Is it theoretically possible to be unselfish?

February 23, 2007 | By | 3 Replies More

Such a strange question to ask!  Here’s what brought it on.  Yesterday, I attended a lecture by Sarah Brosnan, a post-doc who works with Frans de Waal at Emory University (I’ve written about de Waal’s work several times).  Brosnan’s lecture, “Fairness and Prosocial Behavior in Non-Human Primates,” was sponsored by the Washington University School of Business, which illustrates the extent to which primate research is no longer just for primatologists.

Brosnan’s task was to measure the extent to which two highly social species (Chimpanzees and Capuchins) recognize and/or deal with inequity.  The experiment was designed to see how pairs of animals react to situations where one animal of the pair received a relatively substantial payment (a grape) for completing a simple task while the other got a less valuable payment (a cucumber) or no payment at all, though accomplishing the same task. 

The videos of the experiments were entertaining, some of slighted animals putting on intense displays of frustration or sulking.  It reminded me of my own young children whenever one of them perceives that I’ve treated the other one even a little better. I’ll always get an earful from the slighted daughter, even (especially!) when the payoff is a relatively worthless trinket.  And it seems that I never learn . . .

What Brosnan and De Waal set out to measure sounds simple, but it became clear that the task was fraught with potential confounding factors.  For example, how do you parse out greed versus envy?  How do you take account of sex differences?  How do the scientists carefully account for potential differences between partners that socialize together outside of the lab versus those who didn’t know each other well?  There’s no way to meaningfully analyze such a series of experiments without the sophisticated use of statistics.

The experiments showed that the animals’ reactions to inequity were affected by several factors: the manner in which the rewards were distributed (various scenarios were tested), the social environment (the extent to which the animals were acquainted) and the behavior of the partners in the lab.  Brosnan mentioned that follow-up experiments are underway; some involve human children and others involve non-human primates.

These inequity experiments reminded me of an issue that puzzled me even when I was a teenager (I took some major abuse from a close relative for even bringing it up). Here’s the issue: To what extent can an individual’s willingness to share be due to pure innocent empathy (“feeling the pain” of the person benefiting) and to what extent is “the good deed” something that inevitably inures (directly or indirectly) to the sharer’s own benefit?  In the experiments described by Brosnan, for example, sharers might have shared simply to shut up the screaming slighted partner. 

Brosnan reminded the audience that there are different kinds of “why” questions (see here  and here).  In studying animals (including human animals), proximate “why” questions often tend to make animals appear other-regarding (altruistic) whereas ultimate questions are more likely to make animals look self-regarding (selfish).  This distinction parallels a basic holding of psychological egoism, that people can exhibit altruistic behavior, but they cannot have altruistic motivations.  If you are willing to get really detached (and possibly a bit cynical), this issue can trigger a serious absurd question that first troubled me as a teenager:  “Is it possible to act unselfishly?”

To illustrate, I will offer some situations that some people might judge to be altruistic.  First, a definition.  Wikipedia defines altruism as “selfless concern for the welfare of others.”  In the field of evolutionary biology, “altruism refers to behavior by an individual that increases the fitness of another individual while decreasing the fitness of the actor.”   There should be a large overlap here, it would seem. Here are my hypotheticals to illustrate the issue.  Do any of these situations demonstrate bona fide altruism (based on either definition)?  What do you think?

altruism - small.jpg

For these last two examples, I would add that it is very difficult to accept that one could ever cease to exist.  In fact, as Freud wrote, “it is impossible to imagine our own death,” and “this may even be the secret of heroism.”  It might be, then, that we are motivated to sacrifice ourselves to earn applause that we won’t actually ever hear.  Our own long-term self-interest (or, at least habits we’ve developed toward that purpose) might motivate suicidal heroism.

I find the distinction between proximate and ultimate to fruitful when considering these examples.  When you look hard enough and dispassionately enough and far enough into the future, what initially seems like selfless behavior usually (always?) morphs into a mechanism for solidifying one’s own long-term self-interests. Because human adults are so thoroughly enculturated, though, and because some of us are so very good at spinning words to frame things in ways that make us look altruistic, many of us still believe in purely altruistic human behavior.  We are willing to believe, for instance, that there are at least some people out there who do some things totally out of regard for others in a way that are harmful to himself or herself. 

According to Brosnan, this question of whether it is really possible to act unselfishly hinges on whether a “happy glow” is enough of a personal benefit to pop the bubble of altruism.  When we get that great big happy glow inside after doing something that looks like its done for others at our expense, on who’s behalf were we really acting?  And should it count as altruism when there are mixed motivations? Here’s another way of framing the test:  To what extent do we bask in the happy glow of good deeds we do?

I asked Brosnan whether there is any widely accepted operative definition of “altruism.”  She laughed, explaining that finding a workable definition of “altruism” is the source of  a continuing debate.  She recommended two people who have written well on this topic.  One is Daniel Batson and the other is Lee Dugatkin, who has written a book I just ordered, The Altruism Equation.


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About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Moral conduct in the absence of commandments. | Dangerous Intersection | August 29, 2010
  1. Tim Hogan says:

    What if you are an atheist, and a cynic, and don't get "warm glows" and still act to serve another when it takes away from yourself? Does that mean only cold, cynical, atheists can be altruistic?

    I think Kropotkin wrote some intesting reflections on this in "Mutual Aid", as a factor in evolution. Perhaps we have an innate tendency towards unselfish acts which supports a community which advances the chances of our survival as a species. Its not just survival of the fittest individuals but, survival of those groups which support each other best as a species.

  2. Frummidge says:

    Are you acquainted with the theology of Luther?

    He asserted that humans always sinned because they never had spot-free motives for their actions.

    Interesting to see how ideas are unintentionally resurrected.

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