RE: virus: Altruism, Empathy, the Superorganism, and the Priso

Mark Hornberger (
Sun, 20 Apr 1997 07:43:33 -0500

At 11:35 PM 4/19/97 CT, you wrote:
>Dan H. wrote:
><SNIP James' description of altruism>
>> Sorry, this isn't altruism.
>> I cooperate all the time. I help my neighbors, I slow down at yellow
>>lights, and I hold doors open for all people. I do all this with completely
>>selfish motives.
>> Anyone calls me altruistic is itchin' for a fight ; ).
>> If there's an expectation of reward, or a sense of duty, then it isn't
>>altruism . I agree with Reed; what we call altruistic behavior can just as
>>easily be ascribed to other motives.
> Are you saying that /everything/ that is labeled altruistic is
>actually something else?
> Does that mean that there is no such thing as the defined version
>of altruism?
> Does that mean that a new version of altruism or a new word,
>which means altruism but takes into account our inherently
>selfish nature will need to be coined?
> How will we go about propogating this new definition or word?
> Will the mass propogation of this new word have any effects
>on our culture?
> Will they be benificial or harmful?
>Flip answers not extremely welcome.
>Corey A. Cook
I think the idea is simply that the concept of altruism is too simplistic
the way it is usually expressed. Most just say that it means putting
others' needs before your own, but as I think we've covered (whether you
agree with it or not) they ingore the purely selfish element which may
underlie many or most apparently selfless acts. For example, someone who
helps or works with the homeless, laudable act, but really only does so to
make themselves feel better. This distinction may well be irrelevant; I
don't know. But there is an incosistency there nonetheless. Nurses and
doctors help the injured and sick, but since they draw financial
compensation does this qualify as altruism?

Altruism seems to be one of those warm and fuzzy concepts we're so fond of.
"I don't know what it means, but I know it when I see it!" If when I put
a few dollars in the Salvation Army bucket at Christmastime we wish to call
it altruism despite the fact that I'm only assuaging my conscience and
succumbing to the psychological pressure of that damned bell, fine. But I
think we would be sacrificing accuracy to convenience.

take care-

Mark Hornberger