Monday, February 05, 2007

The Problem of Altruism

A perennial question that appears to throw up a roadblock to the possibility of ethics is a view we call psychological egoism, that is, the claim that all human actions are motivated solely from self-interest. The idea is that we can only act in such a way as to satisfy our own desires and so morality is therefore impossible.

The standard move is to point to one person doing one nice thing for someone else, say, helping the old lady across the street with her groceries, and say, “see, people are capable of acting from a rational motive other than self interest, so ethical questions are meaningful.” The psychological egoist will make the first standard move and respond that this supposedly nice act – and indeed, all supposedly nice acts – are actually self-interested in the end. They will posit something like “It makes you feel good to help someone.” Or “you were hoping she would give you some money for helping.” Or “you just wants to create a world where it is more likely that when you get old someone will help you.” By showing that any act that is supposedly done to help another also has some actual or possible benefit for the agent, the claim is that the act could not have been altruistic and so was actually motivated by self-interest.

The usual reply to this first standard move is to come up with some situation, actual or hypothetical, in which the agent truly loathes the action and/or suffers greatly as a result of it, but undertakes it out of a sense of duty. Now the old lady is known to be an aging Nazi sympathizer who spits at you the whole way across the street and accuses you of squishing her tomatoes and demands you reimburse her for them. When you refuse, because you didn’t squish her tomatoes, it only reinforces her idea that Jews are incapable, dishonorable, and cheap. Not only that, but by helping her, you missed your bus and now will be late for dinner…no fruit cup for you buddy. You knew it was the right thing to do, but it doesn’t mean you aren’t pissed about it. There was absolutely no self-interest here. You don’t feel good about having done it. You knew you were going to get nothing but grief for it and that any lasting effects would be negative reinforcement of false stereotypes.

Here we get the standard second move of the psychological egoist. “You may not think you, get a sense of satisfaction from doing the right thing, but deep down, subconsciously, you really do.” By making this clever move to the subconscious, the egoist has cut you off at the pass. You can’t wiggle out. So, is ethics dead?

Of course not. Both of the standard moves are deeply flawed. Let’s take them in the opposite order. The second move suffers from the classic problem that afflicts many universal claims about human motivation, it is unfalsifiable. For a claim about the way the world works to be meaningful, it must be possible for it to be false.

Why? Suppose you turn on your tv to catch the weather and there is staff meteorologist Steve Gimbel who claims that his forecasts are always 100% accurate. “Tomorrow,” he says, “it will rain or it won’t. Back to you Bob.” Is this report 100% accurate? Well,…yeah. It is true that it will either rain or it won’t. One of the two has to be true. But does this actually tell you anything about the weather? Do you now have any reason to believe anything about whether to bring your umbrella? No. The forecast seemed to be about the weather because it used weather words, but because it is true no matter what, it actually says nothing about the world. To make a meaningful scientific claim is to possibly be wrong.

But the second standard move makes sure that nothing you say would make the claim about acting from self-interest false. It is tucked away safe and sound where actual facts about the world can’t touch it. The contents of your supposed subconscious are constructed by the egoist in such a way that he has to be right, no matter how the world is…but that just means he isn’t really describing the world.

There is also a problem with the first standard move. The idea is to create a false dichotomy between acts that are completely self-interested and those that are completely altruistic. For virtually any nice thing you may do, it is fairly easy to construct some small advantage conveyed to the agent. Does this mean people don’t act from pure motives sometimes?

Of course, not. Just because there is some fringe benefit from an action does not mean that the acquiring of that benefit is the actual motivation for the act. This is the same move that is made in bad evolutionary arguments. Just because some feature of an organism conveys a certain advantage, either in terms of survival or attracting a mate, does not mean that the mentioned advantage is the reason it was evolutionarily selected for. Traits are often the results of complex genetic interaction and any given trait may have been the accidental result of two or more other traits that were the ones actually selected for. Just because there is an advantage you can point to, doesn’t mean that I must be the cause.

People do sometimes do the right thing for the wrong reason and it may be impossible in any given case to know exactly why someone did the right thing, but this does not in any way mean that there aren’t some cases where we do the right thing for the right reason. You may be aware of the reward for doing the right thing, but would have done anyway. You may be very glad to have the tax write-off, but the real reason you donated to that charity is that you authentically wanted to help.

Are there any purely altruistic actions, actions with absolutely no benefits to the agent? Dunno, and to be honest, don’t really care because philosophically the answer to that question is not important. It does not hold the possibility of ethics hostage in the way the psychological egoist thinks.