Friday, November 24, 2006

3 arguments against altruism

I was discussing the issue of altruism with a friend, and she said I should blog this, since others might find it helpful. In this post, I will discuss the arguments of Bishop Joseph Butler, a theologian and philosopher of the 18th century, and most of this is taken from his work "Sermons on Human Nature." Butler was largely writing in response to Thomas Hobbes, who wrote that humans are self-interested and materialistic, and any ethical theory needs to appeal to the self-interest of humans.

In talking about altruism, Butler identifies 3 separate views which argue that altruism cannot exist. The first view, is the view that believes an altruistic act is a psychologically motivated act, and the motivation behind that act does not contain any trace of self-interest. Many people like this description of altruism because it is the most "selfless" version. Let us consider the case where a fireman is sacrificing himself to safe a little girl from a burning building. According to the first critic, if you claim that the fireman is doing an altruistic act, you are committed to saying whatever motivations the fireman has for performing that act, none of them are self-interested. Butler claims that for such an extreme definition of altruism, practically everyone will agree that no such version of altruism exists, there is no disagreement, and such critics of altruism are setting up a straw man.

For the sake of argument, lets consider what such a definition of altruism would imply. Among the motivations why the fireman would want to save the girl, even though knowing full well that he may die in the process, is the motivations "saving the girl is the right thing to do" or perhaps "saving the girl is my job". A critic may then argue that the fireman acts out of knowing that he is doing the right thing, or doing his duty, and knowing that he is doing the right thing is self-interested. I personally think that such an argument needs further elaboration before it can work, i.e., one needs to connect the link how "knowing that he is doing the right thing" to self-interest, but it is not difficult to come up with some psychological claim about a sense of emotional or moral fulfillment (fulfilling a desire to "do the right thing"). Even so, I think the onus is on the critic to establish that such a sense of moral fulfillment is indeed the psychological motivation behind the fireman saving the girl's life. It will not be incoherent for the fireman to claim that he saved the girl's life not out of any personal fulfillment of any kind (say, he was depressed), but if he did not do so the girl will die. Another take on the argument is that even though the fireman died in the process, if he had chosen to not save the girl and not die, he would suffer from so much guilt and remorse it is better in his self-interest to end his life to save the girl. This argument strikes me as intuitively unlikely, although the critic can always claim such to be the basis of the fireman's "instinct" to save the girl's life.

The second argument against altruism is an assertion of psychological egoism. This is the claim that all humans are motivated by self-interest, and self-interest alone. This is a popular belief among many of us sometimes, when we get too cynical and disillusioned with the people around us. Butler provides a very clever and interesting argument, which most philosophers believe to have convincingly refuted such a formulation of psychological egoism. First, it is necessary to distinguish between what is known as a first-order desire, and a second-order desire. A first order desire is any basic desire, such as "I desire chocolate flavored ice-cream". A second order desire is a desire about desires. Such as "I desire to fulfill all my desires". The claim of psychological egoism is that humans are only motivated by their self-interest, i.e. the only thing they desire, is to pursue their self-interest. What constitutes "self interest"? A very plausible formulation is the fulfillment of one's own desires. If you are interested in something eg. fame, wealth, or whatever, that is only because you care about somethings and desire those things. Therefore, that the second order desire "I desire to fulfill all my desires" is what motivates all humans all the time, seems to be a plausible formulation of psychological egoism.

Butler then notes that if that is indeed all that you care about, then you have no other desires, other than that particular second order desire (about fulfilling your desires). But the thing is, if you have no other desires, then your second order desire has no other desires to act on. You would have no motivation to do anything. Consider a parallel example. Imagine a universe that lives only 3 angels. Each of these angels have only one psychological motivation: a second order desire to fulfill the desires of other persons (let's call this "selflessness"). However, each of these angels have no other desires, nothing else they care about, other than the second-order desire to fulfill other persons' desires. None of these angels will be motivated to do anything, since for the first angel to display her selflessness, she needs to help the 2nd or 3rd angel fulfill their desires, but they each have no first order desires for her to help them fulfill. They each have a second order desire, but she cannot help them fulfill that desire, because she herself has no first order desires than she can allow the others to help her fulfill. Similarly for the psychological egoist, if all he cares about is the fulfillment of his own desires, but he has no first-order desires, then he will not have any motivation to act on anything.

What does this mean? This means that there must exist first-order desires, in order for the second-order desire to have any motivational push. But first order desires are not self-interested. That you desire to eat chocolate flavored ice-cream is not self-interested. That you desire to fulfill that desire to eat chocolate flavored ice-cream (the second-order desire) is the one which is actually self-interested. Let us consider another example. Assume I care for the football club Manchester United (which I really don't). That I desire for the well-being of the club Man U is a first order desire (this is what is meant for "I care for Man U"). If I desire of the fulfillment of this desire, that is a second order desire, eg. I desire that Man U will defeat Chelsea in tomorrow's game, since defeating Chelsea is a fulfillment of my desire for the well-being of Man U. I may have self-interested reasons for the fulfillment of the second-order desire (I will be upset if Man U loses), and I may be motivated to help bring about that state of affairs (bribe Chelsea players) but I do not have a self-interested reason for the first-order desire. I care about Man U because I just do. It is not coherent to argue that I care for Man U because it is in my self interest to do so.

The third argument against altruism, is a reformulation of psychological egoism in response to the previous criticism. This formulation allows for first-order desires, but among the first-order desires, the critic maintains that within the list of first-order desires that we have, the desire for the well-being of other individuals is not existent. In other words, we can care about many things, but we do not care about other people. Butler thinks that empirically, we know this is not true. I too, believe that it is quite plainly true, that people care for other people. Most parents care very much for their children, for example. Of course, critics may further want to explain that such are not indeed real desires, but only an illusion of so. Such that mothers do not really care about their children, it is an inbuilt biological response. Of course, such an argument will probably have much difficulty explaining how an "inbuilt biological response" is indeed not a "real desire" for the well-being of the child.

Empirically, we are often led to think that humans are all inherently selfish. I personally find it hard not to think that way when we interact wifh the ugly Singaporean everyday. Nevertheless, such observations does not really entitle us to believe that altruism (selfless intensions and behaviour) is philosophically impossible. It's probably just not practised very often.


Anonymous said...

Yo... Thanks for blogging this issue. After talking to you, I discussed this with several people, and I was rather surprised by the reactions I got when I said I did not believe that altruism exists. One guy looked at me as if he was seeing me burn in hell right at that moment. It was mostly a mix of disbelief, disgust and being offended.

I guess I'm surprised, because I did not realise that it is so important to many people to believe that altruism exists in the world. One guy told me I had to rethink my values and that there was something wrong with my life... without even stopping to hear my argument. It was almost like it offended them to hear someone thought that way.

I've come to believe that to many people, it is important to believe that the world is a warm fuzzy place, and that anything that chips away at that image will rock the boat everyone is in.

Interesting isn't it? Anyway obviously I'm procrastinating on studying for my oral.=)

SM said...

first order desires are not self-interested.


This connects to the next part of what you said,

I care about Man U because I just do. It is not coherent to argue that I care for Man U because it is in my self interest to do so.

which somehow reminded me of my friend's relationship with his fiancee. When they first met he fell for her because she was pretty and gentle, but now that they are married in everything but name, he loves her because he just does - to quote him, "I would not know how to live without her". So, second-order desires can gradually melt to become first-order desires, which then complicates your logic greatly.

But perhaps that is only a special sub-case.

Fearfully Opinionated said...

hi SM,

don't think you'll check to see if I'd reply, but I'll reply anyway.

I don't think the example you brought up necessarily contradicts with what I was saying. Your friend fell in love with his fiancee because of self-intereted reasons, but now he loves her for herself. If I consider them to be two different loves for her, instead of the same love melding and reforming into different kind of love, that wouldn't be a contradiction.

That said, I think it is rare and absolutely beautiful that your friend can honestly say he loves someone just for her. Cheers to that.

I also think your blog is pretty cool. =)

SM said...

Hi, Fearfully Opinionated,

A paragraph-by-paragraph reply:

I do check back for comments I leave. :)

Okay. I see.

Haha, yes.

After you said that :) I flipped through my own blog to try to find elements of 'coolness', but could not see anything wonderful. :) Nonetheless, thank you for the compliment, and Merry Christmas.