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sometimes it sounds like Kitty Genovese
December 5, 2008 10:58 AM   Subscribe

Why should you risk your own life to save another human being? Maybe altruism in innate, like a bird's pretty song, or is it something that must be learned?
posted by four panels (62 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
because that dude owes me $20
posted by Auden at 11:07 AM on December 5, 2008


That person is your rival - for food, for resources, maybe even for a mate. Helping them should be the last thing on your mind.

If we killed one another all the time, or let one another die, humans would not have anyone to mate with, any additional adults to help care for young, and incredibly great difficulty getting, keeping, and preserving food. Humans need to be a cooperative species. I see the logical problem in the idea of competition to create genetic offspring vs. the obvious reality that people cooperate routinely, but it seems like a false dilemma. You won't survive long enough to create offspring by trying to go it alone as a human being. We need to create social ties so we weak, naked, hungry, blunt-toothed monkeys can survive long enough to make offspring. Besides, protecting your offspring from threat might call on the ability to put yourself second.

A few years ago, a car swerved on the street where I was walking my dog, and I unthinkingly threw the dog behind me, ready to take the car's blow. Fortunately the car stopped. It would have been an odd situation, the dog being fine and me dead, having saved the dog's life. But it was clear I wasn't doing any conscious decision making - the dog was part of my clan, and I wasn't going to let it come to harm.

I've also heard people say here that not everything has to have an evolutionary purpose -- it just has to not interfere with evolution. If all we were concerned about were passing on our genes, we'd just kill everyone when they got too old to produce children. Why keep somebody around who just eats and eats and needs help and takes up your time and doesn't have a 'purpose'?
posted by Miko at 11:07 AM on December 5, 2008 [5 favorites]


Seems like we have been down this post before?
posted by captainsohler at 11:08 AM on December 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


Why should you risk your own life to save another human being?

Because they are good looking.

That was the wrong answer wasn't it.
posted by tkchrist at 11:08 AM on December 5, 2008 [2 favorites]


If we killed one another all the time, or let one another die, humans would not have anyone to mate with, any additional adults to help care for young, and incredibly great difficulty getting, keeping, and preserving food.

This same point was once raised about the killdeer, a bird long believed to be altruistic for distracting predators from its nest by pretending to have a broken wing. Of course, if the mama killdeer just looked out for itself, those eggs would be eaten, and there would be fewer killdeer, until the species died out.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 11:11 AM on December 5, 2008


the dog was part of my clan, and I wasn't going to let it come to harm.

I'm sure he would have done the same for you had it been a rabid evil squirrel.

Why keep somebody around who just eats and eats and needs help and takes up your time and doesn't have a 'purpose'?

IXNAY on the ILLKAY! God I hope my wife isn't reading this. Oh wiat. I have a special purpose that she keeps me around for, oh yeeeah.
posted by tkchrist at 11:12 AM on December 5, 2008


Because we know that if we help other people, they will help us when we're in need.
posted by dunkadunc at 11:13 AM on December 5, 2008


The Golden Rule gene. Which makes sense, really.

It was put there by Jesus.
posted by tkchrist at 11:15 AM on December 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


This is an excellent pod cast on the topic from Radio Lab. Really worth the listen.
posted by tkchrist at 11:19 AM on December 5, 2008


Not to bring up Dawkins, but....Selfish Gene? Also, at least some bird songs ARE learned.
posted by DU at 11:20 AM on December 5, 2008


Why should you risk your own life to save another human being?

Altruism is not selfless. Altruism strengthens the larger organism, the tribe that helps to carry your genes.

People who don't help others of their tribe weaken their tribe. Their tribe (along with that selfish genetic line) dies out or is taken over by a more powerful tribe in which altruism is more common.
posted by pracowity at 11:28 AM on December 5, 2008


Because they are good looking.

My 9th grade English teacher asked us under what circumstances we would give our lives to save someone else. A girl in my class answered that she would lay down her life for Menudo. Presumably she revoked this offer once Ricky Martin left.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 11:28 AM on December 5, 2008


Presumably she revoked this offer once Ricky Martin left.

I'm sure Ricky would be grateful and all. He and his husband would name a cat after her or something.
posted by tkchrist at 11:34 AM on December 5, 2008


Game theory covers a lot of ground, and the linked webpage is rather broad and theoretical. Some specific examples that relate to altrusim are tit-for-tat and the prisoner's dilemma. The Wikipedia article on altruism in animals is decent.

If all we were concerned about were passing on our genes, we'd just kill everyone when they got too old to produce children. Why keep somebody around who just eats and eats and needs help and takes up your time and doesn't have a 'purpose'?

If we as a species were only benefited by our physical abilities, we wouldn't dominate the planet like we do. We have a great ability to learn from one another, to pick important information up second-hand, and elders are the most valuable people in society in terms of retaining information. That includes everything from skills to stories to advice to horrible jokes we wish we hadn't been told in the first place. Also keep in mind that it's still a recent development that people live so long in the developed world and are able to become reliant on medical care to keep them going. In evolutionary time, that's a flash in the pan. We generally want to take care of our elders, and this seems adaptive for social groups as a whole, but for most of our history that was in a context where life expectancy did not typically reached into the 80s as it does for some large nations today.
posted by Tehanu at 11:36 AM on December 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


the tribe that helps to carry your genes

I've been carrying my own genes for way too long. And in these pants it really chaffs. C'mon tribe give me a hand. Little more of hand. Ah. Yeah. OW. Not too much of hand! Ok. That's good.
posted by tkchrist at 11:36 AM on December 5, 2008


Because altruism pisses Objectivists off.
posted by casarkos at 11:39 AM on December 5, 2008 [9 favorites]


We generally want to take care of our elders, and this seems adaptive for social groups as a whole

Do other social animals do this? I seem to recall that wolves will sometimes treat older members of the pack like puppies and bring back food for them. But it seems to me in nature older animals just tend to die before they become a burden.
posted by tkchrist at 11:46 AM on December 5, 2008


Evolutionary psychology experimenters have postulated that there must be an innate mechanism for identifying "cheaters," or those who take more than their share, in order for culture have evolved.

One experiment involved subjects observing visitors at alpine cottages, and the expectation that bundles of firewood should be brought in from below by each visitor. If they were told there was a clear cut rule that firewood should be brought, the subjects identified cheating much more accurately than if no such rule had been agreed upon in advance.

The study further postulated that there would be no innate ability to identify altruism, because there is no need to identify a behavior that seldom occurs. And their claim was that the further experiments showed that altruism is not recognized to anything like the same degree that cheating is.
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:50 AM on December 5, 2008


Hope of financial reward.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:59 AM on December 5, 2008


Or some other reward. Like if you rescued someone hot.
posted by illiad at 12:01 PM on December 5, 2008


I only rescue hot people. I figure ugly people have already learned to fend for themselves.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:09 PM on December 5, 2008 [2 favorites]


Why should you risk your own life to save another human being?

Reminds me of the old joke.

If your ex-wife's attorney and an IRS agent were drowning, would you read the paper or take a nap?
posted by Bitter soylent at 12:10 PM on December 5, 2008


No good deed goes unpunished.
posted by StickyCarpet at 12:11 PM on December 5, 2008


It's not that your goal is propagating you're genes. It's that your genes are using you to propagate themselves. Altruism becomes clear quite quickly once your understand the difference. You might consider reading The Selfish Gene by richard Dawkins.

Peter Singer's A Darwinian Left is a short & solid book about incorporating the prisoner's dilemma into you're philosophy once you've decided that altruism is you're moral goal.
posted by jeffburdges at 12:22 PM on December 5, 2008


I'd do it for the media coverage, book deal, and made for TV movie contract.
posted by strangeleftydoublethink at 12:22 PM on December 5, 2008


A related question is, if altruism is considered a good thing, why are people not always altruistic? What causes someone to stop and help a stranger, to be a Good Samaritan?

Studies have found two major factors: diffusion of responsibility and stress.

If there are lots of people around, a bystander feels that someone else will take care of it.

If the bystander is hurried or stressed, they are far less likely to stop. For example, in a study in which participants were told to go to an appointment across campus and had to pass by someone who was staggering around in apparent need of help, their reaction changed depending on whether they were told they had lots of time or were already nearly late.

Even if there is an evolutionary component to the perceived benefit of altruism, it can't happen (reliably) unless we learn to overcome these natural impulses. Perspective isn't yet something we receive by default.
posted by Araucaria at 12:23 PM on December 5, 2008


Altruism makes more sense, in terms of fitness, the more closely related you are to the person or persons you are sacrificing yourself for (not just giving your life, but stuff like not hogging up all the food you could).

Your immediate family are your closest relatives, and, in a state of nature, when you are a juvenile, immediate family are most of the people you have much to do with, so it could be highly adaptive to be very disposed toward altruism as a juvenile, then to grow out of it to some extent as you become an adult.

But human beings are highly neotenic (retaining juvenile characteristics as adults) compared to other primates.

As a result, I think we could be much more altruistic as a species than straightforward calculations of fitness might lead us to expect, simply because it is one of the many juvenile characteristics we retain as adults.
posted by jamjam at 12:24 PM on December 5, 2008


I rescued a hot person once but got burned when no reward was offered.
posted by strangeleftydoublethink at 12:25 PM on December 5, 2008


Peter Kropotkin answered this 106 years ago, but shit, who wants to listen to crazy Russian anarchists?

The idea that evolution is all about blindly competing no matter what is a stupid canard. It is put forth by Libertarians to "prove" that sociopathy is natural and correct and by Republicans to "prove" that evolution is godless and anti-christian.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:26 PM on December 5, 2008 [3 favorites]


I mean christ I've learned far more about evolution than I ever wanted to for no other reason than arguing with idiots.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:27 PM on December 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


Altruism strengthens the larger organism, the tribe that helps to carry your genes.

Acheological evidence exists from as early as the late paleolithic period showing both attempted medical procedures for critically injured individuals and people raised, from birth, with debilitating birth defects. There is plenty of evidence that humans care for each other even when there is little that an individual could contribute to the tribe.
posted by Pollomacho at 12:34 PM on December 5, 2008


The question could only be asked by someone who doesn't understand genetics very much. After all, there's a good chance that you and the person you're saving share an enormous number of genes. If your only goal is to pass on your genes, then risking yourself makes sense from a purely "evolutionary" sense because they're already carrying your genes, at least most of them.

And then there's the whole issue of reciprocity, individuals in a group who are willing to help each other are more likely to survive then ones who are not.

But yeah these kinds of issues are raised by objectivists who think human behavior ought to be 'logical', by which they mean logically consistent with a few brain-dead premises.
posted by delmoi at 12:38 PM on December 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


I see the logical problem in the idea of competition to create genetic offspring vs. the obvious reality that people cooperate routinely, but it seems like a false dilemma.

Indeed it is. There's way more going on in evolution than simple first-order competition.

I've also heard people say here that not everything has to have an evolutionary purpose -- it just has to not interfere with evolution. If all we were concerned about were passing on our genes, we'd just kill everyone when they got too old to produce children. Why keep somebody around who just eats and eats and needs help and takes up your time and doesn't have a 'purpose'?


For somewhat the same reason bee colonies keep the worker bees around, though they can't (properly) reproduce. Admittedly the 'purpose' is clearer in this case.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 12:38 PM on December 5, 2008


The idea that evolution is all about blindly competing no matter what is a stupid canard. It is put forth by Libertarians to "prove" that sociopathy is natural and correct and by Republicans to "prove" that evolution is godless and anti-christian.

Agreed. That said, "blindly competing no matter what" does not necessarily rule out the development of cooperation -- even if people lived in a world in which the only rule was Might Makes Right, they couldn't afford to ignore the simple fact that trust and cooperation is a force multiplier...
posted by vorfeed at 12:51 PM on December 5, 2008


All worker bees share the same half from the male because queen bees mate only once and male bees are haploid. It follows that a female bee's sisters are 2/3rd alike, but only 1/2 like their young. So a female bee's genes prefers to farm her mother over reproducing herself. I've heard that hive behavior has evolved independently 11 times when males are haploid, but only kinda once otherwise (termites). So bee colonies are not keeping the workers around, the workers are farming the queen.
posted by jeffburdges at 1:12 PM on December 5, 2008


You're correct but rather than farming the queen I'd describe it as the bee hive acting like one big superorganism, with individuals specialized to perform roles that usually are anatomically specialized. Yeah, the workers are kind of farming the queen for eggs. But also pheromones from the queen bee subdue workers, and workers handle every biological need except actually producing the eggs.
posted by Tehanu at 1:49 PM on December 5, 2008


As far as I can tell people do truly altruistic acts (as opposed to "charity" which is just being nice in public) because it makes them feel good in a way unlike any other. It's a very specific feeling of rightness that comes from helping a stranger in a small way or signing an organ donor card...the-sense-of-belonging-to-a-family-that-you-will-never-meet, which should be a single german word like Dueselhaffenandigriphethangin.

Now who's excited for inauguration day?
posted by Potomac Avenue at 1:51 PM on December 5, 2008


Well, wolves demonstrate self-sacrificing behaviour in the wild, for the sake of the pack. Chimpanzees don't. Canine morality has been very influential on human societal development (the term 'cynic' means 'dog-like', and the Cynics were very influential on Christianity). We consider many canine behaviours to be admirable traits - loyalty and self-sacrifice being two of the big ones. So there's some who argue that we learned to value social skills that we copied from the pack behaviour of domesticated dogs because these skills helped us get along with each other in larger groups. Primates don't behave altruistically, and there's no evidence to suggest that we developed a special gene for it in our very recent development. The canine influence is probably the simplest explanation.

Here's a nice little paper discussing the possible co-evolution of humans and canines.
posted by chrisgregory at 2:16 PM on December 5, 2008 [3 favorites]


The queen bee mates with several drones on her nuptial flight. If you wanted to equate altruism to anyone in the hive, it would have to be to the workers who tolerate the drones that did not die in the act of mating and just lie around eating and goofing off.
posted by Bitter soylent at 2:24 PM on December 5, 2008


(as opposed to "charity" which is just being nice in public)

Yes, a lot of charity seems to me to be pretty much conspicuous consumption.

Donate anonymously.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 2:27 PM on December 5, 2008


It's clear that individual human beings can defy simple evolutionary imperatives by committing suicide or choosing not to reproduce (Dawkins even quotes himself as an example). When evolution gave us a big brain, it gave us that degree of freedom. So why do people suppose that human ethics must be exhaustively explicable as a survival/reproduction strategy?
posted by Phanx at 2:29 PM on December 5, 2008


When evolution gave us a big brain, it gave us that degree of freedom.

hahahahahaha
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:31 PM on December 5, 2008


It's clear that individual human beings can defy simple evolutionary imperatives by committing suicide or choosing not to reproduce (Dawkins even quotes himself as an example). When evolution gave us a big brain, it gave us that degree of freedom. So why do people suppose that human ethics must be exhaustively explicable as a survival/reproduction strategy?

We have choice, but a lot of things tip us toward reproducing, and fitness is not just your direct offspring. If I don't reproduce but close family does, some of my genes are still getting passed on. It might be a better strategy to be an excellent caregiver of nieces and nephews than to reproduce myself. It's called kin selection.

Everything relates to survival and reproduction. That doesn't mean we aren't complex and don't have choices. But it does mean those choices occur within a framework of biological context and implications.
posted by Tehanu at 2:40 PM on December 5, 2008


Mencius:
To show innate goodness, Mencius used the example of a child falling down a well. Witnesses of this event immediately feel
“ alarm and distress, not to gain friendship with the child's parents, nor to seek the praise of their neighbors and friends, nor because they dislike the reputation [of lack of humanity if they did not rescue the child]...

The feeling of commiseration is the beginning of humanity; the feeling of shame and dislike is the beginning of righteousness; the feeling of deference and compliance is the beginning of propriety; and the feeling of right and wrong is the beginning of wisdom.

Men have these Four Beginnings just as they have their four limbs. Having these Four Beginnings, but saying that they cannot develop them is to destroy themselves.
人皆有不忍人之心。先王有不忍人之心,斯有不忍人之政矣。以不忍人之心,行不忍人之政,治天下可運之掌上。所以謂人皆有不忍人之心者,今人乍見孺子將入於井,皆有怵惕惻隱之心。非所以內交於孺子之父母也,非所以要譽於鄉黨朋友也,非惡其聲而然也。由是觀之,無惻隱之心,非人也;無羞惡之心,非人也;無辭讓之心,非人也;無是非之心,非人也。
posted by Abiezer at 3:09 PM on December 5, 2008 [2 favorites]


I wouldn't be surprised to find out that some aspects of altruism are hard wired; it makes the time I found myself in that overturned van make sense:

I was following a mini-van that had just cut me off on the interstate, because of the dick-move driving, I was holding a bit back so I could keep my eye on it, when suddenly it veered into the middle lane bounced off another truck and then turned towards the shoulder and slammed headlong into the median, flipping onto its side.

The next thing I knew, I was inside through the back window trying to check on wellbeing of the driver. And I mean, the "next thing I knew". I really don't remember stopping, or getting out of my car, but I did because it was safely parked about a hundred feet back.

It was really weird because about three other people were on the scene as fast as I was, so apparently I wasn't just my efforts to be a superhero, but an inclination that a bunch of us had.

To be honest, if I had stopped to think about it, I doubt I would have helped. The car was spilling fuel, there was broken glass everywhere, and the fucking driver had just cut me off. So maybe it's good that some things might be automatic, it certainly would explain some of the stupid stuff we do just to protect our own.
posted by quin at 3:25 PM on December 5, 2008


Personal experience: In my EMT-training course, we are taught that we should never knowingly put our lives in danger to rescue or otherwise save another person. (.i.e, an injured person in the middle of a gunfight, or someone trapped under a burning gas tanker, etc.) The reasoning being that one dead patient and one dead EMT is worse than just one dead patient -- and that a living EMT can potentially help more paitents, as opposed to a dead EMT, who can help nobody.

It's a very negative moral calculus (Sorry pal, my special medical skills make my life more valuable than yours!) but it's one that even the best of us have toyed with at times. Haven't we all wondered who should get tossed overboard on a lifeboat running out of fresh water? The 70-year old CPA with lung cancer or the 26-year old doctor who knows how to make a fresh-water still?

Personally, I think the EMT's deserve to be tossed overboard, but, whatever.
posted by Avenger at 4:31 PM on December 5, 2008


The idea that evolution is all about blindly competing no matter what is a stupid canard. It is put forth by Libertarians to "prove" that sociopathy is natural and correct and by Republicans to "prove" that evolution is godless and anti-christian.

I've never read Mutual Aid, but I know what you mean. Teenagers and man-children are especially prone to this kind of idea. They talk about fitness and survival instinct as if a human was supposed to survive as a bear does, or a shark -- each for himself and God against all. But where bears have claws and sharks have teeth, we have cerebrums. Sometimes I think that human beings have, in a sense, never left a state of nature. Our toolmaking and complex social structure is what makes us "fit." Altruism is part and parcel of their operation.
posted by Countess Elena at 4:41 PM on December 5, 2008 [2 favorites]


"Priest: I am reminded on this day of the sad story of Kitty Genovese. This poor soul cried out, and people stood and watched as Kitty was stabbed to death in broad daylight. Now... we must all fear evil men. But, there is another kind of evil that we must fear most. And that is... the indifference of good men.

Murphy: Sounds like the Monseigneur's finally got the point.

Conner: Aye."
posted by Severian at 5:28 PM on December 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


Personal experience: In my EMT-training course, we are taught that we should never knowingly put our lives in danger to rescue or otherwise save another person. (.i.e, an injured person in the middle of a gunfight, or someone trapped under a burning gas tanker, etc.) The reasoning being that one dead patient and one dead EMT is worse than just one dead patient -- and that a living EMT can potentially help more paitents, as opposed to a dead EMT, who can help nobody.

"But Captain - I must fight you to the death. For the both of us to be killed would be illogical."
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 5:36 PM on December 5, 2008


Humans are fundamentally different from other animals in that we have language that lets us construct a model of the world, including other humans which allows us to have empathy. In this way empathy and altruism could be a mere spandrels that came about after we evolved language.

Evolutionary psychological arguments are incredibility annoying in that they seek to explain complex cultural traits of humans while generally ignoring cultural explanations. Most of these explanations are little more than evolutionary masturbation anyway given that we still hardly know anything about the evolutionary history of humans and we know even less about the biological basis of complex human behavior like altruism.

All bird song is learned, (at least for all true song birds)
posted by afu at 10:16 PM on December 5, 2008


Primates don't behave altruistically, and there's no evidence to suggest that we developed a special gene for it in our very recent development.

Chimpanzees are not the only primates.

posted by benzenedream at 10:46 PM on December 5, 2008


There is plenty of evidence that humans care for each other even when there is little that an individual could contribute to the tribe.

The simple mechanism, the instinct, that encourages you to save others of your family and tribe does so regardless of an individual's fitness. In general, this works to your advantage and to your tribe's advantage, even if occasionally you end up caring for someone who has nothing obvious to contribute to you or the tribe.
posted by pracowity at 10:56 PM on December 5, 2008


Doesn't it make more sense in the context of small tribes, where the odds were high that the person you saved altruistically was significantly related to you?

In general, Evo Psych seems a bit too glib, but I guess that's because I run into the Internet/pop-culture version of it rather than reading proper research papers. There's a pretty large gap between "aspects of our psychology evolved in the same way as other traits" and "...so you should totally neg her on the first date and buy the most expensive car you can afford!".

Metafilter: Chimpanzees are not the only primates.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 1:15 AM on December 6, 2008


We help other people because no one can both do their taxes and fix their plumbing on their own.
posted by ersatz at 6:48 AM on December 6, 2008


Sure, chimpanzees aren't the only primates, but I know a lot more dogs than I know bonobos. And dogs do all that bonobos are claimed to do and then some...I don't want to sound like a crazy dog person, but pre-Darwin there as a lot of mostly Church-led propaganda that tried to differentiate us from the animal world. We're still re-evaluating a lot of things. While it seems possible that there's some hard-coded altruistic behaviour in human behaviour, it's a trait much stronger in dogs, and again, many historical thinkers have claimed to have been directly influenced by canine behaviour. Whether or not you have religious beliefs, your valuation of such things as altruism have been influenced by religious teachings. We prize dogs for altruistic behaviour - there's almost daily accounts of dogs saving kids in the press, Lassie on TV, lots of stuff everywhere - the value we place on this canine trait influences our own behaviour.

I don't think that altruism needs to be hard-wired for us to value it. We learn lots of stuff. Given that there's no solid history of altruism in primates (if bonobos, chimpanzees and humans are all descended from common ancestors, then why single out bonobo behaviour? We behave much more like chimpanzees than we do bonobos. It's much more likely that bonobos learned altruism separately than that all other primates lost the gene for it), and that we have been constant companions with a species that has strong, hard-wired social skills, it's perhaps anthro-centric to claim that we haven't learned social behaviours by observing animal behaviours.
posted by chrisgregory at 5:07 PM on December 6, 2008


In case you haven't read it, that Pinker article (second link) is really freakin' good.
posted by ParsonWreck at 9:05 PM on December 6, 2008


I don't think that altruism needs to be hard-wired for us to value it. We learn lots of stuff.

Very true, but I have found watching three year olds feeding baby animals-- or any animals-- to be pretty convincing on the hard-wired issue as far as altruism is concerned.
posted by jamjam at 11:19 AM on December 7, 2008


Hmm. A three-year old child may feed an animal for whatever reason, but give a dog snack to a child any younger and it'll stick the treat in its own mouth, always. I think that by three years a child has been taught to not just stuff everything into it's own mouth, has language skills, and has started to be taught to share and to treat others, including animals, kindly.

My own dog would give food to dominant dogs, lay the food in front of them as offerings in an effort to ingratiate himself, when about six months old. It would work: the other dog would understand his intentions. Dogs are born with an awareness of social hierarchies.

If altruism was hard-wired to any significant degree in humans, I suspect that it would be a bit more universal. Altruism is valued much more highly in industrialised western cultures among middle-class people than in other cultures and classes, and I'm thinking China in particular because of my familiarity with the Chinese classics, like The Water Margin, in which kindness is only ever used as a tool to exploit a weakness...as an Australian, I'd say that Australians are more inclined to value 'fairness' over self-sacrifice. And altruism easily becomes intertwined with social status and lots of other things - for example, the rich in the US are inclined to perform acts of public charity because of a culture of philanthropy. In more socialist-leaning countries there's a tendency to believe that the state should handle such things, and philanthropy is less common (or at least less conspicuous).
posted by chrisgregory at 2:22 PM on December 7, 2008


I think that by three years a child has been taught

It's hard to say. By three years old, hardwired cognitive development may have reached a stage that allows for a concept of empathy to emerge - and the idea that another entity might be hungry and appreciate food could suddenly appear as an expression of that. Think of adolescence. Before adolescence, members of the target sex might have cooties. After the hardwired developmental changes that occur during maturation to adolescence, new behaviors emerge. Late onset isn't in itself an indicator that a behavior is learned.

Some cultures may reward and encourage altruism more than others - but that, also, doesn't mean altruism is not hardwired. For instance, Australians may indeed value fairness highly. But I doubt that means Australians wouldn't try to save a drowning person, or someone trapped in a fire. It's not that they don't value altrustic behavior, and not that altruism is absent - just that it may be less celebrated than in some other cultures. To discuss the idea, there needs to be agreement on what altruism is - is it just generosity, sharing, and being nice (which certainly could be learned or enhanced through learned behaviors0, or are we really trying to pinpoint a deeper urge to preserve the lives of others even when there is self-endangerment involved?

I also don't think it's more valued in middle-class people. It's very much evident among the very poor in Western societies.
posted by Miko at 3:44 PM on December 7, 2008


Yes. I agree with you. I was just arguing in response to the poster's claim that a three year-old's altruism was proof of the behaviour being hard-wired, while I would suggest that by the age of three it was possible that altruism had been learned, given that it's not evident at earlier ages of childhood. I fully support the possibility that altruism is hard-wired, but I don't think it *has* to be.

By saying that the middle-classes value altruism, I suppose I was really thinking of the kind of conspicuous giving that has a pay-off in elevated feelings of self-worth usually greater in value than the actual investment made. I'm suggesting that giving a homeless guy a couple of bucks for a cup of coffee does little to help the guy in any long-term fashion, but makes the giver feel like a disproportionately good person, even when the amount of money given is completely trivial to the giver.

I had an awful phone canvassing job many years ago, as a student, raising money for charities. One of the first things you learn is to not even bother calling the wealthier suburbs, where people will always tell you that they already 'give enough' or have 'their own charities'. The people in more working class suburbs were much more likely to consider your plea on a case-by-case basis, even when the amount of money we were asking for was much more significant to them personally. Working-class people are perhaps less likely to inform you of their generosity.
posted by chrisgregory at 6:04 PM on December 7, 2008


Working-class people are perhaps less likely to inform you of their generosity.

Not to sound preachy (and lord forbid I should sound like I'm advocating xtianity here, which I am under no circumstance not, except in that there are some nice egalitarian ethical priciples to be found occasionally in some of their works), but do you know the one about the "widow's mite"?
posted by Pollomacho at 8:14 AM on December 8, 2008


My partner's family are Evangelical Christians, which is not too common in Australia. And they're good Christians, as in they're good people who do a lot of community work here and abroad, the whole lot of them. At Christmas they exchange these cards they get from somewhere, each of which symbolises a goat, or a well, or probably a hydro-electric power plant somewhere, that has been purchased in the recipients name. And they all seem genuinely happy at receiving these things...

My partner is not expecting an inheritance (and is not begrudging). The money most people would squirrel away for their descendants has ended up helping the less fortunate in the third world, mostly. But the point is: they live frugally and they make absolutely no fuss about any of their charitable activities whatsoever. It's just like breathing to them.

You could say that they're only doing it because they believe that they'll be somehow compensated in another life, but they don't seem to make a fuss about that either. I suspect that it's just their culture; it may be inspired by an imaginary being, but it's hard not to wish that there were more people like them.
posted by chrisgregory at 2:29 PM on December 8, 2008


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