Jach's personal blog

(Largely containing a mind-dump to myselves: past, present, and future)
Current favorite quote: "Supposedly smart people are weirdly ignorant of Bayes' Rule." William B Vogt, 2010

On Altruism


1 : unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others
2 : behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species
- Merriam-Webster Dictionary


any behaviour by an organism that decreases its own expected fitness in a single interaction but increases that of the other interactor.
- Game Theory

These are the definitions of altruism I adhere by when I call myself an altruist. If you asked a random person on the street "Do you think altruism is good?", in all probability they will respond "yes". The first definition is, I think, the most common one--after all, dictionaries are historians of usage, and the most common definitions are listed first. However, I'll quickly address the other two definitions first.

Altruism is a natural phenomenon, meaning that many animals are naturally altruistic. It is altruistic behavior when a bee stings an enemy and dies, sacrificing its life to save the hive; it is altruistic behavior that keeps carnivorous fish from feeding off each other in a frenzy. It's obviously arisen even in evolutionary competition environments like we have. Which brings me to the game theory definition, and how this is even possible.

Read the linked source for a much fuller and better explanation, but the basics of it goes like this. In a population playing a dynamic prisoner's dilemma, it is in each individual's interests to defect, and if any cooperators are around then defectors do better than the population average. (The utility for defect-cooperate is [4,0] respectively, with higher numbers being better.) However, introduce correlation into the game. Now cooperators whose probability of interacting with other cooperators is high do better than defectors whose probability of interacting with other defectors is high. Once a certain threshold is reached, cooperators can spread and take over previously non-altruistic groups, and make the entire population cooperators except for a few fringe groups that feed off the edge cases.

So that's that. I'm still not seeing any evil here, and with game theory altruism seems pretty damn good. Better payoffs and stuff.

There are some who believe altruism itself is evil. And also interestingly, those who read their views and still pick altruism are the most evil. I draw a comparison with some religions here: those who have not heard the word of God aren't very evil, and will at most be sent to purgatory. But those who have heard the word of God and reject it go straight to Hell.

I'm convinced that when people attack altruism it's largely a straw-man argument. They make absurd claims like "You only do this because you feel guilty and it's an evil unearned guilt", or "You're required to make sacrifices and sacrifices are evil." They portray an altruist as, not a person interested in the good of humanity, but a combination moocher and looter who demands sacrifices of others. They believe altruism leads to communism.

I don't like communism one bit. But I'm an altruist. I take their argument as straw-man because I'm not aware of any non-fictional people who identify as altruistic and who want a communist society where the people of ability are forced by the government to sacrifice all they can for the people of inability. Maybe some exist out there, but it's definitely not a large slice of the population.

Maybe I should set up a stand outside the local good will with a survey for people to take answering a simple question: why did you donate today? They can mark selfish reasons, altruistic reasons, or "I was guilted into helping people by friends/family/religion." I wonder which one would come out on top?

Nevertheless, I feel like I have to address some behavior here. Take Bob, who donates $500 to his favorite cause. Now, this might help him, it might not help him. Cancer patients can donate all they like to cancer research, but the fact remains that progress is slow and (at least in the US) funds are used unwisely. (We can thank the FDA for this.) It's a gamble with uncertain payoff, but if there is a payoff then he will not be the only one to benefit. He might not even benefit at all, while others do. (Cancer patient donates $1000 today, dies tomorrow, cure for cancer found the next day.) Is this gamble altruistic or selfish? That depends on Bob's mentality. Does he want to help others, or does he only care about himself, the rest of humanity be damned? It's altruistic if it's the first case, selfish if the second. But I'll also add that in the selfish case a truly more selfish action would be to learn the necessary material and do the research himself in a basement, then keep the results all to himself or sell them for mega-profit.

Take Alice, who donates $500 to cancer research, though she has essentially no risk for cancer nor does she know anyone with cancer. It's clearly altruistic so far. But let's say she didn't really want to, she would rather have kept her money, but instead was feeling guilty about it because her religion threatened her with Hell if she refused to donate. Still altruistic? No. It's neither a selfish nor altruistic act, it's merely an execution of an order. You can argue that it's selfish because they're avoiding punishment for disobeying orders, but that's a weak argument. The guilty people or the punishment-fearing people are just following orders. To be altruistic, you have to want to help people.

So in cases of donation, it's fairly easy to qualify the result as selfish, altruistic, or just following orders. To be altruistic, you have to want to help the cause itself, but there's nothing wrong with supporting a cause that benefits yourself as well. Remember the game theory, with correlation comes higher payoffs. I support free software from an altruistic view, but there's no avoiding the fact that free software also benefits me. Linus Torvalds claims most get into open source for selfish reasons to begin with; this is the type of selfishness everyone has, though, not the kind which opponents of altruism claim to use, but this kind is clear from a game theory perspective. People have preferences, or utilities, and thus act to maximize those. In altruism, there's a high preference to cooperate. Now to be selfish, you have to want to help just yourself (or your significant others), the rest of humanity be damned, and giving money to those who could help is a better expense than keeping the money and trying to learn it yourself.

I've been talking about desires determining whether an act is selfish or altruistic, which indeed do. I am so far asserting that altruism is not evil, and that selfishness is just misguided. But when desires are in the pages, a typical question arises: "That axe murderer really felt like he was benefiting humanity by killing Susan, so isn't this altruistic and evil?" or "That axe murderer really felt like he was self-benefiting when he killed Susan; so isn't this selfish and evil?" Ayn Rand thoroughly addressed the second issue in one of her essays, and I will just generalize it to encompass both. Altruism and selfishness are about desires, meaning that you must willingly perform an action based on your preferences (as opposed to being ordered or guilted into it), but they are also about results. Those desires do not include whims and feelings not supported by evidence--to act on such feelings constitutes an insane action, neither altruistic nor selfish. Say I feel like assassinating President Obama is in the best interest of humanity: there's no evidence backing that belief; it's an insane one. If I carried it out it would not be altruistic.

Something to be realized here is that selfishness and altruism are not statically coupled with good and evil. Some actions that are arguably selfish or arguably altruist can be arguably good or arguably evil. A better qualifier for the goodness of an action is how efficient that action was compared to alternatives.

Since I'm arguing that altruism is not evil, I'll address another flaw in the argument against it. What constitutes a big enough sacrifice? Pressing a button to save 100 random people does in fact take energy from you, and you receive no benefit from saving those 100 people. It's a technical sacrifice. Then there's the sacrifice of throwing yourself in the fire to save 100 people. As an altruist, I would opt for the "sacrifice" both times. I think "selfish" people might say yes to the first, and no to the second.

I'm going to go off on a (hopefully) short tangent to argue how "worthless" your life "objectively" is. Humans have the same brainware. Even the mentally ill people share the same brainware, just parts of it are damaged. Even Stalin shared the same brainware. Even Einstein shared the same brainware. Even the village idiot down the street shares the same brainware. One point I'm making is that we're all human, and what-is-human hasn't really changed for a significantly long time. Mathematical progress is not measured by individual progress, but by society's progress. If you killed Einstein when he was a child, someone else would have come up with General Relativity. Furthermore, from the perspective of an ant, there is no difference between you and the village idiot (or Einstein if you happen to be the village idiot). The separating factor is intelligence, and the leap from ant-to-human is far, far greater than the leap from village idiot to Einstein, thus species-groups form a tight set of intelligence ranges that aren't far apart.

Why is this important? Because so long as humanity survives, there's still a chance. Because the simple fact that you are human, makes you as equally valuable as every other human, because nothing you do could ever not be done by someone else given time. As for the "worthlessness" part, most of your ancestors are dead, it doesn't matter now whether they died as a child or as an old adult. It doesn't matter what actions you take each day because the universe is an uncaring void and the earth is just a very young member of it all, with humanity being a very young member of the earth. Eventually our sun will expand and nearly swallow our planet, but it will at least scorch it and probably kill everything. A more near alternative is a giant asteroid impact. Poof, humanity could be gone, but the universe doesn't care.

That is a short summary of the existentialist movement. It's really hard to argue against, until you bring into the topic concepts such as superintelligent agents spreading out from earth to affect the galaxy and universe as a whole. To me, I don't even need to go that far. Values are inherently subjective, and there's no point in saying a value that is subjective isn't a good one. There are no objective values. An unfriendly superintelligence would just as soon use you for fuel as that boulder over there. But subjective values matter, and humans generally have similar values. I believe that further understanding of something increases its subjective value as well.

So, given that I think human life is a very high value as most other people, so high I can't put a number to it, and for reasons I shouldn't have to explain, how can I start comparing lives and dealing with notions of sacrifice? It's simple. 100 > 1, as numbers, and so too as humans. Even if there are 100 village idiots, they will get further than 1 Einstein. (Presuming of course they don't accidentally cause a global catastrophe, but then again "smarter" people are more capable of that anyway.)

I don't have a problem sacrificing my life to save 100 people. I do have a problem sacrificing my loved one's life for 100 people (in some situation I can't really imagine in detail that would make it so I have to make a choice (I don't feel like I (or any human) should be trusted with such a choice and might try to kill myself to get out of it)), but the resolution to that I think would be to kill myself after the sacrifice was done, because I don't think I could live well afterward. (That is my rational decision, made in advance, but I've found my love transcends my rationality, so I can't really tell if I would go through with it. You might need to up the number from 100 until there's no more room for argument. 3^^^3 is more than enough. I'd still kill myself after though.) So that brings us to another topic. Is ordering others to sacrifice themselves altruistic?

No. The commander either can't make the same sacrifice or is afraid to make it, and thus orders someone else to do it. This is a selfish, and cowardly, act. If only one person can make the difference, it is up to that person to choose to be altruistic or not. Others can try and persuade (not guilt), but ordering is just another kind of violence, another kind of force-which-violates-freedom. If they do sacrifice, you cannot take altruistic credit for it, you can only accept the benefit they gave you from their sacrifice.

Now another topic has come. When should you be altruistic, and what are the best ways to be altruistic? I identify as an altruist yet I don't give money to every bum I see, and I'm sure many other self-identifying altruists don't either. Is this evil? No. It's also a stretch to call it good, but arguments can be made. For example, I believe that bum will end up spending it on damaging items, and then I'm not really benefiting him am I? Or I believe I can use the money for something better, like donating to a corporate entity who will make more efficient use of the money. (The danger-line rests on using the second excuse but then failing to do the donation.) The point to be made here is that being altruistic does not mean using up all your resources at all times for questionably helpful outcomes. (A higher-level altruist than myself might offer to teach the bum some skill, which would be more optimal: humanity + bum-that-now-can-work vs. humanity+bum-who-has-a-happy-meal.)

And so I call the best altruism "rational altruism". A simple example of a case goes like this. A lawyer wants to help out the less fortunate by volunteering in a soup kitchen for an hour after work on Fridays. This is altruistic, but not the most optimal use. The proper use of altruism in this case is for the lawyer to work an extra hour on Friday, and donate the money to the soup kitchen (for either more soup or to hire people instead of relying on volunteers). "Money is the unit of caring" is the phrase here. You can gauge the level of an altruist by taking their donation-to-income ratio. The 'donation' variable takes into account both time and money, but sometimes (as in the case of a lawyer) money beats time for efficient altruism. Back to the bum case, someone working on a cure for cancer might just pay for the bum to receive an education somewhere, rather than teach him directly, because his own time is more valuable. Rational altruism is about being as efficient as you can in helping other people. The goal of an altruist when dealing with those less fortunate should be to bring them up to his own level without lowering himself. There is no reason to live as a starving African while pouring any income you make into helping starving Africans. Thus the proper use of altruism is to be as rational and efficient at is as possible.

Posted on 2009-09-01 by Jach

Tags: altruism, morality, philosophy


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Amaroq December 14, 2009 04:57:44 AM "I take their argument as straw-man because I'm not aware of any non-fictional people who identify as altruistic and who want a communist society where the people of ability are forced by the government to sacrifice all they can for the people of inability."

How about Hitler? He was pro-altruism, anti-individual. I don't know whether he explicitly wanted to force the people of ability to sacrifice for those who needed it. However, communism/socialism/any kind of egalitarianism will be unable to make people equal (which is the goal) without the people of ability sacrificing for those who need it.

Some people are simply better at being prosperous than others. Those better ones would have to lift up their inferiors under any kind of egalitarian system.
Jach December 14, 2009 06:10:15 AM Are you seriously bringing Hitler (or even Stalin) into this? Woooow. Low as the religious folk who do the same thing.
Amaroq December 14, 2009 08:55:17 AM You asked for non-fiction people, and I gave the most notorious one there is.

Comparing me to a religious person doesn't invalidate my example.
Jach December 14, 2009 01:00:03 PM I have NEVER heard of Hitler being considered an altruist. A non-intensive Google search confirms my suspicions: you're spouting Objectivist bullshit.

You guys' altruism is not the standard meaning of altruism. You word hijack so much it's not even funny. This is why you should play Rationalist Taboo; you have too much bad terminology in your brain.

Next, Hitler's society was fascist, not communist. So I guess you still need to find me a non-fictional example and who is actually altruistic by altruistic standards, not Oist word-hijacking garbage.

Next, I'm comparing you to the religious folk because they bring up Hitler or Stalin and try to paint their atheism as the reason they did what they did (Hitler being Roman Catholic by the way, which is equally irrelevant). Here's a hint: it wasn't because they were religious (or not religious), it wasn't because they were selfish, it definitely wasn't because they were altruistic, and it wasn't because they had mustaches.

Think before you reply (though really I'd ask you save yourself the embarrassment). Your entire argument is based on finding one false counterexample which does nothing to my post at all even if it were true.
Morty October 14, 2015 05:18:25 AM I am sceptic of calling myself either altruist or selfish. Allthough I mostly align with the objectivist view of how one should behave, I think calling it selfish is counter productive. Most peoples view of a selfish person, is basically the exact opposite of how an objectivist wants to behave, and this impacts my behaviour when people giving me advice calls the same behaviour that I would call self-defeating, selfish. I would get confused, and do non-rational things. Selfish is the worst word in existence. It usually boils down to hurtful behavior, at the fact that the bahaviour is usually completely destructive to the persons happiness who is accused of it, is ignored, and the fact that calling such a person selfish is even more destructive is even more ignored. I think the fact that people call each other selfish so much is the root cause of confusion and depressiveness. People who take it to heart do not know how to behave at all. Thankfully most people just shrug it off and continue to live in a rational manner.

I think one should simply encourage people to try to be happy, and expect that other people want to be happy as well, and live rationally based on this. This gives rise to something like the golden rule, which basically all civilizations have come up with.

As I see it, altruism simply means do what other altruistic people wants you to do. It's an endless recursion, and can end up anywhere, usually with some psychopath exploiting the fact that by a little propaganda, he can make people do anything. If you are an altruist, usually your friends are too, and there is a propensity to vote to continue to be perceived in that manner. Everyone is afraid to be called selfish.

Btw. of course everyone who liked Hitler considered him an altruist, and everyone who disliked him considered him selfish. This is basic instict in humans, to shame and praise, and the zeitgeist has been for hundreds if not thousands of years that selfish is what you call people to shame them, and altruist or selfless what you call people to praise them. Only a few intellectuals ever try to stray from this, and the only movement that does are objectivists. Of course a google search tells you that. Just saying.
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