Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Ask Dr. Helen

My column is up at PJM:

Is everyone motivated by some sort of self-interest when they engage in an altruistic act? Does that mean no charity or volunteerism is truly noble? PJM advice columnist Dr. Helen Smith offers her opinion. (Hmmm, why is she offering it?)

Also, find out why some women are into serial sperm donors and more.


Blogger tomcal said...

Very interesting question about altruism:

Personally I give A Lot away, way more that the national average as a percent of what I make, both time and money. I truly enjoy it because I am friends with a lot of the people I help out. I also enjoy the bi-cultural aspect of it. In many ways I am a different person when I living at my house in Nicaragua and speaking and thinking in Spanish. I am sometimes amazed at the difference and I find it fascinating.

In addition, there is a great deal of ego satisfaction (and I'm not sure this good) when I walk into a village and every kid goes around spreading the word "Tom is here!, Tom is here!"

I started doing what I do in Nicaragua to atone for being such a complete little turd to the poor while I lived in Peru as a child. Now I have over atoned, and am looking for ways to pull back from my philanthropic activities. I have now at least have limited them to just one community.

Except: Another problem now is that I have learned how to get things done down there and have gained a reputation as someone who can solve problems with the government, importing equipment duty-free; and all of the cross cultural probems the other do-gooders run into with the people they are trying to help - they are always calling me for advice. When they call, I try to just give them advice, but if the problem sounds interesting I tend to get roped in. That is an ego thing too, because I enjoy being the hero. And also, I the back of my mind, I am sizing up the foeriegners I help with problems there as potential investors in my real estate development busness here in the U.S. And people here in the U.S. who have never been to Nicaragua but who know what I do there, have a tendency to be larger investors in the syndications I put together here.

It's truly a joy to see the smile on the face of a child you have helped, but there is a little voice in the back of my head that is always that that the gods will ultimately reward me with money, either directly through investors, or indirectly by the Latin business tactics I have learned there.

2:28 PM, July 31, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Deal with your feelings. But keep up the good work if you can. Isn't that the main thing?

Why Nicaragua? Why not Peru?

Just wondering.

3:50 PM, July 31, 2007  
Blogger Serket said...

She may not have gotten enough nurturing and admiration from a father figure and has been desperately seeking that acceptance ever since, yada yada yada.

I have an aunt (who is only two years older than me) and her dad (my grandfather) died while she was still in the womb. Since she has been dating, she has always been with real losers and even had a child and a shotgun wedding with one of them.

But I think we should also wonder about the psychology of men who won't care take of their children.

The other question was about altruism and I'm sure there are often motives for doing a nice act, perhaps religious or to make a friend. However, I do not think understanding your motives should stop you from doing good.

4:15 PM, July 31, 2007  
Blogger Eric said...

Sometimes it simply feels good to help or do something nice for other people. Feeling good is admittedly selfish, and if the other person is grateful for the help, the good feelings are exacerbated (if that's the right word here). If this is reciprocal, no real harm is done. But let us suppose the other person is ungrateful. For some people (especially the martyr variety) the ingratitude can still generate a rewarding feedback -- as if they know that they're "better" than the ungrateful people upon whom they've bestowed such largesse. I think it's a lot healthier for all concerned to help only those who ask for help and are grateful than to help people who didn't ask for or want help.

I have never had children, though, and I don't think "altruism" is the right word to describe helping one's own children. Instinct maybe. In this sense, even fish are altruistic.

This natural instinct can be misplaced and misdirected. I know a childless woman who is tirelessly devoted to "animal rescue" and while it can be annoying, at least she is not preaching about how great she is the way some people who spend their time "helping" people do. Your PJM piece discussed a study which shows how the behavior changes depending on who is watching. People generally want credit for helping other people, and if there's nothing in it for them, they generally won't help. It would be nice if people who did good deeds could do them in secret, never talked about it, and the deeds were never known, but the world doesn't work that way. Can the purity of altruism ever be judged if people think that it might be?

(I'm thinking that somewhere this might touch on why some people get a better altruistic charge from helping animals, but this is complicated stuff, and I don't fully understand it.)

I distrust my own altruism, and all I can do is try to limit the behavior to friends. And some animals. (Mark Twain's distinction between a man and a dog -- "If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you" -- might be helpful.)

5:26 PM, July 31, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know. Like insanity, I believe everyone is altruistic at least temporarily, and from time to time.

The airplane wreck off the bridge in D.C. that cold winter day. A lot of incredible things happened then. The fellow in the water with the other survivors who kept giving the life ring to others, and when it was finally his turn, the last one, he was gone.

I won't even bother to second guess his motives. He knew the odds. There are a million stories that will never be known. And I know this blog isn't Reader's Digest.

But perhaps the doubt and cynicism rises from the hearts of those who believe people always have ulterior motives for their actions - because they do, and expect everyone is the same as they.

Or maybe I'm a dreamer.

8:12 PM, July 31, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Net Creativity. As a species, as individuals, as a culture. Our behaviors always come down to the genetic questions of what tendencies we have that add to the Net Creativity (our future usefulness to Nature minus the resources we consume) of our species. An individual hacking through the jungle gets more time to hack if someone he helps or trades with provides food and water. As the community grows, they can accomplish each major task better when they cooperate, rather than compete for resources. Competition (war) speeds up a selection process for certain traits, but ultimately costs Nature more over the long term. A species that ALWAYS is at war (can't cooperate with strangers) will die out or use up its resources. Altruism is an extension of cooperative behavior trends in a species. It doesn't have to apply to everyone. It also doesn't need to be very powerful in individuals to show up in groups. Some behaviors can't be evaluated as single person tests. Self interest should trump altruism in individuals, but collectively becomes a statutory trade-off with society just as cooperation does. The individual agrees to give up some individual freedom or self-interest in exchange for the advantages of being part of a group. The group agrees not to kill the individual and the individual agrees to act like everyone else (for a while). The group result appears to be altruistic (they're all so niice!), but the individual appears selfish(suck-up!), even though it is quid-pro-quo.

10:37 PM, July 31, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

br - I suspect the guy in the Potomac was just a guy. He probably didn't sit around thinking about how altruistic he was or what his deepest motivations were. He just saw people drowning at that moment and tried to help. I think that sometimes it's just that simple.

On the other hand, there's no question that guilt and appearances can cause people to do good works. That's not necessarily wrong - there are worse ways to deal with guilt and satisfy narcissistic needs. It's the results that matter. I think the only time it's bad is when the good works become more about about the worker than the work. (Hence my cynicism about celebrity philanthropists...)

However, I think it's quite evil to run guilt trips on ordinary people or flatter them in order to "persuade" them engage in altruistic acts. Nothing hardens my heart faster than mind games.

10:43 PM, July 31, 2007  
Blogger tomcal said...

Why Nicaragua:


The yellow house in the last picture on that page is mine. It was a pile of disintegrated 3ft x 3ft by 6 ft adobe blocks when I bought it.

In my travels around south america, I have found povery everywhere, but Nicaragua is the second most impoverished country, other that Haiti in this hemesphere. I really just stumbled on Granada, which is the second oldest city in the western hemesphere, founded in 1524. But it was there that
I could combine my two passions, restoring ancient houses and helping the poor. About 20 kids come to the house every day for tutoring. It is also convenient. Door to door I can be there in about 7 hours from my home in LA. And the flights are at night. I have no problem sleeping on planes.

When I lived in Lima, which is a cold dingy dirty city with an annual rainfall of about 1/4 inch, it was 19 hours door to door from LA, and that was before the heightened security we have now.

Not only that, the water in Lima swirls down the toilet in the opposite direction, which causes Cognitive Dissonance based on my belief that the world is flat.

1:15 AM, August 01, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

[S]ome women are into serial sperm donors...

Those women are sperm solicitors. Pejorative labels need not be limited to a man's behavior, you know.

4:41 AM, August 01, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It does seem easier to help others from the position of excess, if we are talking about throwing money at a problem. You know, the American way.
Were I a Buffet or a Gates, I'm not so sure I wouldn't be doing as they now are. Rockefeller threw dimes at poor kids in the street. I'll bet half of them got thrown right back at him. Carnegie built libraries, however. That's akin to teaching a man to fish, instead of giving him one. What kills me about that, is I've never seen a library full of people. Free collective, accumulated knowledge of all mankind, and very few takers.

My thoughts on altruism though, aren't of that type of giving. I always saw it as giving of self. There but for the grace of God, go I.

Although being a sperm donor , or solicitor for females, was pretty much a blast from say 16 to 25, it now seems like it was such a waste of precious time. I expect there are those who would disagree with me there.

Thanks, tomcal. I still think you're a saint. But I understand now, why you never applied for astronaut training.

7:18 AM, August 01, 2007  
Blogger Bruce Hayden said...

Starting with: But I think we should also wonder about the psychology of men who won't care take of their children.

In the long run, the driving force for all animals is the drive to preserve and propagate their genes. In humans, monogamy is the primary way of doing that, but there are very valid genetic reasons for those of both sexes in a primarily monogamous species to cheat on their mate. In the case of females, it is to get better genetics. In the case of males, it is to get freebies. The freebies over the millenia haven't had as good a chance at survival on a per capita basis, but their chances are greater than zero. Thus, the guy who sneaks a little on the side, and gets some kids out of it, as long as his long term relationship isn't affected, will have a higher chance at having more descendants in a couple generations than if he hadn't. But, of course, he always takes the chance at getting caught and losing his regular mate. Nevertheless, over time, it has been a good gamble for many males. And, as a note, since it is a good gamble, it is supported by our genes (since enough of us have some genes acquired through a cheating ancestor).

How does that fit into altruism? Studies have shown that some animals are altruistic, at least to an extent. One easy example are wolf packs, where only the alpha male and female are allowed to breed. Yet all share in the hunting and even nursery work. Why? One suggestion is that the members of the pack typically share a lot of genetics, and thus by helping the pack, they can help their own genetics, even if they themselves never breed.

What must be remembered about humans is that until a short time ago, in evolutionary terms, most humans would spend their lives around groups that shared a lot of their genetics. Thus, it really isn't that surprising that we do have an altruistic gene. But note that in many of us, even today, the more we know the other person, the more it comes out. And that is imminently reasonable, since in a bygone era, those closes would have been also the closest genetically.

That all said, I do think that altruism is a good thing.

10:41 AM, August 01, 2007  
Blogger Eric said...

Perhaps there are good and bad forms of altruism. Taking care of your children, and dying in defense of your country are good. Giving money to "homeless" people (thus enabling alcoholism under the delusion that you're "fighting poverty") might not be. I think the worst form of altruism is when it's involuntary, and you're forced to be altruistic.

But if you have to do it or if you're pressured into doing it, can it be called altruism?

11:08 AM, August 01, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would think it was real altruism ONLY if one did NOT have to think about it or do an altruistic act on command / by demand. Confiscatory taxes, anyone? It would have to come out as naturally as an exhale. Otherwise, as many have said, maybe it's something else altogether.

It is hard to push past I, me, mine. I am rarely successful, in all honesty - except with my kids, as has also been said by others.

Perhaps I'm not a dreamer, maybe I'm a wuss. (Don't touch that keyboard, bugs!)

1:12 PM, August 01, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

br - When have I ever...?

Back to the original question: I've got way more sperm than I need. Where are these women?

Altruism: OK, I'll go all in and say there's absolutely no such thing as a completely selfless act. At the very least, even the most apparently selfless altruist bases his or her action on some idea or belief, the violation of which would cause them existential pain. The belief may be so internalized that they're not really aware it exists - it's just "the way things are."

Never mind Mother Theresa and guys throwing themselves on hand grenades. Those people have clearly understood values that they try to live by; if they did anything else, they "couldn't live with themselves."

The closest thing to a purely selfless act would be one that's instinctive and automatic - like maybe a mother protecting her infant when it's in danger. (And I'm not sure whether that's really instinctive in humans or not.)

2:34 PM, August 01, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

P.S. - Sorry, that last paragraph brings up the question of whether an instinctive act can be altruistic.

Which brings up the definition of "altruistic." Is it acting for the benefit of others with NO benefit to oneself? In that case, it doesn't exist.

2:36 PM, August 01, 2007  
Blogger Adrian said...

I personally think that altruism vs selfishness is much like free will vs determinism. The problem really is baked into the definitions we bring to the discussion. So, the real problem is that the answer varies depending on the context of the discussion. There is no metaphysically free will since if there were, it would contradict the very basis of any rational thought which requires causality in objects external to us. And, in the very same way, no one can possibly act in a way that they did not decide to act in, by definition -- otherwise they are not acting -- someone or something else is. So, in some sense, the fact that you did something already entails that it was something you were somehow motivated to do. Otherwise, how did it even come to pass at all? Just like the fact that you are doing philosophy in the first place or "thinking rationally about" -- whatever you want to call it -- already assumes that there is a reason for everything and so a cause for any outcome.

Yet, we all seem to have choice and act on choice and it means something to say "I was forced to do this or that thing that I didn't want to do". There may not be a metaphysically free will, but there certainly is a will. And, it means something when someone says "I acted of my own free will" (apparently something different than asserting that their will is metaphysically free). Furthermore, it means something to say "I did this even though I didn't want to". And, that is the most basic idea behind altruism. It is when you do something that you normally would not do, such as giving your money away to a stranger, but you do it anyway because of your compassion or empathy for someone else. Of course, you're doing it because it makes you feel good -- there is no way for you to act at all in the first place without your decision to act -- without some form of motivation or self interest on your part for doing the action, ultimately causing the act to happen. But, that's not the point. We just call it altruistic when the internal motivation to act on your part is derived from the furtherance of the interests of others.

And more generally, the will works the same way. We say you did something of your own free will when the act happens through your will. There is no denying that your will, itself, is determined as precisely as the motion of the planets or a lunar eclipse. It's just irrelevant is all. Just as we say that the Earth is the reason that the moon is dark in a lunar eclipse we might find ourselves in a position to say, for instance, that one man's will is the cause of another man's death at which point a moral issue would be broached. It doesn't matter that that will was, itself, caused by yet some other thing. The relevant and important point is that the will was involved at all as a conduit of a chain of events leading up to the actions. And, similarly, it doesn't matter why one has the feelings they do or that it is one's own feelings that one acts on. When those feelings happen to entail empathy and compassion for others that cause one to act on their behalf, we call those actions altruistic.

4:30 PM, August 01, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

adrian - Excellent analysis, and a pleasure to read!

6:02 PM, August 01, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Like the caveman on the commercial, I have a question....Whut?

Perhaps if I wrapped a newspaper around my head, ala Frank Zappa, so I'd look like I was "deep"......
Yeah, you lost me.

I think you are saying altruism is NOT a natural response to external stimuli - such as pulling your hand off a hot burner on the stove at the same time you holler ouch?

Definition "B" in dictionary.com is more my view of altruism. Were that part of the ethos of an individual's make up, wouldn't it be a natural response not requiring the "what's in it for me" train of thought before acting? Aren't those thoughts there or not there in an individual naturally?

If I were standing at the platform at Jackson Heights awaiting the subway, and a woman I couldn't possibly know (who turned out to be Demi Moore, let's say) slipped as the train arrived, and I was lucky enough to be near enough to grab her and stop her fall, there would not have been time to concern myself with "what's in it for me". Only enough time to act selflessly, (i.e. without thought of oneself) or not act, selfishly (even if out of fear).

Like bugs said in his 2:34 PM post, last sentence, perhaps that's not altruistic at all. Just a response to a hot burner?

Sheesh, it was easier feeding the trolls.

6:57 PM, August 01, 2007  
Blogger Adrian said...

I do think that it has to be done for the sake of others directly. I don't know that it has to be quite as direct as like putting your hand on a hot burner. But, I think the motivation has to be the joy of seeing someone else prosper (or conversely to avoid the negative feelings of seeing someone else that you care about fail). In fact, a lot of my point is that we don't have to try nearly so hard to distance the act from the desire to do it for that act to be altruistic. In fact, for that matter, consider giving to a political candidate. Well, a lot of lobbyists are out there contributing just to make sure he mandates their drugs or some such thing as that -- that's not altruistic. But, if you really do just believe in his cause and think it a good cause worthy of your support, then despite the controversial nature of it (that other people think you are evil for supporting "the enemy"), I would say that even something like that is still an altruistic act.

Yeah, it, in some sense, "furthers your ends" and creates more of a world you would like to live in. But, you're not really getting anything out of this except of the good feelings of supporting a good cause. So, that's altruistic -- that's all that "altruism" is really supposed to mean. I think that there is a point to "everything is done out of perceived self-interest". And, there is a point to sort of an Ayn Randian declaration of the "virtue of selfishness". But, all of these kinds of things are actually extended arguments heavily weighted down with context. In other words, in general, "altruism really does just refer to something mundane that really is a virtue, I think, and no, selfishness isn't really a virtue -- that is just said like that way to make a point. And, while, technically speaking, we all can only ever act out of perceived self-interest, that, too, is kind of a more elaborate academic point. It doesn't really contradict the simple common sense idea of altruism.

In fact, it all works the same way with the free will/determinism debate. I am what they call a compatibilist -- I think that free will is actually compatible with determinism -- that they don't actually contradict each other. In the very same sense, I am a self-interest/altruism compatibilist.

1:03 AM, August 02, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

adrian - I guess we're over-thinking, worrying about the "purity" of the altruistic act. It's like, to be truly altruistic you have to empty your mind of any hint of desire or reward. In the real world, people do things because they want to.

I guess the closest you could come in reality to an "true" altruist would be someone who works anonymously and doesn't expect a tax break. No recognition, no reward - just helping for the sake of helping.

11:29 AM, August 02, 2007  
Blogger Adrian said...

Well, I also cannot overemphasize that I certainly do think there is a point to the slogan "Selfishness is a virtue." In fact, I am a libertarian. Helen's quotes, for instance, from Reason Magazine and Heinlein are all libertarian counters to certain memes in society revolving around altruism. I certainly do think there is something to that. And, I think there is something interesting to what is actually a classic philosophical question of whether people are ruled by anything other than the passions as David Hume might say it. So, it's not like these aren't good questions.

But, nevertheless, the question was "What is altruism?" And, I think at some point you have to take the Rush Limbaugh approach: "Words mean things." Such a common, albeit abused, word as that can't possibly refer to, as it turns out, nothing, can it? If we make it all the way to altruism can't exist, then the term "altruism" is meaningless or worthless, at any rate. And, surely for such a common term to turn out to be meaningless means we must have went astray at some point.

2:22 PM, August 02, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So can we say, Yes, we are ruled by our passions, but sometimes our passions make us do good for others with no expectation of anything in return?

5:16 PM, August 02, 2007  
Blogger Adrian said...

That is what I would say, at any rate....

But then again, I'm just some crack pot -- just like everybody else....


6:49 PM, August 02, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, at least you're a crackpot who expresses himself clearly.

11:19 AM, August 03, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I still want to know where I sign up to become a serial sperm donor.

3:44 PM, August 03, 2007  
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