Altruism across Disciplines: One Word, Multiple Meanings

Article (PDF Available)inBiology and Philosophy 28(1):125–140 · April 2013with 377 Reads
DOI: 10.1007/s10539-012-9317-3
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Abstract
Altruism is a deep and complex phenomenon that is analysed by scholars of various disciplines, including psychology, philosophy, biology, evolutionary anthropology and experimental economics. Much confusion arises in current literature because the term altruism covers variable concepts and processes across disciplines. Here we investigate the sense given to altruism when used in different fields and argumentative contexts. We argue that four distinct but related concepts need to be distinguished: (a) psychological altruism, the genuine motivation to improve others’ interests and welfare; (b) reproductive altruism, which involves increasing others’ chances of survival and reproduction at the actor’s expense; (c) behavioural altruism, which involves bearing some cost in the interest of others; and (d) preference altruism, which is a preference for others’ interests. We show how this conceptual clarification permits the identification of overstated claims that stem from an imprecise use of terminology. Distinguishing these four types of altruism will help to solve rhetorical conflicts that currently undermine the interdisciplinary debate about human altruism.
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Altruism across disciplines: one word, multiple meanings
Christine Clavien
Michel Chapuisat
Abstract
Altruism is a deep and complex phenomenon that is analysed by scholars of various
disciplines, including psychology, philosophy, biology, evolutionary anthropology and
experimental economics. Much confusion arises in current literature because the term altruism
covers variable concepts and processes across disciplines. Here we investigate the sense given
to altruism when used in different fields and argumentative contexts. We argue that four
distinct but related concepts need to be distinguished: (a) psychological altruism, the genuine
motivation to improve others' interests and welfare; (b) reproductive altruism, which involves
increasing others’ chances of survival and reproduction at the actor’s expense; (c) behavioural
altruism, which involves bearing some cost in the interest of others; and (d) preference
altruism, which is a preference for others' interests. We show how this conceptual
clarification permits the identification of overstated claims that stem from an imprecise use of
terminology. Distinguishing these four types of altruism will help to solve rhetorical conflicts
that currently undermine the interdisciplinary debate about human altruism.
Keywords
reproductive altruism; psychological altruism; behavioural altruism; preference altruism;
experimental economics; evolutionary anthropology
1. Introduction
In everyday language, altruism occurs when individuals are disposed to sacrifice part of their
personal interest in favour of others; it is an honourable gift given without any expectation of
future personal reward. In this common usage, the type of altruism and the content of
‘personal interest’ are not specified, so that the term may apply to a range of phenomena.
Altruism has been the topic of intense research in many academic disciplines, including
biology, psychology, philosophy and economics. However, the term has been used in
different ways in order to fit the particular research contexts and needs of each discipline.
This has generated much confusion, because the differences are subtle and not always made
explicit.
Multifarious and somewhat cryptic uses of the term altruism are frequent in emergent
research fields on human social behaviour. For example, the experimental economists Fehr
and Fischbacher (2003: 785, our emphases), after having explicitly stated that
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Throughout the paper we rely on a behavioural – in contrast to a psychological – definition of
altruism as being costly acts that confer economic benefits on other individuals,
add on the same page that
A combination of altruistic and selfish concerns motivates them [the altruists]. Their altruistic
motives induce them to cooperate and punish in one-shot interactions and their selfish motives
induce them to increase rewards and punishment in repeated interactions or when reputation-
building is possible.
Here, we are at a loss to understand whether the authors are discussing the outcome or the
motivational aspect of altruism, and what the behavioural and psychological categories
exactly cover. In another paper, researchers from the same field note that
The punishment of defectors is an altruistic act in the biological sense because, typically, it is
costly for the punisher and induces the punished individual to defect less in future interactions
with others (de Quervain et al. 2004: 1257, our emphasis).
However, altruism in biology typically refers to behaviours reducing personal
reproduction, as observed for example in ants or termites. It is not obvious that punishment of
defectors in humans meets this criterion. Thus, one can reasonably ask whether scholars in
biology and economics are really discussing the same phenomenon, as suggested by
experimental economists (e.g. the above quote; Bowles and Gintis 2011; Gintis et al. 2005).
Here, we propose to distinguish four notions of altruism that are commonly used in cross-
disciplinary literature. Sober and Wilson (1998) have already shown that altruism is
thematized very differently in psychology and philosophy, as opposed to biology. We will
briefly review these uses in section 2. We then argue that the recent focus on altruism in
research fields such as evolutionary anthropology, evolutionary game theory and experimental
economics calls for a distinction between two further notions of altruism (section 3). To show
why this new distinction is important, we outline the conceptual differences between the four
forms of altruism (section 4), provide some examples of terminological confusions, and point
to overstated claims that are based on an imprecise use of the altruism terminology (section
5). We conclude that a consistent use of an explicit terminology, such as the one delineated in
this article, is crucial for clarifying the numerous confusions that currently undermine cross-
disciplinary debates about human altruism. This taxonomy of altruism will help to assess the
actual contribution of various research fields to a better understanding of the general
phenomenon of unidirectional helping behaviour.
2. Psychological versus Reproductive Altruism
Psychologists and philosophers have long been debating the possibility of altruism. The
controversy began in the 17th and 18th centuries and involved British moralists (among them
Butler 1991/1726; Hobbes 2005/1651; Hutcheson 2004/1725; Mandeville 1997/1714-1728;
Smith 2002/1759).1 The problem involved deciding whether human beings are exclusively
motivated by self-interested concerns or whether they can be moved by genuine concerns for
1 The actual term ‘altruism’ started to be used around the mid-19th century. Auguste Comte (1851-1854) defined it as the
motivation to act benevolently – as opposed to ‘egoistic’ motives, which are directed towards the agent’s self-interests.
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others’ needs. A stance on this issue was considered fundamental for the elaboration of a
realistic political system adapted to human nature.
Although less politically flavoured nowadays, this controversy is ongoing (Andreoni
1990; Batson 1991; Cabanac et al. 2002; Cialdini et al. 1987; Ghiselin 1974; Nagel 1970;
Rand 1964; Sober 1992; Stich et al. 2010; Stocks et al. 2009). The main contemporary actors
of the debate are philosophers and psychologists. They usually define altruism in terms of
internal motivations responsible for helping actions (Batson 1991: 6). We refer to this as:
Psychological altruism: An action is altruistic if it results only from motivations directed
towards the goal of improving others' interests and welfare.
In other words, psychological altruism is more about wanting a beneficial outcome for
others than about achieving this outcome. The most important condition for psychological
altruism is that no self-directed consideration – such as a quest of pleasure, power or honour,
or avoidance of pain – is causally responsible for the action.
The controversy around psychological altruism may never be resolved, because of the
difficulty of finding arguments or empirical data showing that an other-directed action cannot
be pervaded by – possibly unconscious – self-directed motivation (Stich et al. 2010; Stich
2007; Clavien and Klein 2010). A possible way out might consist in reformulating the
controversy (Clavien 2012; Sober and Wilson 1998; Kitcher 2011). Alternatively, following
many other unsettled issues, this debate might at some point be consigned to the history of
philosophy.2
Independently of the controversy about the possibility of psychological altruism,
evolutionary biologists have also confronted a ‘problem of altruism’, but of a different kind.
A pressing question for them was to explain how extreme forms of helping behaviour that
decrease the actor's fitness could evolve (West et al. 2007; Foster 2008; Frank 1998; Grafen
1985; Clavien and Chapuisat 2012). We label this specific form of altruism:
Reproductive altruism: A behaviour is altruistic if it increases other organisms’
fitness and permanently decreases the actor’s own fitness.
Fitness reflects individuals’ rate of survival and reproduction. Typical examples of
reproductive altruism are found in the social insects. For example, the vast majority of
honeybee workers do not reproduce and spend their entire life rearing and defending their
queen's offspring.
Since reproductively altruistic behaviours are, by definition, detrimental with respect
to survival and reproduction, their persistence in the course of evolution is puzzling and calls
for a special explanation. William Hamilton's (1964, 1970) kin selection theory provides such
an explanation: genes responsible for altruistic behaviour can spread in a population if the
altruistic behaviour they induce is more likely to benefit those who possess copies of the same
genes, which is typically – but not exclusively – the case of close relatives, due to common
ancestry (Hamilton 1970; Grafen 1985; Queller 1992; West et al. 2011; West et al. 2007;
Frank 1998). An alternative way to formalize the evolution of reproductive altruism is group
selection theory (Okasha 2007). Group selection models also show that reproductive altruism
2 Behavioural and brain sciences have recently made important advancements in our understanding of human decision-
making (Bargh et al. 2010). Philosophical questions originally formulated on dated views of the cognitive architecture of the
mind – in our case, that action results from a single causal chain starting with one primary motive – might have simply
become inadequate or confusing in view of current scientific understanding of the mind.
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can evolve when group members are related. Thus, they make quantitative predictions
identical to the kin selection theory.
As Sober and Wilson (1998) pointed out, reproductive altruism should not be confused
with psychological altruism. Reproductive altruism is defined in relation with outcomes,
independently of the actor’s consciousness or subjective motivations. For example,
individuals’ intentions play a causal role in some species – e.g. humans – but not others – e.g.
bacteria – but this difference does not preclude both types of species to show reproductive
altruism. In contrast, psychological altruism refers to subjective motivation for individual
actions. Interestingly, this partition largely fits with the classical distinction in biology
between ultimate and proximate explanations (Mayr 1961; West et al. 2007; Tinbergen 1963).
Ultimate explanations refer to the adaptive value and fitness consequences of a trait; they
answer the question of why a trait has evolved. The Hamiltonian or group selection
explanations of the evolution of reproductive altruism are of this kind. Proximate explanations
refer to the mechanisms causing the behaviour. Individual altruistic motivation is such a
causal mechanism; it is a proximate cause for helping behaviour. Ultimate and proximate
explanations are complementary, but shed light on different aspects of phenomena.3 There are
a number of implications, the first being that evolutionary explanations of reproductive
altruism provide no direct insight into the psychological goals or preferences underlying these
behaviours. For example, Hamilton’s theory provides a powerful explanation for the
reproductive altruistic behaviour of worker bees, irrespective of what these bees might be
thinking of while devoting their lives for the good of the hive. Conversely, knowing that a
human action is triggered by an altruistic – or selfish – motive does not mean that this
behaviour is reproductively altruistic – or selfish.
It should also be noted that many behaviours that appear to be reproductively altruistic in
the short term because they bear some immediate cost to the actor do in fact increase the
fitness of the actor in the long run (Lehmann and Keller 2006). One example is the sexual
cannibalism practised by some mantis and spiders, in which males are eaten by females
during or just after mating (Andrade and Banta 2002). Environmental conditions in which
food is scarce and males have little chance to mate with several females can favour the
evolution of such interactions; males that do not try to escape after copulation are not
reproductively altruistic if their submissive behaviour increases the number of offspring they
will have. Other more common examples are cases of delayed fitness benefits that may arise
through social prestige (Zahavi 1975) or future reciprocity (Trivers 1971). These types of
social interactions are common and important in humans. However, when considering their
long-term fitness consequences, such actions do not represent true cases of reproductive
altruism (West et al. 2007).
3. Behavioural and Preference Altruism
More recently, the notion of altruism has been heavily used in a new kind of debate, mostly
within the emerging fields of experimental economics and evolutionary anthropology (Gintis
et al. 2005). The debate revolves around the question of whether ordinary people behave in
the way predicted by a crude view of human agency, according to which humans have only
self-regarding preferences. As it is usually described, this view presents human beings as
optimal utility maximizers, and utility is reduced to hedonistic goods such as pleasure and
3 Interestingly, proximate mechanisms can themselves be accounted for with ultimate explanations (Clavien and Chapuisat
2012; West et al. 2007).
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money. It predicts that, humans act as selfish agents in all circumstances (Fehr and Camerer
2007; Henrich et al. 2005: 812). This view is often referred to as the “homo economicus
model.4
Although it is not easy to identify who really defends the “homo economicus” view,5
there are many detractors of it in sociology and psychology (Bourdieu 2000; Gigerenzer
2008/2007; Kahneman et al. 1982), evolutionary anthropology (Henrich et al. 2001),
evolutionary game theory (Gintis 2000) as well as in economics (Simon 1996/1969), and the
subfield experimental economics (Fehr and Fischbacher 2003; Fehr and Gächter 2002; Fehr
and Schmidt 1999). Opponents of the “homo economicus” model maintain that humans are
norm-abiding actors who do have preferences for the well-being of others. Such a stance is
fully compatible with neoclassical economics, which states that humans’ choices reflect the
content of a utility function composed of long-standing and hierarchically ranked preferences.
Scholars who endorse neoclassicism while rejecting the “homo economicus” view propose
the inclusion of social and altruistic preferences in humans’ utility functions.
Three major argumentative strategies used against the “homo economicus” model
appeal to altruism. Below, we review these strategies. We argue that they rely on three
different concepts of altruism: psychological altruism and two novel concepts that deserve
their own labels.
The first strategy consists in showing that people do not act in the way predicted by
the “homo economicus” model, but instead behave in a fair and altruistic manner. A large
number of laboratory and field studies have used economic games to demonstrate that people
are ready to anonymously give money to strangers, even while knowing that they have
nothing to gain from their generosity – neither in terms of reputation nor of material benefit
(Hoffman et al. 1996; Charness and Gneezy 2008; Fehr and Fischbacher 2004a; Fehr and
Gächter 2002; Fehr and Fischbacher 2004b). Other studies showed that many people prefer to
lose money by punishing free-riding rather than accept the inequality created by this
behaviour (de Quervain et al. 2004; Fehr and Fischbacher 2003). This can even happen in an
anonymous condition where the punisher is an external observer and not himself victim of the
free-riding behaviour (Kurzban et al. 2007; Fehr and Fischbacher 2004b; Lewisch et al.
forthcoming).
The nature of the altruism implicated in these studies is not fully clear. Two novel
concepts seem to be used without being clearly disentangled. This is illustrated in the
following citations discussing ‘strong reciprocity’, a paradigmatic example of altruism.
(Cit. 1) Many of these experiments examine a nexus of behaviours that we term strong reciprocity.
Strong reciprocity is a predisposition to cooperate with others, and to punish (at personal cost, if
necessary) those who violate the norms of cooperation, even when it is implausible to expect that
these costs will be recovered at a later date. (Gintis et al. 2005: 8, our emphases)
(Cit. 2) Strong reciprocity is a combination of altruistic rewarding, which is a predisposition to
reward others for cooperative, norm-abiding behaviours, and altruistic punishment, which is a
propensity to impose sanctions on others for norm violations. Strong reciprocators bear the cost of
rewarding or punishing even if they gain no individual economic benefit whatsoever from their
acts. (Fehr and Fischbacher 2003: 785, our emphases)
(Cit. 3) Altruistic cooperators are willing to cooperate, that is, to abide by the implicit agreement,
although cheating would be economically beneficial for them (Fehr and Rockenbach 2003: 137,
our emphasis)
4 We use quotation marks because the term homo economicus is also used for referring to economic theories that might not
fit this description because they take no stance on which preferences are contained in human’s utility function (Kirchgässner
2008).
5 Some of Ken Binmore’s big claims – e.g. he describes himself as a Hobbesian (2006) – might lead to think that he is an
advocate of the “homo economicus” model. However, it should be noted that he does not deny the existence of sympathetic
preferences – at least toward closely related individuals (2005: chap. 7).
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