Sunday, June 13, 2010
First Aired: 
Sunday, June 29, 2008

What Is It

Are people genuinely altruistic, or is altruism just a type of selfish-behavior?  Are other animals altruistic? Should we strive to be altruistic, or is selfishness a higher virtue?  John and Ken take the moral high ground with their guest Jeff Schloss, Professor and Chair of Biology at Westmont College and co-editor of Altruism and Altruistic Love: Science, Philosophy, and Religion in Dialogue.

Listening Notes

Altruistic behavior is something we might assume takes place every day. A person stops to help an elderly member of society across a street, an adult donates his/her time at a local charity, or someone else might even put himself or herself in harm’s way for the immediate benefit of another without really thinking about the consequences. However, it’s not clear what this sort of altruistic behavior actually comprises, or whether genuine altruism really exists. Today’s episode digs into these questions about altruism from two main standpoints. The first is from Biology, which considers how our conception of right and wrong may have been wired into us through evolution. The second considers altruism from the psychological standpoint. This view grants much more importance to the role of an individual’s psychology and his/her intentions when committing an action, which potentially leaves more possibility for genuinely altruistic acts to occur. 

Our guest Jeff Schloss joins Ken and John as they consider why altruism is even important for humans. Jeff begins by introducing a number of ideas relevant to altruism, like the notion of a ‘selfish gene’, and how Darwin would have despaired if a true altruism existed in the animal world. Genuine altruism seems to be at odds with the most basic of evolution’s tenets, contradicting the notion that reproductive fitness is guiding behavior across all types of species.

At this point, John wants to know how psychology and morality come to bear on the issue. There seem to exist such things as morally right and morally wrong actions. If altruism doesn’t place any demands on, or value in, the psychological state of the individual committing an altruistic act, is there really anything mandatory about acting morally? Jeff thinks that people can really intend to act without conscious expectation of return, but that it could still be motivating certain actions. He introduces the idea of indirect reciprocity for consideration. Importantly, he thinks that while we are in fact hardwired to behave a certain way, culture is able to condition us and act on the substrate evolution has provided, which itself is receptive to cultural conditioning. The conversation is just as interesting when the other side of the issue is addressed.

If there is a component of altruism that is provided for innately by our biology, it seems to follow that constraints on such ability will also exist. It opens up for discussion the idea that certain moral rules and demands to which we hold ourselves might actually be too extreme given our biological capabilities. In this way, biology might constrain the range of possible moral norms with which we can act in accordance. Jeff posits that the “genetic leash” imposed on human action and culture could be broken by culture, whereby the limits of cultural variability might remain unconstrained.     

  • Roving Philosophical Report (SEEK TO 00:05:34): Zoe Corneli dives into the wild world of bat caves, to better understand how Vampire bats might actually be some of the most helpful and social animals in the world. There are noticeable differences in the unselfishness displayed within a given sex and between the two sexes of bats, and deciphering a bat’s “intentions” proves difficult. Can we consider their behavior altruistic, or is it merely selfish?
  • Sixty-Second Philosopher (SEEK TO 00:48:55): Ian Shoales takes us on a grand tour of Adam Smith’s philosophy concerning “the invisible hand." Smith believed that individuals help society more than they expect to when intending only their own gain. Ian feels that this invisible hand is slapping him around, and doesn’t want to take it anymore. Thank goodness he only has sixty seconds, or this could have gotten ugly.