Argument from Self-Centeredness and Limited Altruism of Human Beings

This post was inspired by the writings of Paul Draper. If you like the argument, the credit should go to Draper. Any problems with the formulation below, however, are probably due to an error on my part.

Informal Statement of the Argument

Humans are effectively self-centered; our tendency to behave in self-centered ways is usually much stronger than any tendency to behave in selfless ways. These selfless or altruistic behaviors can be divided into two types: kin altruismand non-kin altruism.

On Darwinian naturalism, the mixture of moral goodness and moral badness we find in Homo sapiens is easy to explain.  The Darwinian naturalist explanation for our overwhelming tendency towards self-centered behavior is obvious. Kin altruism is also easy to explain: behaviors that promote the survival and reproduction of my kin make it more probable that my genes will be inherited by future generations. Non-kin altruism is weaker than kin altruism and also absent more often than kin altruism. Given that kin altruism exists, this pattern or distribution is exactly what we would expect on Darwinian naturalism.
On theism, either God created humans directly (special creation) or indirectly (Darwinian theism or theistic evolution).  Since God is omnipotent and omniscient, He could create humans without making them inherently self-centered. Since God is morally perfect, He would have good moral reasons for creating altruistic humans. Furthermore, He would not create inherently self-centered humans unless He had a morally sufficient reason for doing so. So given that humans are inherently self-centered, theism entails both that God is not constrained by biological goals like survival and reproduction (and hence does not need to create human beings who are inherently self-centered) and that He had a morally sufficient reason for doing so. And that’s a really big coincidence that Darwinian naturalism doesn’t need.

Formal Statement of the Argument

B: The Relevant Background Information

1. Living things, including sentient beings, exist.
2. The biological goals of goal-directed organic systems include survival and reproduction.

E: The Evidence to be Explained

Let E be observations of the self-centeredness and limited altruism of human beings. E can be broken down into three specific observations:
E1: Humans are basically self-centered.
E2: Kin altruism
E3: Social altruism is weaker in most humans that kin altruism. It also frequently absent altogether. Social altruism is also usually much more limited in scope.

Hypotheses (Core and Auxiliary Hypotheses)

Core, rival hypotheses:
T: classical theism
N: metaphysical naturalism
D: Darwinism: the theory that natural selection operating (indirectly) on random genetic mutation is the principal mechanism driving the evolutionary change that results in increased complexity

The Argument Formulated

Let “>!” mean “is much greater than”
(1) Pr(E | B & D & N) >! Pr(E | B & D & T).
(2) E is known to be true.
(3) T is not much more probably intrinsically than N.
(4) Therefore, other evidence held equal, T is probably false.

Draper on Pain and Pleasure: Part 2
Index: Draper’s Evidential Argument from Pain and Pleasure
Lessing’s Broad Ditch and Brad’s Lesser Ditch
Swinburne’s Argument from Religious Experience – Part 2
About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  • Truth Seeker

    A very interesting and original argument. It has always seemed very obvious to me (although I could be wrong) that if human beings are very self-centered that this would have very strong implications for the so-called hiddenness of God. According to this argument, there are people who have sincerely and earnestly looked hard at the evidence for the existence of God and found it insufficient at best. However, an implicit assumption here is that if there were sufficient evidence for the existence of God, that human beings are not the kind of beings that would culpably miss it; that there are some at least who truly yearn for there to be a God and that they would believe if only the evidence were good enough. However, given the vast literature in cog psy about the various cognitive and motivational biases that are part and parcel of every human 'nature' coupled with our very strong proclivity toward self-centeredness, it seems entirely probable that if there was sufficient evidence for the existence of God that human beings are exactly the kinds of beings that would culpably miss it. Culpable primarily because of this strong proclivity toward self-centeredness whcih would fuel the various cog. and motivational biases, and since we also know that we are blind to our biases (we cannot introspect them), that it is not surprising to find people who claim that would believe in God if only there was better evidence. Thoughts?

  • Truth Seeker

    I have a question: If God created biological organisms (i.e. human beings) ex nihilo (thereby skipping evolution altogether), then what would be ultimate/proximate explanation of their behavior in such circumstances?

  • Alex Dalton

    Creating problems for this argument, I think, is the fact that the major biological drive is to reproduce, and in the act of reproduction and the rearing of children, we often are quite self-sacrificial. You can say there's a Darwinian "explanation" for this, but that doesn't change the fact that we are often extremely less self-centered in parenthood. We often put our children before ourselves, sacrificing the dreams of our own life for their sake. Indeed, its questionable whether or not we are "basically self-centered".

  • Alex Dalton

    Or to put it another way, it sames our main biological drive is to engage in an activity (reproduction) that makes us less self-centered. Not sure that jives well with "inherently self-centered".

  • Alex Dalton

    It seems (and even the argument your making is a testament to this) that we've evolved in a way to see self-centeredness in abundance as extremely negative – to value altruistic behavior greatly as an ideal, to derive great joy from our own altruistic behaviors, be inspired by those of others, and praise them. Indeed, some of our most powerful myths and stories revolve around the self-sacrifice of a hero. Perhaps we are more inherently altruistic than you've considered?

  • Alex Dalton

    From a recent article in Scientific American entitled "The Evolution of Cooperation"

    "People tend to think of evolution as a strictly dog-eat-dog struggle for survival. In fact, cooperation has been a driving force in evolution.

    "…examples of selfless behavior abound in nature. Cells within an organism coordinate to keep their division in check and avoid causing cancer, worker ants in many species sacrifice their own fecundity to serve their queen and colony, female lions within a pride will suckle one another's young. And humans help other humans to do everything from obtaining food to finding mates to defending territory. Even if the helpers may not necessarily be putting their lives on the line, they are risking lowering their own reproductive success for the benefit of another individual.."

  • Alex Dalton

    It seems alot of modern evolutionary science is moving away from this basically self-centered view of human behavior. Blurb from _A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution_:

    "Why do humans, uniquely among animals, cooperate in large numbers to advance projects for the common good? Contrary to the conventional wisdom in biology and economics, this generous and civic-minded behavior is widespread and cannot be explained simply by far-sighted self-interest or a desire to help close genealogical kin.

    "In A Cooperative Species, Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis–pioneers in the new experimental and evolutionary science of human behavior–show that the central issue is not why selfish people act generously, but instead how genetic and cultural evolution has produced a species in which substantial numbers make sacrifices to uphold ethical norms and to help even total strangers."

  • Alex Dalton

    Blurb from _SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed_:

    "Martin Nowak, one of the world’s experts on evolution and game theory, working here with bestselling science writer Roger Highfield, turns an important aspect of evolutionary theory on its head to explain why cooperation, not competition, has always been the key to the evolution of complexity."

  • Unknown

    My statement is not "scientific" in nature but based on my beliefs in God. God did not create mankind to be self centered but was created in Gods image which includes freedom to choose. The inability to choose would not be a loving design on Gods part. We choose/chose that course. Love as we know involves freedom and free will.

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