Re: virus: Altruism, Empathy, the Superorganism, and the Prisoner's Dillema

Martz (
Sat, 19 Apr 1997 09:40:05 +0100

On Fri, 18 Apr 1997, Reed Konsler <> wrote:

>Are we really going to get into an argument over definitions again?

If we're each using a word in fundamentally different ways then it
becomes difficult to communicate with each other without first finding
out what those differences are. A dictionary seems as good a place as
any to start.

>Are you willing to accept, as a possibility that altruism, as you have
>defined it, doesn't exist?

I can't speak for Robin but I've been arguing that very same point for
years. Altruism, where it includes the notion of selflessness [1] (and
it is included in the definitions of *most* people that I've come
across) does not exist. It is a wholly unnatural state, conjured up by
people who have been conned into the notion of some higher power to
convince themselves that they're heaven-bound.

>Perhaps that is a false category, or perhaps
>the definition ascribes an incorrect "intent" to the altruist? Let's say
>that the "strong" altruism which you have defined (by this I mean true both
>literally and in essence) turns out to be a misinterpretation of a lot of
>observations...a (I learned this word on this list...I love you guys)

I can accept that possibility, but I still reckon it's people fooling
themselves rather than being fooled by observations.

>I guess what I'm asking is this: Do you disagree with my previous post
>because it doesn't have a "ring of truth" in your mind? Does it seem
>logically inconsistent? Or is it that the implications of the post that
>you disagree with?

That's a question for Robin.

>But, I'm also a picker of nits (I eat them!) If I use language a little
>poetically or neglect a proper caveat it's usually due to a time

Fair enough, but don't be too surprised if someone takes you to task for
it. ;)

>How about this:
>Obviously we behave in ways that appear "altruistic" the sense that we
>can engage in trade,

I don't see how that appears altruistic. Trade is generally motivated by
an idea of mutual gain.

>that we can delay gratification,
>that we are willing
>to "invest" effort today on the assumption that there will be return with
>interest at a later date.

Again, where's the appearance of altruism? Only in those cases where the
future return is hidden from the observer will the act appear unselfish

>Sometimes this willingness to place small bets
>on the future evolves into a system of true "altruism" where we sacrifice
>without expecting return, or sacrifice and forget about it.

Again, while the *semblance* may be there I don't see any 'true
altruism'. As a species we are inclined to match behaviour that we see
around us. Our social nature encourages us to fit in, at least broadly,
with what society expects of us. If that inspires us to acts of charity
it is only because we don't want to be cast as unusual or unfit.

>There are
>examples of humans behaving as martyrs for various causes and these reflect
>a general tendency among humans to be more or less cooperative.

Agreed. Because for our species it confers survival advantage - a
selfish motivation.

>It is important to recognize that all the behaviors of an organism are
>overdetermined; even persisting in a state of rest is the outcome of myriad
>tensely balanced equilibrium, from the simplest chemical reactions to the
>most complex sociopolitical patterns of culture. All organisms that
>persist and reproduce must, by definition, be "self interested"...although
>how "self" in defined can be variable (for instance the "self" of a worker
>ant is an interesting concept). Human minds give us incredible
>plasticity...we can adopt paradigms of selfish AND selfless action. But
>these paradigms/ideas/memes cannot remove us from the reality in which they
>We all must eat.

Hear, hear.

>I believe any thinking person acknowledges the idea of pure communism as
>the most attractive, most altruistc, and most desireable system from an
>intellectual perspective.

Sorry. Most altruistic? Maybe. Attractive? Desirable? Not to me it ain't
and I like to think of myself as a thinking person. See the
'Sociological change' thread for a fuller discussion.

>I believe that any thinking person acknowledges that however desireable,
>pure communism is not in fact a stable or even attainable system. In fact,
>it's very dangerous to try to institute such economic/social systems. In
>the same way that by denying "the flesh" Christianity has given birth to
>the concept of "premarital sex", exploitation of little boys by supposedly
>"holy" priests, and an entire Western culture both afraid of and mesmerized
>by sex by denying our self-interested natures we create a mechanism where
>people are both afraid of and mesmerized by wealth and progress.

I fully agree.

>I'm not, though, arguing that becuase we are self-interested in nature we
>are doomed to be selfish in behavior.

I think we are. Wholly selfish. Any benefit conferred to others is just
a product of that.

>That's the naturalistic fallacy, and
>has given rise to robber barons, social darwinists, and all manner of other
>cultural shoggoths. I am simply insisting that there is a difference
>between DENIAL and CONTROL. We can control our baser natures if we
>recognize them, if we confront them, and if we accept them as integral to
>our being. By denial we simply allow them to act unchecked and

We exercise this control all the time. It's what keeps our society as
stable as it is. You're right that we have some blind spots, though, and
that they cause a lot of problems.

>We are the sense that we can engage in trade, that we can
>delay gratification, that we are willing to "invest" effort today on the
>assumption that there will be return with interest at a later date, and
>that the extrapolation of these abilities allows us to create and test new
>and more mutually benificial mechanisms of group/self-interest.

You have departed so far from any accepted definition of altruism that
I've ever come across (they all include selflessness) that I can't help
wondering if you're using the right word. Are you sure you're not just
trying to lever the word into an inappropriate use?

[1] 'Selfish' is a word that traditionally carries some negative
connotations. I'd just like to make it clear that none of these are
intended when I use it. Concern for self is just about the most natural
act I can think of.


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