Forthcoming in Biology and Philosophy
This isn’t the final version…
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”
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.
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,
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
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).