Is Altruism Selfish?

post by DragonGod · 2017-07-24T07:41:17.215Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 10 comments

Altruism is just a hedonistic desire of people to feel good about themselves.

With the above quote as a prompt, let's discuss.
While I may not express it in such strong terms, I do support the idea expressed in the above prompt. For a brief elaboration: People are only capable of acting upon their own utility function. It is quite possible that this utility function includes others utility function. It is impossible for one to act on another's utility function (without first incorporating it into their own utility function). If the well being of others makes you happy, or you gain pleasure from it, then it grants you positive utility. In order for you to be truly selfless in your altruism, then you must not gain any pleasure from it. Helping others must not make you happy, or uplift you. If helping others doesn't grant you pleasure (in any form whatsoever), then you may be altruistic, but you would be quite alien to our conception of altruism (we don't imagine altruists don't like helping others do we), one might even argue that if you derive n pleasure from helping others, that you are not really altruistic but merely putting on airs.
I posit that altruism—at least as we conceive it—is inherently selfish. However, this is not a problem. Being selfish is not immoral, and some moral philosophies posit that people are only capable of acting in their own self interest. Altruism as a selfish endeavour, only becomes a problem if we operate under the assumption that "selfish = bad"—a grossly unfounded assumption. As a trivial counter example, if I save a loved one because I would be heavily distressed at their loss (an inherently selfish motive), then does my action become immoral? Perish the thought. Selfishness is not inherently immoral. It is merely that some selfish actions may be conceived of as immoral, which gives the whole position a bad reputation. If we accept that selfish actions can be moral, then the position of altruism as a selfish endeavour brooks no inconsistencies.
True selflessness—and true altruism if you demand that altruism is selfless—is the sociopath who decides to help someone else despite feeling no empathy for them (maybe out of moral principles or something).
Selfishness is not a problem. Selfishness is desirable; it is a virtue to be lauded, not a vice to be vilified. Humans should act in their own self-interest—it is the rational thing to do—and if that self interest involves helping others, involves making the world a better place, then go ahead.
What I call "The first commandment":

Be ye selfish.

Selfishness is amoral. Selfishness is moral blind. It is neither inherently good, nor inherently evil. A virtuous person who acts in their self interest wrought good works. An "evil" person who acts in their self interest wrought evil works. The selfishness of the act does not determine the morality thereof—only the character of the agent does.
Similarly also, selflessness isn't inherently good; as a counterexample, consider someone who is blackmailed into committing evil act(s) (the act(s) is/are a lesser evil compared to what would be done to the hostages) via holding his family or his city hostage. The evil act(s) he commits are selfless, yet they are immoral (If you disagree with this, you probably subscribe to a form of deontology, and I suggest we agree to disagree).
Neither selfishness nor selflessness knows morality. Only the character of the agent, and neither the selfishness nor selflessness of the action determines its morality.
I don't think I redefined "selfish". The definition I use is:

Actions that are in the self interest of the agent(s) executing them.


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comment by MrMind · 2017-07-25T09:11:59.500Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If helping others doesn't grant you pleasure (in any form whatsoever), then you may be altruistic, but you would be quite alien to our conception of altruism

The mother that jumps in front a truck to move out of the way the son and is instantly killed by said truck is both altruistic and does not grant pleasure.
I'm tempted to say this is a direct refutation.

Selfishness is moral blind. It is neither inherently good, nor inherently evil.

Then it cannot be a virtue, as you say in the paragraph before.

I believe you need to rethink all the things you want to say and put them in a coherent form.

Replies from: smallbeans
comment by smallbeans · 2020-06-13T18:37:30.381Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

MrMind - You are completely off here. You have missed the fact that the Mother in your above example receives the supreme pleasure, although it be for the briefest of moments, of saving her son. This action may be deemed as good, but no less, it is entirely self-interested in it's motivation: the preservation of ones OWN legacy.

Though you may have been tempted to declare otherwise, it is perfectly clear, directly or indirectly, that your "refutation" is simply short-sighted.

Replies from: MrMind
comment by MrMind · 2020-06-15T09:21:21.066Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The causation order in the scenario is important. If the mother is instantly killed by the truck, then she cannot feel any sense of pleasure after the fact. But if you want to say that the mother feels the pleasure during the attempt or before, then I would say that the word "pleasure" here is assuming the meaning of "motivation", and the points raised by Viliam in another comment are valid, it becomes just a play on words, devoid of intrinsic content.

comment by Lukas_Gloor · 2020-06-13T19:45:43.027Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm happy to grant you that, when pondering a specific decision, people always choose the option they feel better with in the moment of making the decision. If they have cravings activated, that sense of feeling better will cash out in terms of near-term hedonism (e.g., buying two packs of crisps and a Ben&Jerry's ice cream for dinner). If they make decisions with the brain's long-term-planning module activated, they will make whichever decision they feel most satisfied with as a person (e.g., choosing to do a PhD even though it means years of stress).

No one purposefully makes a decision that predictably makes them feel worse for having made that decision. In that sense, all decisions are made for "self-oriented" reasons. However, that's a trivial truth about the brain's motivational currency, not a philosophical truth about altruism versus selfishness.

Altruism is about taking genuine pride in doing good things for others. That's not what makes altruism "secretly selfish." It's what enables altruism. It also matters to what degree people have a habit of fighting rationalizations and hypocrisy. Just like it feels good to think that you're being virtuous when in reality you're entitled and in the wrong, it also feels good to spot your brain's rationalizations and combat them. Both things feel good, but only one of them contributes to altruistic ideals.

comment by Viliam · 2017-07-25T10:38:42.034Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

People are only capable of acting upon their own utility function.


It is impossible for one to act on another's utility function

Depends on what you mean by this. If a paperclip maximizer pays me $100 to produce a paperclip, and I accept the deal because I want the money, do I "act on paperclip maximizer's utility function" here?


These are some specific mistakes in the text. But there is also a meta-mistake behind them, which is more important, because you are more likely to repeat it in the future. Essentially, you are playing with words (such as "altruism", "selfish", "selfless", "virtue"); you are looking at the map first. Even where you provide a specific example, it seems like you made the conclusion first, and looked for possible examples in the territory later.

How would an opposite approach look like? Perhaps by asking a question "what are examples of things that people call 'doing good to others'?" and trying to collect many different examples. (Using the word "altruism" already means starting at the wrong place. Is "altruism" the same or not the same as "doing good to others"? That is what needs to be explored. Even "good" is a label, but it is much simpler one than "altruism".) The more different examples, the better, because with similar examples you are just repeating yourself.

Is it possible to do good without wanting to do good? Accidentally, by a habit, by misjudging the situation. Is it possible to hurt people while trying to do good? What if different people will evaluate "good" differently; perhaps because of conflict of interest (e.g. you helped someone win in a zero-sum game, the loser hates you), or because long-term and short-term consequences point in opposite direction? ... This all is just the few things that came to my mind during one minute of writing this comment; there are probably things I didn't even touch here.

Then, after having various specific examples, we can start examining whether they have something in common. And it is quite likely to conclude things like "X usually Y, but not always (see this weird example of X745)".

comment by Jkarl · 2017-07-24T21:13:09.566Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Webster's Definition of altruism

1: unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others - charitable acts motivated purely by altruism

2: behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species

I believe most people think of the first definition. Charity. But I tend to think of Altruism as a sacrifice. If you only had food for you and your family yet you gave it to another family. That act would not be selfish. It would weaken your position.

Perhaps I'm being a bit too mil spec, but I think this is more an exercise in definition and predominance of that definition in society than one of logic or morals. In addition, I think it depends on capacity. It's easier to be altruistic (either definition) when you still have a reservoir of resources to draw from.

Bill Gates giving millions to fight malaria is charity. "The shirt off my back" is altruism.

comment by eternal_neophyte · 2017-07-24T09:09:40.942Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It is impossible for one to act on another's utility function (without first incorporating it into their own utility function).

This seems tautological and trivially so. Whatever utility function you act on becomes by virtue of that fact "your" utility function.

comment by Sean Wookie (sean-wookie) · 2020-05-08T05:52:09.913Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Perspective, can change the way you try to define a word or action. Perspectives can change based on many things, such as maturity, experience, a long thought process (months, or even years), and circumstances, to list just a few of the infinite possibilities.

A man walking down the street pauses to put some money in a cup of a man who appears to be panhandling. Many people view this event at the same time, but with different perspectives.

One thinks "that's nice, but I wish I had enough to share as well"

Another thinks "sucker! he's just a lazy bum!"

Another thinks "is that helping, or not? I'm not sure"

Another thinks "I see he doesn't just preach kindness, his actions speak louder than his words"

Another thinks "he's an addict and you are just enabling him! you are NOT Helping!"

Another thinks "I can't afford to donate, but I'm going to anyways, I remember when I was on the street...."

I have always had the inclination to give a person the shirt off my back, as the expression goes. I think most of my family, on both sides, grew up that way. But I have also had to learn that to take care of others, you must take care of yourself first. I think I could see and understand all of the perspectives above, as I have lived life and experienced many things, including being homeless twice, and working so much I got employee of the year and made $6,000/month for a few years.

We are capable of mentally or emotionally understanding many perspectives, but they have much more meaning, and clarity, when you have lived through each of them. I thought I knew what the expression "the gift is in the giving" meant when I was younger, but I did not truly understand for many years.

I had helped someone, and someone asked why, when we both thought this person might be just taking advantage of that help, and I explained that it was the right thing to do no matter what, which is a reflection of who I am, and part of my inner peace, AND that the act may have helped someone else, even if we were not aware of it. It was then that it clicked with me, and I felt I truly understood, and I no longer wondered about the people who thought I might be giving to make myself feel better.

The words about my experiences shared above are for you. But even if they do not help you, maybe they will help someone else?

Safe Travels!

comment by Dagon · 2017-07-25T13:58:54.065Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

People are only capable of acting upon their own utility function.

Kind of by definition. Utility function != self-interest, though. Many of us have expressions in our utility functions for other people's expressed or inferred desires.

I don't think I redefined "selfish".

I think you did. You picked a formal definition that does not match common usage. And you utterly failed to deconstruct why anyone would care either way.

comment by Manfred · 2017-07-24T18:31:39.028Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

And yet, people, when giving examples of selfishness, don't just sample the entirety of human behavior. They point out a specific sort of behavior. Or when naming optimization functions, they might call one function "greedy," even though all functions tautologically do what they do. So clearly people have some additional criteria for everyday use of the word not captured by the extremely simple definition in this post.