Limited Altruism And Morality. In Degrees?

By understanding that our world is inequal in the absence of equality does this mean that altruism and morality is limited if not dominated by somthing that restrains the world from being in total equality?

What is this somthing that dominates and limits morals or altruism for allowing total equality taking place here on earth?

What are the limits and restraints of morals or altruism? What is the origin or center of such limits and restraints?

I believe that the limit to altruism is the fact that pure altruism cannot possibly exist.

From the American Heritage Dictionary:

Altruism: Unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness.

I contest that no act (in its entirety) can be selfless. There is always a self-satisfying motive behind every human act. We would not do something that did not benefit ourselves in no way whatsoever because we are rational creatures.

As a result of morals, we may do acts that seem altruistic, but that is only because we have to act within the confines of our individual moral codes and to do otherwise would lower our self-concept.

So what dominates us more? I believe it is selfishness and greed.

Could it be that since altruism (if such a thing exists) is so dominated by selfish interests that selfishness itself is the predominant feature of the human mind?

I can’t say that I necessarily agree with that. Altruism is defined as selflessness, where the act would have to be committed with absolutely no selfish or personal gain. I do not believe that can happen. I just don’t think that selfishness is a dominating force so much as an influencing factor, I think every act is influenced in some way by selfishness, but only to an extent.

It’s kind of like the conversation about morals, it is a self-satisfying thing.

Here is a common example:

If there is a little kid about to get mowed down by an eighteen-wheeler, but you have just enough time to push him out of the way, do you do it?

If you say no, then you are selfish because you do not wish to be hit.

If you say yes, you have committed the less selfish action, obviously to put yourself in harm’s way to benefit another person prevents the act from being inherently or wholly selfish (unless you are suicidal) because your actions have been certainly more beneficial to the kid than they are to you. (Not necessarily, if the kid grows up and lives a shitty life, but for the purpose of this conversation, let’s say he grows up and lives an average or better life) However, there may be selfish reasons for the decision to save the kid, including but not limited to:

1.) Morals/Self-Image: Perhaps you could not live with yourself if you didn’t do it.

2.) Social Status: Maybe someone you knew was present and you could not have word getting out that you are a coward.

3.) Heroism/Self-Image: Maybe you considered the possibility that you would either die as a hero, or if you lived through the ordeal, you would be regarded as a hero by one and all.

There are, of course, other examples of possible factors that makes this (in part) a selfish act.

This doesn’t make any sense, really. People perform selfless acts of charity and sacrifice (even the sacrifice of their lives) all the time. In order to defend your position, you have to do 1 of 2 things:

1.) Claim to have super magical mind reading powers and know what’s on the minds of every human who ever lived every time they perform an allegedly selfless act. I reckon you won’t do that, so let’s move on.

2.) Argue from a general principal that says that no act can be selfless regardless of the circumstances. Since, by all accounts, humans can and do everything physically possible for us, even crazy stuff like light ourselves on fire and each each other’s poop, it’s safe to say there’s no potentially selfless act waiting in the wings*; or somebody would have already done it, and you’d be wrong. In other words, you’re trying to define altruism out of existence. But that’s totally useless- we already have perfectly good meanings for ‘selfish’ and ‘altruistic’, and they both apply to things we see people doing every day. For example, if it makes somebody feel good to give to others at their own expense, this is obviously selfless as compared to somebody whom is made to feel just as good by taking whatever he can with no concern for others.

 So it seems you've got some broader point about morality or society that you want to make, and that as a means to that end, it's useful for you to twist words such that everything can be phrased as 'selfish'.  But it isn't [i]true[/i]. 
  • Feel free to describe one if you disagree, though.

Well, if a person does a selfless action because of a morality instinct, a desire to do good, and the survival benefits over time of that morality instinct are why it is frequent in the population, then isn’t the selfless action, though still self-less on a small scale, also selfish on the large scale? I mean, if a gene that tells you “do good for no reason” survives because doing good for no reason benefits the doer, isn’t the presence of that gene in you due to the benefits, and therefore aren’t the actions you do because of the gene also due to its selfish benefits?

Seems like rank dualism to me, Zeus. And I also think it creates situations that don’t really make sense. Either motivationally or linguistically. If we have a definition of the self, other, and of benefit, we can see what actions benefit the self and the other in relation to each other. Creating a host of alternative currencies and assuming they are all equivalent seems strange to me.

I’m sorry, I don’t follow. Did I do that?

The problem I see here is that social and cultural evolution would exist even if genetic evolution didn't- there's no necessary connection between the two. Even if we were angels that performed all our actions completely as a result of conscious reasoning with no meat guiding or circumscribing our choices, it would STILL be the case that societies of angels that freely chose certain behavior would thrive over societies of angels that freely chose some other behavior. 
 Where am I going with this? In such a world, there would be cynical angels arguing that no behavior was truly selfless because we're gaining the benefits of societal cohesion by being good!  So it still seems to me that the evolution argument is defining altruism out of existence, and not actually describing anything real about our situation.

My objection is somewhat similar to Ucci’s, but with a different twist. In your post, I felt that you made a distinction between the socialized human being and the genetic human being and created a sort of either/or situation. I don’t think that creating that sort of a divide makes a whole lot of sense, because all of our closest relatives are also social animals, so social behavior and society is part-and-parcel with what it means to be human.

So pitting genetic drives against social drives doesn’t make a lot of sense because you can’t really divide them like that, since we are programmed to be social beings. It should tell you something that people who are genetically deficient in their ability to realize their social humanity (autism is the clearest example of this) are often considered more disabled than people lacking senses like hearing and sight! So being social is more important to human beings and how we interact with our world than being able to see. Pretty crazy.

Furthermore, pitting one’s own genetic endowment against themselves makes even less sense. I’m not arguing for genetic determinism here, but a lot of who we are is in our genes. That is the basic template that we have to work with. You can twist it a little bit this way or that way, but you are ultimately constrained to a limited set. So saying that “Activity X is advantageous for society, and propensity towards activity X is heritable, so when I do activity X it isn’t actually me doing it,” doesn’t seem to follow even if there are genetic drives in place. Genes can, and do, allow for selfless activity. There is a lot of research that has been done in slime molds, for example, that shows this. And I don’t think too many people are willing to attribute a significant degree of volition to slime molds.

So, I thought your post set-up an unnecessary dualism between the social self and the genetic self and then treated their relative values as equivalent. On the other hand, if the social self is an extension of the genetic self, we can see that both ends are working towards the same thing. So then we have to start talking about where values come into play on this continuum. Outside of members of ruling noble houses, I don’t think that anyone is going to argue that values are encoded at a genetic level. Tastes, propensities towards, sure. But the actual thing being valued is an environmental cue. In the case of altruism, what is being valued is the benefit of the other at the expense of value to the self. Does that make sense?


With all due respect, to further your argument against my assertion, I would challenge you to provide me with an example of any act that I cannot reasonably find (in whole or in part) a potentially selfish motive behind.

Again, I apologize for my brashness regarding this challenge.

 No apology necessary, I see you as making my point for me. You say the above with confidence that I won't be able to think of an example.  Why? Because you aren't basing your denial of altruism on any actual facts about the nature of man- you're [i]defining[/i] altruism as the sort of thing that can't possibly happen.  We'd carry the debate out, and end up at a terminus where you'd argue that any act a person chooses is to some degree selfish [i]merely by virtue of the fact that they chose it[/i].  That's just playing with semantics.  I prefer to say that a person who dives on a hand grenade to save his friends is [i]pretty obviously[/i] acting selflessly, and if you see it otherwise, than it can only be that you've turned the word 'selfish' into something bizarre that doesn't actually describe human interaction in a useful way anymore. 
 One point of note- you talk about [i]potentially[/i] selfish motives. I don't really see how they are of any use. I can name a situation, and you can conjure up in your imagination some selfish thing that might have been going on in the mind of the person who performed the deed...but how does that actually further the cause that these selfish motivations [i]actually are[/i] behind each deed? 

If you really want to challenge me, give me an example of what would be a truly altruistic act, and then set about proving that nobody has actually done it.  I think you see that would be pretty foolhardy and impossible- and that's my point. People do [i]everything[/i], so if 'altruism' is a coherent concept, people do that too.

EDIT: Another point. Ultimately, I have no problem with you using the word ‘selfish’ to describe everything everybody ever does, as a pure referent to them doing things for reasons. It’s just semantics, after all, and I can accept yours when you talk. It’s just ripe for equivocation. I suspect that if I let you get away with claiming that all acts are ‘selfish’ in the ‘acting with one’s own intention’(1) sense of the word, sooner or later you’d be defending or advocating selfishness in another, more traditional sense of the word(2). That’s just usually how it goes. When you say “Everybody is 1”, people are going to hear “Everybody is 2”, and that’s exploitive.

People are rational.

It makes no rational sense for someone to commit an act that does not benefit them in any way.

Therefore, every act has a self-satisfying motive behind it, in short, every act that a person commits benefits that person in one way or another.

As rational people, it is impossible for a wholly altruistic (100% selfless act) to be committed.

That’s the way I saw it. I’m probably wrong, I concede the argument. I’m sorry.

Yes, there is no distinction between Homo sapiens and Homo economicus that is, after all, why they share the same name.

If you are going to play language games, at least do it right . . .

I think I may have just based my argument on the way that I think, which is dogmatic and not a good thing to do.

I mean, you take the Salvation Army bucket, I don’t go past it without putting a dollar in, I put one in on the way in and on the way out of the store. I don’t want anyone I know (or even people I don’t know) to see me walk by the bell-ringer and ignore the bucket.

I’d push a kid out of the way of car, or an adult, for that matter. It would mostly be a selfless act, but a little of it would be I couldn’t live with myself if I just let someone be killed.

I’ve considered every possible scenario where I have done something seemingly philanthropic or altruistic, and it just seems there is the chance of there being at least a hint of a selfish motive.

Are you Christian, or perhaps from a Christian family? Your notion that there is some, deep flaw hidden within any human act seems an awful lot like the whole Christian-take on how horrifically fallen men are and how everything they do is sin. That sort of a view can often lead to people looking to soil their own nest. The sort of thing where the game is over before it begins, to why play?

That doesn’t mean, however, that all acts that appear altruistic at first glance are. For example, a friend of mine’s mother was heavily involved in charities. But she would then lord her involvement over people and use it as a weapon in a holier-than-thou sorta way. You have to look at the overall character of the person and see why they are doing what they are doing. Are they practicing charity for the sake of charity, for its internal good or are they doing it seeking some external good? Indeed, that is a good litmus test for altruistic acts: are they doing the act for the sake of excellence within that area or are they using their excellence in a particular area to attain a goal elsewhere? You’ll see plenty of both, so you have to look out for it.

I think I see those as two different things. Even if it were true that every act any human performs has a hint of a selfish motivation in it, I think it would still be fair to call them altruistic acts, since we’re only comparing them to each other. I’m a Christian, so like Xunzian pointed out, I do see purifying our own actions to be a long, difficult road that we aren’t going to perfect, so I sympathize with your position. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean I think the ‘selfishness’ of altruistic acts makes them the moral equivalent of any other selfish act, either.

Certainly not the moral equivalent of a wholly slefish act.

I just don’t think that an act can be purely, wholly and entirely altruistic. It can be mostly altruistic, it can be 99.9% altruistic, but I don’t think it can be wholly altruistic.

I am not going to say whether or not I am a Christian because I do not like being in a position where I have to defend the religious viewpoints that I may or may not have.

All you’re doing is redefining altruism so that acts done for the benefits of social cohesion count; altruism goes from being “actions done that benefit others but do not benefit yourself” to “actions done for the sole benefit of social cohesion”. That’s a considerable jump isn’t it?

If I was pitting social drives against genetic drives, I didn’t mean to. What I was trying to say is that the social drives have genetic components, which are prevalent due to their benefits in natural selection. The conditioning, too, is probably passed down for survival reasons. So, though the person does does an action for a cause, if you follow the causation backwards far enough there is clear self-benefit to one of the causes, and so the action is thus due to benefit, and not altruistic.

Does this resolve the problem, or cause another one?