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Does Altruism Exist?

Culture, genes, and the welfare of others
David Sloan Wilson

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The idea that altruism truly doesn't exist–that all people care only about themselves–might seem too extreme to take seriously. Consider, however, that the word “altruism” didn't exist until 1851, when it was coined by the French philosopher Auguste Comte. If people are altruistic, then why doesn't the word (or its equivalent) have a more ancient pedigree? p 3

[William Scott] Green reviewed definitions of altruism and provided this concise version: “Intentional action ultimately for the welfare of others that entails at least the possibility of either no benefit or a loss to the actor.

According to the conference participants–each an expert scholar on a given religion–this concept is foreign to the imagination of all of the world's major religious traditions. p 4

Groups that Work

Imagine the purest of altruists, who thinks only about making the world a better place and cares nothing for her own welfare, other than as part of the common good. Now imagine convincing this person that the world of her dreams is possible. There is only one catch. The people capable of achieving and maintaining her utopia do not necessarily thing or feel about themselves and others in the same way that she does. She might need to learn how to think and feel differently to accomplish her altruistic goals. Would a pure altruist accept this bargain? It seems to me that she must.

[…] This though experiment highlights two meanings of altruism that need to be distinguished from each other. The first meaning refers to how people act. If our pure altruist were asked to describe her perfect world, she would spend more time on what people do than how they think of feel. [No crime, help to the needy, world peace…] The second meaning of altruism refers to thoughts and feelings that cause people to act as they do. […] It might seem that the two meanings are straightforwardly related to each other. Get people to think and feel more altruistically, and the world will become a better place.

A little reflection reveals a more complicated story. Any given action can be motivated by a diversity of thoughts and feelings. [… more or less pure …] These complications force us to recognize a many-to-one relationship between any given action and the mental events that can cause the action. They also force us to recognize that our preference for some thoughts and feelings over others is based primarily on the actions they produce. p 7

Elinor Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009 for showing that groups of people are capable of managing their own resources, but only if they possess certain design features.

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books/does_altruism_exist.txt · Last modified: 2015/04/12 15:22 by ram