It’s All Good (Even When It’s Not)

Back to the random thought generated posts. This time it is on a purely linguistic confusion, augmented by all the resultant general confusion, with the foundations laid by absent effort to untangle pre-existing confusions.

The concept of altruism receives a certain amount of attention in philosophy, and outside of philosophy, which is a relatively rare occurrence. It occurs in very different subject areas within philosophy however, and very little work seems to be done to disambiguate the usage.

There is the standard usage of it, occurring within natural language and ethics: altruism is the stance or the actions performed whereby one person helps another, even if it as one’s own expense (I’m ignoring any who say any benefit to oneself negates an action or a stance as altruistic, as this is needless self-flagellation). In this arena there is a standard discussion of whether this is a good, with the usual split between kind and unkind people obliviously emitting their prejudiced bleats into the ether. This post has not the space for me to go into why acting according to either carrot or stick is besides every point and cheapens every such agent.

The other common usage is in philosophy of biology, with its worldly correlate simply being the concept in biology. Obviously the concepts are related, but they are still entirely separate. In this arena the idea is whether organisms and species gain survival advantage by acting to promote the survival or wellbeing of others even if it disadvantages them. Note that this is supposed to be in entirely Darwinian terms. This is not an ethical stance.

And here we run into the very disappointing confusion. Since ‘altruism’ looks very much like ‘altruism’ various considerers run haphazardly over conceptual boundary lines. For example, in crude Darwinian terms evolutionary altruism looks unsuccessful. Poachers, cheaters will survive more readily than altruists. Altruists will keep watch, sacrificing themselves to warn others, will share food and go hungry etc. People have therefore argued that altruism is not supported, and have imported it into ethics to justify behaving like cads. However this is no more sustainable or justified than to argue that because the less well adapted in general fail to survive we are justified in sterilising or gassing those people we judge less fit.

Arguing the other way, philosophers and scientists have worked out mathematical models showing that, where there are interbreeding separate populations of a species evolutionarily altruistic behaviour promotes group/species survival even if it can lead to individual organism non-survival. Fair enough. An interesting, if dry biological consideration. But when taken to mean that altruism (and now crossing the border illegally into ethics) is simply a mathematical function of biological organisms and this somehow deprives ethical altruists of their self-congratulatory conception the argument becomes just as poor as those of the biological determinists having a gas above.

They are separate. We don’t derive any normative imperative to act with ethical altruism from biological or evolutionary function, nor do we understand the general biological or evolutionary altruism of organism as always, or ever, being a function of ethical philosophy.

You will act as whatever you are in terms of ethics no matter what you believe or why you think you believe it. And you will survive or die as an organism or species regardless of what you take your ethics to be. In the meantime, have the good grace not to conflate concepts in wildly different contexts. Or at least keep it away from me if you cannot help doing so.


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