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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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(Cit. 4) We provide a model of team production in which the motivation to punish is strong
reciprocity: the willingness of some altruistic team members to engage in the costly punishment of
shirkers. (Carpenter et al. 2009: 221, our emphases)
(Cit. 5) By now we have substantial evidence suggesting that fairness motives affect the behaviour
of many people. (Fehr and Schmidt 1999: 817, our emphasis)
Citations 1 and 2 refer to a particular type of ‘behaviour’ that can be observed in socio-
economic contexts; a ‘predisposition’ or ‘propensity’ to reward, cooperate, and apply costly
punishment to norm violators. This type of description calls for a new way of conceiving
altruism, which we label:
Behavioural altruism: A behaviour is altruistic if it brings any kind of benefit to other
individuals at some cost for the agent, and if there is no foreseeable way for the agent to
reap compensatory benefits from her behaviour.
This notion of altruism is reminiscent of reproductive altruism. However, it is much less
restrictive because it applies to any type of cost and benefit. For example, in laboratory
experiments the standard currencies used are money or material goods.
Rather than behavioural propensities, citations 3 to 5 refer to people’s goals and
motivations; their ‘willingness’ to cooperate and punish shirkers. This clearly refers to
people’s subjective preferences for the well-being of others and calls for a new definition of
altruism, which we label:
Preference altruism: An action is altruistic if it results from preferences for improving
others' interests and welfare at some cost to oneself.
This notion is close to psychological altruism. It is however more explicit about the cost
and less restrictive regarding the underlying psychological mechanism. For example,
preference altruism occurs when an individual shows a reliable preference to help needy
persons at some personal cost, although she could ignore their fate. The private and profound
reasons for this preference however need not be specified; an empathic emotional reaction, a
desire to enforce a social norm, or a demand for internal reward might underlie this
preference.
Showing the existence of behavioural (Fehr and Fischbacher 2003) or preference altruism
(Fehr and Rockenbach 2003) are both equally efficient ways of challenging the “homo
economicus” model, because neither type of behaviour is predicted by the model.
The second argumentative strategy against the “homo economicus” view makes use of
evolutionary game theory. An altruistic behaviour observed in the laboratory can be modelled
as a behavioural strategy that competes with less cooperative strategies over a number of
generations. These models are usually interpreted in terms of cultural evolution. After a finite
series of social interactions involving material payoffs, the next generation copies the most
successful strategies from the previous generation. Computer modelling shows that in
reasonably realistic circumstances, altruistic strategies are favoured and prove evolutionary
stable despite their incompatibility with the “homo economicus” model (Gintis et al. 2005 p.
10). Non-cooperative strategies often prove suboptimal in the long run; they die out after
several generations or cause the collapse of the whole system (Bowles and Gintis 2004; Gintis
et al. 2003). In this type of studies, the strategies are called ‘altruistic’ if they satisfy the
definition of behavioural altruism.
The third – and more direct – way to challenge the relevance of the “homo economicus
model consists in investigating the motivations underlying social decisions. This is a common
theme of many studies in classical behavioural psychology (e.g. Batson 1991; Cialdini et al.
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1987), experimental economics and neuroeconomics (Glimcher et al. 2009; Sanfey 2007).
These studies refer to different forms of altruism, depending on the particular aspect of human
decision-making they investigate. In psychology, researchers are mostly interested in genuine
motivation, thus they make use of psychological altruism which traces the motivational chain
to its most fine-grained causal components. In economics, researchers mostly investigate
ordinary people’s preferences, and thus use the less restrictive notion of preference altruism.
Some of them, however, examine the more detailed motivational structure of people’s choices
(Ellingsen et al. 2010; Glimcher et al. 2009; Harbaugh et al. 2007; Houser and Xiao 2010;
Knoch et al. 2010; Mayr et al. 2009; Singer and Fehr 2005) and sometimes make explicit
reference to psychological altruism (e.g. de Quervain et al. 2004).
4. Some Crucial Conceptual Differences
The four forms of altruism described above appear in different scientific contexts, but they
also diverge from one another at the conceptual level. Reproductive and behavioural altruism
focus on the outcomes of behaviours, whereas psychological and preference altruism focus on
individual’s subjective motivations – their goals or preferences – for actions. In order to
understand the broad phenomenon of altruism, it is essential to disentangle behavioural
outcomes from motivational aspects (Peacock et al. 2005). This distinction is closely
connected to the one between ultimate and proximate explanations described in section 2.
Consider the example of ‘altruistic punishment’, a behaviour that has been repeatedly
observed in laboratory experiments (de Quervain et al. 2004; Fehr and Gächter 2002). It
consists in punishing at some cost an individual who has been unfair, although no future
individual gain can be obtained by this punishment. Such action is behaviourally altruistic.
However, at the proximate level, the behaviour seems to be driven by a desire for revenge:
most individuals seem to seek the satisfaction of seeing free-riders pay for their actions
(Clavien and Klein 2010). Hence, no psychological or preference altruism is involved.
Reproductive altruism differs from behavioural altruism in three major ways. First,
and most importantly, different currencies are at stake. While biologists measure reproductive
altruism in terms of fitness – the genetic contribution to the next generation – scholars who
argue against the “homo economicus” view are not interested in this measure. They calculate
costs and benefits that are meant to reflect individuals’ interests and welfare. In experimental
economy, costs and benefits are usually translated into monetary units. Such currencies are
not a good proxy for fitness – especially in light of the current demographic trend observed in
rich societies. Hence, the results of micro-economic experiments cannot be extrapolated to
explain reproductive altruism in evolutionary biology.
Second, the time span considered for reproductive and behavioural altruism are
generally different (Jensen 2010). The relevant timescale when measuring fitness is the
reproductive output over the entire life of an organism.6 In contrast, behavioural altruism is
usually measured over short periods, with no or little assumption about its long-term
consequences. In laboratory experiments, a behaviour is judged altruistic if it proves costly at
the end of the game played by the participants. However, this behaviour may not be costly in
the long run: the participants may be applying a strategy that usually proves beneficial in real
life, long-term interactions. In particular, being generous is an excellent way to make friends
and favour long-term cooperative interactions (West et al. 2011). Similarly, in theoretical
models used in evolutionary game theory, the outcome of competing strategies can be
6 In practical cases, the fitness consequences of a behaviour are often estimated over a shorter period, but with the
assumption that they are representative of an effect on the final life-time fitness of the individuals.
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calculated after a variable number of rounds. It is thus possible that strategies such as strong
reciprocity are suboptimal in the short term – after one or a few interactions – while being
efficient in the long run – after a number of interactions representative of the strategy-bearers’
lifetime (Vromen forthcoming). As Sam Bowles and colleagues note, ‘strong reciprocity may
be a basic human behaviour that under conditions prevailing in recent history generally
confers fitness advantages on its bearers in comparison with their self-interested compatriots’
(Bowles et al. 2003: 5). Similarly, one can read in Gintis et al. that ‘strong reciprocity must
have promoted individual fitness, or it could not have evolved’ (Gintis et al. 2008: 248).
The third difference is that reproductive and behavioural altruisms are used in distinct
contexts. The notion of reproductive altruism is tightly associated with an evolutionary
scenario. As for any selected trait, a predisposition for reproductive altruism can only be fixed
in a population over many generations during which a large number of altruistic individuals
have encountered a broad range of contexts (Maynard Smith 1989). This evolutionary view is
usually neglected in discussions of behavioural altruism. A behaviour observed on one
occasion in an artificial context may be described as altruistic, irrespective of whether the
experimental setting is representative of humans’ everyday experiences or past evolutionary
conditions.
To summarize the relationship between these two notions, behavioural altruism is
much broader than reproductive altruism. The latter is used in a specific way in evolutionary
biology and may be seen as a special case nested within the broader category of behavioural
altruism.
A similar type of relationship links psychological and preference altruism. Both refer
to people’s motivation to act altruistically, but the definition of preference altruism is broader,
as it makes no detailed stance on actual causal mechanisms underlying motivation; it only
requires that people have robust other-regarding preferences and act upon them. Preference
altruism may but does not necessarily call for genuine concern for others; it may be practised
by individuals who indirectly seek to fulfil self-directed drives, such as the personal pleasure
felt when being generous. For example, a person who refrains from buying luxury items and
prefers to periodically give her extra-money to a charity displays preference altruism.
However, if her other-regarding preference is itself motivated by the expectation to regularly
feel a warm glow inside or by the hope to increase her chances to enter Paradise after death, it
would not count as psychologically altruistic.
In sum, psychological altruism is a special case of preference altruism. It is characterized
by genuine concern for others. The distinction is important in philosophical discussions on
morality, because preference altruism may not reveal people’s genuine motivations and may
thus be seen as more other-regarding than it really is.
Notably, both psychological and preference altruism are proximate mechanisms for
helping behaviour. Thus it remains interesting to provide ultimate accounts of the evolution of
these preferences for others' interests and welfare. Kin selection and possibly individual
advantages due to indirect or delayed reciprocity might be part of the explanation (Clavien
and Chapuisat 2012; West et al. 2007).
5. Misleading Uses of Altruism Terminology
When a single term covers different concepts in diverse disciplines, major difficulties are to
be expected in interdisciplinary debates. Unfortunately, this applies to current discussions on
human altruism. The notion of altruism has become so plastic that it is often hard to
understand what is really meant by the authors using the term, and even harder to evaluate the
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degree to which results from one research field – e.g. experimental economics – may facilitate
the resolution of debates in another research field – e.g. evolutionary biology or philosophy
(Vromen forthcoming; West et al. 2007; West et al. 2011).
Some of the cryptic conceptual moves are due to the different argumentative strategies
applied against the “homo economicus” view, each of them calling for a different type of
altruism (see section 3). Terminological confusions also arise from the interdisciplinary nature
of this research field. Here is an example:
The experimental evidence [experimental economics’ achievements] supporting the ubiquity
of non-self-regarding motives, however, casts doubt on both the economist’s and the
biologist’s model of the self-regarding human actor. (…) Evolutionary theory suggests that if a
mutant gene promotes self-sacrifice on behalf of others (…) the mutant should die out. (…)
Any model that suggests otherwise must involve selection on a level above that of the
individual. Working with such models is natural in several social science disciplines but has
been generally avoided by a generation of biologists weaned on the classic critiques of group
selection by Williams (1966), Dawkins (1976), Maynard Smith (1976), Crow and Kimura
(1970), and others, together with the plausible alternatives offered by Hamilton (1964) and
Trivers (1971). But the evidence supporting strong reciprocity calls into question the ubiquity
of these alternatives. (Gintis et al. 2005: 8-9)
The authors of this citation are researchers in experimental economics, evolutionary
anthropology and evolutionary game theory. They state that experimental and theoretical
results on strong reciprocity cast doubt on biological explanations for altruism. However, this
claim is highly disputable, because it fails to distinguish dissimilar notions of altruism. Strong
reciprocity can be understood in a motivational sense – preference altruism – or a behavioural
sense – behavioural altruism (section 3). The authors may be referring to preference altruism,
as the formula ‘non-self-regarding motives’ suggests. However, preference altruism is
logically distinct from reproductive altruism (section 4); the first focuses on people’s motives
whereas the second refers to behavioural outcomes. Showing that people have other-regarding
preferences provides no indication of why reproductive altruism has evolved. Here, the
authors confuse proximate and ultimate causes (for more on this criticism, see West et al.
2011).7 If the authors are referring to behavioural altruism, a similar difficulty arises.
Behavioural and reproductive altruism are not identical. They differ with respect to currency,
time span and contexts. Thus, studies on behavioural altruism cannot directly improve our
understanding of reproductive altruism.
In a similar vein, a behavioural outcome – or a behavioural propensity – should not be
confused with its proximate mechanisms or ultimate explanations, as when Gintis and
colleagues (2005: 11) write that
Primates form alliances, share food, care for one another’s infants, and give alarm calls—all of
which most likely can be explained in terms of long-term self-interest and kin altruism. Such
forms of cooperation are no less important in human society, of course, and strong reciprocity
can be seen as a generalization of the mechanisms of kin altruism to nonrelatives.
Thus, one should be particularly careful when reading authors who conflate various senses
of altruism, as occurs here with the reproductive and behavioural forms of altruism.
7 Other example of this type of confusion between proximate and ultimate explanation are to be found in (Gintis et al.
2008: 249; Chandhuri 2011: 78).
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[We use] the term altruism for helping in situations where the helper would benefit in fitness
or other material ways by withholding help. This is the standard biological definition adopted
by Hamilton (1975), Grafen (1984). (Bowles and Gintis 2011: 8, our emphasis)
Here, the inclusion of benefits other than fitness deviates from the standard biological
view adopted by Hamilton and Grafen, and opens up the way for confusions, and possibly,
overstated claims.
Another upshot of an imprecise use of altruism terminology is that it makes unclear the
relevance of theoretical or empirical results for an understanding of human morality. The
connection between altruism and morality is rarely thematized in the literature on human
social decision-making, but lurks in the background. Book and article titles such as ‘Moral
Sentiments and Material Interests’ (Gintis et al. 2005), ‘Brain Responses to the Acquired
Moral Status of Faces’ (Singer et al. 2004), or ‘Strong Reciprocity and the Roots of Human
Morality’ (Gintis et al. 2008) are evocative examples. However, moral terminology should not
always be taken as face value, because the link between altruism and morality is not
straightforward.
Reproductive altruism seems at best remotely linked to morality, since it can even occur in
organisms that lack nervous system, such as slime moulds. By definition, behavioural altruism
is disconnected from individuals’ motivations, which makes it a poor indicator of morality.
Indeed, common-sense as well as most philosophical understandings of morality emphasise
individuals’ motivations: an action is morally good if it is done with the right intention or
emotional incentive – moral theories referring to reasons, values, emotions, or intuitions fall
under this category. Even consequentialist views of morality would not attribute a privileged
role to behavioural altruism; the relevant moral criterion in these models is whether the
consequentialist principle – e.g. maximisation of utility – is fulfilled.8 Preference altruism
does not seem a good approximation for morality either, since it allows for self-directed
instrumental motivations that no moral system puts forward. Psychological altruism seems to
be the best candidate for drawing links with morality; genuine other-directed motivation is the
mark of western moral ideals and is explicitly integrated in numerous philosophical accounts
of morality (e.g. Nagel 1970; Ruse 1998; Sober 1993). However, psychological altruism – in
the form defined in this paper – is hardly explicitly discussed in the economics and
evolutionary anthropology literature.9 This is understandable, as these research fields are
mainly concerned with general descriptions or predictions of behaviour in socioeconomic
contexts (Gintis et al. 2008: 247). Knowledge about the genuine motivations underlying
individuals’ choices of action seems unnecessary to understand the long-standing preferences
that are central to decision-making. In this context, it makes more sense to use preference
altruism which can easily be integrated into the utility function (Carpenter 2007).10
8 We are of course not denying the fact that instances of behavioural altruism can be moral. Our point is that these
behaviours unlikely qualify as moral in virtue of being behaviourally altruistic.
9 One could debate on this point however because it is not always clear whether the authors defend a flexible or a more
demanding form of other-regarding motivation (Vromen forthcoming). Moreover, it is in principle possible to formalize fine-
grained other-regarding motivations in terms of utility functions (see Clavien forthcoming).
10 It is still a matter of debate however, to what extent this would help to improve the axiomatic theory used in economic
theory (Binmore 2005).
Forthcoming in Biology and Philosophy
This isn’t the final version…
11
6. Conclusion
Altruism is a multifarious notion that requires specification. We have argued that the use of a
clear taxonomy – independently of the details in the definitions – is essential for progress
towards an integrative and multi-faceted understanding of human altruism across disciplines.
The four definitions of altruism proposed here point to important distinctions between
research fields and should help to avoid misunderstandings across disciplines and over-
interpretations of findings relevant to specific aspects of altruism. Firstly, most of the research
on human behaviour does not deal with reproductive altruism, and has little relevance for it –
what is at stake is rarely survival and reproduction. Conversely, the powerful explanations for
reproductive altruism that were proposed by evolutionary biologists long before experimental
economists and evolutionary anthropologists joined the field are only indirectly linked to the
three other notions of altruism. Secondly, psychological altruism is likely to be a useful
concept in philosophy and psychology, but not so much in evolutionary biology, experimental
economics, and evolutionary anthropology. Thirdly, preference and behavioural altruism are
the most relevant concepts for economics; they help in challenging the “homo economicus
model and provide some hints on how to refine the content of the utility function. However,
these two forms of altruism only shed light on a tiny aspect of human social decision-making.
Studying the conditions under which people are ready to help, collaborate, or punish others,
and the intimate brain processes involved, goes a long way beyond studying preference and
behavioural altruism. Indeed, altruism is one specific – maybe only peripherally interesting –
component of human social behaviour. Therefore, by confining the rhetoric of altruism to the
space where it belongs and keeping to clear definitions, we will have more chance of grasping
the true originality and complexity of human social behaviour.
* We thank the editor, an anonymous reviewer, Chloë FitzGerald, Conrad Heilmann, Laurent
Keller, Laurent Lehmann, Jessica Purcell, and Jack Vromen for comments on the manuscript.
We are grateful to Philip Kitcher who gave us the impulsion to work out the concept of
“preference altruism”. Our research is supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation
and the Fondation du 450ème of the University of Lausanne.
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Inclusive fitness theory is central to our understanding of the evolution of social behavior. By showing the importance of genetic transmission through nondescendent relatives, it helps to explain the evolution of reproductively altruistic behaviors, such as those observed in the social insects. Inclusive fitness thinking is quantified by Hamilton's rule, but Hamilton's rule has often been criticized for being inexact or insufficiently general. Here I show how adopting a genic perspective yields a very general version that remains pleasingly simple and transparent.
Book
Francis Hutchesons first book, An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue, was published in 1725, when its author was only thirty-one, and went through four editions during his lifetime. This seminal text of the Scottish Enlightenment is now available for the first time in a variorum edition based on the 1726 edition. The Inquiry was written as a critical response to the work of Bernard Mandeville and as a defense of the ideas of Anthony Ashley Cooper, Lord Shaftesbury. It consists of two treatises exploring our aesthetic and our moral abilities. Francis Hutcheson was a crucial link between the continental European natural law tradition and the emerging Scottish Enlightenment. Hence, he is a pivotal figure in the Natural Law and Enlightenment Classics series. A contemporary of Lord Kames and George Turnbull, an acquaintance of David Hume, and the teacher of Adam Smith, Hutcheson was arguably the leading figure in making Scotland distinctive within the general European Enlightenment. Wolfgang Leidhold is Professor of Political Science at the University of Cologne. Knud Haakonssen is Professor of Intellectual History and Director of the Centre for Intellectual History at the University of Sussex, England.