The Pragmatism of Altruism

Hey everyone,

Just found this essay I wrote a little while ago that I thought some of you might find quite interesting. The writing is a bit simple at points but I’d forgotten about a lot of the concepts in it and I think it’s potentially quite an interesting read. It’s about how true altruism could potentially rise from completely self interested creatures. Cool beans.


Altruism is, by definition, an action of an animal that benefits another at its own expense. It is fashionable today to think that altruism is dead. With ideas such as the selfish gene circulating it can indeed seem that altruism is a hopeless ideal. In this essay I aim to examine the extent to which altruism does exist and what its purpose might be in society. Altruism is far from a simple phenomenon. It means much more than a superficial sacrifice. The question of why someone would be selfless goes far beyond the action itself – perhaps to the very roots of human nature. To discuss such a complex idea adequately requires an approach driven by an observation of nature. This approach will help us best understand why and how humans have evolved to cooperate.

Why, for example, do bees and ants forgo the right to reproduce? Most ants are infertile but why did they evolved to be that way? Why would a system designed to pass down genes design something that can’t? Bees, too, don’t reproduce even though all bees are fertile. They defer their right to reproduce to their queen. This may seem like an aside but is a very important question when considering human nature. It is the idea of nepotism. Today we think that all animals are inherently selfish, every action is done merely to serve their own ends, as Matt Ridley says, ‘As a general rule, a modern biologist seeing an animal doing something to benefit another assumes that it is being manipulated by the other individual or that it is being subtly selfish’[1]. This, however, does not completely follow. Surely, if this idea were true, the ants and bees would reproduce despite the ramifications for the hive, mothers would abandon their children for their own interests, there would be no cooperation. No, it is not, I believe, the individual that is being driven by selfishness. It is, in fact, our genes that are driven by self-interest.

All animals are descended from others that have done everything they could to pass down their genes and are inevitably descended from those who did the same. We are, therefore, not driven by interest for our own well being but by the interest of our genes. This idea easily explains why an ant or a bee now might give up their own right to reproduce for the good of the hive. They are all related to each other and so, by helping the hive, are helping the genes to continue on.

What does this mean for altruism therefore? Is the altruism of a mother to her child merely a self-interested ploy to help her own genetic material? This is not a very popular idea, William Hamilton, while paraphrasing Friedrich Engels, said that ‘this idea was trying to drown the richness of nature in the icy waters of self-interest’[2]. However, this does not necessarily eliminate the idea of altruism from nepotism. In the example of a mother looking after her child, is the mother herself not acting altruistically? She may be serving her selfish genes but she as an individual is being altruistic. Nepotism is obviously not a complete explanation of why humans act the way we do; it only explains why families cooperate rather than tearing each other apart. It does not explain why humans who are not related to each other are nice to each other. No, to explain this, one must look at something that is fundamental to human interaction, something known as the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is an analogy that can be applied to nearly every interaction between animals, including humans, where there is the chance for either cooperation or betrayal (defection). It mostly applies to an aspect of economics known as game theory but, as we will soon find, game theory applies to a lot more than economics.  It goes like this; the police arrest two suspects but they have insufficient evidence for a conviction. Therefore, after having separated the prisoners, they offer each one the same deal. If one testifies against the other in court (defects) and the other remains silent (cooperates) then the prisoner who defects goes free while the man who cooperates spends 10 years in jail. If both of them defect then they both get a five-year sentence and if they both cooperate than they get a three-year sentence. If we look at this problem logically we find that if we defect, whatever the other player does we are better off than if we cooperate. This means that betraying other people and defecting is the most logical course of action in any given circumstance.

This conclusion has quite dire ramifications for humans. When humans have played the game, an almost pathological desire to cooperate has been revealed. Does this mean that humans are fundamentally irrational creatures? Does it mean we are living our lives all wrong and should instead betray each other at every opportunity? This conclusion shook the scientific population the world over. Why would we live in societies if this is how we are supposed to behave? Surely the most logical thing to do would be to split up and work alone rather than to work together? If this conclusion is true then there is certainly no room for altruism. This idea seems to create more questions than it answers.

There is, however, a different, much more satisfying answer to the Prisoner’s Dilemma, as long as it is played more than once. This was discovered when, in the early 70s, people began to make computers play the prisoners dilemma. What they found was that the computers, when the played the game several hundred times, seemed as irrationally keen to cooperate as humans.

Around this time, a computer scientist called Robert Axelrod set up several Prisoner’s Dilemma tournaments to find the best strategy for the Prisoner’s Dilemma (as always defecting only worked best if it was a one off game). People would submit their programs to play the game and instead of different prison sentences they would simply get points, the program that got the most points won. The results were astonishing; defection was not always the answer. The program that won was a program known as TIT FOR TAT. This was one of the simplest programs and worked on the simple basis that it started by cooperating and then did whatever the other player had done the previous turn. This punished defection but worked with cooperation. TIT FOR TAT reciprocated[3]. Reciprocation, therefore, is the best way to play the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

When these ideas first arose it was thought that they could only be applied to subjects such as economics but soon people began to realize that they applied to other things too, especially evolutionary biology. A man called John Maynard Smith thought that the Prisoner’s Dilemma was actually a fundamental aspect in the evolution of life as we know it. What Smith argued is that, in the words of Matt Ridley, ‘just as rational individuals should adopt strategies like those predicted by the Prisoner’s Dilemma as the least worst in any circumstances, so natural selection should design animals to behave instinctively with similar strategies’[4]. What he is saying here is that playing the Prisoner’s Dilemma is built into our very instincts. He also thought that evolution would find a strategy that consistently did well in the Prisoner’s Dilemma and so would be the best and most stable way for animals to act. According to Robert Axelrod, it is through reciprocity that evolution would find the most stable way of playing the game.

This certainly makes a lot of sense. It is in our instincts, as human beings, to reciprocate. We do not need to reason our way to the conclusion that one good turn deserves another just as we may feel the need for revenge if someone betrays us. However, this does have quite large ramifications for altruism. The main question that leaps out is how can altruism exist in a world where every good turn expects an equal act in return? With this being the conclusion it is as difficult to picture altruism existing in our world, as it is to imagine a world without reciprocity.

This, however, is not the end of altruism’s story. There are several more factors to consider but it is first necessary to clarify something that is essential to the next section of the essay, namely that one does not have to play the game with everyone. When you think about it, would you not much rather play the game with someone whom you know is much more likely to cooperate with you? No one wants to play the game with someone they know will defect. Therefore, people don’t have to play the game with you; it is up to you to persuade them to play with you.

A discussion of altruism, however, would not be complete without mentioning one other key element, emotion. Emotions are a fundamental part of human nature and they drive us more than we are driven by anything else. It is also true that we all have a sense of morality that is primarily driven by emotion, though it may not always be the same from one person to another, as Matt Ridley says ‘to say that the emotions that fuel morality are innate is not to say they are immutable’[5]. Emotions cause a problem for many scientists. This problem is summed up very well by Robert Frank, who says ‘Any rational person would not pursue a feud, any more than he would let guilt or shame prevent him from stealing a friend’s wallet. Emotions are profoundly irrational force that cannot be explained by material self-interest. Yet they have evolved, like everything else in human nature, for a purpose’[6].

The answer to why we have emotions is, in fact, reasonably simple. Emotions are guarantees of our commitment. They solve something called the commitment problem, which, put simply, is ‘to reap the long term rewards of cooperation may require you to forgo the short-term temptation of self-interest’[7]. Emotions, in short, are what allow you to do this. An example of the usefulness of emotions is this; two friends open up a restaurant, one does the cooking and the other keeps the books. Both could easily cheat each other. The cook could easily exaggerate the cost of the food and the accountant could cook the books[8]. The most logical thing in this situation is to defect and cheat the other person and so a rational entrepreneur would not even go into the business in the first place for fear of being cheated. In a world of emotions, however, the entrepreneur does not cheat for fear of shame or guilt, and trusts the partner to do the same, to be a person of honour. In this and nearly every other case the rational man comes out worse. This caricature of a short sighted, self-interested person is what the economist Amartya Sen would call a ‘rational fool’.

This still, however, does not give us any evidence to believe that altruism exists. It still seems to be that we are obsessed by reciprocity and all emotions do is allow us to get more out of social living. However, if one looks closer at the evidence, something is seen that could perhaps give rise to altruism. All in all, the main problem with the Prisoner’s Dilemma is choosing the right partner; this is what emotions are for. They are there to identify you as a non-opportunist so that people are willing to trust and cooperate with you. By definition, altruism is an act of non-opportunism. It therefore makes sense to look as if you are altruistic. This is obviously not altruism as by pretending to be altruistic, even if the pretending is on an instinctive level, you are gaining from it. What seems most likely, however, is this; if being altruistic means that you get more for yourself then people will become increasingly falsely altruistic until, completely by accident, true altruism arises. Look, for example, at Mother Teresa. She seems to have completely given up the idea of reciprocity; she simply wished to help the people of India. Look at anonymous donations to charity. What are these people gaining? No, I think that altruism can exist even though it may be completely by accident.

Although true altruism may be a possibility, though, this does not mean that it is very common. There is a contradiction in society that is laid out very well like this ‘while we universally admire and praise selflessness, we do not expect it to rule our lives or the lives of our close friends’[9]; we simply do not practice what we preach. This makes sense though, the more other people practice altruism the better for us but if we and our kin pursue self-interest it is better for us too. What seems to have come about here is a Prisoner’s Dilemma of altruism, we would all much rather defect and everyone else cooperate but then, logically, everyone would defect. We therefore want others to be altruists but we do not ourselves want to be altruists. Let others be altruists is shouted out from the depth of human nature.

A number of questions, however, still remain; included amongst them is what influence does studying these ideas have upon the ideas themselves? Also, to what extent does the very question of whether pure altruism exists include implicit in it an assumption that it can’t exist.   In the words of Robert Trivers ‘models that attempt to explain altruism are designed to take the altruism out of altruism’[10].

Studies have shown that an inadvertent consequence of this inquiry is that altruism becomes all the more rare. If altruism were a mere accident of our programming then knowledge that altruism is indeed just an accident could in fact decrease the number of people who are altruistic. In a study done by Robert Frank, students of neo-classical economics (i.e. those who knew that the most logical thing to do in a one off circumstance was to defect) played the Prisoner’s Dilemma against students who knew nothing of the subject, for example, astronomers[11]. What was discovered is that the economics students almost always defected, purely because they knew that the best thing to do was defect. The other students on the other hand almost always at first tried to cooperate. In understanding the system, the system had become corrupted. The same approach can be applied to ideas such as the selfish gene. If people are told that they are inherently selfish they may feel as if their selfishness is justified. Interestingly, this is in fact the opposite of what Richard Dawkins thought; he thought that we should rebel against these very same selfish instincts[12]. In both of these examples, conscious knowledge of the system perverts its operation. So, with knowledge of these ideas must also come the understanding that, in addition to allowing us to explain why we behave the way we do, they can change our behavior.

In conclusion, therefore, we have seen that altruism can indeed exist but, when it does, it usually exists as little more than an accident, the by-product of a pragmatic interest in cooperation. Michael Ghiselin once said ‘what passes for virtue is a form of expediency’[13]. However, once examined, it is slightly more complex. As we’ve seen, even though an individual’s altruistic act may be driven by self-interest, the individual’s conscious motive may be unselfish. We have also found that people’s emotional response tends towards cooperation, which suggests that there is an instinct towards appearing altruistic, if not actually being altruistic. Thus the selfish gene does not, in fact, preclude acts of altruism, it can lead to them. So, while it may be fashionable to think that altruism is dead it is in fact alive and well. Furthermore powerful evidence is emerging that it could well be one of our most effective survival techniques – one that may even have enabled us to become by far the most successful animal on the planet. It is our pragmatic adoption of altruism that may well have allowed us not only to survive but even to flourish.

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