Paradoxes of Altruism in the Digital Age

By William FleschAugust 19, 2012

Paradoxes of Altruism in the Digital Age

Pathological Altruism by Barbara Oakley
The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins

THE DRUDGE REPORT GETS about 30,000,000 hits a day, and has been long ensconced among the top hundred US internet sites. Other news sites in the top 100, rubbing digital shoulders with Google, Amazon, and Apple, include Fox News and the Huffington Post: tendentious suppliers of political bias. But the Drudge Report seems to be the only pure news aggregator in that list. What it aggregates are mostly stories that will encourage its right-wing readers to cultivate feelings of outrage and aggrievement at the excesses of the left, while allowing its left-wing readers (like me) to tend to our own outrage and aggrievement at the right-wing. Why do we go there so often? Why is the Drudge Report (or talk radio) what we so love to hate? Why do so many of us get into comment wars, sputtering in impotent fury and Disqus-disgust at the stupidity and sheer wrongness that we seek out on the internet? Aren't there more pleasant ways to spend our time?

Apparently not, at least for a lot of people. One of the best pieces in Pathological Altruism is David Brin‘s chapter on addiction to indignation: “Self-addiction and Self-righteousness.” You might see why looking to feel outraged as often as you can is pathological, but how could overweening, self-righteous huffiness ever be described as altruistic?

There’s very little agreement in this mixed grab bag of essays on what altruism would or could be, and the question seems both easier and harder if you ask about pathological altruism. Harder, because the term teeters on the edge of paradox. Easier, because when the altruist suffers to the point of experiencing her own altruism as harmful, then it’s hard to dismiss altruism, as many are tempted to do, as simply disguised self-dealing — in other words, as a manipulative way of promoting one’s own interests.

The problem of defining altruism

In order to understand altruism you’ll need a decent definition of the concept and a decent sense of what sorts of things wouldn’t falsify that definition. Could it, for example, be altruistic to donate money to charity if the donation gives you pleasure? Let’s stipulate that the answer is yes, it could be altruistic: that the very fact that giving money to charity gives you pleasure is a sign that you have an altruistic disposition. A good working definition of altruism, then, might be: a) a tendency to do things that go counter to something that maximizes self-interest, b) when doing such things will help maximize the purely rational interests of others, c) so that doing these things comes at a cost to oneself. “Prosocial” preferences — preferences that advance the rational interests of others, and of society as a whole — are evidence for altruism.

There is no doubt that such preferences are to be found among human beings. Now, it may be that certain systems reward altruism, so that, in such systems, being altruistic would in fact also maximize rational self-interest. But this is not the chicken-and-egg problem it seems: It’s a match-and-fire problem. Altruism can only be rewarded in systems in which other altruists are doing the rewarding. It may be rewarding, even from a rational point of view, but only if and when the economic irrationality of altruism has already prevailed systemically. This is true even of Robert Trivers’s notion of “reciprocal altruism.” If I see you drowning, then I might be disposed to throw you a life buoy even if it made me miss the first few minutes of the movie I was hurrying to see. The benefit to the pair of us of my helping you outweighs the cost to the pair of us (taken as a pair). That benefit matters to me as an individual as well. As a member of a species which evolved so that individuals will accept small costs for themselves in return for great benefits to others like them, the fact that I’ve saved your life means — since you and I belong to the same species — that I’ve saved the life of someone likely to do the same for me when the need arises.

But what about the selfish-gene argument? Is altruism fundamentally self-centered and self-serving on a genetic level, something genes make people do for the benefit of copies of those genes, copies to be found, for example, in my children or nieces and nephews? Again, the least we can say is that my genes may be selfish, but if I give up my life for my child, I am not being selfish. You can say, if you want, that I am giving up my life for my genes, but that’s not how it feels to me. Even if that is what I am doing, it is I who am doing it, not for me but for them.

The riddle of altruism’s relation to selfishness is captured in a witty exchange between Jack and Algernon in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest:

Algernon. What brings you up to town?

Jack. Oh, pleasure, pleasure! What else should bring one anywhere? 

If Jack is right, any demonstration of the possibility of altruism seems contradictory, because: 1) By definition what we do voluntarily we do because we want to; 2) All our voluntary acts cater to our own wishes and wants; 3) Therefore what looks like altruism actually gives us pleasure, making a purely altruistic act impossible.

One contributor to the book, Bernard Berofsky, sounds just like this when he suggests the following about altruism and the ego:

Suppose that the psychological egoist is right. We are always moved by self-interest, even if self-interest leads us to form altruistic intentions, intentions to help others, viewed as means to promote our own self-interest. Thus, in a deep sense, there is no altruism.

Berofsky is skeptical of genuine altruism because of something called “kin-selection.” The idea, developed by William D. Hamilton, George R. Price and Robert Trivers and popularized by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene, takes genes, not organisms, as the crucial agents behind biological behavior. Only those genes survive that either contribute to their own survival or at least don’t significantly handicap the prospects for their own survival in a brutally competitive natural environment. Altruism seems by definition to represent a drag on fitness, a serious handicap in the competition to survive and reproduce, and so altruistic genes won’t survive in the long run. Since, according to selfish gene theory, an organism (like you and me) is just a gene’s way of making another gene, what organisms do will always tend to benefit their own genes. Laying down your life for your child, for example, benefits half your genes. Parental self-sacrifice is then ultimately self-serving, from the point of view of the genes disposing you to self-sacrifice. You may feel altruistic, but your behavior is at bottom governed by the selfishness of your genes.

To put Berofky’s two arguments simply, feeling altruistic might be one of the pleasurable incentives that will motivate selfish behavior, so that seeking the pleasure of feeling altruistic is itself a selfish act. Or it may be that the selfish self is genetic, not psychic, and the psychological self’s apparent altruism is actually behavior that is driven (through the incentive of pleasure) by the selfish gene.

The truth of this account of altruism is at best schematic but trivial, on both the genetic and the psychological level. It may be sound, but it gets us nowhere.

Cooperation and altruistic punishment

Some evolutionary biologists, David Sloan Wilson among them, think that there are reasons for seeing human cooperation as deriving from a genuine genetic propensity for altruism. Altruism and prosocial tendencies may be taken as roughly synonymous. Species (humans pre-eminently) that tend to engage in behavior which promotes the general welfare — even at the cost of some individual sacrifice — are able to cooperate in ways that help everyone.

They can do this despite the huge risk that free riders will derail the whole system. What prevents free riders from undermining altruism by taking such advantage of altruists that they die out? The answer that many evolutionary biologists, evolutionary psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, neuroscientists, game theorists, and, even narrative theorists like yours truly, have converged on is the concept of what’s now known as altruistic punishment.

The idea behind altruistic punishment is that uninvolved third party witnesses will punish defectors, cheaters, and free riders. They, or a significant number of them, won’t let a self-dealer or serious violator of social norms get away with social or moral transgressions, even if they have to pay a price themselves. And they won’t even let those who are indifferent to the violators get away with such transgressions either. Many people are still angry at the 38 people who allegedly witnessed the rape and murder of Kitty Genovese from the safety of their apartments in 1964 and didn’t bother to call the police. (By contrast, we know that several people called 911 when Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman were fighting — a response which we feel we’re entitled to expect.) Like reciprocal altruism, altruistic punishment is self-sustaining. Once it’s been established, it can keep itself going. But first it has to become established, which requires two steps: first altruism; and, second, other folks’ valuation of altruism for being altruism, which enables them to signal that they themselves are on the altruistic or prosocial side of things.

In fact, there’s some evidence that witnesses of Kitty Genovese’s murder assumed the altruism of other witnesses as a matter of course, and saw no need to call the police because they were sure others had done so. If this is true, it’s a good example of the pathology of altruism: everyone was generously assuming that everyone else was in the act of making the call. (The Kitty Genovese case is briefly mentioned by Robert J. Homant and Daniel B. Kennedy in their chapter, "Does No Good Deed Go Unpunished? The Victimology of Altruism" as leading to discussions about “situational altruism” as encouraged or suppressed by social cues.).

You might think this sort of third party disposition to altruistic intervention and punishment could be explained, and to some extent explained away, by the selfish gene theory. It may appear plausible that I would give up my life not only for my near kin, but for the group that I belong to, who will tend to share more than an average number of my genes. Consider what might be the most violently pathological act of altruism imaginable: suicide bombing. In his impressive chapter “Suicide Attack Martyrdoms: Temperament and Mindset of Altruistic Warriors,” Adolf Tobeña presents evidence that the one trait that most suicide bombers, whether secular or religious, have in common is a strongly altruistic disposition. His chapter, like much of the book, takes into account neurochemical and neurobiological evidence for how the brain processes altruism. The pesky question then is, how could genes select for an altruism so suicidally over-the-top that those who have those genes can’t reproduce? A contradiction in terms seems to be at play here. Proponents of group selection argue that suicidal warriors may effectively be protecting genes similar to theirs among others in their own group.

An argument from group selection, however, doesn’t work to show why suicide bombing should occur. The problem is that any advantages to my genes that come from taking out some enemies through my own suicide just aren’t worth the cost. Any child of mine shares half my genes (on average); therefore, the best bet for survival that my genes (including those genes that dispose me to suicidal altruism) can take is zealous reproduction, not self-sacrifice for the group. W.D. Hamilton and George Price demonstrated this point in great depth in their work on spite in the 1970s. And if the whole group I belong to is prone to self-sacrifice, infiltrators will be able to take advantage of our suicidal generosity, and so take over.

Another essay in the book acknowledges the genetic disadvantage in self-destructive behavior. In his chapter, evolutionary biologist Marc Hauser (who, interestingly, was later publicly accused of scientific misconduct by Harvard University) describes suicide bombing as the result of a runaway process familiar from evolutionary thinking. The explanation is this: If altruism is valued in a social group (especially through sexual selection), a competition to be altruistic might arise among its members, and such competition could push altruism to self-defeating extremes, at least among a significant number of outliers.

What all this analysis of over-the-top behavior is driving at is that pathologically altruistic behavior can delimit and define that form of altruism that operates in accordance with group dynamics and promotes group interests through their interaction with individual interests. The group may demand and reward a willingness to engage in violence, even self-destructive violence, as long as such behavior benefits the group as a whole. Sometimes this behavior reaches self-defeating extremes, but the extremes help define the less pathological varieties of altruistic punishment that manifest themselves in dangerous but not inevitably suicidal behavior. Suicide bombing would then be a runaway form of altruism, meant to benefit society as a whole.

Let me stress that suicide bombers would have to be extreme outliers in any graph describing the types of behavior coded for by altruistic genes. Selfish-gene theory simply doesn’t explain their behavior. Rather, their pathological behavior casts light on the nature and experience of altruism itself. Accordingly, it seems much better to say that altruism, even in its violent forms, is a genuine feature of human interaction, sustained by and sustaining human culture as well as human nature. This is what makes it liable to the pathologies of inappropriate and counterproductive excess. Being a third-party punisher of defectors is never, all by itself and independent of circumstances, going to be an optimal rationally-selfish choice under plausible human circumstances. And yet we are, almost all of us, surprisingly prosocial. We can usually afford to be, because we are surrounded by other prosocial human beings, and so promoting the interests of a society whose members are all prosocial is a self-sustaining proclivity for each member. What’s fascinating is that such prosociality can include what look at first like antisocial tendencies and which in extreme cases take the form of suicide bombing, of homicide, and of a host of other pathological formations (anorexia, codependency, delusions of grandeur, compassion fatigue, obedience to authority, battered spouse syndrome: each the focus of at least one chapter). It also means that our collective prosociality is the environment that genes have to negotiate if they wish to reproduce.

It should now be clear how indignation and outrage can be seen as pathologies of altruism. The paradigm of “parochial altruism” in the service of group selection — that is, suicide bombing you for the advancement of my group over yours — falls short; there is no obvious genetic advantage that would support the evolution and continuance of such behavior. But what if we think about it in a different way: Suicide bombing you for the benefit of our group as a whole, the group you and I both belong to. That’s altruistic punishment (run amok, but still altruistic punishment), and it’s able to explain much more about pathological acts like suicide bombing.

David Hume and King Lear: altruistic punishment and the failure of empathy

Pathologies of altruism are, in particular, pathologies of altruistic punishment, and represent a strange but real generosity on the part of the trolls we so hate in the comment threads on the internet. Our hatred of trolls is a mirror image of their earnest and generous desire to punish. David Hume expressed the matter with Wildean counterintuitive concision when he argued for the fundamental prosociality of what others wrongly and incoherently take to be self-interested attitudes. Hume saw in such traits as boastfulness and the will to power what he called a “general benevolence” in human nature, and an inclination against the primacy of self-interest. He argued for this bracing conclusion by highlighting the way such actions are motivated by the thoughts and feelings of others:

There are mental passions by which we are impelled immediately to seek particular objects, such as fame or power, or vengeance without any regard to interest; and when these objects are attained a pleasing enjoyment ensues, as the consequence of our indulged affections. Nature must, by the internal frame and constitution of the mind, give an original propensity to fame, ere we can reap any pleasure from that acquisition, or pursue it from motives of self-love, and desire of happiness. If I have no vanity, I take no delight in praise: if I be void of ambition, power gives me no enjoyment: if I be not angry, the punishment of an adversary is totally indifferent to me. In all these cases there is a passion which points immediately to the object, and constitutes it our good or happiness; as there are other secondary passions which afterwards arise, and pursue it as a part of our happiness, when once it is constituted such by our original affections. Were there no appetite of any kind antecedent to self-love, that propensity could scarcely ever exert itself; because we should, in that case, have felt few and slender pains or pleasures, and have little misery or happiness to avoid or to pursue. Who sees not that vengeance, from the force alone of passion, may be so eagerly pursued, as to make us knowingly neglect every consideration of ease, interest, or safety; and, like some vindictive animals, infuse our very souls into the wounds we give an enemy.

As Hume saw, we care more about our adversaries than about ourselves. When we spend time lambasting people on the internet, the outrage that fuels us represents our most generous and prosocial impulses, pathological though they may become. We castigate others because we earnestly, even if sometimes violently, desire to make them see the error of their ways. Joachim Krueger gives a list of what he thinks are non-altruistic motivations for altruistic punishment, including “self-righteous motives,” and “a wish to uphold social norms or seek vengeance, even on behalf of others.” But these motives, Hume would say, are in fact altruistic. Why else would we seek vengeance, and especially why seek vengeance on behalf of others?

Why is correction of others, even of our bitterest enemies, so important to us? Why do we want them to see that they’re wrong? Why do we jeer at them instead of being coldly indifferent to them? How is our bitter, even murderous hatred of another a strange and perhaps pathological but still genuine sign of the respect we owe that other person as a human being? What makes our enmity towards that person so bitter, an emotion to be felt rather than merely a problem to be solved? Human cooperation requires not only empathy but an expectation of empathy from others. We become indignant when we feel that they are not meeting that expectation.

Altruistic punishment is always in one way or another punishment of a failure of another’s empathy. I am baffled by your indifference to the wrong you are making me suffer (or making another suffer). I am confronted with a contradiction in terms when I attempt to empathize with your refusal to empathize, or (as is more generally the case) when I attempt to empathize with the mistaken modes of your empathy. Empathy is one of the most absolute human experiences, rather than the second-order experience it has too often been analyzed as being. “I should even die with pity to see another thus,” the suffering and broken King Lear complains, as though pity is a deeper, more powerful emotion than the thing it pities, and as though he needs the pity of others even more than he needs not to feel the grief he is feeling. He survives his grief, but he would not survive grief for another who is feeling what he is feeling.

Dawkin’s literal-mindedness and the whisper behind altruistic punishment

Despite Richard Dawkins’s famous catch-phrase, among humans, at least, the selfish gene can only hope to survive if it codes for altruism, even from its own point of view. Although later editions of The Selfish Gene have accepted some of the ways that altruism can be a real and irreducible “emergent property” of cooperative interaction, Dawkins tends to be pretty literal-minded, even in a book entitled The Magic of Reality, his latest, which came out last year.

It’s not that he fails to give an account of the undreamt of wonders that science has uncovered — in biology, geology, astronomy, and chemistry. Dawkins has always been a wonderful writer. Here, he is writing a book ostensibly for children. The official audience would be twelve to fifteen year olds, but as with the TV game show Are You Smarter than a Fifth-grader? the point is to promulgate this information to their stick-in-the-mud elders. The style seems swiped from C.S. Lewis’s proselytizing children’s books: Dawkins is counter-proselytizing against religious mythology, and particularly against the Abrahamic religions. It’s weird and invigorating to see this somewhat treacly but still engaging style used against religious pieties. But Dawkins comes off as two-dimensional as Lewis does.

I’ll give one example. The book is structured around a series of questions to which Dawkins first gives a series of traditional answers drawn from comparative mythology and folklore from around the world. He then proceeds to answer what ‘we now know’ to be true. The Bible is treated as just as obviously false as every other piece of mythology. The problem isn’t Dawkins’s atheism; the problem is that his genial contempt deprecates the deep thinking to be found in most mythology and folklore. And yet, it’s wonderful to have Dawkins retelling these stories, even if he thinks they’re ridiculous.

In his penultimate chapter, “Why Do Bad Things Happen?” about probability and confirmation bias, he engagingly retells a story about “how death came into the world.” (I am sure he intends this C.S. Lewis-style allusion to Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, which tells how man’s first disobedience “brought death into the world.”) Dawkins writes:

All over Africa, different tribes believe that the chameleon was given the news of everlasting life and told to carry it to humans, Unfortunately the chameleon walked so slowly (they do, I know: as a child in Africa I had a pet chameleon called Hookariah) that the news of death, carried by a nippier lizard (or other faster animal in other versions of the legend), arrived first. In one West African legend, the news of life was brought by a slow toad, unfortunately overtaken by a fast dog bringing the news of death. I must say I’m a bit puzzled why the order in which news arrives should matter so much. [His italics.]

This is indeed an interesting puzzle, one worth taking more seriously than Dawkins does in his italicized flourish. We could say that this story corresponds to human experience: we begin our lives thinking of ourselves as immortal — borne up by what William Hazlitt called “the feeling of immortality in youth” — but the inevitable knowledge that we will die catches up with us. Knowing that we’ll die, living our entire adult lives in the shadow of our own mortality, seems to be a uniquely human trait.

I think the fact that we know we're going to die is part of the structure of altruism. The desire to convince others to cooperate, and to empathize with cooperators, takes on its most urgent colors because we know, and expect them to know, that suffering is a standing possibility and inevitable eventuality for all human beings. When we look at humans we look at them as capable of suffering, and so we punish those who make them suffer needlessly, knowing too that in punishing we are ‘correcting’ by causing suffering. Knowing that we’re causing suffering, we cause it not only aversively, as the behaviorists would say, but also to emphasize what it is we want them to empathize with in others.

We know that we will die; we know that other people know that they will die; we know that they know that we know we will die. The knowledge that the news of death brings us all is a knowledge of others’ mortality as well as our own, and it is what links us to others and makes empathy and altruism possible, or at least it is the knowledge that empathy and altruism are about. “How can you put someone in danger, you who know what death is, you who know that you too are mortal?” might be the whisper behind all altruistic punishment. And also behind all “human love,” as W.H. Auden puts it: what it means to be human is to see others, and to know oneself as seen by them, as creatures who are at various times and according to various moods and situations, “mortal, guilty, but… entirely beautiful.”



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LARB Contributor

William Flesch teaches English at Brandeis. He is the author of, among other books, The Facts on File Companion to British Poetry: 19th Century (2009), and of many articles on poetic form.


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