Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Life, Choice, and the Science of Altruism

[This post comes with a massive disclaimer: I realize that the development of altruism is not a settled topic. Indeed, evolutionary psychology in general is a controversial field. But that's what makes it so interesting!]

I recently came across an NPR article entitled "Why Those Who Feel They Have Less Give More." The piece examines the social phenomenon that poor people tend to give more to charity, as a portion of their incomes, than their wealthy counterparts. However, wealthy people can be primed to act more charitably in situations where they are reminded of others' need.

NPR business journalist Paul Solman then dives deeper into the science of altruism in an interview with UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Kelter:
Dacher Keltner: For a long time, I've been interested in a question that has confounded people who have thought about human evolution, and this goes back to Alfred Russel Wallace, Thomas Huxley and Charles Darwin, which is: Why in the world are people good to other people? Why are we kind? Why do we give things away? . . . What is it about the species we are that produces a lot of striking generosity in our social behavior?
Paul Solman: And your answer is...?
Dacher Keltner: My answer is hyper-vulnerable offspring that are born very dependent, taking years, decades to reach the age of viability. And that just changed everything. That meant we had to cooperate with each other; we had to share things.
Keltner's use of the word "viability" caught my attention. Of course, he is not referring to viability in the 24-weeks-of-pregnancy sense. But I was struck by the idea that caring for non-viable children (that is, those who need help to survive) is the evolutionary basis for human altruism and compassion.

Contrast that to the pro-choice message: "You have no obligations to those who are not viable."

If we accept Keltner's theory, then the pro-choice philosophy stands in direct opposition to the way we as a species have learned to act selflessly. This is, essentially, the scientific version of Mother Teresa's observation that "any country that accepts abortion is not teaching the people to love, but to use violence to get what they want."

An aside: if Keltner is correct, and if we accept the data showing that low-income people are more inclined to be altruistic, then we might also expect low-income people to reject the pro-choice message regarding non-viable children and embrace the pro-life position. Sure enough, Gallup polling from 2011 shows that poverty is linked to pro-life views. This is especially true in the Democratic Party; Democrats earning less than $30K a year are a whopping 29 percentage points more pro-life than those making $75K or more. (In the GOP, which is more "unified" on the abortion issue, low-income Republicans are 2 percentage points more pro-life than wealthy Republicans.)


Nate Sheets said...

Richard Dawkins' first book, "The Selfish Gene", goes into quite a lot of detail about altruism and theories as to why we can be altruistic. Ultimately, he believes that our charitable (in this case pro-life) tendencies often defy our evolution. This makes sense in that we are against killing fetuses that are not our own--evolutionary we should only be focused on passing on our own genes, and so if others abort their children theoretically we shouldn't care.

As an aside--can we stop using Mother Theresa as an example of being anything other than a religious killer? Great, she was against abortion--she also believed that suffering was spiritual and housed sick and dying people en masse and did nothing for a great many of them. Anything she has to say on the subject of abortion is, in my view, cancelled out by how she implemented the beliefs in her daily life. She should not be looked upon as an inspiration, but as another sad example of what religion can make a person do.

Kelsey said...

All the more reason to have a secular way of saying what Mother Teresa said.

Nate Sheets said...

Oh, well in that case, here you go:

"Abortion goes against our altruistic instincts and values, as well as our drive to persevere and achieve happiness. It replaces them with violence--often a silent violence. How can we work help women achieve a non-violent option in the face of tremendous pressure to pick the other?" --Nate Sheets, June 25, 2013

Nate Sheets said...


ockraz said...

I've got a really good article about it. I'll look for it and a link. I'm not sure what to make of Keltner's theory other than this:

Our extended development is necessary for a brain with our capacity for complex social interaction and language, and it's only at age 4 or 5 that children develop a theory of mind (which is probably a prerequisite for a sense of morality). So, at least 3 years of being cared for as a child are necessary for society which expects altruism and moral behavior.

BTW, Other animals can pass the mirror test, which is an indication of self-awareness (and why personhood is usually said to develop no earlier than 18 mo), but I don't think any other animals pass tests (eg, the false belief test) that illustrate a theory of mind.

ockraz said...

I agree that we shouldn't use her as an exemplar of altruism. Having said that don't you think "religious killer" goes too far in the other direction?.

Nate Sheets said...

Would Administrative Overseer of Death be better?

ockraz said...

It's better. Administrator Overseeing a Home for the Dying would be both accurate and neutral.

The criticism regarding medical care focuses on the Kalighat facility, but it wasn't a hospital. It was a hospice. That's a huge difference.

The patients were supposed to have their spiritual and emotional needs cared for as they were dying. On one hand, they should have gotten better medical attention and palliative care, but on the other hand instead of dying alone in the streets, they were cared for by nuns who treated them respectfully and with kindness.

IMHO she was a weird old bird with some bizarre (really wackadoo) ideas, a good heart, and poor management skills, She showed a mixture of virtues and faults, like pretty much everyone on earth. That's not unusual.

What's unusual is how oversized both were. In some respects she displayed great virtue and in other respects quite profound faults. I think that's something she has in common with the institution she represents.

FWIW, I don't think it's a good thing when people portray Sanger as merely a racist eugenics advocate or as a saintly feminist icon. A lot of people do the same sort of thing with Jefferson too. He was one of the "Great Men of History" /and/ he was a man who kept his own children as slaves.

To oversimplify so much strikes me as either ax grinding or laziness..

Nate Sheets said...

Meh, I think you're focusing too much on three words out of the hundred or so I wrote. Mother Theresa had a lot of reasons to not be admired. For an atheist take on it, I can suggest Hitchen's "Missionary Position" book, which talks about the various reasons why Mother Theresa is not a person to emulate, or you can read a plethora of information about it online. But lest it be insinuated that I'm lazy, how about "that Mother Theresa was anything but a religious bitch?" There, that covers her presumed motives but also the reality of what her brand of religion produced: suffering and death.

Clinton said...

You're committing an ad hominem fallacy. Whether or not she acted out her views in real life says nothing about the truth or falsity of her statement.

Nate Sheets said...

You're damn right I am. The person that Secular Prolife is quoting to make their case is absolutely relevant. Evil people often say things that make sense--that doesn't mean we should quote them.

ockraz said...

"lest it be insinuated that I'm lazy"

II wouldn't have guessed 'laziness.' It's merely supposition, but I'd have gone with 'ax grinding.' It's where this sort of rhetorical oversimplifying originates. 'Laziness' is just the cases where an ally of the source of the rhetoric repeats it without looking into it for themselves.

My point was that we shouldn't represent the nature of a person (or a group or institution) as being only his/it's faults and not recognize the virtues. .* First, this gives the appearance (often accurately) of caring more about knocking down people than about the truth. I see it as using a straw man argument. Second, it's destructive. In my experience it's received well by one's allies but offends one's opposition and eliminate all hope of dialogue. Frankly, everything else I said was only incidental. (It was significant only in relation to my trying to make that point.) That's why I tried to bring in examples from other contexts.

Mother Theresa is often used in atheist or anti Catholic ax-grinding. Although I liked him a lot and found him more admirable than not, Hitchens clearly engaged in both. I brought up Sanger as an example of prolife ax-grinding. I once thought her just a horrible human being. Now, I find her sympathetic (though not necessarily admirable). Jefferson is used by people who want race to be the lense through which we view all American history. I consider him the paradigmatic example. I think he was plainly guilty of some horrible things, but there are aspects of him that I think all unbiased people would admit are quite admirable.

It's worthwhile to debate whether on balance he's more admirable, more despicable, or whether the two are equally matched and he's both or neither. What you decide will depend on your values and how you prioritize them. What would be untrue and unfair would be to paint him as only despicable (or maybe possessed only of trivial virtue) or vice versa.

That's what I think you're doing with Mother Theresa. Regarding institutions it's something conservatives often do regarding the Democratic Party, and that liberals often do about the Republican Party. I see many angry atheists doing it regarding different religious groups too.

ockraz said...

*: I'm not trying to single you ought. know I do this myself. I think everyone does. {It's hard not to when one feels strongly.) If I realize I'm doing it, I try to correct myself: "The person/institution isn't totally immoral, but I feel that this action/position is.".(eg, with PP. I've gotten upset about them and done this sort of backtracking). Then, of course, if it's relevant you can move on to the "on balance" question.

ockraz said...

**: I think the first criticism is always valid, but the second only is in heterogeneous groups. If the context is just like minded folk venting their spleen, maybe it doesn't matter SPL isn't a homogeneous group, so here I think it does matter.

Coyote said...

Nate has a point. It might be a good idea to quote Mother Teresa in front of people who genuinely admire her, but not in front of people who don't.

After all, if (hypothetically) Hitler or Stalin or Mao or Pol Pot had said something about the need to treat animals compassionately or about how smoking is bad for you, I don't think that many people would be willing to quote this individual.

Coyote said...

Nice job, Nate! :D

Clinton said...

A fallacy is a fallacy. It might not be prudent to quote Hitler if he said something that made sense about animal rights. But nevertheless, if someone quotes Hitler who made a good argument, dismissing what he said just because he's Hitler is still a logical fallacy. If what he said made sense, the argument has to be engaged with, not dismissed because he was an evil individual. After all, what if we forget the quote in question was made by Mother Theresa? If that's the case, then you have to engage the argument. Saying that it was originally said by Mother Theresa is just being honest, and doing the right thing when you're writing an article. Stealing it an using it as your own is plaigarism.

Clinton said...

Who the person is is not relevant at all. I already responded to the point whe responding to Coyote.

Nate Sheets said...

I don't want to mention Hitler. But, Hitler.

Jameson Graber said...

What do you mean by "mind-independent," here? Do you think there are propositions that are mind-independent, and that ethical ones are different? Or do you think that all propositions are somehow "mind-dependent"?

I admit the latter seems a little absurd to me, in particular when I try to apply it to logical or mathematical statements. On the other hand, if you believe the former, I'd like to know what distinction you're making between ethics and other disciplines. Is there something more "truthy" about mathematics than there is about ethics? Or is the truth of a proposition not related to its level of mind-dependence?