20 October 2010

Altruism and the Mechanism Behind Reciprocity

There's a great column by Judith Lichtenburg in the Opinionator about altruism, which has especial bearing on ethical reciprocity.

[D]oubting altruism is easy, even when it seems at first glance to be apparent. It’s undeniable that people sometimes act in a way that benefits others, but it may seem that they always get something in return — at the very least, the satisfaction of having their desire to help fulfilled. Students in introductory philosophy courses torture their professors with this reasoning. And its logic can seem inexorable.
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The logical lure of egoism is different: the view seems impossible to disprove. No matter how altruistic a person appears to be, it’s possible to conceive of her motive in egoistic terms. On this way of looking at it, the guilt Mr. Autrey would have suffered had he ignored the man on the tracks made risking his life worth the gamble. The doctor who gives up a comfortable life to care for AIDS patients in a remote place does what she wants to do, and therefore gets satisfaction from what only appears to be self-sacrifice. So, it seems, altruism is simply self-interest of a subtle kind.
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Common sense tells us that some people are more altruistic than others. Egoism’s claim that these differences are illusory — that deep down, everybody acts only to further their own interests — contradicts our observations and deep-seated human practices of moral evaluation.

At the same time, we may notice that generous people don’t necessarily suffer more or flourish less than those who are more self-interested. Altruists may be more content or fulfilled than selfish people. Nice guys don’t always finish last.

But nor do they always finish first. The point is rather that the kind of altruism we ought to encourage, and probably the only kind with staying power, is satisfying to those who practice it. Studies of rescuers show that they don’t believe their behavior is extraordinary; they feel they must do what they do, because it’s just part of who they are.

In ethical reciprocity, you do to other people what you would want them to do to you, because it makes your life better. You don't kill people, because you wouldn't want to be killed and you don't want to live in a society where that would be okay. In practice, it also works out in a democratic sort of way: we pass laws to outlaw various things the majority thinks they wouldn't want done to them. It's a profoundly simple rule that gets extremely complex in practice, and it hinges on a knowledge that altruism can be essentially selfish.

I never mind discussing religion; in fact, I think it is intensely interesting and am always looking to find out new points of view or problems. But occasionally I will be evangelized by someone who is not interested in discussion, only in persuasion. That's fine: I don't actually mind that, either. But inevitably, the question comes: "If there's no God, then everyone could do what they want. No one would have any morals."

Well, ethical reciprocity is the basis for my morals - the method by which I have sorted out what is right and wrong in life. I also happen to think it's the best way, although I admit that there are many internally valid alternate systems: justice as fairness ("you are everyone"), negative utilitarianism ("minimize harm for all"), or even divine deontology ("God said so"). And I would actually argue that the functioning and essential kernel of almost all ethical schools is reciprocity; recently I presented a collection of statements of reciprocity throughout the ages.

I'm glad to see discussion of altruism and reciprocity as separated from religion. This can only lead to good things.

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