Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Altruism & Cynicism

I've heard it said that no one does anything unless it benefits them in some way. I've also heard this used to justify embittered views regarding the alleged vanity of human kindness. It's the purpose of this short post to expose the mistaken direction such thinking takes.

The argument typically begins with an instance of alleged altruism, let's say the act of giving money to a homeless person. Ordinarily we might assume that giving money to a homeless person is a selfless act, as you are surrendering your own money to somebody and expecting nothing in return. Or are you? The proponents of what we'll call the "selfishness argument" argue that we do expect something in return. We would not, after all, have given them the money if we did not ourselves feel good about doing so. In effect, they believe that there is actually a kind of transaction taking place - money for a smug feeling of self-gratitude. And we will not disagree insofar as some people do exactly this, trying to appear selfless either to fool themselves or others into thinking that they are a nice person.

But what if our giving money to the homeless person did not emerge from out of a yearning to feel good about ourselves ("aren't I generous!") but rather from out of our feeling genuinely terrible for the person, and beside ourselves at their situation? We expect nothing from our act of generosity other than making the homeless feel that someone cares about them. What then? A keener proponent of the selfishness argument will nevertheless claim that we have given money to alleviate our own guilt/grief, and therefore we are still acting with selfish motives in mind.

In fact, particularly sophisticated cynics will even push the argument further. It is impossible to be altruistic, they say, because everything you do must be motivated by your own feelings and is therefore down to satisfying one's own self. And how could we possibly argue against such a strong claim?

What proponents of this argument fail to see is the soil from which such feelings grow. They take as their starting assumption (and never let it be questioned) that we are from the ground up individuals isolated from one another. But is this really true? That someone else's situation has the power to move you in the first place before any such feelings take hold of you is the true source of altruism, and a symptom of the existential condition we find ourselves in. By focusing on the particular feeling itself and not rather the ground from which the feeling emerges, the cynic finds their justification - "all people are selfish!" But is it not rather touching, astonishing perhaps, that the toil of others has the power to ellicit those feelings in us in the first place?

That we are always already moved by others (unless we suffer from certain neurological/behavioural difficulties) before we take note of ourselves and declare "I am" is the most original fact of morality, and one mercilessly concealed by our Western (and more specifically, Cartesian) mode of thinking. All we need ask is why we can feel that way in the first place. It's not up to us to choose what we feel, nor is it up to us to choose that things can ellicit such feelings in us. In this respect we are most certainly not isolated individuals.

(For more on the source of passions/reasons I invite you to take a look at my dissertation - particularly the third section).


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I struggled to get to grips with exactly what you mean in this post, because I am unsure what is meant by the sentence "That someone else's situation has the power to move you in the first place before any such feelings take hold of you is the true source of altruism"

    Specifically, I'm not sure what being 'moved' before feeling anything looks like. Initially, I interpreted (perhaps incorrectly) being 'moved' as consisting in some kind of feeling, which would seem to contradict your statement.

    Perhaps you mean that the situations of others affects the process by which feelings are formed? That seems like the best reading of what you say, and it also seems true. But if that is the case, then altruism has a different problem:

    It seems like the motivation for this blog post is to re-establish the moral significance of purportedly altruistic behaviours. But the problem is this:

    Premise 1: If some behaviour B is morally significant, then B is a behaviour over which the perpetrator has had some control.
    (I take this premise as fairly uncontroversial, since it is one of the principle suppositions of the debate surrounding free will and determinism.)

    Premise 2: By relegating the effects of other people's situations (which you call the "true source of altruism") to times before feelings are produced, you render these effects (and by extension altruism) inaccessible to the kind of control required for moral significance.

    Conclusion: Your view renders altruism as not morally significant.


    Also, it might interest you to know that altruism is often described in behavioural terms, rather than psychological ones. I.e. some act A is altruistic iff the perpetrator of A increases the welfare of another individual, at the expense of her own welfare (Dawkins describes it this way in 'The Selfish Gene' (p.4)). This definition says nothing about psychology, and it is very easy to find genuine examples of it (e.g. the stinging behaviour of worker bees) - although these examples can usually be explained in terms of the promotion of gene survival, and are not morally significant. I understand that this is not the kind of altruism you are talking about. Perhaps you want to differentiate between 'behavioural' and 'psychological' altruism? I'm not sure if those terms have been used before though, I just chose them because they seem appropriate.

    Best wishes,

  3. Hey Travis, thanks for your response!

    To clarify, being able to be moved denotes the capacity to have feelings, something which we do not choose. Having a feeling and being able to have feelings are of two distinct orders (check out the third section of my dissertation for a more detailed account of this distinction, linked in the post above).

    What I'm getting at here is that the conclusion "there's no such thing as a selfless deed" originates from a failure to discriminate between the two orders.

    The moral significance of acts isn't contrued in terms of control at all here. The significant difference is in the type of "motivation" at play, i.e. giving to the poor to convince yourself/others that you are a nice person (which is a selfish act) and giving to the poor because you have been genuinely moved by their condition (selfless act).

    In fact, control is explicitly not supposed, as we have no choice in the matter regarding our being able to be moved. What clears the way for the possibility of a selfless act is exactly this factical condition: that other people's misery can already move us. The Cartesian picture, on the other hand, deals only with the feelings which have occured and so concludes that there cannot be a selfless deed as every deed is the satisfaction of an inner mental content relative to that subject.

    Thanks for reading,

    - Jordan

    1. "In fact, control is explicitly not supposed, as we have no choice in the matter regarding our being able to be moved. What clears the way for the possibility of a selfless act is exactly this factical condition: that other people's misery can already move us."

      My concern is that this renders a picture of selflessness or altruism that is not morally significant. Sure, you might've described how people can be really selfless, but at the cost of any agency or choice to be so.

      If I do not choose to commit a selfless act, or have a selfless feeling, then the act or feeling is not morally significant. In the same way that if I were to accidentally do something selfless, we wouldn't consider it a morally praiseworthy act.

    2. This sort of notion falls prey to the category error outlined above: the idea that we begin as isolated subjects in a vaccum with nothing already there. But if we could choose the basis on which we make choices, on what basis would we choose that basis? It's a necessity of any choice that the grounds upon which they are made are unchosen - lest we fall into infinite regress.

      I don't think that this destroys morality, however - rather I feel it nourishes it. Without this factical inheritance we could not make moral choices.

    3. Ooh, interesting point about the regress. I've not heard it before (free will is an area we don't much cover at Leeds, unfortunately!).