Light and Dark

Greta Christina recently wrote a wonderful review of the book Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), an analysis of the unconscious defense mechanisms people use to rationalize their bad decisions. She’s absolutely right that this is a book everyone ought to read (I need to find a copy myself), and her review makes some points that I think are important enough to justify shining a spotlight on.

I’m no anthropologist or psychologist, but I like to think of myself as at least an amateur observer of human nature. And one of the facts of human nature which looms the largest is our incredible moral duality. Human beings, as a species, present an astonishing paradox. On the one hand, human beings are capable of tremendous compassion, altruism and generosity. There are countless people who selflessly give their effort, their resources, even their lives to bring about the good of others, asking no repayment except the knowledge that they’ve worked for a worthy cause. It would be unnecessary for me to cite examples; we all know people who are like this.

On the other hand, human beings are also capable of incredible cruelty, depravity and viciousness. We wage wars, inquisitions, pogroms, witch hunts. We are all too easily led by malignant demagogues, all too easily whipped up into frenzies of savagery and hate, and all too easily persuaded to treat strangers and outsiders as subhuman and to visit the most horrific atrocities on them. Again, I trust there’s no need to cite examples; anyone versed in history can come up with far too many.

It seems unbelievable that two such contradictory impulses could exist within the same human nature, but this is undeniably the case. Our selflessness, our lovingkindness, our sense of justice is deeply rooted in mind and instinct. So is our hatred, our chaos and our evil.

Both these impulses, no doubt, come from the evolutionary process that created us. Throughout human prehistory, our ability to be kind and giving was a necessary part of living in groups. Human beings are ill-equipped to survive alone, and the better aspects of our nature are what made it possible for tribes and societies to hold together. But just as true, there were those who were our enemies and would have destroyed us. Our impulses toward violence, aggression and tribalism protected us in those between-group conflicts, even as they perpetuated them.

Until the true story of our origin was known, religions throughout history have noticed the strange amalgam of human nature and sought to explain it. Christianity’s explanation, in particular, was a peculiar stroke of theological genius: by postulating an originally good human nature tainted by sin, they invented a structure that let them claim credit for the good acts of their followers while disavowing the bad ones. When Christians perform generous and selfless deeds, as many of them do, the apologists claim that their saving belief in Jesus was what made that goodness possible. When Christians do evil, again as many of them do, those apologists seek to rationalize it away as the result of sin. In reality, people of all belief systems perform acts of tremendous good, as well as acts of terrible evil. They both arise from our nature, they are both part of our heritage. No special theological explanation is needed for either one.

In the past, both these impulses were necessary for survival; either one, if untempered by the other, would have led to humanity’s downfall. But in the present day, as societies have run together and merged into a global community, as our technology has magnified our impulses both for good and for ill, we can no longer afford for our loyalties to be divided between light and dark. The consequences of unchecked aggression, of letting the worse side of our nature get the upper hand, are too serious.

And just as bad is the misguided attempt of some people to deny that this problem even exists – which we have an unfortunate tendency to do. Greta Christina’s post describes this common rationalization:

We have a tendency to think that bad people know they’re bad. Our popular culture is full of villains cackling over their beautiful wickedness, or trying to lure their children to The Dark Side. It’s a very convenient way of positioning evil outside ourselves, as something we could never do ourselves. Evil is Out There, something done by The Other.

It’s fully understandable why we have this defense mechanism. Who wants to think of themself as capable of evil? But at the same time, this tendency is extremely dangerous – because it leads us to believe that we aren’t the kind of people who could do such things. And the people who really and truly believe that are the ones who are most likely to end up committing the blackest evils – because they never consider the possibility that they’ve gone astray. Since they’re the good ones, whatever they do must be in the service of Good and Right. (This dynamic is all too visible in the presidency of George W. Bush, which is thankfully drawing to a close…)

The writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who experienced firsthand the terrors of the Soviet Union, was well acquainted with the evil that can be done by people who are infallibly convinced that they’re laboring in the service of good. In his work The Gulag Archipelago, he laid his finger on the central problem:

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of their own heart?

And yet, as impossible as this seems, it is what we must do if humanity is to survive in the long term. How can we excise part of our own nature? I don’t claim to have the answer, but there’s one thing I can suggest.

As I wrote all the way back near the beginning of this blog, we can’t fight influences on our behavior that we’re not aware of. This applies with added force when it comes to the dark side of our nature: people who deny that they possess such a capability often turn out to be the ones in which it does the most damage. Recognizing that we all have this capability, that the potential for evil is not an aberration but a universal human trait, might make people better at recognizing the warning signs when it threatens to emerge within themselves and others, and using that awareness to avert the worst-case scenario from coming to pass.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Ric

    You’re dead on with your assertion that evil is always conceived to be outside of us. Tolkien, recognizing this, said decades ago that Sauron didn’t conceive of himself as evil– he believed he was in service to the greater good.

    But I think as of now it is impossible that we could ever excise the evil from our hearts. Maybe this was poorly stated on your part. YOu’re correct that what we must do is recognize the capacity and guard against it, and certain worldviews help in that regard, such as atheism and secularism.

  • Ingersoll’s Revenge

    When Christians perform generous and selfless deeds, as many of them do, the apologists claim that their saving belief in Jesus was what made that goodness possible. When Christians do evil, again as many of them do, those apologists seek to rationalize it away as the result of sin.

    Along the same lines, this is perhaps a large part of the monotheistic idea of “righteousness,” or that morality and good deeds are only possible through the grace of Christ, Yaweh, Allah or what have you. Bad deeds, therefore, are a direct result of one’s falling from grace.

    What irks me is that if one believes bad deeds to be the work of Satan, then this grants a certain degree of divine power to evil. From this perspective, Satan is powerful and the only way to fend him off is by the good graces of God. The idea that evil can be overcome and controlled merely by exercising reason must seem absurd to a theist.

  • mackrelmint

    Ingersoll,

    Yep, which in their minds, necessitates exorcising reason, aka the devil.

  • Christopher

    I used to buy into the manchianistic dicotomy of “good” and “evil” myself, but after much self-evaluation I began to ask myself just what those concepts were based upon – eventually I came to the realization that they’re just illusions: “good” and “evil” don’t exist independent of us for we are the ones who make “good” and “evil,” thus depriving them of any objective basis.

    Now I no longer see “good” or “evil,” just opposing values attempting to compete with each other for space in the human psyche.

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    Recognizing that we all have this capability, that the potential for evil is not an aberration but a universal human trait, might make people better at recognizing the warning signs when it threatens to emerge within themselves and others, and using that awareness to avert the worst-case scenario from coming to pass.

    Humanism, with its honest appraisal of all facets of human nature, is better equipped to deal with this task than religion. One of the most significant problems of many religions is the tendency to locate evil as something outside of human nature and to posit that humankind is incapable of dealing with it without divine or supernatural assistance. Humanism recognizes the mixed bag of traits that we all carry within us and takes steps to enhance to best traits and either eradicate or minimize the worst.

  • Samuel Skinner

    Yeah, commiting crimes in the name of “the greater good” is always a problem. Where do you draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable means? Well, if it was easy we wouldn’t have to worry about ethics.

  • Christopher

    Samuel Skinner,

    “Yeah, commiting crimes in the name of “the greater good” is always a problem. Where do you draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable means? Well, if it was easy we wouldn’t have to worry about ethics.”

    If one has a model of ethics similar to that of Machiavelli, one need only determine what the end of an action is (positive or negative)to reach a conclusion concerning the “morality” of said action (i.e. ends justify means used to achieve them – no ands, ifs or buts…). Of course, even though I recognize how practical this system is when applied I still don’t recognize the actions preformed as being either “moral” or “immoral” – as there’s no objective standard for dividing between the two…

  • Alex Weaver

    The problem with the idea that “the ends justify the means” is that it’s extremely vulnerable to wishful thinking, willful blindness, selective omission, and various other human faults and biases. It is far too easy for people to focus on what they hope to achieve by an action and blatantly ignore the full range of its consequences, but it is not the intended, but the actual, results of an action that the people it affects have to live with.

    As for your contention that there is no objective standard for disinguishing moral from immoral actions, refresh my memory: have you ever provided a substantive argument against the formulation Adam advanced?

  • Paul

    One thing I’ve always wonder about “means to an end” is how we decide what’s an end, and what’s a mean. If I harm someone as a means to a good end, I’m pretty sure that harm is an end to the person I’ve harmed (say, illegally harvesting an organ to save someone else). Essentially, I’m simply categorizing some outcomes as means and some outcomes as ends merely to justify my actions after the fact, am I not?

  • http://www.blacksunjournal.com BlackSun

    Ebonmuse,

    Following is a quote from one of my inaugural posts on Black Sun Journal in 2001:

    Each and every one of us contains not only the potential for great works and nobility, but also the potential for the most monstrous deeds and vile depths of depravity. By accepting and embracing our dual nature, we can be honest with ourselves, and better understand our motives. We become strong. And perhaps we can gain a better perspective on why others act the way they do.

    Thanks for the elaboration. The Solzhenitsyn quote is great. We are definitely on the same page. I couldn’t agree more.

  • http://wildphilosophy.blogspot.com Mathew Wilder

    Christopher, first a snark – you mean “Manichean” not “manchianistic.” Second, you seem to think that because moral truths are not something akin to scientific truths – that they are not “built in” to the laws of nature, that means they are not objective.

    I don’t think anyone who believes that there really is right and wrong believes such a thing, though; or at least, there are many people who don’t believe such a thing. Of course moral statements are not factual statements in the same way that scientific statements are factual. But so what? That is no strike against morality! Moral claims are idealistic; that is precisely the point!

    At the risk of coming across as a sycophant, let me quote Richard Chappell again:

    More generally, it’s daft to think that God’s existence is necessary to ground normative ideals, because the whole point of ideals is that they float free from the mess of our actual reality. The question of how things should be does not fundamentally depend on how things in fact are. Ideal standards can be grounded in counterfactuals, e.g. facts about what an ideal spectator would recommend; whether such an ideal spectator actually exists in the here and now is, quite simply, irrelevant. (This is a familiar point: one may ask, “What would Jesus do?” without requiring that Jesus actually be in that situation.)

    Richard offers this argument against those who claim that God is necessary for morality. I think the same thing can be said, though, in response to those who seem to think that morality must be a natural fact for it to be real. Morality is objective because it is based upon what an ideal rational observer would do.

    Now, there may be some discussion about what exactly this implies in concrete situations, but abstractly I think it is quite sufficient to ground morality. We all understand what is meant by an ideal rational observer. Simply figure out what such a being would do and you have morality!

    You may question why anyone should care about being rational. Well, there is no answer. As Serafina has said in another thread, rationality is instrumental. There are no rationally compelling arguments why to be rational – that would be circular. Asking for such reasons can make no sense, by definition. But that seems to me analogous to radical skepticism – it is by it’s nature an invincible argument. So much the worse for irrationalism and radical skepticism, then! I assume that in your daily life, you are not a radical skeptic – do you believe you have hands? If you do, then for the same reasons you disbelieve radical skepticism epistemically, you should disbelieve it morally as well.

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    On the one hand, human beings are capable of tremendous compassion, altruism and generosity. There are countless people who selflessly give their effort, their resources, even their lives to bring about the good of others, asking no repayment except the knowledge that they’ve worked for a worthy cause.

    Can you cite examples? Mother Theresa, maybe? I really don’t know of any people who are not religious who think of themselves as selfless givers. The way I see it, there are only two types of “altruistic” people. There are those who are altruistic in the sense that they think they know better about what’s good for someone else. American slave holders, homophobes, 1950′s urban renewal politicians who tore up our cities, etc., all fall into this category. The other type of “altruism” is the service variety. These are people who serve the needs of others without taking it upon themselves to decide what’s best for them. The guards at Auschwitz are a great example of these type of people. The Pinkertons are another great example. Unquestioning servitude or egoistic condescension – pick your poison.

    Humanism, Christianity, and Islam are the only philosophies that espouse this view and as far as I can tell, the Humanist and Islamic view is directly rooted in Christianity. I would say Marxism as well, except that it’s sort of inverted – while Christians think of selflessly giving all they have to others, Marxists think of selflessly taking only what one needs to survive, with the amount that one is capable of actually giving back being irrelevant. Actually, Marxism is a much more sensible set of ethics than either Humanism or Christianity. And yet, most people find it much easier to agree that Marxism is Utopian and unworkable.

    There are other people who pride themselves not as altruists but as public servants. These are people who pride themselves on professionalism and objectivity in their service to a larger group. It could be a Mayor, CEO, general, or just a landscaper. All of these people ask for just compensation – what motivates them isn’t altruism but the professional motivation to be the best at what they do. 99% of all people who actually accomplish valuable things fall into the category of professionals, not altruists.

  • Paul

    bbk, wouldn’t someone working in a soup kitchen, for example, be demonstrating altruism? I can’t imagine there being no non-religious people working in soup kitchens. What about donating to charities? I would consider that an altruistic act.

  • http://wildphilosophy.blogspot.com Mathew Wilder

    Marxism is not, nor does it encompass, a “set of ethics.” Marx himself was an economist and early social theorist (a quasi-sociologist, if you will). Marx himself disavowed moral theorizing, as did most Marxists (who may or may not have actually understood what Marx’s own views were).

    Marxism is eschatalogical like Christianity and Islam, and Marx himself probably wrote because of his moral revulsion at the condition of workers, but Marx and Marxism offered no moral theory whatsoever. They attempted to make social predictions, to varying degrees of success.

    To address the substantive point of your post, I must say you must not know very many people, bbk, or have a very good imagination. But your limited experience and imagination in no way counts against the existence of truly altruistic people. You can simply define altruism in such a way that no one is altruistic, but why should we agree with your definition? Any common sense view of humanity must recognize that there are many good people, trying to make the world better, not for any self-serving reasons, but simply because they care about other people, and doing what is right and rational. Ebonmuse seems like such a person, as did Albert Camus.

    Please spare us your oh-so-sophisticated views on human nature. They are condescending, and stale.

  • http://thereligiousatheist.com plonkee @ the religious atheist

    I’ve always thought this is especially true of reactions to violent criminals, that they somehow have to be other. Whereas in reality, they are always just people like you and me, which does in fact mean that we are exactly the ones capable of doing evil things.

  • Christopher

    Matt Wilder,

    “you seem to think that because moral truths are not something akin to scientific truths – that they are not “built in” to the laws of nature, that means they are not objective.

    I don’t think anyone who believes that there really is right and wrong believes such a thing, though; or at least, there are many people who don’t believe such a thing. Of course moral statements are not factual statements in the same way that scientific statements are factual. But so what? That is no strike against morality! Moral claims are idealistic; that is precisely the point!”

    Then in what way are said “moral” statements factual? If “moral” claims are idealistic, then “morality” of an action is just a concept that exists in the minds of those that conceptualize of it – nothing more.

    “Richard offers this argument against those who claim that God is necessary for morality. I think the same thing can be said, though, in response to those who seem to think that morality must be a natural fact for it to be real. Morality is objective because it is based upon what an ideal rational observer would do.”

    And just who decides what this “ideal rational observer” is? Keep in mind that actions one may find rational another may not: so what happens when two observers who have a rational dispostition come to opposite conclusions regarding an observed action? Who’s the “ideal” rational observer in this case?

    I can’t think of any way to describe what an “ideal” thing is without resorting to a priori value judgements, can you?

    “But that seems to me analogous to radical skepticism – it is by it’s nature an invincible argument. So much the worse for irrationalism and radical skepticism, then! I assume that in your daily life, you are not a radical skeptic – do you believe you have hands? If you do, then for the same reasons you disbelieve radical skepticism epistemically, you should disbelieve it morally as well.”

    Now that you’ve brought up radical skepticism, I must admit that I am radically skeptical of what I observe – I’ve never been the same since I read Descartes’ “Meditations” and pondered the scenario of the demon that traps the mind in a dream world.

    In my opinion, there’s no way to know with absolute certainty that what we call “reality” is actually real: however, I accept that what I observe as “reality” being real based on one thing – doubt. In order to truly doubt something, one must have an outside point of reference from which to examine that thing (a claim, an experience, etc…); I can doubt the ideas of various people because I have access to ideas of other people with which to compare them to, I can doubt strange experiences because I have other experiences (both mine and those of others) against which to compare them to, I can doubt the moral absolutist because I have other systems of morality to compare said absolute morality against.

    But one thing I cannot doubt is existence – I can’t doubt it because I have no other point of reference which I can compare to it. I have no idea what else the “reality” I experience could be other than that what I perceive is being real actually is! Because I cannot doubt that what I experience is real, I accept it as being such. But should I ever find anything to contrast this existence with, that radical doubt will immediatlty kick in once again.

  • Alex Weaver

    Second, you seem to think that because moral truths are not something akin to scientific truths – that they are not “built in” to the laws of nature, that means they are not objective.

    I think that while moral truths are fuzzier than scientific laws, the nature of human psychology is that they are “built in”: there are certain general ways for beings with a psychological makeup and physiological characteristics like those of humans to behave, with regard to each other, that tend to produce better outcomes in terms of general happiness, just as there are certain shapes that tend to move through water more efficiently. A moral “law” in this sense is not some separate thing “out there”, it is, like a physical law, a description of a relationship that is a contingent but inescapable result of the properties and characteristics of certain entities and the nature of their interactions.

  • RiddleOfSteel

    I used to buy into the manchianistic dicotomy of “good” and “evil” myself, but after much self-evaluation I began to ask myself just what those concepts were based upon – eventually I came to the realization that they’re just illusions: “good” and “evil” don’t exist independent of us for we are the ones who make “good” and “evil,” thus depriving them of any objective basis.

    Christopher, you are confusing “us” with “you”. You state that good and evil do not exist independent of us, but then operate as if good and evil do not exist independent of you alone. One does not follow the other. Unfortunately in the process, you become the poster boy for the theist who claims that the atheist gives up the god to become the god. In this case what you do is “good” simply because you decided to do it. Like a god.

  • http://wildphilosophy.blogspot.com Mathew Wilder

    Then in what way are said “moral” statements factual? If “moral” claims are idealistic, then “morality” of an action is just a concept that exists in the minds of those that conceptualize of it – nothing more.

    Moral statements are not factual statements. That is the point. Morality is just a concept that exists in the mind of humans, but so what? That doesn’t mean it is any less objective, unless by “objective” you mean “part of the physical universe.” But why should we think that morality should be part of the physical universe? You seem to have a very strict physicalist view of reality. But the laws we use to describe physical reality are not themselves physical objects – they only exist in our minds as concepts. Does that mean they are not real? No!

    Regarding the ideal rational observer – there is, of course, no such entity in actual existence. But that is simply what the term ideal denotes. No person is an ideal rational observer. Such an entity is a hypothetical entity. It involves a thought-experiment – if we were completely rational, and possessed of all relevant knowledge about a situation, how would we act. Now, we can understand this concept. We might differ about specific moral issues, but that is something we can discuss rationally and try to figure out. We can gain more relevant knowledge and get closer to the mark.

    I brought up radical skepticism because, philosophically speaking, it is a dead end. It can’t be defeated. I think radical moral skepticism is in the same position. Sure you can always say, “That’s what you think” but that doesn’t constitute an argument against my position. There is no way out of such total skepticism – but that doesn’t seem a particularly pressing worry to me, since I don’t see a compelling reason to be so radical in the first place.

    Lastly, mightn’t you be making an unjustified leap in assuming that you are real and the one experiencing things?

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    bbk, wouldn’t someone working in a soup kitchen, for example, be demonstrating altruism? I can’t imagine there being no non-religious people working in soup kitchens. What about donating to charities? I would consider that an altruistic act.

    The concept of a soup kitchen that I am most familiar with is a Christian soup kitchen. Thus, it falls under my category of religious altruism. Most charities are also pushed by religious groups.

    If a secularist were to pick the ideal solution, it would invariably be what we call Welfare. A legitimate social safety net that does not rely on the goodwill of others who may or may not also want to use their “altruism” to proselytize. On the same token, because I happily pay my taxes, and live within city limits where taxes are MUCH higher than in the suburbs that exploit city services… I guess that makes me an altruist. I guess that also, anyone who uses lower taxes as a consideration of where they choose to live is NOT an altruist. I happen to believe that soup kitchens need to be a government service because they ultimately benefit the economy. And paid soup kitchen employees sponsored by tax money actually create jobs instead of simply creating an opportunity for some religionist to proselytize.

    Moreover, volunteering at a soup kitchen is also small-time. Most small-time altruists hold a day job or else only spend a short and convenient stint in the world of altruism before moving on (Peace Corps?). I’m asking about larger than life altruists like Mother Theresa. People who have actually demonstrated that altruism can be taken seriously without relying on selfishness as the true foundation of their livelihoods? Which ones weren’t religiously motivated? Also, how many “altruists” out there pander to the masses for “donations” to their cause? Is this altruistic? They are in fact, asking for something in return – they devote their lives to a cause but only if others contribute the funds. I find this to be rather disingenuous. For the soup kitchen example, btw, I am volunteering at one tonight. But I do it because of friends, and as far as I can everyone else there shows up for the same exact reason – everyone brought aboard by another friend or to make more friends.

    Also, how is it that ethics systems based on altruism as a good thing disregard forms of altruism that result in harm (the altruistic mentality of slave holders, for instance)?

  • Kevin Morgan

    Christian soup kitchens aren’t altruistic. They come with the price of being preached to, many requiring one to sit through a sermon before being fed (not all). These Christian acts of so-called altruism are performed with the intention of “saving” souls, i.e. bringing more people into the Christian fold.

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    A little note on the nexus of tax-aversion vs. charitable giving. Doesn’t anyone else find it completely odd that people cry fowl about taxes to the point where it gets folks like George Bush elected? Yet, many of these people consider themselves charitable givers. They move out to the suburbs and exurbs in order not to subsidize public schools where people who make less money than them happen to go. And then they protest when the government wants to re-asses their property values which haven’t been adjusted in 30 years, as if their house hasn’t gone up in value 500% in that time. All in the name of tax aversion. They save thousands of dollars per year in taxes and only a portion of which they then donate to charitable causes. Which they in turn use to write-off even more of their taxes. How petty is charitable giving when you need charities to give you receipts for the donation? I know people who donate $50 computers and write them off as $1000 computers. Typically, this is what a lot of Christians I’ve encountered do, and what their churches prompt them to do. It seems to me that many charitable givers need to give out of what must be a profound sense of cheating the system and guilt.

  • http://wildphilosophy.blogspot.com Mathew Wilder

    bbk, You have an empty definition of altruism if slave holders can be called altruistic. There is a difference between thinking you know what is good for someone, and what is actually good for them. What is actually good for them is objective matter, not dependent on what other people think. An ethical system ought to discount slave holders’ altruism, for it is harmful. It ought to encourage real altruism, which is not harmful.

  • Paul

    The concept of a soup kitchen that I am most familiar with is a Christian soup kitchen. Thus, it falls under my category of religious altruism. Most charities are also pushed by religious groups.

    I would argue that a non-religious person working there is still an example of a non-religious act of altruism. They just happen to be performing this act alongside religious people.

    If a secularist were to pick the ideal solution, it would invariably be what we call Welfare. A legitimate social safety net that does not rely on the goodwill of others who may or may not also want to use their “altruism” to proselytize.

    I am a secularist, but I don’t necessarily consider welfare to be the ideal solution. To be perfectly honest, I have no idea what an ideal solution would be. I guess that would also depend on what the problem is we consider welfare to be a solution to.

    On the same token, because I happily pay my taxes, and live within city limits where taxes are MUCH higher than in the suburbs that exploit city services… I guess that makes me an altruist. I guess that also, anyone who uses lower taxes as a consideration of where they choose to live is NOT an altruist.

    I don’t understand how you’re using the word altruism here. I would consider it to mean something along the lines of (with the help of a dictionary) “acts that benefit the welfare of others, without intent of personal benefit”.

    I happen to believe that soup kitchens need to be a government service because they ultimately benefit the economy. And paid soup kitchen employees sponsored by tax money actually create jobs instead of simply creating an opportunity for some religionist to proselytize.

    Funny, I’ve actually pondered this same idea myself. I think it would great to have government run/sponsored services of this nature.

    Moreover, volunteering at a soup kitchen is also small-time. Most small-time altruists hold a day job or else only spend a short and convenient stint in the world of altruism before moving on (Peace Corps?). I’m asking about larger than life altruists like Mother Theresa. People who have actually demonstrated that altruism can be taken seriously without relying on selfishness as the true foundation of their livelihoods? Which ones weren’t religiously motivated? Also, how many “altruists” out there pander to the masses for “donations” to their cause? Is this altruistic? They are in fact, asking for something in return – they devote their lives to a cause but only if others contribute the funds. I find this to be rather disingenuous. For the soup kitchen example, btw, I am volunteering at one tonight. But I do it because of friends, and as far as I can everyone else there shows up for the same exact reason – everyone brought aboard by another friend or to make more friends.

    Hmmm… are you looking for examples of people who have performed a lifetime of altruistic acts to the detriment of themselves? I could see a person born into money spending his entire life being altruistic, without necesarrily harming his own lifestyle. There are also people who give up quite a lot to spend their life being altruistic. Perhaps someone can help me out here with an example, but again, I have a hard time imagining not a single one of them was non-religious.

    I’m not sure what you’re referring to by “relying on selfishness as the true foundation of their livelihoods”.

    I also don’t think asking for donations makes you any less altruistic. If I need $X to get something done, and I don’t have it, I don’t see how not asking for donations would make me more altruistic.

    As far as going with your friends, that may make the act less self-sacrificing, but I think it is still altruistic. It’s no great personal benefit as I’m sure you would have friends with or without the soup kitchen.

    Also, how is it that ethics systems based on altruism as a good thing disregard forms of altruism that result in harm (the altruistic mentality of slave holders, for instance)?

    I don’t think the ethical system that Ebonmuse has, for example, necessarily has altruism as its base. I think instead you would derive altruism from the axioms. And using those axioms, there is no way you would ever be able to justify slavery, let alone label that altruism.

  • Nurse Ingrid

    bbk, seriously, what planet are you writing from? You are truly unaware of any non-religious “soup kitchens” or other charities? What about Doctors Without Borders? Or SHARE, The Secular Humanist Aid and Relief Effort, which collects donations for Hurricane Katrina, the tsunami, and other disasters? What about UNICEF, for pete’s sake?

    I have been working with homeless people and people with HIV in San Francisco for many years, and I can assure you that not everyone who does such work is religious, nor is every such organization church-based. And your definition of altruism seems to exclude anyone who might deign to work for money. What about someone who, despite having professional degrees, chooses to work at a low-paying job at a nonprofit because they believe that work is more important? They don’t qualify as “altruistic” because they are petty enough to need money for rent and food, apparently.

    And please do not even suggest Mother Teresa as an example of pure altruism. She took millions of dollars from brutal dictators (Duvalier) and S&L swindlers (Keating), and no one even knows where all that money went. Certainly not for pain medications or sterile needles at her so-called “hospices.” And now it turns out she may not have really believed in God after all.

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    Marxism is not, nor does it encompass, a “set of ethics.”

    That’s really splitting hairs. Marxism certainly relies on ethics. The fact is that the ethics of Marxism are crypto-Christian in nature and whether or not Marx explicitly discussed them is irrelevant.

    To address the substantive point of your post, I must say you must not know very many people, bbk, or have a very good imagination. But your limited experience and imagination in no way counts against the existence of truly altruistic people.

    Please spare us your oh-so-sophisticated views on human nature. They are condescending, and stale.

    bbk, You have an empty definition of altruism if slave holders can be called altruistic.

    I had to put these statements next to each other. They are ad-hominem.

    But to respond to your ad-hominems with a bit of biography, let me say what my experience is. Just off the top of my head, I have volunteered for Habitat for Humanity (built 3 houses start to finish and fund raising), Make A Wish, Toys for Tots (6 years), plus participate in a soup kitchen and I have tutored kids at a community center. I served in the Marine Corps even though I lost years of much higher pay as a software engineer due to repeated deployments to Iraq. My immediate family has had political asylum in both Germany and in the US due to my parents’ involvement in the Solidarity movement to oust Communism… I have experienced life from just about every perspective that you could imagine, I’ve lived and worked in dozens of countries. I also have college degrees, including economics where I took a strong interest in developmental economics of 3rd world countries. I’ve traveled to at least a dozen countries in my life in varying capacities – as a refugee, tourist, war-fighter, and as a volunteer. I highly, highly doubt that you have one lick of life experience that you could hold up over my head.

    The main difference is that from my experience I was humble enough to realize that altruism NEVER motivated me to do a single thing and have never come across a person who I judged to be any different. Thinking of oneself as altruistic or praising altruism itself I have found to be a very dangerous practice wrought with misguided outcomes. On principle, it is wrong, and in practice it is not necessary. On the other hand, having a sense of fairness and reciprocity, I think, does not make me altruistic. And therefore I don’t think of myself as such. It is enough that I am a Just individual and altruism becomes nothing more than redundant truism (redundancy for emphasis).

    bbk, You have an empty definition of altruism if slave holders can be called altruistic.

    Christians say the same thing – any bad act by Christians is by definition non-Christian. Do you find the similarity odd? I don’t. Because altruism is too much of a Christian concept for me.

    You want to know why I think of slave holders as having been altruistic? Just watch Gone With The Wind. I know that you have trouble with this concept but yes – slave holders thought they knew what’s best for their slaves.

    Who are we to judge what is “best” for someone. If someone wants to kill themselves, is it altruistic to help them or to stop them? If someone wants to get an abortion? If someone wants to get a divorce? If a black community doesn’t want an interstate highway built through their neighborhood, even if they get their very own exit ramp?

    Altruism fails on this basis. Any altruistic act requires, by its very nature, for the giver to know what’s best for the recipient. I find this pre-requisite to be an impossible standard for *anyone* to live up to. I also find it to violate my freedom of conscience when others tell me what they think is right for me, especially when I disagree. Christians think they are saving me when they proselytize at me, and yes this is is altruism. They aren’t saving themselves – they’re saving me.

    So before you can even talk about altruism, you have to actually prove that you can tell right from wrong. My guess is that you can’t tell this any better than anyone else, which means you’re bound to be mistaken as often as you’re not.

    Ebonmuse seems like such a person, as did Albert Camus.

    Talking about it is one thing, living it is another. Give me an atheist version of Mother Theresa, who supposedly devoted her entire life to altruism and supposedly made a big splash in saving the world from itself. Give me someone who I can’t reasonably judge to be motivated by personal rewards if their actions are on the public record where I can scrutinize them.

  • billf

    I second or third the strong recommendation to read “Mistakes were made, but not by me.”

    It is one of the most eye opening and scary books I have ever read. I no longer completely trust all of my memories of how events unfolded in the past. I no longer completely trust my internal justification of my actions. And I think I now have a much deeper understanding of how good people, or at least people who think they are good, can commit horrible actions. We don’t even know we are doing wrong. Facts are just ignored or edited to fit the story in our minds.

    If it has a flaw, it might be that the book tries to cover a little too much ground.

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    And your definition of altruism seems to exclude anyone who might deign to work for money. What about someone who, despite having professional degrees, chooses to work at a low-paying job at a nonprofit because they believe that work is more important? They don’t qualify as “altruistic” because they are petty enough to need money for rent and food, apparently.

    You’re mistaken about my definition of altruism here. They’re not disqualified from altruism because they get paid money to pay their rent, they get disqualified because their compensation is entirely adequate for the work that they do. This is something that economists have had to deal with for years – why do some people get paid less for some jobs even if they could get paid more for another job?

    No economist worth his or her salt will ever tell you that your value as a human being is equivalent to the value of your paycheck. That doesn’t automatically mean that taking a lower paycheck is the equivalent to being an altruist. That’s just dumb, and really, it’s insulting to those who actually wish they did have better options in life. All that this means is that some non-profit workers have a more rewarding job for less pay. It’s rather quite simple – if they had a less rewarding job for less pay, I guess that would be altruism. But if that was really the case, and they had the option for a more rewarding job for more pay, they would jump right on it.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    I really don’t know of any people who are not religious who think of themselves as selfless givers.

    I suggest my recent post “A Profile in Atheism“.

  • http://wildphilosophy.blogspot.com Mathew Wilder

    See Leiter about Ad Hominem arguments. If I had said, “bbk claims there are no altruistic people, but bbk beats his wife, therefore you shouldn’t believe what he says” then that would be an Ad Hominem.

    To say you have never met an altruistic person or can’t imagine one, and therefore you are wrong about the existence of altruistic people is not an Ad Hominem. It is a claim that if your experience had been different you would have different views about altruism.

    Likewise, “bbk, You have an empty definition of altruism if slave holders can be called altruistic” is not a personal attack either. It is a straight-forward claim that your definition is wrong. I in no way attack you as a person to discredit your idea. I simply discredit your idea.

    Finally, “Please spare us your oh-so-sophisticated views on human nature. They are condescending, and stale” is not an attack on your person to discredit your ideas. It was a rhetorical flourish to punctuate my claim that any common sense view of human nature recognizes the existence of altruistic people. It is a sarcastic suggestion that your views are not as convincing as you think, and are, in fact, similar to those of a sophomoric first-year college student who has just read Hobbes for the first time.

    Your claim “Unquestioning servitude or egoistic condescension – pick your poison” seems to me overly simplistic, and perhaps even hostile to those of use who try to do what is right.

    I take altruism to mean: unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others, or behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species. You seem to think altruism means something different, but I’m not exactly sure what you think altruism means. Could you present us with a clearly stated definition?

    I won’t ask you to prove there are no altruistic people, but I will say that if I offer you examples of altruistic people, I doubt you are in a position to know whether they are, in their heart of hearts, altruistic or not. Therefore, we are left with judging them by their appearance, and certainly there are many people who appear altruistic. Probably not all of them are, but on what basis do you claim that none of them are? The only way is if you have some special knowledge that my definition of altruism is never instantiated (I doubt you do) or you are working with a different definition (in which case we are simply talking past each other).

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    No, it is definitely ad hominem and I’m sure others may agree. Disagreeing with you based on experience does not imply that I have no experience or a lack of imagination. It means that I disagree with you. You were not arguing against the merits of my position, you were arguing against my person by pointing out I must be somehow lacking.

    You are right about the other thing – implying that I have have an empty definition of altruism because i disagree with you is not strictly ad hominem. Strictly, it is begging the question. But it is doing so in a condescending way towards those who hold a similar position to mine. Similar claims are to say that Darwinism is “cold” or that atheists are unloving.

    Common sense is, by virtue, common. Does commonality add strength to any argument? 80% of Americans believe in god, which makes it common sense but doesn’t make it right. I agree that I’m fighting an uphill battle against common sense beliefs about altruism. I pride myself in uncommon sense.

    The remark about Hobbes and sophomoric behavior is, well, more of the same. It’s got nothing to do with the validity of my view.

    My claim about picking your poison, it’s called an argument ad absurdum. Of course it seems overly simplistic. It shows what happens when you take an idea to it’s logical ends.

    I can maybe try to explain to you why you have such a hard time seeing my position as a valid alternative, if not a more correct view altogether. It goes back to begging the question. Humanism bases its ethics on the premise of altruism being good. This is the same thing that religionists do when they build their ethics with the premise that religion is good. In both cases, it’s rather difficult to reason with someone about something they consider to be axiomatic. This is why theists are quick to dismiss any notion of a theist committing a wrong as atheistic. This is also why altruists are quick to dismiss the idea that slave holders could have been motivated by altruism. That is why I keep using this example, by the way: because I know it’s hard to contemplate.

    This is also why your claim that my definition of altruism is empty is begging the question – it implies that I must agree with your premise that altruism is, by definition, good. I don’t agree with this. I agree that altruism is a motivating factor in the behavior of others. But so is foolishness. I simply don’t think that altruism is a virtue or a moral. I think it doesn’t have a definite good or bad quality to it, and people who think it does are mistaken.

  • http://wildphilosophy.blogspot.com Mathew Wilder

    I still don’t know what you mean by altruism. Is it “helping others with no benefit to yourself” or not? Altruism seems to me to be, be definition good, so I don’t see how you can say altruism is bad or neutral. I can understand the claim that there is no altruism, but I think that claim is either trivially true or else false.

  • http://www.theinfinityprogram.com Tanapangarap

    This article reminded me of the following I read at one of the forums I frequent:

    “… There is nothing wrong with pointing out that Hitler believed he was not evil. In order to defeat the enemy, you must first understand the enemy. One cannot understand white supremacism as long as one is so stupid and ignorant that he can characterize them as a bunch of cackling madmen gleefully rubbing their hands over the prospects of doing evil. They have an ideology, and they believe they are fighting against evil.Many (some would say all) of history’s most profound atrocities have been committed by people who thought they were committing them in the service of righteousness. Ignoring that reality only ensures more of the same.”– Michael Wong, re: http://bbs.stardestroyer.net/viewtopic.php?p=2654288#2654288

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    Ebon, I remember that post about A Profile In Atheism. I liked it because I like seeing atheism cast in a positive light in the media. And without a doubt, it shows that atheists can be good people even by Christian standards.

    However, I also found it to be a bit sycophantic. I’m a bit tired of atheists trying to compare themselves to Christians in terms of charitable donations (which we trail Christians on, btw), volunteerism, and general acts of mercy and pity for the poor and the dead. Why do atheists have to appeal to Christian values in order to paint ourselves in a positive light?

    As a Marine, when I was in Iraq I witnessed a lot of non-military volunteers getting themselves killed or needing a rescue. I have to say, I found it rather foolish. I was doing my duty and my job, but I didn’t believe that I was making a difference in the larger scope of things and I found it incomprehensible to think how someone voluntarily getting themselves killed thought that he or she might.

    I was also suspicious of these folks I met who dismissed me being there in an official government capacity as inferior to their being there in an altruistic capacity. It seemed that if I pulled Iraqis out of a burning vehicle and gave them first aid while mortars were falling down, it had somehow less value than a Doctor Without Borders giving some kid a flu shot because his act was altruistic and mine was under orders. Yet, Doctors Without Borders wouldn’t go anywhere near where I was at and, honestly, they were all the wiser for staying away.

    The way I think of myself today is as such: I do the greatest good by doing my job. I don’t work with HIV patients for half the pay that I could be making elsewhere, but I do write software that, among many other things, helps companies deliver medicine to people faster, more accurately, and cheaply. I can almost bet that half the people reading this blog today have purchased something this week that passed through our software. And I happen to earn top dollar for it.

    I can’t comprehend why one “good” thing is altruistic while another “good” thing is not. If what I do is altruistic, which I don’t think it is, then really, anyone who holds a job that contributes to the economy is an altruist of sorts. But for some reason, only people who work directly with the less fortunate can qualify to be altruists. I was just thinking about Nurse Ingrid’s comment about working for lesser pay to help HIV patients. Let’s say that Ingrid could make twice as much money at some other job. How does that make it altruistic? I wonder if the little Chinese girl who put the glue on Ingrid’s sneakers would feel that working with HIV patients for half of Ingrid’s pay would be that much of a sacrifice? Seriously – it’s just another job. If Ingrid doesn’t like it, I think Ingrid should look for other forms of employment. But don’t promote it as a morally superior form of employment.

  • OMGF

    And without a doubt, it shows that atheists can be good people even by Christian standards.

    And what are “Christian” standards? From what I can tell, I’d rather not try to live up to “Christian” standards.

    I’m a bit tired of atheists trying to compare themselves to Christians in terms of charitable donations (which we trail Christians on, btw), volunteerism, and general acts of mercy and pity for the poor and the dead. Why do atheists have to appeal to Christian values in order to paint ourselves in a positive light?

    1. If we trail, it might have something to do with the fact that there are more Xians out there.
    2. Why do you assume that Xianity = mercy, pity, volunteerism, goodness? You are committing the error that you accuse others of in equating altruism with goodness.
    3. Atheists are not appealing to Xian values, atheist are appealing to human values that Xians have tried to claim as their own. There’s a big difference.

    I was doing my duty and my job, but I didn’t believe that I was making a difference in the larger scope of things and I found it incomprehensible to think how someone voluntarily getting themselves killed thought that he or she might.

    Just a bit of absurdity, but didn’t you volunteer to serve? So, if you had died, you would have voluntarily gotten yourself killed.

    I can’t comprehend why one “good” thing is altruistic while another “good” thing is not.

    Probably because you seem unable or unwilling to accept the definition that has been given for the word and insist on making up another definition which you refuse to share with the rest of the class. Until you do so, you are just spinning your wheels. Further, you might want to point out why we should use your definition instead of the accepted, dictionary definition.

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    Mathew – I think you’re almost getting there. I do, actually, think that altruism is a truism. Your own definition of altruism simply reduces itself to “the good.” Well, it’s not altruism, it’s just good. It just happens to be good that we do for others.

    On the other hand, this is just how people talk about altruism. It’s only in theory. In practice, people tend to take it upon themselves to decide what is good and then apply their judgment of what is good onto others. This is altruism in practice. It’s neither good or bad. Hitler gained nothing by sending Jews to the gas chamber, yet he firmly believed that he was doing it for the good of the German people. Does this not fit your proposed definition of altruism? The only thing you could fault Hitler on is that you personally do not agree that wanton genocide is good. But a PETA member would accuse you of genocide for eating chicken, so there you go. It’s all relative.

    That’s why in my view, altruism is a really blanket label for an otherwise nondescript set of actions. It is adding an additional virtue to doing what we already believe is the good and right thing to do for others. It doesn’t add anything of value, but it can make things confusing – it makes it seem that doing what we believe is good is good simply because we believe that it is good. And that makes it prone to abuse by people such as Mother Theresa, Hitler, and slave owners.

  • OMGF

    Your own definition of altruism simply reduces itself to “the good.” Well, it’s not altruism, it’s just good.

    If you ignore half of the given definition, then yeah.

    Hitler gained nothing by sending Jews to the gas chamber, yet he firmly believed that he was doing it for the good of the German people.

    And, somehow the Jews that he gassed don’t seem to figure into your argument? Helping one group to the detriment of others is not commonly seen as altruistic.

  • OMGF

    Oh, and BTW, if you don’t think Hitler was getting anything out of gassing the Jews, think again. He used the traditional Xian hatred for Jews as a rallying cry to buttress his nationalistic movement and consolidate his power.

  • http://wildphilosophy.blogspot.com Mathew Wilder

    “Altruism isn’t altruism” doesn’t make any sense. When I use the word “altruism” I mean “selfless devotion to the welfare of others” or some similar formulation. Altruism is, therefore, a subset of Good. Not all good actions are altruistic, but all altruistic actions are good.

    You seem to think that just because someone thinks they’re being altruistic, they are automatically right. Indeed, you say, “It’s all relative.” Surely you know that moral relativism is a self-defeating position? I don’t grant that it is all relative, and therefore, I don’t grant that just because someone thinks or says that they are being altruistic that they are, in fact, being altruistic.

    Furthermore, “devotion to the welfare of others” implies that you are doing what is actually good for someone. Surely being tortured or gassed isn’t good for someone? Surely giving food to someone who is starving is good for that person? Whether Hitler thought he was doing good is irrelevant. The relevant question is whether he was, in fact, doing something good. Clearly he wasn’t.

    I wonder also if there might be some confusion between being an altruistic person, and performing an altruistic act. We should distinguish between them, of course.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    bbk:

    Why do atheists have to appeal to Christian values in order to paint ourselves in a positive light?

    We do not appeal to “Christian values”. We appeal to basic human values, which Christianity (and other religions) have attempted to co-opt and claim exclusive possession of. It seems to me that you’ve bought into that falsehood.

    If what I do is altruistic, which I don’t think it is, then really, anyone who holds a job that contributes to the economy is an altruist of sorts.

    No, because the quality of altruism consists not merely in the act itself, but also in the person’s motivation for that act. Others have offered a perfectly reasonable definition: an altruistic act is one that is motivated primarily by desire for the good of others, rather than by desire for one’s own gain. If I give money to a charity because I want to further its charitable goals in helping others, that’s an altruistic act. If I do it because I think the act will attract positive publicity to me and win me fame and renown, then it’s not an altruistic act, even if the effects are the same.

    Also, I have to offer a comment on your earlier remarks about slaveholders. You said that their actions could be viewed as altruistic, in a certain light. I do not agree. Regardless of the slaveholders’ pious talk about how they were “civilizing” the Africans, any rational view of history would conclude that the slave trade was obviously created for their own benefit and enrichment. It’s undeniable that the welfare of the slaves was far from their primary concern.

    But even if we grant your point that they thought they were acting altruistically, there’s a point you’ve failed to consider: even if that belief was honestly held, it was wrong. They were not acting for the good of the slaves. Nor were homophobic preachers or Nazis. Those beliefs acted to produce evil, not good. As I said, altruism consists jointly in the act and in the motivation for the act. A belief that produces evil and suffering for others is not altruistic even if the person doing it sincerely thinks it is.

    You seem to hold the delusion that if the actor labels their act altruistic, no matter what the act is, then we must accept that label, but that is false. We need not accept other people’s judgments about the moral values of their actions. This criticism is similar to one that a commenter had a few months back in my post series on the roots of morality; he claimed that utilitarianism is discredited by the evil acts allegedly carried out in its name, without considering whether those acts actually were in accord with the principles of a utilitarian philosophy.

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    One of the most significant differences between active-faith and no-faith Americans is the cultural disengagement and sense of independence exhibited by atheists and agnostics in many areas of life. They are less likely than active-faith Americans to be registered to vote (78% versus 89%), to volunteer to help a non-church-related non-profit (20% versus 30%), to describe themselves as “active in the community” (41% versus 68%), and to personally help or serve a homeless or poor person (41% versus 61%). They are also more likely to be registered to vote as an independent or with a non-mainstream political party.

    One of the outcomes of this profile – and one of the least favorable points of comparison for atheist and agnostic adults – is the paltry amount of money they donate to charitable causes. The typical no-faith American donated just $200 in 2006, which is more than seven times less than the amount contributed by the prototypical active-faith adult ($1500). Even when church-based giving is subtracted from the equation, active-faith adults donated twice as many dollars last year as did atheists and agnostics. In fact, while just 7% of active-faith adults failed to contribute any personal funds in 2006, that compares with 22% among the no-faith adults.

    http://www.barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?Page=BarnaUpdate&BarnaUpdateID=272
    http://www.barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?Page=Topic&TopicID=13

    Yes, it is a market research firm for Christian organizations. But I’ve seen them referenced on dozens of atheist blogs and the consensus seems to be that they give reliable statistics, many in favor of atheists.

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    Mathew, I am not a moral relativist. However, altruism relies on moral absolutism, as you have been describing to me and which I understand. And like I said, moral absolutism is in practice relative to what the individual believes the moral absolute is. This is a special quality of altruism – the idea that one person’s moral absolute is true and therefore applicable to others. How many times do we have to re-hash this?

    I believe that to get a true sense of right and wrong, dropping the concept of altruism is a big step in the right direction. We simply do what is right, and when the action affects a third party, we make sure that it passes the golden rule first and also has a consensus from others. If we have a consensus, it means that our acts are reciprocal – others will do the same for us. This does away with the need for altruism. You only have a real need for it if you are to act out on just your own absolutism with no regard for what others may or may not do for you.

    Maybe I’m a little bit sly about this. Let me use an example. If there is a consensus that everyone at the office lends each other change for the vending machine, then I don’t have to worry about getting something in return immediately when I lend someone some change. I can expect that in the long run, everyone will come out more or less even and the mutual benefit to all the employees is that no one has to die of thirst. But this isn’t altruism – it’s just a delayed re-payment scheme. This is how my personal ethics work and I just don’t need altruism to feel good about myself.

  • http://wildphilosophy.blogspot.com Mathew Wilder

    You say you are not a relativist, but them you condemn moral absolutism. If you think “the idea that one person’s moral absolute is true and therefore applicable to others” is false, how are you not a relativist?

    See here for more on the false connection between moral absolutism and authoritariansim. Thinking your own moral beliefs are binding on others is not a bad thing – it is required if you think your own beliefs are correct!

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    This is so hard to explain and I realize that I am not nearly articulate enough to get it across right, so I just want to apologize for that to everyone.

    Here is a question: if there is no reasonable expectation of reciprocity for an altruistic act, shouldn’t this set off some alarms about the assumptions we’re making about the absolute morality at the core of this act? If on the other hand, there is a general consensus about this act being the correct course of action, then isn’t it reasonable to expect reciprocity and therefore no longer qualify the act as altruistic?

    I am a moral absolutist, but one of my morals is to realize that I may be wrong. This doesn’t make me a relativist, it just means that I will change my mind when presented with the proper evidence. But moreover, I think because of the chances of me being wrong, I must do away with altruism and avoid it altogether. Instead, I need a way to mitigate the risk – and checking to see if there is a reasonable expectation of reciprocity is a great start. If someone would do the same for me, and if I actually would want that, then I stand a better chance at being right in my moral values. If I can’t expect my actions to be rewarded in any way – that sends me right back to the drawing board and gets me to think about what might be so wrong about what I’m about to do that no one would ever want to do it for me? In the end, none of what I do is altruistic.

  • Alex Weaver

    Can someone who has had time to sit down and read through his comments correct, in the somewhat unlikely event that it proves necessary, my initial impression that bbk’s argument reduces to a Humpty Dumpty fallacy?

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    Funny coincidence Alex, I’m going to need someone who knows you a little better correct my initial impression that you’re a jerk in the unlikely event that this proves necessary. If anyone is guilty of equivocation here it’s you. Not every discussion about the definition of a word is a mere question of common usage. Okay, that’s it you win – common usage, altruism is by definition good and true and we must all be altruists therefore, I should STFU. Next time a Christian tells you God exists because everyone knows what God means… you’ll know where you were coming from on this one.

  • Alex Weaver

    Oh, I’m sorry, is your argument NOT based on the understanding of “altruism” outlined in this quote from your first post on the thread?

    The way I see it, there are only two types of “altruistic” people. There are those who are altruistic in the sense that they think they know better about what’s good for someone else. American slave holders, homophobes, 1950′s urban renewal politicians who tore up our cities, etc., all fall into this category. The other type of “altruism” is the service variety. These are people who serve the needs of others without taking it upon themselves to decide what’s best for them. The guards at Auschwitz are a great example of these type of people. The Pinkertons are another great example. Unquestioning servitude or egoistic condescension – pick your poison.

    I say this is a “humpty dumpty argument” because I am aware of few if any people who would consider “[thinking one knows] better about what’s good for someone else”, or the sort of “service” in the examples you gave to support that point, to be “altruistic.” I am aware of no one except yourself who would even consider those items to characterize the primary meaning of “altruism”, let alone claim, as you do, that they exhaust its meaning. This is not, as your angry strawman example suggests, a mere issue of quibbling over the connotation of the word; it would be only a slight exaggeration to rebut an argument premised on your working definition by replying that altruism is triangular, and therefore altruistic behavior is mauve and the counter-argument gelatinous, QED.

  • Paul

    bbk, can you provide us with a definition of the word altruism? I’m just having a hard time pinning down exactly what you mean when you use that word. Something short, like a dictionary would have. :-)

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    Alex, I like how every word you’ve written is dripping with condescension, which I applaud you for your ability to be mean spirited while accusing someone of being mean-spirited.

    FYI, this passage was an argument ad absurdum. At least I thought it was pretty clear that I was attempting to explain how ridiculous I think altruism is when you take it to its logical ends, but you’ve taken it out of context. And I understand that I wrote in a very casual and informal style, but still! It’s not that people actually hold the absurdity itself as their definition of the word or else it wouldn’t be an argument ad absudrum. Trying to say that an idea is ridiculous is not the same as a Humpty Dumpty style equivocation because I’m not trying to change the accepted definition, I’m just trying to say what the definitiion implies when I look at it. You’d be best to try a different approach. You could just say that I’m wrong and that the extremes that I suggest as examples can’t follow from the commonly accepted definition. I wouldn’t have a problem with that.

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    Paul, yes I can try again, since I’ve been doing a poor job of it.

    I take the commonly accepted definition altruism to be what altruism means. Mathew Wilder said:

    “Altruism isn’t altruism” doesn’t make any sense. When I use the word “altruism” I mean “selfless devotion to the welfare of others” or some similar formulation. Altruism is, therefore, a subset of Good. Not all good actions are altruistic, but all altruistic actions are good.

    This is generally how I think people define it. It’s not that I think altruism means something different, it’s just that I actually have a problem with that definition.

    I think that at best, we can apply Occam’s Razor to it. What is the point of differentiating when some action is good because it primarily benefits another being and another action is not as good because it primarily benefits the actor? Why is it necessary to separate good actions towards others by the degree of selflessness in which they were carried out? For me, this practice leads to silly conclusions. Selflessness has nothing to do with how helpful an action actually was for others. Why group them together into one concept, then? Good towards others should simply be judged alone, not weighted against other qualifications in order to turn a simple good into a more complex good.

    The problem is not that the definition of altruism is in itself contradictory. The problem is when a subset of what is good (altruism) is equivocated with the good itself, which is what I think both Christianity and Humanism do when they make altruism to be cornerstone of their systems of morality. This is where the equivocation actually occurs that makes it seem wrong to me. A system of morality shouldn’t be grounded in altruism, it should simply be grounded in what is good in general.

    To glorify altruism is, in a sense, immoral. It makes one act seem to have more good than another when in fact it is not. This can affect people’s career choices, since those who think that altruism is the highest virtue are forced into a position of having to find an acceptable balance of selflessness and good. The reality of making such a choice in practice is that it can be a trade-off. Being more selfless can take away from the potential goodness that could otherwise be accomplished.

    Let’s take a scenario: a brilliant doctor could give out flu shots to starving children for free or he could cure AIDS at a big pharmaceutical company and become rich. What does altruism add to the doctor’s ability to choose between the two? It gives an extra weight to the decision to give out flu shots because it is a more selfless act. But in reality, the greater good comes from curing AIDS. In this case, simply considering the good, pure and simple, is enough to make the correct choice. Altruism did not add a thing.

    Lastly, I have a problem with it because people who use altruism as the basis of their morality have made terrible decisions in the past. Everyone keeps arguing that it’s not altruistic when it’s wrong. Hence, slave ownership is not altruistic because it is wrong. Killing Jews is not altruistic because it is wrong. Yes, objectively speaking, they are not altruistic. They are evil things. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that the perpetrators of those acts used altruism as a justification for their actions. What this tells me is that altruism in and of itself doesn’t actually help us make good moral decisions when we use it as the basis of our ethics. It just means that in practice, we may hurt others even more because we think of ourselves as being good and selfless. This leads to the “kill ‘em all let God sort ‘em out” aftermath of Christian ethics, which glorifies altruism. Does anyone actually question that Christianity is fundamentally built on the premise of altruism?

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    So do you guys see what I am challenging here, yet? When Matt Wilder says that “Altruism isn’t altruism” doesn’t make sense, he is confusing the definition of altruism with the idea that it should be the basis of a system of ethics. If people think from within the framework of an ethic that uses altruism as its premise, and I say that altruism is not necessarily the basis of ethics in general, then they get confused and think that I am saying “altruism isn’t altruism.” But in fact that’s not what I’m saying at all. What I am saying that altruism isn’t is that it isn’t really a useful tool to help one make a decision about what is good. What I want people to consider is whether or not altruism has any true relevance to an objective set of ethics.

    Neither selflessness nor acting towards others have any inherent good or bad qualities to them. Therefore, the only thing good about altruism is the good itself. Saying that altruism can only be good – well, that is limiting it to only things that are good and thus it makes the other qualities completely irrelevant. It’s reducing it to something similar to a truism, really. Sure, it has some additional qualities than just good or bad, but those additional properties don’t actually do anything to qualify the truth value of the good or bad of an action. I don’t think that people understand this.

    People in general usage tend to actually assign positive moral qualities to both selflessness and to actions towards others. Simply wanting to be happy and to be left alone is seen as less moral then wanting to help everyone in sight. But unless there is a fundamental, unchanging good at the core of any action, then selflessness and actions towards others can just as easily be harmful. So I disagree that the additional qualities of altruism are good in and of themselves, but rather that they have no inherent value. The danger of assigning positive moral qualities to things that have none is that they reinforce the good or bad quality of the core action by giving them an additional, external justification. If an action is questionable and maybe shouldn’t be committed, someone might make the mistake of thinking that the action is better than it really is because it seemingly helps others in a selfless way.

  • Christopher

    Mathew Wilder,

    “Moral statements are not factual statements. That is the point. Morality is just a concept that exists in the mind of humans, but so what?”

    Then why claim that morality is objective?

    “But the laws we use to describe physical reality are not themselves physical objects – they only exist in our minds as concepts.”

    The priciples themsleves exist and are constant, thus objective. “Morality,” on the other hand, is far from constant: every system of ethic has it’s own a priori value judgements from which it begins, thus calling any notion of an objective “morality” into question as one can’t have a “morality” without a priori value judgements.

    “Regarding the ideal rational observer – there is, of course, no such entity in actual existence. But that is simply what the term ideal denotes. No person is an ideal rational observer. Such an entity is a hypothetical entity. It involves a thought-experiment – if we were completely rational, and possessed of all relevant knowledge about a situation, how would we act. Now, we can understand this concept. We might differ about specific moral issues, but that is something we can discuss rationally and try to figure out. We can gain more relevant knowledge and get closer to the mark.”

    And how would we predict the actions of such a person? Would this person use this knowledge to help perpetuate the “greater good” (a la Kant’s Catagorical Imperitive)or will it use this information to further his own ends (like Machiavelli’s Prince)? At this point, we have to start ascribing a value system to said ideal individual – but this takes away any objectivity that he might have…

    “I brought up radical skepticism because, philosophically speaking, it is a dead end. It can’t be defeated. I think radical moral skepticism is in the same position. Sure you can always say, “That’s what you think” but that doesn’t constitute an argument against my position. There is no way out of such total skepticism – but that doesn’t seem a particularly pressing worry to me, since I don’t see a compelling reason to be so radical in the first place.”

    I guess that’s the difference between you and me: you like seeking stable footholds for your philosophy to be founded on, I prefer to take mine out onto a sea of flux and ride the waves of values that move over it.

    “Lastly, mightn’t you be making an unjustified leap in assuming that you are real and the one experiencing things?”

    I never said I ultimately agreed with Descartes’ position, did I? But regarding the comic, I have no reason to doubt that the originator of the thoughts is indeed myself as I have nothing to point to as an alternative source of the aforementioned thought. Without an outside point of reference upon which doubt can be based, I accept that the thinker would indeed be myself.

    Unlike Descartes, however, I find the reverse to his conclusion more reasonable: sum, ergo cogito – for in order for said thought to exist there must first be a thinker to bring them forth into existence (thus I am, therefore I think).

  • Nurse Ingrid

    Just to be clear, I was not meaning to hold myself up as an example of altruism. I was thinking more about other people I have encountered in my work. As it happens, I do enjoy my job very much, and I am able to make a good living at it. I think that makes me lucky, not necessarily altruistic. I will say, though, that sometimes my work is very hard, and I doubt that I could even do it if it weren’t for the fact that I do care about my patients.

    I do wonder why altruism needs to be an either/or proposition. And I agree with Matthew Wilder that it makes more sense to talk about altruistic acts rather than persons, because no one is going to qualify as “purely altruistic” by any reasonable definition. Why can’t we say that Person A tends to be more altruistic than Person B, or that Act A was altruistic but Act B was not? I think it’s clear that altruism can be ONE of the things that motivates people, but I don’t think anyone is arguing that it’s the ONLY thing.

  • shifty

    I’m sorry bbk for asking for further clarification, but my little mind has problems with these mental gymnastics. It seems to me that in your definition of altruism a greater amount of weight is given to the opinions of the “giver” rather than the “receiver”. I would think that the question of need should stem from the needy first. Sometimes what I think is best for someone else isn’t necessarily so.
    Now it would be awesome for some great thinker to come up with a solution to world hunger or HIV and to be paid handsomely for it, but we also need selfless volunteers in the meantime to administer to those in need. And indeed both would be acts of goodness. But I think only one is altruistic. Perhaps your interpretation of altruism doesn’t include a time frame thereby rendering it the rule of reciprocity. I think an act of altruism doesn’t expect any immediate return, nor does he desire to be in a position where it will be necessary in the future. But, if those circumstances were to arise one would hope there would be an act of reciprocity.

    sorry for this gibberish, I think I just pulled something in my frontal lobe.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    What is the point of differentiating when some action is good because it primarily benefits another being and another action is not as good because it primarily benefits the actor?

    I answered a very similar objection in my foundational essay on morality:

    Of course, as far as most people are concerned, selfishness needs no additional justification; to say that an action is in your own best interest is itself a reason for undertaking it. Moral philosophy, if it is needed, is needed precisely to explain why we should not be guided purely by self-interest – why we should not always do the things that produce the maximum benefit for us, regardless of their effects on others. The key question, then, is whether there is good reason not to be selfish – whether there is a rational reason to be altruistic.

    The point is that not every moral dilemma is a win-win scenario. Sometimes, we find the happy coincidence that doing the right thing for others is also what furthers your own interests – as in your example of the doctor who’s paid handsomely to do research that cures AIDS. But not everything is like that. There are times when advancing your own interests harms others, rather than helping them. If we go by the principle that people should always seek their own self-interest, then we’re in trouble whenever situations like that come up – which they do, very often. If we want a better outcome to those situations, then we need a morality that gives people legitimate reasons to be altruistic and to seek the good of others in addition to their own.

    But that doesn’t take away from the fact that the perpetrators of those acts used altruism as a justification for their actions. What this tells me is that altruism in and of itself doesn’t actually help us make good moral decisions when we use it as the basis of our ethics. It just means that in practice, we may hurt others even more because we think of ourselves as being good and selfless.

    If your objection to the term “altruism” is that it’s not a magic word whose invocation automatically forces a person to do the right thing, then I’ll freely concede that point to you, but I think you’ve set your sights rather high. Any moral principle can be twisted and distorted by people seeking to justify evil actions. That was one of the major points of this post: there are no gleefully cackling villains glorying in their wickedness, not in real life. Instead, there are people who come up with justifications and rationalizations for why the evil acts they’ve committed were the just and noble things to do.

    If you want, you can try to find a moral principle that categorically rules out such acts and that absolutely cannot be misinterpreted under any circumstances. You’ll be looking for a very long time. In this world, we have to face the fact that moral principles can be subverted. This doesn’t mean morality is a futile quest. It means that the rest of us have to be all the more vehement in pointing out the errors these people have committed and showing where their distortions do violence to reason. There will never be a perfect morality that comes down from on high to infallibly constrain the actions of every individual. Instead, we need to form a community of self-correction – a moral peer review, if you will – that points out when others go wrong and steers them back to the right track.

    Does anyone actually question that Christianity is fundamentally built on the premise of altruism?

    Yes, I do. Christianity is not built on the premise of altruism, but on the premise of selfish individual salvation. Even if everyone around you is damned, you can still find salvation in Jesus and escape the sinking ship that is this world.

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    Ebon, it’s interesting that you use game theory in your introduction. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a typical introductory course example in economics, but it is an exceedingly simple example. You didn’t mention a key fact when introducing game theory – it was developed for economics. John von Neumann originally developed it along with general equilibrium theory and it quickly became the “language” of economics. Traditionally, economics has no use for altruism. Economics has always been founded on perfectly rational actors behaving in selfish ways. One of the wonderful things about game theory is that it lets us model “irrational” human behavior and understand why there can be less-than optimal outcomes even with perfectly rational players. To properly introduce your readers to game theory, you should at least go over minmax decision making and at least the idea of a Nash equilibrium. Otherwise it’s almost like introducing them to mathematics by only teaching addition of natural numbers.

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    Prisoner’s dilemma has no relevance to altruism. It is an example of cooperation. It shows us that an optimal outcome in a game can be unstable. The prisoner’s dilemma has a similar flaw to altruism, though: it does not allow for communication. When the Prisoner’s dilemma game is played once, the natural tendency is to confess. If on the other hand, you can play this game over and over again, players can make their decision by better anticipating the other person’s most likely decision. This is called a minmax. Players can “agree” to cooperate by signaling each other – every once in a while deciding to take the risky choice that only pays off with cooperation. By observing each others’ behavior, over time the equilibrium can move from the less than optimal outcome to the optimal cooperative outcome. Game theory shows that we do not need altruism, but that entirely selfish players can act in “altruistic” ways because it is for their own benefit.

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    shifty, I’m not sure if you know this, but within a couple decades, the percentage of the world population living in extreme poverty has been cut in half. At the same time, the world is achieving literacy rates unprecedented in human history – in developing countries, reaching levels that historically marked the onset of industrial revolution. Altruism has been a drop in the bucket of that trend. In my opinion, selfless volunteers acting in a destructive manner have more than offset the net gains of those seeking good. From the Catholic church causing AIDS epidemics in Africa to suicide bombers terrorizing every continent. The only real net benefit to this world has been commerce and free trade. Even the lowly, exploitative textile factories bring about higher literacy rates and higher wages which then lead to more positive changes.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    The prisoner’s dilemma has a similar flaw to altruism, though: it does not allow for communication.

    And there are also some real-life scenarios that do not. Let’s discuss one of them, a rather important one to my mind.

    If, as you say, all moral dilemmas can be solved by people acting selfishly, then how do you justify protecting the environment? Why not hunt and fish all large wild species to extinction, pump pollution and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and oceans, bury toxic radioactive waste all over the place, and use up as many of the planet’s non-renewable resources as we possibly can to make our lives as luxurious and comfortable as they can be?

    This policy can’t possibly result in harm to us. Its long-term effects won’t be felt for decades or centuries, so we won’t be around to suffer the worst of it. The future generations who will suffer for it don’t exist now, so they can’t offer reciprocal acts of cooperation to convince us to stay our hand, nor can they punish us for our misdeeds.

    A moral theory which incorporates acts of selfless altruism might lead us to the understanding that we should seek the good of other human beings, even if we won’t be directly rewarded for it. But by your lights, bbk, I would think we should go all-out and exploit the planet as ruthlessly as possible, no matter what happens a few generations down the line. Is that what you in fact believe? If not, how do you justify your aberrant altruistic impulses?

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    Ebon, please disregard where I originally said “This is called minmax.” I meant to delete the sentencet because I was originally typing something else but decided to cut it for brevity. Your own overview of the Prisoners’ Dilemma is called a minmax decision. Minmax has been shown by countless experiment to be how people actually make decisions and in and of itself it doesn’t make room for or imply any need for ethics or morals.

    Contrary to being a true paradox, minmax shows how less than optimal outcomes are perfectly rational. But if game theory stopped at minmax decision making, I would grant you the point that game theory needs the addition of morality to help explain human behavior which seems altruistic. In fact, game theory is a perfectly fine tool for explaining every facet of human behavior without relying on an external source of values for the players. Game theory is to altruism what the microscope was to the soul. I don’t think the world of philosophy and the humanities yet felt the full effect of game theory on their disciplines, so I eagerly anticipate when that happens.

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    If, as you say, all moral dilemmas can be solved by people acting selfishly, then how do you justify protecting the environment?

    Economics has dealt with this problem already and there are a number of factors that you may be discounting.

    First, there is our genetic propensity for self preservation and reproduction. If our genes are selfish, as Richard Dawkins proposes, then there is a rationale to say that we are programmed to care about our children as much as we do about ourselves. This reduces the problem to a purely mechanical one – we are simply programmed to plan for the future and there isn’t any reasonable limit to how far ahead we can plan in order to advance our lineage.

    Second, this is a much more complex game than a single prisoner’s dilemma. Yes, you can reduce some isolated environmental problems such as overfishing to a prisoner’s dilemma, but in reality this is more like thousands of prisenor’s dilemmas being played concurrently with the players signaling each other in hundreds of thousands ways. The point is that we do feel the impact of pollution now and we have the means to cooperate in various ways in order to move up to a better equilibrium. The Kyoto Protocol is one such example of us signaling each other on a global level that we are willing to cooperate for mutual benefit.

    Third, you may be casting the problem in the wrong light. As Bill Clinton recently said, the task is not to slow down our economies in order to stop global warming, the task is to prove that it is beneficial to our economies. Clinton’s appeal was an appeal to acting in self-interest, pointing out that the appeal to altruism is mistaken. And he is fundamentally right – the technologies that could solve our environmental crisis would be a boon for the wealth of our world that could make the original industrial revolution look like the iron age by comparison.

  • Alex Weaver

    BTW, slightly off-topic, but I’ve come up with another way of formulating the Prisoner’s Dilemma scenario, one that might be more accessible to some people.

    Imagine that you are on the verge of being late to work. You come to a 4-way stop sign and make a legal stop. At the same time, another car pulls up to the stop sign along the cross street, whose driver is also in a hurry to get where he is going. If you stop to let him pass, you will be late for work when you might not have been otherwise; if you step on the gas and go through the intersection before he can do so, you will probably make it on time. However, if he does the same thing, neither of you will get where you’re going in a timely manner, and furthermore will have expensive damage to your cars and possibly injuries as well.

    The rest of you can feel free to use this. Attribution would be nice, however. ^.^

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    This reduces the problem to a purely mechanical one – we are simply programmed to plan for the future and there isn’t any reasonable limit to how far ahead we can plan in order to advance our lineage.

    Now you’re avoiding the question. The issue is not what behaviors our genes have programmed us to encourage, because we are not slaves to our genes. To say that we should act in a particular way just because genetics encourages it is the naturalistic fallacy. For any instinctive drive which we have, we can ask the further question of whether it is right to heed that drive. What does your morality say on this account? Is it right to be concerned about the welfare of people who live in the future and who cannot repay us for any act we might take on their behalf?

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    The issue is not what behaviors our genes have programmed us to encourage, because we are not slaves to our genes.

    I’m not exactly sure what to make of this. In a way, it’s a false dichotomy. You used lexicon to weaken one choice in favor of another. I’m pretty sure there’s a couple other fallacies in here but I can’t put my finger on them.

    The first part is saying something along the lines of us being able to override our instinct – which in itself is something that we are genetically programmed to do. In fact it requires more programming, something that simpler life forms don’t have.

    The second part about not beingu slaves to our genes? It’s an appeal to emotion, but on its face it makes as much sense as saying a car is not slave to its wheels or my computer being not slave to Microsoft. It’s a non-sequitur.

    To say that we should act in a particular way just because genetics encourages it is the naturalistic fallacy.

    No, it’s not. I did not make a normative statement about how we ought to act. I merely answered your question with an observation that genetics itself might encourage us to care about our children and, by extension, about the future. I never said that we should care about the future because our genes tell us to. I did, however, give a perfectly direct answer to your question, along with several other valid answers.

    I have a fourth suggestion as well. Our governments are also self-preserving entities that are capable of dealing with pollution into the future. We design them to be this way for our own benefit and governments do not have the problem of certain biological death, so they are immune to your argument that selfishness necessarily cannot go past the individual’s death.

  • OMGF

    bbk,

    Okay, that’s it you win – common usage, altruism is by definition good and true and we must all be altruists therefore, I should STFU. Next time a Christian tells you God exists because everyone knows what God means… you’ll know where you were coming from on this one.

    What a great argument. Yes, how dare we actually use the definition of a word correctly. Is this another example of your argument absurdum?

    This is generally how I think people define it. It’s not that I think altruism means something different, it’s just that I actually have a problem with that definition.

    Far as I can tell, you still have not given us a definition to go by, so too bad. If you don’t have a counter-definition and a reason not to use the accepted one, then why should we listen to you?

    The problem is when a subset of what is good (altruism) is equivocated with the good itself, which is what I think both Christianity and Humanism do when they make altruism to be cornerstone of their systems of morality.

    Xianity does not make altruism a cornerstone of their system of morality. That is just plain false. If they did, the world might be a better place.

    And, no one is equivocating altruism with good except for you. You seem to be the one that can’t figure out that it’s just a word to describe certain actions. Instead you are intent on making it more than it is in order to complain. This is useless for many reasons, including the one I stated above.

    Does anyone actually question that Christianity is fundamentally built on the premise of altruism?

    Like Ebon, I also dispute this notion, because it’s simply not true. Xianity is built on obedience to god.

  • OMGF

    bbk,

    In my opinion, selfless volunteers acting in a destructive manner have more than offset the net gains of those seeking good. From the Catholic church causing AIDS epidemics in Africa to suicide bombers terrorizing every continent.

    Ah, I see the argument now. Altruism is wrong because some people do bad things. Too bad this is fallacious.

    I’m not exactly sure what to make of this. In a way, it’s a false dichotomy.

    No, it’s not. You tried to dodge Ebon’s question by stating that we are genetically predisposed to do certain things. Ebon replied that we can and do overcome our genes. He did not set up an either/or, he simply noted that your assertion does not answer the question and why.

    The second part about not beingu slaves to our genes? It’s an appeal to emotion, but on its face it makes as much sense as saying a car is not slave to its wheels or my computer being not slave to Microsoft. It’s a non-sequitur.

    And, here you incorrectly accuse Ebon of two more logical fallacies, but it’s pretty apparent that you don’t know what you are talking about. Pointing out that we are not slaves to our genes is a fact, not an appeal to emotion. Further it is not a non-sequitor in that he was pointing out why your non-answer was insufficient.

    I did, however, give a perfectly direct answer to your question, along with several other valid answers.

    Do you really think that was a perfectly direct answer? We don’t all choose to have children, nor do we always act in the interest of those children or future generations even. So, Ebon’s question still holds.

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    Ah, I see the argument now. Altruism is wrong because some people do bad things. Too bad this is fallacious.

    Let’s see, where have I seen this style of argument before?

    Ah, I see the argument now. Christianity is wrong because some people do bad things. Too bad this is fallacious.

    Looks familiar? Please, if you’re going to disparage anything I wrote, at least put in an honest effort to actually understand it, first.

    No, it’s not. You tried to dodge Ebon’s question by stating that we are genetically predisposed to do certain things. Ebon replied that we can and do overcome our genes. He did not set up an either/or, he simply noted that your assertion does not answer the question and why.

    First of all, “overcoming our genes” is magical thinking. As I correctly pointed out, we are programmed by our genes to be what we are, including the ability to cognate the way we do. What’s really fascinating is how we can’t escape our genes in many instances where it is both rational and beneficial to us to do so. For instance, humans cannot asses risk correctly because of our genetic programming. We know the correct way to do so and we can program computers to do so, but we cannot do it ourselves without great concerted effort to overcome our intuition.

    Secondly, the false dichotomy is implicit. Ebon’s statement put me in this situation: I must either agree or disagree that we are slaves to our genes. Slavery to genetics is a non-sequitur and therefore it creates a bifurcation. If I say we are not slaves to our genes, does that mean that Ebon is right? No. Ebon is setting up a situation wherein in order to accept ethics, I must denounce that we are a product of genetics. If that’s not a false dichotomy, I don’t know what is.

  • OMGF

    bbk,

    Looks familiar? Please, if you’re going to disparage anything I wrote, at least put in an honest effort to actually understand it, first.

    Thank you for pointing out how bad your argument is by showing us another bad argument. BTW, I and others have repeatedly asked you what definition you have for altruism. The one time you answered, you said that you agreed with the given definition and then promptly contradicted yourself saying, “It’s not that I think altruism means something different, it’s just that I actually have a problem with that definition.” This is the same as saying that you don’t actually accept the definition, but you are unwilling or unable to supply one that you would accept. So, therefore, if we can’t get your argument, maybe it’s because you can’t formulate a coherent argument to begin with!

    Secondly, the false dichotomy is implicit. Ebon’s statement put me in this situation: I must either agree or disagree that we are slaves to our genes.

    No, it most certainly is not, and you are wrong about the implications. Ebon’s original point was that if we act selfishly with regards to the environment (acting selfishly is YOUR suggestion) then we will rape the environment, and he asked why we shouldn’t do that. Your “answer” said that we don’t because we are slaves to our genes. Ebon rebutted that your “answer” was simply not true. There is no false dichotomy here. What you are really crying about is the fact that Ebon poked a hole in your argument. I suggest that you either shore up your argument or you admit that your argument was defeated and reformulate.

    Ebon is setting up a situation wherein in order to accept ethics, I must denounce that we are a product of genetics. If that’s not a false dichotomy, I don’t know what is.

    Since Ebon did no such thing, I suggest that you don’t actually know what a false dichotomy is. Thank you for being open minded about your lack of knowledge on this particular logical fallacy.

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    Okay, I’m not going to engage in “I know you are but what am I?” discussions with you. OMFG, until you actually read my posts, you should just STFU. The substance of your entire post is nothing more than basic insults trying to pass off for refutations. I can’t ask you to care about what my opinions are, but if you don’t, then please don’t waste my time.

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    “It’s not that I think altruism means something different, it’s just that I actually have a problem with that definition.” This is the same as saying that you don’t actually accept the definition, but you are unwilling or unable to supply one that you would accept.

    Situation: (hypothetical) common usage of a term, ‘collateral damage’, essentially means murder is good.

    Your argument:

    “It’s not that I think collateral damage means something different, it’s just that I actually have a problem with that definition.” This is the same as saying that you don’t actually accept the definition, but you are unwilling or unable to supply one that you would accept.

    I do not have to posit an alternative definition of collateral damage. I merely have to say that I disagree with it, and say why murder is NOT good. Saying that murder is not good does not change the definition of collateral damage. I don’t have to say “collateral damage means: murder is bad.” You’re coming at me with nothing more than word games here. Continually asking me to posit a different definition for altruism is nothing more than trying to set up a trap where you can then refute me on a lexicographical grounds. Why should I not see through this? It’s essentially sophistry. You’re also reducing your own position to a truism: Your argument is that I cannot argue that collateral damage is bad because, by definition, collateral damage is good. This is fallacious. I don’t have to change the definition to say that I don’t accept it.

    I sufficiently explained that using altruism as the basis of ethical systems wrongly equivocates altruism with what is the good. I explained how altruism leads to ambiguous situations where it’s hard to tell what is acceptable and what is the greatest good. I explained how selflessness and outward actions in and of themselves have no moral value, since they can be used for both good and bad acts. I explained how altruism, although it is a subset of the good, does not actually add anything substantive to what the good is. I explained that it falls victim to Occam’s Razor.

    You simply ignored all of these arguments and never addressed any of them, but you seem to love focusing on repeating a lexicographical argument ad infinitum, which makes it no more correct each time it’s repeated.

  • OMGF

    bbk,

    Okay, I’m not going to engage in “I know you are but what am I?” discussions with you. OMFG, until you actually read my posts, you should just STFU. The substance of your entire post is nothing more than basic insults trying to pass off for refutations. I can’t ask you to care about what my opinions are, but if you don’t, then please don’t waste my time.

    Nice projection. The fact is that I have read all your posts and I find the wanting. Not only have you not defined your terms – as several people including myslef have asked you to – but you’ve repeatedly ignored arguments against your position and gone so far as to accuse others of logical fallacy and been dead wrong about it. Nowhere have I resorted to “I know you are but what am I” argumentation. That is either a figment of your imagination or a case of projection. Nowhere am I really insulting you, unless spelling out the situation and noting the problems in your arguments count as insults. Also, you can’t accuse me of not caring when I’ve asked you what your position is and you are the one who has failed to respond.

    Now, this might sound insulting: You are ignorant of what you are speaking of. You have failed to form a coherent argument, you have failed to define your terms (even when asked, repeatedly), and you have failed to answer the objections to your “position” whatever that position may be. You’ve repeatedly misapplied the definition of the term under consideration (altruism) and shown that you really don’t understand what you or others are talking about. You’re repeatedly accused others of all kinds of things that were either completely untrue or a bad case of projection. And, all this is because you can’t figure out that “altruism” is just a word for a specific act. Instead, you’ve spent all this time arguing because you incorrectly think that Xianity is all about altruism, that altruism is some sort of characteristic about a person instead of an act, and that those who do altruistic things are automatically sneering down at you from their ivory towers that they built on morality. It’s infantile and not even wrong. I suggest you cut your losses at the very least. Of course, if you have any notion of honesty, you’ll look hard at your own posts and realize where you went wrong (where pretty much all of us have pointed out the flaws in your arguments) and either admit as much or rethink your philosophy and your argument/approach.

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    Okay, realize something. Claiming that I committed a fallacy is not the same as showing that I have committed one. At every level, you have failed to show anything. When you tried, I have corrected you, and you ignored the corrections. Accusing someone of ignorance when you yourself have failed to demonstrate anything is, as a matter of fact, insulting.

    Comments like “you don’t know what a false dichotomy is” don’t add anything of substance. It does not help you make your case that I was wrong in accusing Ebonmuse of committing this fallacy. It just props up an otherwise weak argument which is based entirely on avoiding mine. I already sufficiently addressed the accusation of having committed a Naturalistic Fallacy, but you ignored this and continued claiming that I was wrong. So let me explain then what a Naturalistic Fallacy is: this is when someone implies that something is moral because it exists in nature. I.E. if lions eat their young, then it’s okay for humans to eat their young. Saying that we are predisposed to care for our young because of our genes is not a fallacy, it is an testable fact. The opposite would be a fallacy: claiming that we need altruism to solve our environment because nothing exists in genetics that could possibly make us care about the future: that is just going against observable facts. Not just a wrong assumption for humans, but wrong for thousands of species who hardly even have a brain yet are capable of symbiotic relationships – all of it demonstrating that selfish genetic behavior can be responsible for exhibiting cooperative behavior. Either way, I did not say that we ought to care about the environment because of our genes, which would then be a fallacy.

    Speaking of false dichotomies, you introduced a brand new one when you claimed that Ebon said that without altruism, we are bound to rape the earth. Says who? That’s no the only possible choice. It also begs the question, and it also avoids the multiple alternatives that I have suggested.

    And, all this is because you can’t figure out that “altruism” is just a word for a specific act. Instead, you’ve spent all this time arguing because you incorrectly think that Xianity is all about altruism, that altruism is some sort of characteristic about a person instead of an act.

    This is a bullshit statement. Is altruism special in a way that no other characteristic is? This after you repeatedly claim that I am unwilling to propose a different definition for altruism, you take it upon yourself to freely modify it it any way you want. So okay, there are only benevolent acts, not benevolent people. There are only good acts, not good people. There are only smelly farts, not smelly people. Give me a break. This level of splitting hairs is beneath honest debate. And if my “failure to understand” altruism rests on making such a distinction, then I stand on very good ground.

    Also you have not demonstrated that altruism is not a central tenet of Christianity. You’d have to somehow say that the myth of Jesus dying for the sin of man is not central to Christian doctrine. In fact, Christianity would fall apart completely if not for the concept of altruism. Apologists are some of the strongest advocates of the need for altruism to exist.

    Yet, Christianity is not in any way central to my opinion against altruism. You are mis-representing my position. I pointed out that altruism is just as untenable for Humanism as it is for Christianity – for the same reasons. The central argument against altruism is that it is actually egotism applied to selfishness. This is what you claimed is the case for Christianity – yet when it comes to you, you claim that you are an exception. This is not because I refuse to accept altruism because I hate Christianity – this is because in this situation you refuse to apply the same lens to yourself as you do to Christians.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    This thread isn’t going anywhere, so this will be my last reply to bbk here, but a few things:

    So let me explain then what a Naturalistic Fallacy is: this is when someone implies that something is moral because it exists in nature.

    That’s correct, and that is precisely what you are doing. When I asked if we should be concerned about the welfare of people who don’t yet exist, you tried to sidestep the question by saying that our genes “program” us to care about our children. That’s true, but it doesn’t answer my point: should we care about people who will live in the future? Observing that this tendency exists in humans is not the same thing as endorsing it – unless, of course, you’re committing the naturalistic fallacy.

    Now, if you are endorsing it, then by any reasonable definition of the word, you’re endorsing altruism. Yes, there are good evolutionary reasons why we care about the well-being of our descendants. In other words, there are good evolutionary reasons why we feel altruistic toward our descendants. It does not negate the altruistic nature of this behavior to identify the reasons why it exists. After all, you will not stand to personally benefit from any action you take on their behalf, even if your genes do stand to benefit.

    …Ebon said that without altruism, we are bound to rape the earth. Says who? That’s no the only possible choice. It also begs the question, and it also avoids the multiple alternatives that I have suggested.

    I don’t think your reasons are particularly compelling. The primary alternative you suggested was that we can find self-interest-based reasons for switching to technologies that don’t harm the environment. Well, if we can convince people to act on that basis, I’m all for that. But it doesn’t address the essential point here, which is this: do we actually care about the welfare of people who live in the future? Or are they just getting a lucky break?

    In other words, if switching to clean technology was not environmentally beneficial, would you still advocate it for our descendants’ sake? Or should we only act in ways that benefit us directly, regardless of the effects on people who don’t yet live?

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    I’ll also agree to make this my last post, and yes, this hasn’t gone anywhere.

    You framed your question in terms of a need for altruism versus being able to get by on self-interest in order to save the environment. This is the frame in which I posited my response. No, we don’t need altruism to save the environment.

    I didn’t pass judgment on whether we should or should not, you are correct about that, which also means this was not a naturalistic fallacy. But his was not your original question, either, so I was not avoiding your question.

    Whether or not we should care about the environment of the future is just as irrelevant as whether or not it comes from biology or from external systems of morality, because either way we’ll all be dead. What remains is that we do.

    Your original point was to suggest that there are some real life situations like the prisoner’s dilemma where there is no hope for reciprocity to guide our actions, thus leaving only altruism as the only option. I have been trying to come up with my own examples, if I can, but I haven’t come up with any good ones.

    If you still want my personal opinion on whether or not we should care about the future, I’d say yes, but I know that my motivation is driven by the deep sense of love I have people in my life. I will care about them until the moment that I die, at which point I will have stopped caring. But because my caring for my loved ones precludes me from carrying a nuclear suitcase to my death bed, I have to say that I won’t have many viable options for effecting the world after I’m dead.

  • OMGF

    bbk,
    I missed your other reply, so I’ll address it here:

    Situation: (hypothetical) common usage of a term, ‘collateral damage’, essentially means murder is good.

    What dictionary do you use? Who in the hell thinks that murder is good and that collateral damage is a good thing? This does give me an indication why you can’t understand the meaning of the word “altruistic” though.

    I do not have to posit an alternative definition of collateral damage. I merely have to say that I disagree with it, and say why murder is NOT good.

    Altruism simply means an act that helps others in spite of the fact that it hurts the person doing it. If you say that you disagree with the definition, how is that not saying that you think the definition is somehow in error?

    Your argument is that I cannot argue that collateral damage is bad because, by definition, collateral damage is good. This is fallacious.

    No, what is fallacious is your horrendous example where you are not using a common definition of either word and where you refuse to see that the defintion of altruism includes doing good acts for others. Altruistic acts are defined as good acts, period. If you can’t accept that, more’s the pity, but it’s not my problem.

    I sufficiently explained that using altruism as the basis of ethical systems wrongly equivocates altruism with what is the good.

    No, actually you didn’t, but that’s beside the point (I hardly consider calling slavery an act of altruism as debunking altruism).

    You simply ignored all of these arguments and never addressed any of them, but you seem to love focusing on repeating a lexicographical argument ad infinitum, which makes it no more correct each time it’s repeated.

    Accusing me of ignoring arguments when all your arguments have been objected to and gone unanswered (not by me specifically, but by others on this board) is the height of arrogance. That I haven’t attacked all of your arguments doesn’t mean that they have not been addressed, and sorry but I’m not going to repeat everything that everyone else has said here (if I did you’d probably accuse me of piling on).

    Okay, realize something. Claiming that I committed a fallacy is not the same as showing that I have committed one.

    Hey, that’s my line. You talk a lot about fallacy, but you don’t demonstrate.

    Saying that we are predisposed to care for our young because of our genes is not a fallacy, it is an testable fact.

    Yes, it is. Yet, not all humans do so, how curious. Do you see how this undermines your argument yet?

    Speaking of false dichotomies, you introduced a brand new one when you claimed that Ebon said that without altruism, we are bound to rape the earth. Says who?

    I was speaking quickly. If you want, you can read Ebon’s latest reply and get the full gist of what he was saying. Sorry for giving you the benefit of the doubt that if I simply reminded you of the argument that you would be able to catch on.

    Is altruism special in a way that no other characteristic is?

    Did I say it was?

    This after you repeatedly claim that I am unwilling to propose a different definition for altruism, you take it upon yourself to freely modify it it any way you want.

    Where have I done that?

    So okay, there are only benevolent acts, not benevolent people. There are only good acts, not good people.

    Nice straw man. Or, is this another of your arguments to absurdity, which BTW, even though you tout it as a great argument, it is a logical fallacy. D’oh.

    Also you have not demonstrated that altruism is not a central tenet of Christianity. You’d have to somehow say that the myth of Jesus dying for the sin of man is not central to Christian doctrine.

    How is that an altruistic act? Considering that you think slavery was altruistic, I don’t hold high hopes for you to be able to answer that, so let me tell you that it was not altruitic, nor is Xianity. Xians do good deeds not for selfless reasons, but so they can go to heaven, either by works or to prove to god that they really believe. This isn’t basing their morality on altruism. Further, Xian morality is really based on “god said, I do.” Do you actually debate this?

    In fact, Christianity would fall apart completely if not for the concept of altruism.

    What planet are you from? Have you ever actually met any Xians or read the Bible? Xianity doesn’t depend on altruism. The number one priority for Xians is to believe in god to attain salvation. Murderers can go to heaven so long as they believe in god and repent.

    The central argument against altruism is that it is actually egotism applied to selfishness.

    It sounds to me like you are a wee bit sensitive about how others might have looked down on you for being a soldier simply because they might have had an overdeveloped sense of morality and wanted others to know about it…or alternatively, it could your own insecurities in thinking that others are looking down on you when they may not have been. Again, that’s not my problem and you should see someone if it’s due to your own insecurities.

    This is what you claimed is the case for Christianity – yet when it comes to you, you claim that you are an exception.

    Where did I do that? Have I claimed that I am an altruist in this thread or anywhere else?

    This is not because I refuse to accept altruism because I hate Christianity – this is because in this situation you refuse to apply the same lens to yourself as you do to Christians.

    I’m sorry, but you have me mistaken with someone else, because I’ve never said anything of the sort.

    This is all evasion on your part though, and instead of answering Ebon’s challenge, you’ve simply decided to attack me. I was willing to oblige, so I guess I bear some blame in allowing this to go off track. I suggest that you focus on Ebon’s objections to your arguments and not by simply claiming that he’s committing logical fallacies that he’s not committing – which is what started my part in this in the first place. May I also suggest that you calm down, stop throwing out coarse language and start acting rationally? It’s generally a sign of a weak mind/argument when one has to resort to swearing at one’s adversaries as you are doing.

  • RiddleOfSteel

    Maybe I am not quite getting this altruism argument, and it seems to have descended more into a disagreement over the mechanics of arguing, but here goes my attempt at the original proposition.

    Could it be agreed that altruism is defined mainly by two key parts? The first part is that an act is done by a person for another, and the act in and of itself is actually good for the other person. The second part is the act was done when there is minimal benefit to the person performing the act. So the person performing the act would be showing altruism.

    I think it would not make a lot of sense to quibble with the internal part of the altruism definition which specifies that the act performed is good in and of itself. That is part of the definition. If the act is not good for the person benefiting – then we are not talking altruism. But maybe that is where people are getting hung up? Because it could still be argued that altruism is not good. Meaning that even if a good act is performed with minimal benefit in relation to the person performing the act, a case could still be made that altruism is bad – because the case is being made against acting without self interest AND performing a good act for someone. Maybe that is what bbk is arguing.

    So to provide an example for the above, lets say you give McDonalds food certificates to a homeless person. That homeless person is hungry and could really use the food, and actually buys the food and does not trade for booze. Lets say it is a hardship for you to give out these food certificates due to financial circumstances, and you get little acknowledgment or thanks for giving them. So we have here a good act done for minimal gain on the part of the giver. But how could this as a whole be considered bad? Let’s say you are instead motivated by self interest of making money. So you devote your energies not to giving what little money you have in food certificates to the homeless, but engaging the homeless in some money making scheme. Selling trinkets or whatever. You are driven by your self interest and work hard at it, in the process the homeless actually end up doing something productive with their time, and you all make more money. So really, when comparing these two admittedly simplistic examples, maybe bbk is claiming that altruism is not good, because in his view it is not good compared to what might be achieved when self interest is placed as the priority. Bbk is essentially arguing that the idea of doing a good thing for selfless reasons is not good, because the result is inferior to what can be derived from self interest. At least that is what I think he is suggesting.

    So to summarize, in altruism a person by definition performs a good act, but altruism itself is still bad, because it’s a bad way to get things done compared to self interest. So the idea in the public perception that altruism is superior to other ways of acting should be revised. This argument leaves the definition of altruism intact, namely that a good act in and of itself is being performed, but leaves open the possibility that altruism overall should not be considered a good thing of which to aspire. Not saying I agree or disagree with this – just that it seems a valid point of discussion.

  • OMGF

    ROS,

    So really, when comparing these two admittedly simplistic examples, maybe bbk is claiming that altruism is not good, because in his view it is not good compared to what might be achieved when self interest is placed as the priority. Bbk is essentially arguing that the idea of doing a good thing for selfless reasons is not good, because the result is inferior to what can be derived from self interest. At least that is what I think he is suggesting.

    That is indeed the argument. I think it is overly simplistic, however, in that sometimes things align so that greater good can be achieved by non-altruistic means, but it’s far from proven that this is always the case, and Ebon’s example of the environment is a strong case against selfish ends always being better. I think he goes a step further also in saying that altruism is not the best good, so therefore it is bad. He also seems to think that everyone here thinks altruism is the only way to do good deeds and nothing else should be considered good, which no one here has argued. For my part, I think the situation needs to be reviewed on a case by case basis. There are times for altruism and there are times when self-interest can play a part to bring about greater good. It’s folly to suggest that altruism is the only good (which no one arguing against bbk suggested) just as it is folly to say that altruism is always less good than more selfish means (which is bbk’s argument).

    Note: I’m not arguing with you ROS, since I saw your disclaimer.


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