Posted by: Mark Waser | Oct 26, 2010

Failures of Rationality Über Alles 1: Altruism


LessWrong begins its Altruism page with the standard definition “Actions undertaken for the benefit of other people.”  Unfortunately, it then immediately banishes it to the realm of the self-defeating and nonsensical by continuing “If you do something to feel good about helping people, or even to be a better person in some spiritual sense, it isn’t truly altruism.”

Any person with sufficient understanding of the current state of affairs on Planet Earth realizes that intelligently practicing altruism is virtually/practically guaranteed to bring far more benefits to the practitioner than the costs.  Any person who is intelligent enough will therefore practice “altruism” — except that it is then no longer truly altruism according to the Altruism page.

Every intelligent “action undertaken for the benefit of other people” has a high probability to benefit the “altruist” markedly as well.  Sufficiently wise people understand this well and act accordingly.

There is also the problem that many “rational” people claim that altruism isn’t evolutionarily favored.  The second closest analogy to that is claiming that talking isn’t evolutionarily favored because it requires listening (and subsequent action) on the part of others.  The closest analogy is bee dances.  A bee dance is a useless waste of energy unless some critical number of others in the bee community understand and act upon it.  (Actually, it could easily be argued that a bee dance isn’t an analogy because it IS an example of altruism).

INSTANT POLL:  Is a bee dance an example of altruism?  Why or why not?

Of course, rational self-sacrifice doesn’t exist in the land of the rationality über alles either.   Either you are furthering one of your goals (making it a “self”ish choice rather than a true sacrifice) or you’ve been less than rational.

The spirit of the meaning of altruism and self-sacrifice can easily be redeemed by changing the definitions to:

Altruism:  Actions undertaken for the benefit of other people without the expectation of direct reciprocation.  If you do something to feel good about helping people, or even to be a better person in some spiritual sense, it remains altruism.

Self-sacrifice:  Actions harmful to one’s immediate self (or harmful to one’s selfish goals) undertaken for the benefit of other people without the expectation of direct reciprocation or enhancement of the probability of selfish goals.  If the act causes you to feel good because you are furthering your goal of community, it remains self-sacrifice.

So the question for discussion is . . . . Why does über rationality seemingly demand that altruism and self-sacrifice not exist?  Is it that the demand for absolutes and guarantees necessarily squeezes out higher order concepts, that the über rationalists haven’t figured out how to get back the higher order concepts, or is it that the entire point of über rationality is to allow the notoriously self-deceptive mind to “rationalize” selfishness?

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Responses

  1. Bee dance is not an instance of altruism, as a bee has no notion of a goal separate from the goals of its hive. While a bee could be considered an agent in a multi-agent hive system, from the decision-theoretic viewpoint it could be considered an “implementation detail” of the hive agent.

    Personally I think that a pleasurable act of altruism is still an act of altruism as long as an agent does not have a goal of pursuing pleasure (which I think would be a very misguided goal, pleasure/pain are just cognitive tools, they don’t even belong to the same category as goals or utilities/costs).

  2. But why would you want to split hair over definitions? Doing homework by a kid (instead of playing computer games) is altruistic until it stops being so when the kid understands that it actually isn’t.

    • I think that I lost you here. Doing homework by a kid isn’t something done for the benefit of others. It is done at the command of others and to avoid undesired consequences. It is never altruistic.

      Also, I don’t want to split hairs over definitions. In fact, that is precisely what I am arguing against — the fact that über rationalists say that altruism stops being altruism when you realize that altruism is virtually always to your benefit (as well as to the benefit of others) even if it doesn’t seem so at first. I’m trying to repair the split ends. 🙂

      • It is altruistic when the wish to make parents proud of the kid outweighs the negative reinforcement aspect 😉 but perhaps I’m stretching it too much.

        So your attack is on such a setup of definitions which makes any clear case of altruism irrational? It can be achieved by both making more things altruistic, and making more things rational. For example, a young aspiring scientist sacrificing her life to save a poor rural family of three during WWII could be stretched to being rational. Or a husband doing housework (in some traditional cultural setting) could be stretched to being altruistic.

      • Hmmm . . . . yes, I guess that you could stretch giving someone else the opportunity to be proud as altruism . . . . unless there was the slightest shred of benefit to yourself (as there clearly is when it is *you* that they are proud of ;-))

        Yes, indeed, what I am objecting to is indeed the setup of definitions that makes any clear case of altruism irrational. And my question is — why do they do that? I understand that the problem can easily be solved by making more things altruistic (by removing nonsensical disqualifiers) but disagree that making more things rational is a solution. In both your examples, you can easily create motivations/goals/situations where the action is rational — but the second that you do, it is fulfilling your own goal and therefore not altruism.

        To summarize their argument:
        RATIONALITY = acting correctly to fulfill your goals
        ALTRUISM = not fulfilling your own goals, solely those of others
        THEREFORE altruism BY their DEFINITION is NOT rational

        So . . . . Why do they insist on such a definition?

  3. Yes, it could be achieved by making more things altruistic or by making more things rational. But doing so violates the standard rules of the über rationalist. That is what I am arguing against.

  4. The LessMoral position is based on a technical philosophical view richly discussed in the literature of emotivism. Technically it can be considered correct, but only if altruism must always be an emotion. What this thread is conflating here are actually two different definitions of altruism. Theirs is “it isn’t real unless you feel altruistic” (ie, a gratuitous love for others which is its own reward). Yours is “it’s real as long as it rationally resembles altruism” (ie, a logical outcome that benefits others with or without reward). Yours is more inclusive as a definition of altruism, although technically in the literature altruism is usually parsed so that it’s not considered “true” altruism unless it is “pure” altruism. Now, you ask why anyone would want to parse it so. I have no idea, except perhaps to demonstrate that “pure” altruism is rare and we can’t count on that as a characteristic of a majority of people. Rather than redefine altruism (which has a rich literature running back to Aristotle), you might call what you advocate here “practical altruism” or “pragmatic altruism” or even “logical” or “rational” altruism. And argue that it’s the actual type in use on most occasions. =)

    • An excellent summary that raises some good points. Thank you.

      Their view is so extreme as to even claim that if you are “altruistic” (even in part) because it feels good to be altruistic, that that makes it not altruism (so altruism *can’t* be it’s own reward without becoming not-altruism). Their claim is that it must be *solely* to help others before it can qualify as altruism. Effectively, they are insisting on making any “rational” reason for altruism disqualifying as a prelude to declaring altruism as not rational. But, then again, I guess that is what you mean by “pure” altruism and “true” altruism.

      I think that I’m tempted to use the phrase “functional altruism”. If it serves the purpose of altruism (i.e. helping others without expecting directly related external awards), it is functionally altruism. Of course, that then raises the question of exactly *what* the function of altruism is (which is actually a very good lead-in to where I want to go — thanks!).

  5. […] LessWrong begins its Altruism page with the standard definition "Actions undertaken for the benefit of other people."  Unfortunately, it then immediately banishes it to the realm of the self-defeating and nonsensical by continuing "If you do something to feel good about helping people, or even to be a better person in some spiritual sense, it isn't truly altruism." Any person with sufficient understanding of the current state of affairs on Planet … Read More […]


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