Posts tagged altruism

Column on Are Kids Altruists?

Are Kids Altruists?

Tibor R. Machan

In The New York Times Magazine an article recently discusses whether babies have an inherent moral sense. It beings as follows: “A video featuring adorable cherubs — what’s not to like? But ‘The Moral Life of Babies’ addresses a heady topic: are babies inherently amoral, or can they actually distinguish right from wrong? In a laboratory at Yale University, researchers stage puppet shows in which one character does a good deed, while another does a bad deed. The babies are then asked, wordlessly, to express their preference for one character over another. It’s a video that is both thought- and smile-provoking.”

I will not address whether babies have a sense of right versus wrong, only the way this matter was reportedly tested by the researchers who investigated it. Paul Bloom and his wife, Karen Wynn, of the Infant Cognitive Center at Yale University, conducted studies with babies and reached the conclusion that, indeed, babies have a moral sense. One piece of evidence supporting their conclusion was that babies tended to show a preference for people who were nice to other people and didn’t much like those who weren’t.

For my money this is where a big problem arises with their findings. From the fact that babies liked people who helped others, Bloom and Wynn conclude that the babies preferred altruist as opposed to selfish behavior. This is because they liked people who were helpful to others.

However, based on what they report, their conclusions does not follow–or, more precisely, another conclusion, quite different from the one they drew, could be more reasonable. If the babies liked people who were being helpful to others, this may very well be explained by reference to their preference for people who would help them in case they needed help. And that would not point to a preference for altruism, quite the contrary. The babies, maybe quite naturally, saw who among those whom they were observing would be better for them, who would prove to be to their own interest.

When people help other people and this is welcome by us, it could very well be because we realize that the help could come in handy to us. Whereas the behavior of those who show no care for others would not suggest that they would be helpful in case their assistance may become useful. So then what at first appears to be a preference for altruism is, quite possibly, a preference for egoism.

Of course throughout history it has often been assumed that human babies are indeed quite self-interested. And there seems to be ample grounds for thinking that people in general are quite self-interested. When they get up in the morning they usually first take care of themselves–wash up, brush their teeth, have breakfast, select suitable clothing to wear, etc., and so forth. They are not likely to turn to helping their neighbors with their chores instead of caring for themselves. Later, once they are done with this self-interested behavior they often do, of course, reach out to help other people.

In any case, there is much to be explored here but it is worthwhile to just take a step back and notice that what the researchers concluded is by no means the only result that could be reached from the evidence that was given in the article about the morality of babies. Moreover, it is noteworthy, also, that the research team equivocated between morality and altruism.

There are numerous moral systems, ethical positions, that have been advance throughout human history and it is simply misleading to assume that being moral must necessarily mean being altruistic. Indeed, there is something quite misanthropic about such an assumption–why would it be commendable for people to work to benefit others while neglecting themselves? Who will then take care of them? They are more likely to understand what they need and want and so attending to these matters would probably be more efficient than imposing one’s idea of what others need and want on these others.

But let that go for now. What Bloom and Wynn present us in with their findings calls to mind, once again, the quip that is associated with the poet W. H. Auden, namely, “We are here on earth to do good for others. What the others are here for, I don’t know.”

Contrarian Reflections on Advertising

[From Think, No. 24, Vol. 9, Spring 2010:47-50]

Tibor R. Machan

Among business ethics teachers, as reflected in their books and papers, advertising is deemed anything but honorable.[1] Quite the opposite. This is mainly because so many business ethicists are convinced that altruism is the proper ethics for people to practice and, of course, advertising is far from altruistic. The following will be a presentation of a position that finds advertising ethical but also rejects altruism as the proper ethics by which human beings should live.

The Benefits of Advertising
Advertising benefits both producers and consumers. It makes possible though does not guarantee mutually beneficial trades that might not have taken place otherwise.
What do advertisers accomplish for themselves when they successfully pitch a product? They will have found a way to make a living.[2] Consider the maligned telemarketer, calling people up in the middle of dinner with a proposal to switch telephone service. Should one hang up on such a person? No. Partly because after a bit of thought, one can simply say, “No, I’ve got a service I’m perfectly satisfied with. Thank you, bye-bye.” One need not growl, instead, “Get off my phone, you a******!”) Even if one is not willing to attend to a seller’s message, one could at least extend some courtesy because one can appreciate what they are trying to do: earn a living. That is a bond between seller and potential buyer. After all, everyone is trying to earn a living. If one pitches one’s latest book at a cocktail party or philosophy conference, one does not want to get bopped on the nose by someone perfectly happy with the latest Stephen King novel who doesn’t want to hear about anything else.

In this age of broadcasting, advertisements are often presented to many millions more than are in the market for the sort of product or service being promoted. As one views a television or listens to a radio program, an ad interrupts and this tends to annoy us (our annoyance is, incidentally, yet more evidence against the notion that advertisers can simply reconstitute our preferences at will). Most viewers, during most commercials, would rather continue attending to the program; the ads thwart this goal.

Once in a while, of course, an ad aimed squarely at one’s own needs and wants comes up, and then the benefits of advertising for human beings qua consumer begin to be clear. So perhaps one can be tolerant of ads that miss the mark. (And are there no mute buttons?) In other contexts, when ads are more narrowly cast, they are not so annoying. Indeed, sometimes readers of specialized magazines will flip through looking only at the ads.

Advertising also benefits us in cases where we never buy any of the products being advertised. Thanks to TV ads, we don’t have to pay for network television — and the cost of cable television is less than it might be. Without ads, we would not enjoy access to so much free information in newspapers, magazines and on the Internet. Internet access itself is now available at no charge, as long as you’re willing to put up with some pop-up ads. Advertising is thus one modern method for spreading the benefits of new products and services from the few to the many.

Advertising and Prudence
Once both parties have done their level best to find out what will be prudent for them to do, but not before, they may properly unite in trade.

Not everyone is always prudent, it’s true. Some people just see ads and without further ado yield to the desire to get what is being offered; they buy on impulse. Impulse buying most closely resembles the phenomenon that the late John Kenneth Galbraith and others thought and still think advertising engenders all the time. But people who buy on impulse don’t have to buy; they merely have chosen to do so carelessly. (And even then, the impulse buyer’s imprudent purchases are confined to the realm of his already chosen values and interests — clothing, lottery tickets, food, or books.)

Just as having the capacity to reason does not mean that one will always reason, so having the capacity to be prudent does not mean that one will always be prudent. Participants in the market can fail to be alert, fail to pay attention to their own responsibility in a trade. They may place all the responsibility in the hands of the other party to a trade and then, afterwards, when they are eating the losses, blame that other party, not themselves. But they are complicit in so far as they neglected to pay sufficient attention to what was going down.

What’s a Good Ad?
The primary responsibility of an ad is to call attention to a product in such an effective way that people will have difficulty overlooking it.

Why is it morally okay to try to capture people’s attention this way? Because it’s important for us to prosper. That means it’s important for us to promote the services or wares that we have to offer for sale. If human life is a value, advertising is a value. It is a positive good.

Contrary to how it is often depicted, advertising is not selfish in any cruel, nasty, or brutal sense of the word; rather, it is self-responsible. People in business must make this effort to take care of themselves, to do justice to the prospect of succeeding and prospering in their lives. Everybody benefits thereby–the customers, the people who own and run the business, and the employees whom businesses are able to hire when the advertising does its work.
Of course, an altruist will object because “‘Altruism’ [is] assuming a duty to relieve the distress and promote the happiness of our fellows….Altruism is to … maintain quite simply that a man may and should discount altogether his own pleasure or happiness as such when he is deciding what course of action to pursue.”[3] However, is this a sound ethics by which human beings should live? Without entering the topic in full, a brief remark by the poet W. H. Auden suggests a negative answer: “We are here on earth to do good for others. What the others are here for, I don’t know.”[4]

[1] See, for example, Mark J. Lovas, “Creating a Cultural Niche for the A-Social?: Or, Speculation about How Cultural Factors Might Defeat Altruism,” Think, Spring/Summer 2008, pp. 59-66.
[2] A little compassion for junk ad mailers might be appropriate here, given what they are trying to do: make a living. They’re trying to call out, “Hey! Here we are! Please, consider us as you embark on trade.”
[3] W. G. Maclagan, “Self and Others: A Defense of Altruism,” Philosophical Quarterly 4 (1954):109-110.
[4] THE WEEK, Nov. 16, 2002, p. 19

Column on Another Bit of Good News

Another bit of Good News

Tibor R. Machan

Yes, yes, I am desperate–I am digging into in-flight magazines for my good news since I cannot find too many in such places as The New York Times, TIME, or Newsweek. But I am a firm adherent to the Seventh Day Adventist motto, “Notice the good and praise it!” So.

In a book of hers on marriage and its benefits, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage (Viking, 2010), Elizabeth Gilbert outlines a view related to the nature of marriage that I find encouraging. She was impressed with a comment from the European writer Ferdinand Mount that marriage is a revolutionary act. In relation to this observation, which isn’t my focus here, she has said “Put in that way, marriage starts to look less like a stuffy old institution and starts to look more like a giant social battle between the forces of good–individuals who want to follow their own hearts and choose their own spouses–and evil–the controlling instincts of repressive authorities who fear that love. Somebody who likes to think of herself as somewhat bohemian, I found that idea exciting, inspirational, and really reassuring” (American Way, January 2010, p. 58).

Think of it–the practice of individuals following their own hearts and choosing their mates is good, while arranged marriages, imposed customs and traditions (which, among other things, give rise to honor killings and such) are evil. I don’t know whether Ms. Gilbert realizes this but she has a very basic point, one that in historical terms is indeed revolutionary. The rights and value of the individual have only recently become acceptable and even today they are not widely embraced but mostly scoffed at.

It has occurred to me in the past, in relation to this point, that one area where altruism is not much promoted is in psychology and psychiatry, where people are advised about how to improve their lives. It seemed clear that if a therapist spent the hour with clients or patients advising them how they ought to sacrifice their lives to others, they would soon be fired.

One needs here to consider just what altruism amounts to. As the philosopher W. G. Maclagan made clear back in the 1950s, “‘Altruism’ [is] assuming a duty to relieve the distress and promote the happiness of our fellows….Altruism is to … maintain quite simply that a man may and should discount altogether his own pleasure or happiness as such when he is deciding what course of action to pursue.” As presented ordinarily, by ministers or priests or in fiction, altruism means ranking the policy of looking out for others as one’s priority in life, as first on one’s list of moral duties. And of all professions the helping ones, such as psychology and psychiatry, could hardly follow this policy. Self-help books, too, would not be such good sellers if they preached altruism.

Sadly, however, when it comes to addressing the public at large, in political speeches, in punditry, from the pulpit an the like, altruism is the norm. Not that people actually practice it–they could not and also remain functional. But there is a lot of lip service being given to this ethical system despite how confusing it is. As I have quoted him before, W. H. Auden put the source of confusion best when he remarked on “the conceit of the social worker,” which is (quoting the Revd. Vivian Foster, the Vicar of Mirth) that “We are here on earth to do good for others. What the others are here for, I don’t know.” The problem is, of course, that basic ethical principles need to be generalizable, something that everyone can practice in his or her life, but altruism clearly isn’t. And there is that other problem of how come other people are deserving of our care and attention above everything else but we, who are also human beings, are not. Why?

In any case, it is nice to learn, right at the beginning of a new year, that the altruistic nonsense has its skeptics even among mainstream writers. I do hope that all those who read the little interview of author Gilbert while flying about the globe on American Airlines during the month of January 2010 take away the important lesson her remark teaches.

A Bit of Nietzsche Will Help

A distinguishing feature of Nietzsche’s thought was that he believed humankind needed to overturn the old, mostly theological ethics and transform values to something new. He didn’t say what that would have to be but since he identified Christian ethics with radical altruism, advising us all to live for others first and foremost, it is not unreasonable to conclude that he was thinking of a less misanthropic morality than altruism is, the view that involves “assuming a duty to relieve the distress and promote the happiness of our fellows…. Altruism is to … maintain quite simply that a man may and should discount altogether his own pleasure or happiness as such when he is deciding what course of action to pursue.” W. G. Maclagan, “Self and Others: A Defense of Altruism,” Philosophical Quarterly 4 (1954): 109-127.

Does morality need to be reconceived?†If one considers what horrible deeds have been perpetrated in the name of serving others, there is little doubt that morality needs a serious reexamination. All the major tyrannies have been carried out in the name of making us serve others instead of ourselves.† very call to submit to czars and tyrants goes hand in hand with the idea that everyone needs to serve something bigger than himself in his life!† hat would be God or society or humanity.† he individual certainly comes off as deserving little love from himself. From commencement speeches to sermons and political oratory galore, one’s self doesn’t much matter, only other people do. As the poet W. H. Auden quipped, “We were put here on earth to serve other people, what the other people were put here for I don’t know.”

Altruism made a little sense when original sin had been a serious idea and from childhood on each of us seemed to be in need of socialization. Then came the materialists, like Thomas Hobbes–and later Freud–who also claimed we all serve ourselves first and foremost. To counter this egotism it made sense that people needed to be taught to be generous and charitable before anything else.

But the original sin notion is without any foundation at all–how could a baby come into the world already guilty of having sinned? And the idea that we automatically serve our own selves is demonstrably false–the world would be a pretty good place, all around, if it were true.† he real story is, instead, that we don’t have a built-in disposition to be selfish or selfless. We come to be one or the other or something in between as we grow up.

So given the pervasiveness of altruism as the preferred ethics of theologians and philosophers, as well as many novelists of note–just consider Graham Green’s protagonist’s claim that “None of us has a right to forget anyone. Except ourselves” (in Looser Takes All [Penguin, 1993, p. 51])–Nietzsche’s advice seems sound. Along with the political revolution that ushered in the abolition of slavery and involuntary servitude and undermined the case for monarchy and other types of statism, it is time to revamp morality too. A healthy ethical egoism–as laid out by, say, David L. Norton in his brilliant Personal Destinies, A Philosophy of Ethical Individualism (Princeton, 1976) and even earlier, by Ayn Rand who argued for a neo-Aristotelian ethics, in her The Virtue of Selfishness (Signet, 1964) whereby a robust selfishness is the proper morality for human beings–is probably very timely by now.

Sadly it has to be noted that, despite the clarity of both philosophers’ prose, the selfishness of Norton and Rand is unlike the economic man type, which is not a moral thesis at all but an attempt to describe what motivates us all, all the time (along the lines Hobbes laid down). The neo-Aristotelian selfishness, one that implores everyone to strive to be a happy individual, acknowledges that human beings are social–belong to families, communities, fraternities, etc.–and to strive for one’s own success in life must involve the social virtues as well as the personal ones–generosity and compassion, not only prudence and ambition.†With such a morality at hand, the human race would be in far better shape than it is with all the scolding it receives for not being selfless enough.