Cynicism About Altruism


cynical view of human behavior reduces all acts, even those that on the surface seem grandly altruistic, into base selfishness. The cynicism is not entirely unfounded. Certain behaviors are designed to seem altruistic, but are in actuality self-serving, sometimes transparently so.

We often dress up gift giving as selflessness when there is, in fact, an expectation of reciprocation. We’ve all had to give gifts out of obligation, in observance of a system of reciprocation, and we’ve also received such gifts. This sort of gift exchange seems such a cold, pointless, and insincere ritual.

Corporations build their images by giving generously to non-profit organizations, but we all know they do this for tax benefits, to advertise, and to foster good will in democratic communities where citizens have power to influence how those corporations are regulated. The housing development corporation donates money to the elementary school in an affluent community where they do business (but far from where the need is greatest) and makes sure the donation is publicized. It would be interesting to see what charitable acts the same corporations do in failed states, where the charity is more needed but where reciprocation (in the form of retail sales) is unlikely and where citizens have virtually no control over resource extraction.

Similarly, individuals make charitable donations for tax benefits, to build their images (advertising), and to foster good will in communities where others have power over them. There is a brand of machismo sometimes associated with generosity. It calls to mind the flaring of peacock feathers and the hissing of cats more than choirs of angels. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins describes what anthropologists call the Potlatch Effect, “named after the custom whereby rival chieftains of Pacific north-west tribes vie with each other in duels of ruinously generous feasts.” He reports on a study of small brown birds called Arabian babblers:

Dominant babblers assert their dominance by feeding subordinates. […] the dominant bird is saying the equivalent of, ‘Look how superior I am to you, I can afford to give you food.’ […] And when a subordinate babbler attempts to offer food to a dominant individual, the apparent generosity is violently rebuffed. The essence of [the researcher] Zahavi’s idea is that advertisements of superiority are authenticated by their cost. Only a genuinely superior individual can afford to advertise the fact by means of a costly gift. Individuals buy success, for example in attracting mates, through costly demonstrations of superiority, including ostentatious generosity and public-spirited risk-taking.

Advertising of dominance is the fourth of four potential evolutionary bases that Dawkins proposes for altruism in animals:

  1. Genetic kinship
  2. Reciprocation
  3. Reputation
  4. Advertising of one’s superiority

It’s quite possible that all four of these forces contribute to altruistic behavior in humans. Clearly not all of the motives we have for helping others are purely noble.

However, it’s wrong to suggest that taking any pleasure whatsoever in giving to others invalidates the altruism. We are wired to take pleasure in things, and it’s inevitable that the pleasure-system would find a way to get triggered in the process of giving, but pleasure or no, a gift given with no expectation of reciprocation is validly selfless.

To illustrate this, imagine two Santa Clauses, Santa A and Santa B. The Santas are charged with bringing joy to the world’s impoverished children, each responsible for half the population. Each year, the Santas craft thousands of toys by their own hard labor (no elves in this scenario) and at their own expense. On Christmas Eve they deliver the toys to children around the globe, with no hope for reciprocation. Both Santas endure the hardship of living year round above the Arctic Circle, to avoid imprisonment by the child-hating, toy-prohibiting, Santa-hunting authorities. It gives Santa A great pleasure to imagine the children will laugh with delight at the gifts they receive. Santa B suffers from intense anhedonia and is incapable of taking pleasure in his work, but he still believes intellectually that giving toys is morally right. Is the gift giving of Santa B somehow more valid than that of Santa A, simply because his pleasure-system fails to fire in the process?

It may be inevitable that we’ll feel at least some bits of pleasure, as well as at least some bits of displeasure, during any enterprise we choose to undertake. It’s too cynical to say that any pleasure at all that we derive from giving somehow taints the enterprise. It is part of human nature to wish to assist others even when our kindness does not appear to result in personal gain. Altruism is real.

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 Posted by on February 23, 2012
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