# On Altruism

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

and

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

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.