Monday, September 27, 2004

Musings About The Question Thread

*My assignment is down below, and it may make more sense to read in chronological order*

The question thread over in the class I'm taking got me thinking...

I originally stated I believed that there is no such thing as pure altruism. Every time I say that, however, I'm met with looks of surprise. Or if I'm online, I'm met with: O_O.

So I've thought about revamping my definition. I think I'm willing to concede that altruism exists, but only as the opposite of selfishness. My definition of the two would be as follows.

  • Selfishness: Acting in your own self-interest at the detriment of others.
  • Altruism: Acting in your own self-interest for the benefit of others.

I believe that every time we make a conscious decision, we go through a cost/benefit analysis, and then choose an action based on rationality (or perceived rationality). We weigh the benefits of the action against the perceived costs of the action, and then simply choose the most rational path.

For example, let's say I come upon a $20 bill lying on the ground. I do a quick cost benefit analysis and determine that the cost (the act of bending over and picking up the money) is worth the reward (being in possession of the money after the cost has been expended). It's a simple exercise in economics (referring to Dave's question for this week).

However, if you move the $20 to the inside of the lion cage at Hogle zoo, then suddenly the cost has risen. After analyzing the situation, I may decide that the benefit is no longer worth the cost. In my analysis I may look at how desperate (hungry, in debt) I am (which would raise the benefit of obtaining the money), or I might look to see if the lions are sleepy, absent, or have just eaten lunch (which would lower the cost side). If the benefits outweigh the costs, then every time I will perform the action. If the cost is too high, then every time I will not perform the action.

Now, I know what you are saying... You are saying that it is not in your interest to painfully smack yourself upside the head, but you just did it to prove me wrong. And I would say, "But in that case the benefits did outweigh the cost. The cost of smacking yourself upside the head (which left a mark, by the way), was lower than the benefit of proving me that I was wrong.

We are doing these cost/benefit analyses all of the time. What we have for breakfast, whether or not to go to class, whether or not to buy the textbook, whether or not to read the assigned chapter; it is all based on what we think the benefit is, and what we think the cost will be. Sometimes our perceptions are wrong. In looking back we are made aware that our actions were irrational, but only based on the new knowledge that comes with experience. At the time, we were acting completely rational based on what we knew then.

So, tying that all back in to USENETS, you could almost ask, "Why is the internet, particularly bulletin boards and online communities, so good at giving us opportunities to serve our self-interests, while still serving others' self-interests?" or to shorten the question, "Why is the internet so adept at helping me while helping you?" Or to take it out of question form, and put it back in a self-interested frame of reference. "Let the internet help you, help me."


Mark said...

Hey Marion,

I hope I am not jumping into a conversation uninvited. I have to say that I really love discussing topics like this with you. You are a very careful thinker and I share your sentiments so often. I really enjoy net discussions but so often it removes the personal side and I end up sounding condescending or argumentative when I am not feeling that way. Here is what I think:

You propose to define Altruism: Acting in your own self-interest for the benefit of others.To analyze your definition I broke down motives into logical possibilities--
(a) A is acting
(b) A is acting to benefit self
(c) A is acting to benefit self with intent to harm others
(d) A is acting to benefit self and others
(e) A is acting to benefit others

I think I can identify some known philosophies representing each of these positions?

(a) A is acting (existentialism) defines it as "a chiefly 20th century philosophical movement embracing diverse doctrines but centering on analysis of individual existence in an unfathomable universe and the plight of the individual who must assume ultimate responsibility for his acts of free will without any certain knowledge of what is right or wrong or good or bad."

(b) A is acting to benefit self (egoism and/or hedonism)

As stated previously egoism divides into two camps: Psychological and ethical egoism. "Psychological egoism is the view that people are always motivated by self-interest. Ethical egoism is the view that whether or not people are like this, they ought to be like this [meaning egoists]" (Blackburn, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy.

(c) A is acting to benefit self with intent to harm others (Machiavellianism)

"...being or acting in accordance with the principles of government analyzed in Machiavelli's The Prince, in which political expediency is placed above morality and the use of craft and deceit to maintain the authority and carry out the policies of a ruler is described." A is acting to benefit self and others (Taoism and/or Marionism)

I think what you are talking about fits into Taoism at least according to that states "A Taoists is kind to other individuals, largely because such an action tends to be reciprocated."

(e) A is acting to benefit others (altruism and/or Christianity)

Poking around the OED I find that altruism comes from a French philosopher named Comte (1853) who coined the term. "Dispositions influenced by the purely egotistic impulses we call popularly ‘bad,’ and apply the term ‘good’ to those in which altruism predominates." The OED defines altruism as "Devotion to the welfare of others, regard for others, as a principle of action; opposed to egoism or selfishness." But more interesting to me is the connection between altruism and charity. Farrar is quoted in the OED as saying, "Is altruism a sweeter, or better word than charity?"

The Christian philosophy of Charity seems to fit with altruism. According to the Apostle Paul, he writes "Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil..." (I Cor. 13:4-5, KJV).

Anyway, this is food for thought. I really want to understand this concept because like you I have considered whether it is possible to act purely without self-motive? If Christian charity were possible, then one would act without seeking her own benefit, according to Paul.

Thanks for letting me jump in on your conversation. Let me know what you think.

Mark Virtual Theology

Matthew Buckley said...

Mark, you can jump in anytime, on any discussion… :)

You've done a good job of providing examples of the different kinds of actions. I agree with all of them. I really think this may just boil down to an outlook on life, and I would be the first to agree that my outlook is a bit cynical.

It can be argued (and maybe only be me), that even the final action you describe, altruism or Christian Charity, is still performed because of a self-interest. Because of beliefs, or your own personal character, somebody acting in such a manner does so because he/she could not live with him/herself if they did not act in such a way. If you were to come across a shabbily dressed child in the snow, you would help that child because you know that if you did not, the feelings of guilt and regret would gnaw at you. The 'cost' of helping the child is miniscule compared to the benefits. That of feeling like you made a difference in this poor child’s life, that of knowing you won’t suffer feelings of regret, etc.

Again, I don't think this is the same as selfishness. It is just that our belief structure is such that allowing a child to freeze is intolerable. To put it in more religious terms, it is shaking off the natural (wo)man. A selfish or natural (wo)man would stay in their nice warm car and keep their feet dry. But an 'enlightened' (wo)man has the morals, understanding, character... whatever you want to call it, to not allow such things to happen.

But I still believe it still comes down to a cost/benefit analysis, based on those morals, understanding, character.