Tired thoughts on altruism

By “tired”, I’m quite literally suggesting thoughts I had whilst decaffeinated at approximately two in the morning.

Yesterday, I launched into a discussion with another friend – Billy Janitsch.  His web site, which contains an abundance of interesting material, has been added to the blogroll.  In either case, he brought forth SuperFreakonomics, showing me a relevant video that’s, presumably, an extension of one of the book’s chapters.  I’ve yet to read the aforementioned text; I’ve wanted to do so for some time now.  The above video has provided the necessary incentive, I think.

On to those thoughts, then, disorganized, bio-biased, and reductionist as they may be!

It’s human behavior that directly controls the progress that humanity makes, not human sentiment.  Behavior, by its biological definition, is typically conducted for some purpose; the varied acts performed by various species on voluntary, involuntary, conscious, and subconscious levels may all be labelled “behavior”, and, in their purpose, they are all reducible to attempts at survival.

One can thus conclude that human behavior has been tailored to ensure moderated human survival – a fundamental evolutionary thought.  Whether or not one can sway from generic behavior on non-random occasions is a question that Adolf Heschl seeks to answer; it is a question that I will not attempt to ponder here.    In any case, I think we can state that humans have been designated to exhibit a certain degree of altruism, but also a certain lack of it.

This whole notion, however, compells me to think that their behavior can never be called “altruism” – are acts of generosity truly staples of selflessness if they stem from an innate need to protect one’s self?

I suppose that it’s integral to ponder why one seeks to protect one’s self.  If we do so in order to protect our species (which, according to Heschl, should be the justification), then perhaps we can still be termed altruists.  Our striving for our own survival in order to better that of our species seems logical, even in relation to the tendencies discussed in the video.

It was stated that people will succumb to looking like jerks if they can walk away with a certain amount of money; this makes moderate sense.  At present, one’s social standing is important to one’s survival; as such, many people would intuitively strive to upkeep it.  Given the chance to gift someone an insignificant sum of money and simultaneously look good would present an opportunity to better one’s social standing.  However, one’s basic needs take over at some point; the individual recognizes the need for such basics as food and shelter, the which are presently assured by one’s financial status.  Taking a significant sum will more directly affect one’s survival than will bettering one’s social standing by giving an insignificant sum.

Kidney donation’s failing would directly support this notion – we instinctively realize that we must seek to protect our physical wellness.  Organ donation whispers tales of potential danger to the more emotional components of our mind – though we know that giving a kidney would not injure us, we still associate the concept with pain and a chance at death.  A human being would be behaving counter-intuitively if it were to willingly place itself in physical unease.

The family unit, however, is of interest – it is important enough to challenge this statement.  Many a person would donate his or her organ to preserve his or her family member’s life.  Perhaps this behavior stems from the fact that family life was integral to the evolution of nearly all members of Hominidae.

Altruists, by definition, are selfless; people, having evolved to preserve themselves, cannot successfully be termed altruistic.  If we wish to state that they are altruistic to some extent, then we must delve into the subtleties surrounding such extents – or levels, if you will – of selflessness.  Thus, we must brave the humanities.

This entry was posted in On Humanity: Events, Policy, Ethics. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Tired thoughts on altruism

  1. Raza says:

    You may enjoy http://goo.gl/FXh7

    From what I’ve read on the subject, any ‘apparent’ acts of altruisms are explained by evolutionary psychologists as being a result of,
    a) Kin Selection (which you mentioned)
    b) Reciprocal Altruism, which is simply the expectation of a returned favor in the near future, given that there is a real chance that there will be reciprocation.

    But where the challenge really lies is in explaining somewhat rare instances of heroic behavior, e.g. the 9/11 Firefighters running into the scene (their job did not require them to) and without any apparent regard for their own lives, for total strangers. In this case, it’s very hard to use either a) or b) for explanation. Another explanation is that perhaps they know that if they succeed, they will be held in high social regard and rewarded in some way, but even that fails to completely explain behavior that is really seemingly in outrageous violation of what Darwin may predict.

    Somewhat disappointingly (I think anyway), the explanation for that seems to be, in a word, insanity. That due to the variability in a population, some individuals may very well be outliers and be just insane enough to engage in those “truly altruistic” behaviors. Given that these events are rare, this explanation is somewhat plausible, but I still find it a little sad :/

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