney. There is no choice for a kidney because chemical reactions don't involve choice, they are condemned to happen, they are automatic. When blood passes through a kidney, the resulting separation of urea is as automatic as an apple falling to the ground when its stem weakens.

    So when we understand the chemistry of the apparent 'choice' of whether to help a lady across the road, we'll know 'why' it happens. And the 'why' will be - 'because that's the way chemical reactions in the brain automatically happen given the way those particular light waves hit the retina'.

    When we ask the question 'how come all these chemical reactions took place to create a kidney that functions to clean the blood' we answer 'natural selection'.
    When we ask the question 'how come all these chemical reactions took place to create a human brain that helps old ladies across the road' our first assumption must also be 'natural selection'.


    Posted by conscious robot

  20. "are you saying that all human behaviour should be assumed to be the result of natural selection"

    No - note that I said 'if', not 'only if'. That is, I was pointing out one possible source of altruism, not necessarily the only source.

    "I don't accept this difference between genes and the human mind - they're both chemical reactions and hence the same language can be used."

    That's a bit ridiculous. The patterns exhibited on the psychological level differ significantly from those on the physical level. (This general issue is an interesting topic in its own right; I'll post about it in more detail soon.) Compare: "Plants photosynthesise. Plants and rocks are both made of atoms. Therefore rocks photosynthesise." No, there are significant differences between minds and genes, such that psychological terms can only be properly attributed to the former. I'm a physicalist, but it doesn't follow that all physical systems can be described with the same terms.

    But we're getting a bit off-topic here. The important point is that psychological and biological 'selfishness' are two distinct concepts - and we are only concerned with the former here. This should be clear from the definitions offered above, i.e. selfishness = "an inappropriate disregard for others" - this is a question of psychological motivation, and doesn't imply anything at all about whether the resultant behaviour is likely to benefit one's genes or not. That simply isn't relevant to assessing this matter. 

    Posted by Richard

  21. You are right that
    selfishness = "an inappropriate disregard for others"
    resuts upon the definition of "appropriate" as long as you define that as "appropriate by my moral standards" then genes have nothing to say about it because your moral standards (or mine) ae not physical things in the world that genes could take cues from.

    I wonder what you plan on doing with these definitions though that makes them so useful. a key problem is the "first you save yourself then you save the world" (quoting form a song) issue continuing "it doesnt help us very much if you throw the line to someone else".

    Excessive amounts of altruism may be bad - in fact a strong capitalist might argue that all but the smallest amounts of altruism (in specific situations) are bad. And the above examples of extreem altruism are obviously ridiculous (in fact worse than evil selfishness) because everyone would drown while throwing the line to each-other (and generally driving each other insane).

    So arbitrarily defining altruism as good seems flawed.
    The question then is - is utalitarianism altruism? what about socialism? is that a better form of altruism? what if you are a poor socialist?

    Anyway sumarising the other argument which skips the moral side..

    genes are "selfish"
    in general genes "effectively" identify their survival with the human host
    genes control the human host
    thus genes make the human host selfish.

    But obviously that does not stop other effects - In addition there are a number of others - these are
    the meme effect as noted by Doug
    the general benefits of sharing (evolutionary psychology)
    the desire hang over effect as I noted
    spandrel effects as CR noted
    and just random mutations.

    All of which are then moderated by genes but are also "default facts of the universe" (ie a gene would generally have to go to a specific "effort" to resolve the issue).

    It seems you are very eager NOT to use biology as a solution in psychology. Personally I see this as a great weakness in psychological research probably a result of people trying to protect their turf. It is lucky chemists do not seem to see physists in the same way.

    When one learns about plants one talks about photosynthesis and nowadays one learns the chemical reactions and when one learns about the chemical reactiosn one learns about the electrons and basic physics of it, with things like entropy in mind (using potential energy and turning it into heat). One does not have to talk about entropy when discussing the growth of plants but the chain of logic is possible to follow most of the way - even in a childrens text book. 

    Posted by GeniusNZ

  22. Genes build the human host, they do not control it! (See genes, brains & behaviour.)

    More importantly still, you are conflating two distinct concepts of 'selfishness' - see yesterday's update to the main post.

    It's not that I have anything against biology - quite the opposite in fact (after scoring top in the country in the NZEST scholarship exams for the subject, I'm rather fond of it)! But biological concepts are distinct from psychological ones - they mean different things - so it would lead to conceptual confusion were we to conflate them. 

    Posted by Richard

  23. Congradulations :)

    OK well then what about the other part of the discussion - what exactly are you gaining by describing them in a philosophical manner? (I say philosophical because so far it seems more philosophical than psychological).

    In fact - regarding the above - you might need to be clearer in order to prevent me from thinking you are conflating two distinct concepts of selfishness yourself.

    maybe we should start using a "mirror neuron" definition of selfishness? Or look at the methods one uses to trick oneself into being selfless etc......

    even at the philosophical level I am concerned by hte internal and externally evaluated versions of altruism - if we are planning on using it as a moral tool. 

    Posted by GeniusNZ

  24. selfishness = "an inappropriate disregard for others"Who decides the level of inappropriateness? I think that this definition is a good one because it illustrates the subjectivity of selfishness and by extension altruism.

    It is on par with "Good" and "Bad", in the sense that the 'objective' observer is appealing to some moral standard of what actions constitute an appropriate respect for others. Then a social consensus is reached which dictates the social norms of acceptable behavior.

    It is ok to buy your kids MP3 players whilst not donating money to starving children who are not yours. It is ok to leave your neighbors to be depressed and suicidal because you are respecting their privacy. In larger communities we create these 'force-fields' of selfishness so that we can co-exist with massive amounts of people in a small space, in a small town this does not apply.

    The point is, their is no good way to objectively measure selfishness because it requires appealing to non-objective principles. I remember reading about a case where a man was sued for not jumping into a pool to save his neighbor’s son, whom he could clearly see was drowning. His defense was that it was not his responsibility. The court rejected this.

    Who knows in a few more years this might change, and another line is drawn to what is deemed 'appropriate'. Who can say what constitutes an instance of ‘other-regarding’ desires outweighing ‘self-regarding’ ones?

    Perhaps Richard is right in that it requires relying on common sense intuitions about the subject (which I think are manipulated by social consensus), that is what bring me to this point: Common Sense 

    Posted by Illusive Mind

  25. I'm not sure why you would define self-interest in terms of desires. It just seems that someone could fail to desire their own self-interest in any way. We would consider this sort of person highly defective, but it seems like a genuine counterexample. Doesn't self-interest have to have a basis in things besides our desires anyway, because it's the most fundamental object of our desires?

    I think cases like smoking, any other addiction, bulimia, etc. are going to be problems too. I'm sure you have a response to this, along the lines of weighting desires for damaging things as less then desires for health, longer life, etc., but that just seems wrong to me. The desire for the cigarette or to binge and purge is stronger than all the other desires combined, or it wouldn't win out. 

    Posted by Jeremy Pierce

  26. Jeremy,
    The desire-fulfillment theory of self-interest was discussed in more detail back in my 'flourishing' post. So I've briefly responded in a comment over there. (Hope you don't mind.) 

    Posted by Richard

  27. Hey Richard,

    I've come across what I regard as the most sensible definition of altruism in the philosophical literature.

    It is in reference to the debate over the evolution of altruistic behviour.

    Altruism can simply be considered as the actions or bahviour of an organism that promote the interests of another to the apparent detriment of their own interests.

    Whether or not they have certain desires or interests that are fufilled by the act is irrelevant. A mother who sacrifices her life or her food for her children is performing an altruistic act, even if it may be in her interests for her children to survive.

  28. Yeah, I discussed biological altruism in the latter section of the main post.

  29. But I don't understand how you are seperating the motivations of my behaviour from my genes and some other place, perhaps reason?

    I only ask because I'm studying the very same problem.

  30. selflessness & true happiness

  31. Richard, I've only now come across your arguments here for selflessness, and do believe your comments here are like a vigorous attempt to explain, say, why a blue cube isn't really a blue cube.
    It seems obviously irrefutable that every action we take is intended to produce good feelings, as opposed to bad ones, relatively speaking. None of the examples you've provided show otherwise.

    Hang tight.

  32. . - Tina Teodoro, Christina Tintin Jorge Teodoro

  33. I agree that selfless/altruistic action is likely prompted by the desire to help one's self feel better in some way (relieve anxiety for example) However, I think that is the important part that people here are missing. What matters is THAT the selfless act relieves anxiety for the subject. Instead of laughing at the old lady having trouble crossing the street, a selfless or empathetic person's response is a desire to help.

    Because this helping brings good feelings to the individual, the behavior is reinforced. This is a healthy response and should not be labeled "selfish" if for no other reason than to avoid confusion of what really is selfish - the disregard of others.


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