Monday, 8 July 2019

Altruism: Is It Real?

Painting by Jacques-Louis David (1781) depicting ‘Belisarius Begging for Alms’

Posted by Keith Tidman

A car is turned over, set ablaze. A passerby spots the driver still trapped inside. The driver has little time left, soon to be engulfed by the flames. The passerby sprints, from amidst onlookers, to the fiery wreck, managing to pull the driver out to safety but at his own grave peril. The ‘good Samaritan’ waits for the first responders to arrive, while comforting the semiconscious driver, and then leaves without giving his name or waiting for a thank-you.

Were the actions of the passerby those of altruism? Most people would immediately answer that question affirmatively. After all, the passerby selflessly put himself at risk, to aid a stranger. He seemed to disregard his own welfare. There was no expectation of reward or adulation or reciprocity. And he could just as readily have stood impassively watching or gone on his way to office or home, as everyone else was doing. Still, might the passerby’s self-interested motivation and intent have been as simple and basic as feeling good about having performed the deed? Or might the passerby’s actions have been prompted irresistibly by instinct, based on his brain’s physiology? Or is yet another explanation plausible?

Some people deny that altruism exists at all. Altruism is impossible, they say. They contend that all actions are taken solely to satisfy some selfish need or urge, and that the fact such actions might benefit someone else is incidental — or at least self-serving. The philosopher Ayn Rand starkly warned against what she saw, in fact, as the purported deceit of altruism: ‘If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that people have to reject’.

One name for such beliefs is ‘psychological egoism’: the view that deep down, people are always motivated by what they perceive to be in their own self-interest. That is, voluntarily helping others is only a subsidiary consequence of actions taken, where assistance rendered is impelled singularly by wanting to benefit ourselves. We relish feeling the glow of doing good. This overriding self-interest remains valid even when the actions taken might be accompanied by detriment to the doer, divorced from the urge to ‘help’. In short, no acts, it is thought, are designed solely to benefit someone else. There’s always the sense of gratification for having helped. It’s an unflattering explanation of human nature and behaviour.

Against this, other people subscribe to so-called ‘pure’ or ‘strong’ altruism’. This is a model of behaviour where acts of altruism are wholly selfless, undertaken uniquely to benefit someone else. There is no expectation of either an intrinsic or extrinsic reward, or of personal gratification. That is, every ‘good deed’ — including those where there’s a noble sacrifice (possibly even injury or death to the doer) — is unswervingly motivated by the desire to be of service to others. Martin Luther King’s words capture these sentiments, when he talks of the choice between ‘walking in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness’. A recent real-life example of self-sacrificial altruism was of a university professor who, losing his life in the process, blocked the door to his classroom in order to shield his students from the bullets of a rampaging shooter.

However, one characterisation of selflessness centers on utilitarian ideas about individuals deferring dispassionately to bettering the welfare of others, in the process, resisting their own self-interested wants and urgings. The definition of ‘others’ in this case may range from a single individual to family members, friends, associates, or larger community (the collective), importantly including people we don’t know and never will. It’s a more logic-based approach to supporting others’ wellbeing. Another approach centers on sympathy and kindheartedness, correlated to an intense response to the suffering and misfortune of others. Although there may always be the prospect of self-gain, here aiding others is based more in sentiment than reason, and hinges on the specialness of human connections. The 18th-century English philosopher Joseph Butler nicely parses this point about the balance between self-gain and selflessness, observing that: 
‘The satisfaction that accompanies good acts is itself not the motivation of the act; satisfaction is not the motive, but only the consequence.’
Thus far I have focused on ‘psychological altruism’, involving prosocial, empathic, compassionate behaviours such as providing aid and comfort in order to alleviate another person’s or a group’s suffering. Especially a total stranger’s woe, rather than the presumably simpler case of a relative’s or friend’s anguish. Taking in a migrant family, with no expected reward, is one example of this type of aid; volunteering as a doctor or nurse to work, say, in a remotely located Ebola or HIV treatment facility might be another. However, there may be at least another explanation for fathoming the human facility for altruistic deeds: the physiology of an individual’s brain.

Recent research, using brain imaging, claims to have found that those people with little to no empathy, compassion, or ability to recognize cues of others’ distress tend to have smaller-than-average amygdala regions. The worst-case example being psychopathy, resulting in those with this condition to act callously, insensitively, and disinterested in others’ welfare. People thus afflicted thereby are often unable to recognize others’ fear. In contrast, highly altruistic people tend to have amygdalas that are larger and more reactive than average. This kind of explanation in which ‘mind’ is reduced to ‘matter’ does, of course, bring into question whether free agency is essential to altruism. In the case of our hypothetical passerby, the one who rescues the driver from the burning car, it’s assumed that his amygdala would have had these same features. In this same vein, the affection people generally feel for their own children, along with a deep motivation to protect and do good for them, may seem to be ‘hard-wired’, further pointing to the role of brain physiology in altruism. This extends beyond just gene survival and evolutionary purposes.

Sigmund Freud pointed out that our motives, and the motives of others, are often veiled, and that we are in fact driven by parts of our minds that have agenda of which we are unaware. Perhaps, therefore, the difference between ‘pure altruism’ (if attainable) and what we might call ‘everyday altruism’ is more one of language and semantics, with little to no practical consequence as to the reality of altruism and beneficial outcomes.


docmartincohen said...

Yes, I think Keith not only touches on some key issues here but also sheds helpful light on them. The old story of people enjoying doing good has always annoyed me... surely it is an unhelpful myth. In most people's experience we wil have done "the right thing" often through gritted teeth - perhaps a humdrum act to help someone when we would rather have been doing something else, or even doing nothing - but it is not the sense of virtuousness that drove the act, rather the sense of duty.

Tessa den Uyl said...

Just wondering, is baking somebody’s favorite apple pie an altruistic act?

And if someone is drowning, I hope I will not be one of those standing and look. But one doesn’t know the reaction until it’s happening. And I do not think that one is considering to be doing good or not in such a moment, that an impulse guides you rather than morals?

Wasps and bees come to help and defend each other when one is threatened. Gazelles do not. Perhaps human being has evolved in distinct actions to what is perceived as the survival of the species? (If this might be a rather unconscious perception, altruism might very well be one of it).

Keith said...

You ask, Tessa, ‘Is baking somebody’s favorite apple pie an altruistic act?’

In everyday parlance, yes. And for all practical purposes, yes. And insofar as we usually care to consider the matter, yes. And per everyday behavioural norms, yes. That is to say, in this particular instance, what I’d call the ‘everydayness’ manifestation of altruism suffices in our thinking of baking a pie for someone else, measured in terms of the presumed kindness or thoughtfulness or generosity or considerateness of the act.

Yet, I suggest that the person baking the pie may also have satisfied his or her own sense of feeling good about the deed — scratching the instinctive, natural itch for self-gratification. The issue goes to the heart of the point I made in the essay that there’s an arguable difference between ‘pure altruism’ (also called ‘strong altruism’) — that is, no aspect of self-gratification — and ‘everyday altruism’ —that is, some concomitant benefit to the giver. Doing good feels good, no?

Louis P Solomon said...

Very well written and focused. I enjoyed it.

Keith said...

Thank you, Louis!

Keith said...

‘Wasps and bees come to help and defend each other when one is threatened. Gazelles do not. Perhaps human being has evolved in distinct actions to what is perceived as the survival of the species?’ I agree, Tessa — assuming you’re right about wasp/bee behaviour and gazelle behaviour. Even though wasps/bees and gazelles ostensibly behave very differently in the face of a group threat, both species are arguably strictly behaving in accordance with their particular DNA, I would propose. In other words, neither wasps/bees nor gazelles can choose to behave differently. Perhaps, as you say, both behaviours are geared toward survival — of the individual and of the species.

Therefore, I wonder if, in like fashion, human behaviour also stems from our species’ DNA. Sure, we have much, much higher cognition, and our genes may get ‘expressed’ very differently and in vastly more complex ways, than in the case of wasps/bees and gazelles; however, perhaps the process still boils down to DNA being at the core of behaviour. If so, might we conclude that a particular human behaviour like altruism is likewise baked into our biology? And if so, might we conclude that altruism satisfies an incontrovertible genetic need, over which we have little (or no) free agency? And if so, might we conclude that that need includes the urge for self-gratification derived from acts that benefit others?

Tessa den Uyl said...

I would put it as a thought without drawing conclusions for the idea of altruism is within itself, for human being, a clear distinction about morals. And from that point of view, personally, I do not think good people exist.

On the one hand it might be possible there is some genetic coding in regard though wonder if altruism is the correct word to define that. On the other, what the word implies is depending on many things, like geographic location, education etc. Then the question more becomes like: why is there need of the thought regarding good actions, or good people?

Keith said...

‘Why is there need of the thought regarding good actions, or good people?’ This is an intriguing question, Tessa. If I interpret your question correctly, you’re wondering what the need is, if any, for judging human behaviours — and by extension, people — on the basis of the behaviours’ morality. At an extraordinarily fundamental level, this point seems to question whether people’s (and their cultures’) philosophies of morality are even needed, while still allowing for civilisation to survive and thrive. A captivating notion. Do you go so far as to entertain the possibility of cultures dismissing, as unnecessary, all philosophies of ethics? If so, do you believe civilisation could still flourish in the absence of judgments about right and wrong? What might be the spillover for society, such as in the realms of legal systems, religions, constitutions/charters, national and international policy, and so forth that depend at least in part on an overlaying of norms, creeds, and moral codes? Might you expand your thinking on all this a little, Tessa?

Martin Cohen said...

There's a long way to go between showing that "doing good feels good" (which I argue is in itself a simplification too far) and doing good is motivated by a desire to "feel good"

Keith said...

The intention of my earlier aside — that ‘doing good feels good’ — was really so as to circle back around to ‘therefore we do good’: the former (feeling good) being, as many purport, the inspiration for the latter (doing good).

Thomas Scarborough said...

I would rather ask: sympathy, is it real? Sympathy is a sign of a broad understanding of our world. If one accepts that our behaviour is controlled by mental models, or by holding up a picture of the world to the world itself, then that picture which is more whole will lead to more holistic, rather than selfish behaviour. Such a view would further serve to reconcile our reason and our passions, in that the model we create through reason drives our behaviour.

May it not be sailing close to the wind to correlate amygdala size with 'no empathy, compassion' and so on? The journal Nature, for example, reports strong genetic influences on brain structures and regions, including the density and volume of the amygdala. How would you respond, say, to the judgement that race may reduce one's ability to recognise cues of others’ distress? In other words, make one more brutish?

Keith said...

You ask, Thomas, ‘How would you respond, say, to the judgement that race may reduce one’s ability to recognise cues of others’ distress?’ I have no information about either a causative or correlative relationship between race and aspects of altruism, like your example of ‘recognising cues of others’ distress’. Frankly, I doubt there is such a relationship. However, your question doesn’t identify the ‘doer’ here — that is, who’s rendering the ‘judgement’ about the supposed race-related link you refer to? So, for clarification, Thomas: Is the question you pose based on your own personal speculation? Or did you draw the what-if hypothesis from a peer-reviewed study by, say, geneticists, whose link you might provide readers?

Keith said...

‘I would rather ask: sympathy, is it real?’ A fair observation, Thomas. Personally, though, I view ‘sympathy’ — and, for that matter, also ‘empathy’ — as occupying niches under the larger rubric of altruism. To your implied point, however, there certainly are different ways to slice and dice this wide-ranging subject, depending on how one might choose to take a run at it.

Thomas Scarborough said...

Thank you, Keith. Research provisionally shows that amygdala size varies according to race: for example, Isamah et al. You write that the ability to recognise cues of others’ distress is related to amygdala size. My question is a philosophical one really. Does this imply that certain races are likely to be more brutish? If one says yes, one has a conflict with the ideal of racial equality. How does one then deal philosophically with the conflict? If indeed you would see a conflict. The question might be easier to answer (but not really) considering that you and I would be the more brutish ones.

Keith said...

I suspect, Thomas, that neuroscientists find the biggest — and most behaviourally consequential — variations in brain physiology are among individuals rather than among ethnicities or races. Regardless, in either case we should bear in mind how critical that variance and statistical significance are in observing such differences — something, of course, that the researchers are acutely sensitive to in venturing what might matter in studying the human population as a whole. Much, of course, remains undone, which should prove a rousing saga, as we learn more about what makes us, us.

Keith said...

As to the philosophical pieces that you hint at, Thomas: Relatedly, I’m intrigued by the far-ranging symbiosis between philosophy of the mind and neuroscience. There’s much promise in their continuing to mutually inform, I expect.

Post a Comment

Recent Comments