Thursday, 19 December 2013

Alternatives to Selfishness

I want to understand a phenomenon and it is important to me to be as clear as I can be about what that phenomenon is. Please allow me one more try.

Playing to my strengths, I shall make full use of my artistic talent...

I am the person on the left. The thought-bubble reveals that I have a concern. I want something nice to happen to someone or something. Specifically, I want something nice to happen to one of the people or things in the right-hand column.

I might want nice things for me and only for me.  If so, my concern will be literally and purely me-ish or, to use the more common term, self-ish. The object of my concern will be my self and only my self. Such concern will sometimes motivate me to try to pursue nice things for myself. In such circumstances, I will try to help myself.

I might instead want nice things for someone or something other than just myself. I might want nice things for you, or for a particular cat, or for my community, or for humanity, or for the poor, or for countless other potential beneficiaries. This is the phenomenon I want to understand: concern for the positive welfare of anyone or anything other than just the self. I want to understand concerns that are other-ish rather than purely and solely self-ish. And I want to understand when such concerns motivate attempts to help others.

That’s it! I want to understand people being concerned about the positive welfare of others, whether that concern is expressed in thought, feeling, and/or action.

This is the phenomenon I want to understand. I call it “altruism” and I think there are three good reasons for doing so. First, the word literally means other-ism, which highlights the central feature of the phenomenon I am interested in. Secondly, “altruism” allows useful comparisons with “selfishness” (with concerns only for one’s own welfare), “aggression” (with concerns for others’ negative welfare), and “indifference” (without concern). Thirdly, “altruism” is a word often used in ordinary discourse when discussing the phenomenon I seek to understand. This is most apparent when people claim its absence. When someone says, “X isn’t being altruistic” they mean that - perhaps despite appearances and claims to the contrary - X is not in fact concerned about somebody else’s positive welfare. 

“The map is not the territory” is a phrase sometimes used to remind people about the difference between things and the symbols used to represent those things. My interest is in a particular phenomenon and I use the word “altruism” to refer to that phenomenon. I don’t mind (too much) if other people use other words for the same thing or use the same word for other things, just as long as everyone is clear. Problems arise, though, when people focus on the map instead of the territory. When people insist that “altruism” is this or means that, they are often making claims about the territory based on their preferred maps rather than trying to choose or mark out an appropriate map after a close examination of the territory. Even this would be fine if the people doing it were careful, but often they are not.

People sometimes make claims like “organ donation is motivated by benevolence rather than altruism” (Ferguson et al., 2008) or that “empathy is more powerful than sympathy” (Matthews, 2013). Such assertive, fact-like claims would only make sense if the words used in them had fixed meanings that corresponded clearly to real-world phenomena. A cursory look at any relevant literature will make it blindingly obvious that this is not the case. Daniel Batson (2009), for example, differentiates eight commonly-used meanings of the word “empathy”. One of these is identical to what people usually mean when they use the word “sympathy” (WispĂ©, 1986). Given this, to say that “empathy is more powerful than sympathy” is almost nonsensical and it certainly risks being misleading. Ditto claiming that “organ donation is motivated by benevolence rather than altruism”. “Empathy”, “sympathy”, “benevolence” and of course “altruism” are “essentially contested concepts”. People will probably always disagree about how they should be used.

Many scholars approach “altruism” in this “the map dictates the territory” way. Such scholars will not like me calling the phenomenon I am interested in “altruism” because it does not have some or other condition that they think is essential to use the word “altruism” properly. Experience tells me that such people are usually best avoided if one is interested in understanding a phenomenon rather than getting waylaid by dubious claims about what particular words really mean.

To repeat, I am interested in the phenomenon of people being concerned about the positive welfare of others and I think “altruism” is at least as good a word as any for this phenomenon.

With sincere best wishes (please see the ‘diagram’ above if you need help interpreting this).

References/further reading

Batson, C.D. (2009). These things called empathy: Eight related but distinct phenomena. In J. Decety & W. Ickes (Eds.), The social neuroscience of empathy (pp. 3-15). Cambridge: MIT press.
Essentially contested concepts. (No date). Wikipedia. Link
Ferguson, E., Farrell, K., & Lawrence, C. (2008). Blood donation is an act of benevolence rather than altruism. Health Psychology, 27 (3), 327-336.
Map-territory relation. (No date). Wikipedia. Link
Matthews, C. (2013). Why empathy is more powerful than sympathy. Huffpost Healthy Living, Dec 12. Link 
Wispé, L. (1986). The distinction between sympathy and empathy: To call forth a concept, a word is needed. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 314-421.

How to cite this blog post using APA Style

T. Farsides. (2013, December 19). Alternatives to selfishness. Retrieved from

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Empathy for the Devil? Jo Berry visits US

In my initial posts, I argued that attempts to help can be called instances of “altruism” just as people are happy to call attempts to harm instances of “aggression”. In this post, I consider altruism and aggression in the context of a particular real-world event.

The picture above shows the Grand Hotel in Brighton the day after it was bombed by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Among the dead was the Conservative Member of Parliament Sir Antony Berry.

A week ago, Sir Antony’s daughter Jo visited the University of Sussex (US).

Jo is known to the public mainly because of her relationship with Patrick Magee, the man convicted for planting the bomb that killed Jo’s father.

At Jo’s first session with US she told the story of how the bombing had affected her life. During her second session, Jo took questions from me in an interview format. Both sessions ended with Jo answering questions from members of the audience.

Although key aspects of Jo’s story can be pieced together from various places, it was fascinating to hear her tell it herself. Thoughts cascaded. Parallels and contrasts abounded. Ironies arose. Impulses clashed.

Jo thinks that dialogue promotes peace and harmony and that an absence of dialogue with enemies makes bad situations worse.

Jo thinks that dialogue promotes peace and harmony because dialogue increases empathy (understanding of others’ experiences and of their reactions to them); empathy facilitates recognition of others’ humanity; recognition of others’ humanity facilitates altruistic concern (caring about the others’ positive welfare); and altruistic concern promotes intolerance of things that systematically harm those cared about.

Jo thinks that an absence of dialogue with enemies has detrimental effects on both sides. Those refusing to speak or listen come to demonise the other and lose sight of the other's humanity. They then become obsessed with and haunted by the others’ apparent barbarity and evil. They react with further defensive entrenchment and assault, fuelling mutual enmity and conflict. Each of these consequences of refusing to talk and listen are accompanied and exacerbated by increasingly losing sight of one’s own humanity.

Those who feel their grievances are not heard feel increasingly victimised, morally outraged, and constrained by the limited means at their disposal to put things right. They demonise the enemy, become obsessed with and haunted by the others’ apparent barbarity and evil, react with further defensive entrenchment and assault, lose sight of others’ and their own humanity, and increasingly contribute to a spiral of aggression and violence.

Jo’s beliefs have led to, or at least are accompanied by, commitments to pacifism and to dialogue with those who harm others. In reaching out to her father’s killer, Jo sought peace. 

My thoughts on Jo’s beliefs and stance will become clear to anyone who continues to read this blog. For now, I would like to record just one personal observation about Jo’s visit - I really enjoyed chatting with her over coffee. There was a relaxation of roles: mine as concerned host and academic seeker of truths, hers as humble bringer of insights earned through pain. I felt that that was when each of us was most in touch with our own and each other’s humanity, when we were chatting.

The rest of this post is in sections. In the section immediately below I summarise some of the key points of Jo’s story, as derived from a limited selection of sources given towards the end of this post. (To maximise readability, I do not give specific citations for each quote. Students – don’t adopt this practice in essays!)

In the second section below I include a few students’ recollections of Jo’s visit. (Thanks for sharing these, folks.)

The third section below is at present a rough transcript from near the beginning of my interview with Jo. Hopefully, this will provide a flavour of the interview as a whole, an audio recording of which I will also include when I can work out how! 

Some key points from the story of Jo Berry and Patrick Magee

On October 12, 1984, an IRA bomb killed 5 people, including Jo’s father. Two days later, Jo “made a personal decision … to bring something positive out of this emotionally shattering trauma and to try and understand those who had killed him.” She “chose to give up blame and revenge, instead taking responsibility for [her] pain and feelings, transforming them into passion for peace.”

Two or three months later, Jo met a man whose brother had been killed by a British soldier. The conversation persuaded Jo that she could “build a bridge across the divide”.

During several subsequent visits to Northern Ireland, Jo met people involved in and affected by ‘The Troubles’. It was the first time she felt that her “pain was being heard”. She also “began to understand the reasons why someone may choose to join a paramilitary organization”.

Jo found this process “too emotionally challenging as [she] had yet to deal with [her] trauma”. On top of this, she received negative reactions – including death threats – for saying on air in 1986 that she might one day be willing to meet those responsible for her father’s death.

Jo withdrew to home-educate her daughters.

In 1999, Jo was shocked to see Patrick Magee released from prison after he had been given 8 life sentences in 1986 for planting the bomb that killed her father.

In 2000, Jo and Magee met for the first time. Jo wanted “to put a face to the enemy and see him as a real human being”. She was initially told that Magee “didn’t want to meet her: he wasn’t interested in being understood by the middle-class daughter of a Tory toff.” When they met, Jo says that Magee denied having said this.

Magee “felt obliged as a Republican to explain” his actions. This is what he spent the first hour and a half of the first meeting doing. He told Jo that he’d “got involved in the armed struggle at the age of 19, after witnessing how [members of] a small nationalist community were being mistreated by the British. Those people had to respond.”

After this, Jo says, Pat (as she now knows him) took off “his political hat”. “There was a moment of silence. He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. ‘I don’t know who I am anymore’, he said. ‘I don’t know what to say. I’ve never met anyone like you, with so much dignity. What can I do to help? I want to hear your anger. I want to hear your pain.’” Magee later said that “he was disarmed by the empathy [Jo] gave him, that he would have found it easier” had she been angry and blaming. Then “the political hat would have remained firmly attached”.

Jo’s eagerness to listen and understand was “cathartic” for Magee. In that moment, the political justification for his actions “didn’t matter… As an individual [he] carried the heavy weight of knowing that [he] had caused profound hurt to this woman … A political obligation henceforth became a personal obligation”.

Jo says it was part of her healing “to hear [Magee’s] story and reach an understanding of why he chose violence”. Magee says meeting Jo helped him “remove blinkers, see the bigger picture and understand that there are human beings on all sides”. He came to believe that he had failed to appreciate the humanity of his enemies just as they had failed to appreciate him and his kind. He also came to believe that his aggression had caused him to lose part of his own humanity (or at least lose touch with it) and damage the humanity of many of the people affected by his actions.

Since that first meeting, Jo and Magee have together and apart promoted peaceful means of conflict resolution and avoidance. Foremost of these means is willingness to engage in dialogue. For Jo, such dialogue prevents demonising of “the other” and allows people to retain or reconnect with their own humanity and that of others. For her, “violence is never justified.” For Magee, dialogue is necessary to prevent oppressed people feeling that they have to turn to armed struggle. “I am not a pacifist”, he says. “I could never say to [those] who felt themselves oppressed, ‘Take it, just lie down and take it’”.

Jo thinks that what Magee did was “evil” but that Magee himself isn’t. She thinks one has to separate the sin from the sinner, “to avoid blame and find a new way of thinking that will break that cycle of violence.”

Jo thinks that she has probably used the word “forgiveness” too freely. She now believes that it can lock people into a “me right and you wrong” attitude that “won’t change anything”. But she feels that she “can experience empathy and in that moment there is no judgment. Sometimes when [she’s] met with Pat [she’s] had such a clear understanding of his life that there’s nothing to forgive”. “Had we all lived each other’s lives”, she says, “we could all have done what the other did.” For her, “the question is always about whether [she] can let go of [her] need to blame and open [her] heart enough to hear Pat’s story and understand his motivations. The truth is", she says, "sometimes I can and sometimes I can’t. It’s a journey and it’s a choice”.

Magee says he is “not seeking forgiveness”. He stands by his actions, although he feels he will always carry the burden that [he] harmed other human beings”. Forgiveness won’t bring back the dead, he says. “The hope lies in the fact we continue to meet in order to further this mutual process towards understanding.”


Berry. J. (Undated). Jo Berry – Founder. Building Bridges [Link]
Berry, J., & Magee, P. (2010). Jo Berry & Pat Magee (Northern Ireland). The Forgiveness Project, March 29. [Link]
Grice, E. (2009). The Brighton bomb: Jo Berry – at peace with the man who murdered my father. Telegraph, October 7. [Link]
Hall, C. (2009). Brighton bombing 25 years on: Making friends with my father's killer. Guardian, October 10. [Link]
Magee. P. (Undated). Dr Patrick Magee. Building Bridges [Link]
Rea, L. (2011). Victim’s daughter meets IRA bomber: An interview with Jo Berry. Restorative Justice Online, May 12. [Link]

Three students’ recollections of Jo’s visit

Student 1

I was quite moved by Jo flagging up that, even though she acknowledged that her story was a ‘big one’, she believed many, many people had events in their lives that could be addressed in the way she had addressed her loss. It made me think of a big event from my own life... I have really wondered after Jo’s talk how [meeting an abuser] might have affected my recovery.

Student 2

What struck me about Jo, from the offset, was her calm and placid demeanour. She looked and sounded like she had just finished some deep relaxing meditation, but she was fully awake. The structure of the talk was fantastic for both past and present day... I left feeling like I had been in the presence of someone who, on the surface, seems to have reached a place where her ability to ‘understand’ left me feeling humbled. It was a real pleasure to listen to her story, no matter what internal judgements one makes.

Student 3

One of the main things that I took from the talk was the blurred distinction between whether I was experiencing empathy or sympathy or neither. At several points I felt like I was empathising with Jo... and could understand the emotional turmoil she must have experienced. I felt strongly internally conflicted however as she got into the later stages of her talk and her forgiveness of Pat Magee. This highly traumatic and complex experience is unlike anything I (and probably most audience members) have had to face in life, and so I was not fully able to relate/empathise. But I also struggled to understand/sympathise with Jo. To be honest I was kind of frustrated, angry even... I resented her ability to forgive and even befriend a man who to her knowledge has never said he regretted killing her father... However, what most annoyed me was that I wholeheartedly agree with her core message, that forgiveness and reconciliation between conflicting parties is quite obviously a superior pathway... I know that in her situation I would not have been able to make that leap and would not have reacted well to anyone who suggested I try... It was a truly fascinating talk that has left me unsuccessfully attempting to solidify my own opinion re: forgiveness and justice.  


Tom interviews Jo: An excerpt

Jo: I spent the first five years of my life mainly with nannies and hardly seeing my parents... And then my mum separated from my dad when I was six and our lives completely changed... My mum... became friends with people like Roald Dahl. So he was a big part of my childhood. And artists. And, she had like a bohemian house... We were discussing all sorts of interesting ideas. And my father was actually very strict. I remember we used to have to have special clothes when we saw him... So, quite a lot of contrasts that I had to manage.

My father married soon after and had two more children. So we had two homes: very different values, very different disciplines. My over-riding thing as a child was that I could never make my parents happy. When I was with my dad, my mum was upset; when I was with my mum, my dad was upset. So I grew up just always feeling like I wanted to be in two places at the same time, which I think is quite often true of children with divorced parents.

In those days there was no one to talk to about things like that. You just didn’t [laughs]. So I got on with it.

I always seemed to be the one who got in trouble in my family. I don’t know why. Still don’t know why [laughs]...

But over the years my father softened... My mother carried on being quite, adventurous. She’d take us on unusual holidays. Different experiences. So I grew up with a whole lot of people around in my life. I used to go to Buckingham Palace. That was part of my life. Go to 10 Downing Street, because of [laughs] my father. At the same time, I’d meet people from different parts of the world. So quite a variety of experiences.

I remember being really, really unhappy at boarding school. It was a very strict, girls-only boarding school... How much like a prison. These teachers were just like sadists [laughs] and just delighted in punishment. It was the most ridiculous thing. Feelings were not allowed.

I have to say, feelings were not allowed in any part of my childhood.

My mum used to say, just before she became a person-centred counsellor, she’d say, “You can either be tired or joyful” and that was it! So, you know, not a great kind of place to learn about feelings.

And I was a very feeling child. So, I was often called a cry-baby. I used to cry a lot. And I carried on crying right through my boarding school. Eventually they asked me to leave. [Laughs.] Because I was, too difficult.

And that was fantastic. So at 14, I left this prison and came back to London. And, my mum was very involved with her own life. She didn’t really notice me too much. And I discovered, in a whole street, was a squat. And I went there after school, and eventually during school. And there were like all these people there who’d just come back from India, Afghanistan, everywhere like that. And they had bells and incense and played Ravi Shankar music and smoked dope. And I was just like, “Wow!” So that opened my eyes to life quite a lot. And I started reading Jung and Herman Hesse. I just loved the young people I was meeting. I just loved. There was a freedom they had that I really wanted. They weren’t constrained by who they were, where they came from. No one asked them who their father did. You know? They were just living their lives.

... It gave me a thirst, I wanted to go to India, overland to India... So school seemed completely irrelevant. How I got ‘A’ levels I don’t know. I didn’t work very hard. [Laughs.] ...

Tom: [I ask about her father’s and her own commitment to peace.]

Jo: I did eventually start meditating. I did get to India and I lived there for a couple of years. And during that time, just in my early 20s, I wrote letters to mum and dad apologising for being so difficult and, appreciating them, and appreciating how difficult I had been. So I’m making peace with them. I came back in June ’84 and my dad was going through a really hard time. He had financial problems and he was also arrested by the police... I think that was very shameful, to be arrested by the police. I remember I wrote him a note after it happened and I said, “I can see this is really difficult for you and you need to know that your friends stand by you and will understand you and will love you for it. And those who criticise you were never your friends... And I love you whatever you do.” He never wrote back. He still found it hard to communicate his emotions. But I found out, after he was killed, that he had the letter under his pillow.

Further reading
Zaki, J. (2013). Empathy as a choice. The Moral Universe: Dialogues on the psychology of right and wrong (July 29).

How to cite this blog post using APA Style

T. Farsides. (2013, October 30). No such thing as altruism? Retrieved from

Image credits

Bombed Grand link
Jo Berry link
Jo Berry and Patrick Magee link

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Does Altruism Require Self-Sacrifice?

In my previous post I continued an argument that the word “altruism” usefully describes attempted helping of others just as the word “aggression” usefully describes attempted harming of others. Many potentially troubling consequences follow from this conceptualisation. One is that there is no reason to expect cost and self-sacrifice to be more associated with altruism than it is with any other goal-directed behaviour. This will bother those people who consider costs to self or self-sacrifice to be essential and distinctive aspects of (‘true’, ‘pure’, ‘real’, etc.) altruism.

“Altruism” is just a word and people can use it in whatever way they please. Some have done so in ways which define costs to self or self-sacrifice as essential components.

Auguste Comte invented the word “altruism” and defined it as “living for others” (vivre pour autrui). He believed that a particular form of “living for others” - seeking to promote the good of society - brings about all sorts of benefits, especially relative to the harms he thought done when people pursued only their individual self-interest. Thus, in the very first use of the word “altruism”, seeking positive welfare for others was contrasted with self-interest. This made sense in Comte’s system. Comte encouraged people to seek the good of society rather than pursue their narrow self-interest. These things are mutually exclusive. Beyond that, Comte wanted people to do something that he suspected they would consider a costly sacrifice.

Economists’ models typically assume that people are motivated by material self-interest and only by material self-interest. The latter assumption is threatened when people spend or forego material goods in ways that materially benefit others but not the self. This is the phenomenon economists call “altruism” and it has material loss to self – deemed a self-sacrifice - as an essential component.

The most interesting thing for economists about what they call altruism is that people spend or forego material goods without receiving commensurate material self-benefit. This interest is the main reason why economists call the act of people spending or foregoing material goods in ways that harm others without materially benefiting the self “altruistic” aggression. Benefiting or harming others is of little interest to economists when the self also benefits. In these instances economists can continue with their assumption that people do what they do in pursuit of material self-benefit and any benefit or harm to others can be considered simply instrumental or incidental. Economists need to see evidence of avoidable material costs to self before acts which bring benefit to others can be considered altruistic.

With some important differences, evolutionary accounts of “altruism” are similar to economic ones. One such difference is the currency of costs and benefits. For economists material value is the currency of interest. For evolutionary theorists it is chances of survival. If organisms such as humans act in ways that improve others’ chances of survival and at the same time lower their own chances of survival, those organisms are said to have acted altruistically. If inherited genes promote such “biological altruism”, the reduced chances of survival this involves threatens Darwinian principles of evolution, just as the material costs to self of “economic altruism” threatens the central assumption of self-interest. As in economic theory, self-sacrifice is a hallmark of altruism within evolutionary theory.

Each of the positions above is important and influential but none of them speak directly to the phenomenon I am most interested in: people striving to help others.

When people abide by Comte’s prescriptions they engage in a form of altruism-as-attempted-helping but it is far from being the only form there is. Not only do people sometimes pursue positive welfare for various sorts of society (e.g., patriotism, nationalism, communism, tribalism, humanism, parochialism, universalism, etc.), they also regularly pursue positive welfare for all sorts of non-societal others (e.g., friends, family, animals, future generations, deities, etc.). I am interested in understanding people striving to benefit any others’ welfare, i.e., the positive welfare of anyone or anything other than just the self. 

Most importantly for current purposes, pursuing good for others does not obviously require any more cost to self or self-sacrifice than does pursuing, for example, harm for others. When people exclusively pursue good for the self, this is by definition incompatible with them pursuing good (or harm) for anyone else. People can nevertheless easily seek to influence the welfare of various beneficiaries in sequence or simultaneously. People can attempt to live healthily because they derive self-satisfaction from doing so or because they want to be fit enough to provide good quality care for their loved ones, or both. Similarly, people can have sequential or mixed motives for reading aloud to their children, trying to please their God, striving for a better society for all, and any number of other sometimes at-least partially altruistic behaviours.

That people are often willing to pay costs and to self-sacrifice for their kids, for their country, and for others they care about can be an indicator of their positive other-concern, just as willingness to pay costs and to self-sacrifice can reveal a potent aggressive concern. This does not mean that costs to self or self-sacrifice are necessary to call an act altruistic (or aggressive). Giving can be divine at least as easily as vengeance can be sweet.

I invite anyone who is confused by what I say above to read or re-read my earlier post on the difference between the subject and the object of any goal, especially goals explicitly seeking to have an impact on someone or something’s welfare. Pursuit of personal goals can sometimes require costs to the self. This is true even for some goals to benefit the self (Ps ↑ Sw), e.g. sacrificing enjoyment of a tempting cookie because one wants a better beach bod. But this does not mean that pursuit of all personal goals necessarily involve cost to self, even pursuit of personal goals to benefit others (Ps ↑ Ow).

Costs to self are, by definition, part of both economic ‘altruism’ and evolutionary ‘altruism’. But neither of these is altruism as I am using the term. They are different phenomena.

The currency of economic ‘altruism’ is material goods and the currency of evolutionary ‘altruism’ is survival value. The currency of altruism-as-attempted-helping is others' positive welfare (however altruists understand that term). Altruists can think that more money or improved chances of survival are in others’ interest but these things hardly exhaust the goods that altruists try to bestow. Altruism regularly involves attempted helping that has nothing to do with trying to improve others’ wealth or positively affecting their chances of survival. Killing a beloved pet can be a sincere attempt to improve its welfare, i.e. to remove its pain and suffering, to literally put it out of its misery.

Moreover, both economic ‘altruism’ and evolutionary ‘altruism’ are determined primarily by examining actions’ outcomes whereas altruism (as-attempted-helping) is determined primarily by considering people’s goals.

Economic ‘altruism’ is said to have occurred when people act in ways that result in (a) them foregoing material goods they otherwise could have had, and (b) others obtaining material goods they otherwise would not have had. Such a situation can result from attempted helping, for example when people bestow gifts of money to help others who are somewhat impoverished.  But people can try to help without this sort of material redistribution, e.g. by giving emotional support. And resources can end up being redistributed in this way without being the result of attempted helping, e.g. following unsuccessful gambling.

Similarly, evolutionary ‘altruism’ is said to have occurred when organisms act in ways that result in (a) them foregoing chances of survival they otherwise could have had, and (b) others obtaining chances of survival they otherwise would not have had. Again, such an outcome can result from attempted helping (e.g. heroic rescue) but attempted helping can happen without this outcome (e.g. much human altruism) and this outcome can occur without being the result of an attempt to help (e.g. much animal 'altruism').

Because neither ‘economic altruism’ nor ‘evolutionary altruism’ is the same phenomenon as attempted helping, any relevance of one for the other has to be established, not assumed. Things that share the same name are not necessarily the same thing. One would be foolish to seek to understand the financial institutions of banks in England by studying English river banks. A rose is a rose by any other name but not everything called “Rose” is a flower. Some things that people call “altruism” do require costs to self and self-sacrifice (and these latter terms are often considered synonymous) but that is not obviously the case with the phenomenon I am seeking to understand - whatever name it is given, even when that name is “altruism”.

My posts so far have been a bit theory-heavy and there is lots more theory to come. (I don’t know if Kurt Lewin was correct when he said that “There’s nothing so practical as a good theory” but I do have plenty of evidence that bad theory can lead to terrible science.) My next post will be firmly rooted in the real world though. In it, I shall be reviewing a visit by Jo Berry to Sussex University’s Psychology Department during which she discussed the relationship she has developed with her father’s murderer.

Key points

Comte coined the word “altruism” and meant by it pursuit of societal good in place of individuals’ exclusive pursuit of self-interest.

Economists assume self-benefit and so behaviours which affect others are of particular interest only when they are accompanied by costs to self/self-sacrifice. This combination of outcomes is how economists define “altruism”.

Darwinian theory specifies that evolved behaviours which increase others’ survival chances and reduce one’s own would become extinct. Evolutionary theorists call this theoretical combination of outcomes “biological altruism”.

Comte’s altruism is one example of a much broader category of altruism-as-attempted-helping. Most instances of that category do not obviously require significant costs to self or self-sacrifice.

Economic ‘altruism’ and evolutionary ‘altruism’ are phenomena distinct from altruism (as-attempted-helping). Neither economic nor evolutionary ‘altruism’ should not be assumed useful to explain altruism (as-attempted-helping).

Further reading

Campbell, R. L. (2006). Altruism in Auguste Comte and Ayn Rand. Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, 7 (2), 357-369. [Link]
Fehr, E., & Gaechter, S. (2002). Altruistic punishment in humans. Nature, 415, 137-140. [Link]
Okasha, S. (2013). Biological altruism. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Online Edition, Fall). [Link]

How to cite this blog post using APA Style

T. Farsides. (2013, October 23). Does altruism require sacrifice? Retrieved from

Image credits

Runner (Meghan Vogel) helps injured opponent link
I’d like to be an organ donor link

Monday, 14 October 2013

The Altruism Question: Yes or No?

Daniel Batson asks The Altruism Question.

We want to know if anyone ever, in any degree, transcends the bounds of self-benefit and helps out of genuine concern for the welfare of another (Batson, 1991, pp. 1-2).

Batson answers yes and his critics answer no. Despite scores of studies, no data has yet persuaded any of the main players in the debate to change their answer. Part of the reason for this is that ‘TheAltruism Question is double-barrelled. It combines two questions that would better be asked separately. One asks if behaviour is ever motivated by concern for another’s (positive) welfare and the other asks if such action ever ‘transcends the bounds of self-benefit’.

In my previous post I suggested that it is useful to distinguish between the subject and the object of goal-directed behaviour. People seeking to help others are the subjects of their actions: they are the people who are trying to achieve something. The same is true of people attempting to harm others and of people deliberately seeking to benefit or to harm themselves. In each case, someone is trying to bring about a state of affairs they desire. They differ in what they are trying to do (e.g., to help or to harm) and in the objects of their goals (e.g., who they are trying to help or harm). I suggested that actions can be called altruistic to the extent that they seek other-benefit, just as actions can be called aggressive or prudent to the extent that they seek, respectively, other-harm or self-help. Altruistic action understood in this way is no more mysterious than any other goal-seeking behaviour.

Although it is very easy to get confused when thinking about “altruism”, “selfishness”, and related terms, I have never met anyone who seriously doubts that humans sometimes want nice things for other people and that such desires sometimes motivate attempts to bring those nice things about. There is certainly plentiful evidence that they do; much of it from Batson’s lab.

This answers one half of Batson’s Altruism Question. People do sometimes help because of genuine concern for the welfare of others.

The wording of The Altruism Question commits Batson to move from accepting that people sometimes seek to help others to concluding that, when they do this, they transcend the bounds of self-benefit. But that conclusion is no more justified than it would be after observing that people sometimes strive to harm others.  (The Altruism Question can be modified with ease into The Aggression Question. Try it!)

Batson’s critics feel constrained by the same logic but move in the opposite direction. They reason that people doing something they want to do must involve pursuing rather than transcending self-benefit. Therefore, they conclude, people never help others because of genuine concern for their welfare. All apparent altruism is really self-interest. Presumably, similar reasoning would require conclusions that people who seem aggressive are not ‘really’ trying to harm others but are instead ‘only’ doing what they want to do; pursuing self-benefit. On this account it seems that pursuing self-benefit is the only ‘real’ goal people can ever have.

Any attempt to understand concern for the (positive or negative) welfare of others is severely hampered if all goal-directed behaviour is characterised as being indiscriminately self-interested.

Besides severely hampering research into one of the most important phenomena on earth, the main problem with The Altruism Question being double-barrelled is that it invites unnoticed switching between different meanings of the phrase “self-benefit”.

Batson believes that people sometimes have goals to improve others’ welfare. Batson’s critics believe that motivation necessarily involves people pursuing personal interests. These are perfectly compatible positions. People are sometimes personally - sincerely, genuinely - interested in having a positive impact on others’ lives. Having a positive impact on others’ welfare is (at least part of) what people with altruistic goals want to do.

It is perfectly possible to assume that people are ultimately motivated by trying to achieve what they want to achieve (i.e., that they pursue personal-interests) but nevertheless insist that there can be important differences in what they want to achieve - which is sometimes but not always to have a positive influence on others’ welfare. People are sometimes altruistic just as they are sometimes aggressive. In each case, just as with any goal-directed behaviour, people are pursuing personal interests; pursuing what they want.

Related things can be said about people pursuing positive welfare for groups and about people striving to be moral or pious. Batson calls these pursuits examples of ‘collectivism’ and ‘principalism’, respectively, and asks whether they might involve additional forms of motivation distinct from both ‘egoism’ and ‘altruism’. That is, Batson essentially asks The Collectivism Question and The Principlism Question. He might as well also ask The Animal Welfare Question, The Killing Vermin Question, and any number of other Questions. Is it really constructive to question whether people ever (genuinely, really, sincerely, etc.) seek to help particular groups, harm particular groups, follow some principles, resist some principles, help particular animals, harm particular animals, serve science, maintain family honour, etc? Making such claims is only to say that people have and sometimes seek fulfilment of many, many different personal goals. No novel theory of motivation is required by realising any of this; any more than one is needed by accepting that people sometimes have sincere goals to help others.

It is vitally important to try to understand people caring about and pursuing (negative and positive) other-welfare. Progress towards such understanding is routinely hampered by scientists and scholars confusing themselves and others by over-complicating the nature of these activities.

Frustrating though it can be, there are other conceptual confusions which need to be addressed before the empirical literature relating to concern for the positive welfare of others can be appraised with a clear head. Next up: Does altruism require sacrifice?

Key points

‘The Altruism Question’ is doubled-barrelled and asks two distinct questions.

One part of ‘The Altruism Question’ asks if people ever act on goals to help others. The evidence that they do is similar to evidence that people act on myriad other goals they have.

The other part of ‘The Altruism Question’ asks if people ever transcend self-interest. They do to the extent that people sometimes have personal interests to pursue the perceived interests of others (as well as or rather than pursing interests for the ‘self’ – see previous post). They do not in the sense that people’s personal goals are, by definition, their own goals - even when those goals are to try to help others.

The conflation of distinct questions within ‘The Altruism Question’ leads to confusion, particularly around notions of “self-interest”. There is no tension involved in claiming that people sometimes seek to satisfy personal goals to help others.

A couple of key sources

Batson, C. D. (1991). The altruism question: Towards a social-psychological answer. Hove: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Batson, C. D. (1994). Why act for the public good? Four answers. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 20, 603-610. Link

How to cite this blog post using APA Style

T. Farsides. (2013, October 14). The Altruism Question: Yes or no? Retrieved from

Image credits

Bush-baby link

Compassionate intervention –No link! Sorry, I can’t remember or currently relocate where I copied this photo from. I will attribute the source as soon as I can find it again. 

Monday, 7 October 2013

Where's the "I" in altruism?

In my first post, I suggested that people sometimes do things because they want to have a positive impact on others’ lives. In my second, I suggested that when people do this, they, their goals, and their behaviour can be called altruistic. I suggested that this was no more contentious than a claim that when people seek to harm others, they, their goals, and their behaviour can be called aggressive.

Understood like this, altruism and aggression are goal-seeking. When altruistic or aggressive, people strive for outcomes that they think will be good or bad for others because that is what they want to achieve.

Grammatically, the altruist or aggressor is a subject whose immediate goal is to try to influence another’s welfare and the other’s welfare is the object of the altruist’s or aggressor’s desire and action. Semi-formally, in altruism a person (P) strives (s) to have a positive influence (↑) on another’s (O) welfare (w) (Ps ↑ Ow) and in aggression a person strives to have a negative influence (↓) on another’s welfare (Ps ↓ Ow).

As also mentioned in my second post, a person can strive to have an impact on his or her own welfare. Prudence, which involves a person striving to improve his or her own welfare, was given as an example. In prudence, the subject (P, the person who acts) is the same as in altruism or aggression. Only the object of their immediate desire and action is different. In prudence, a person strives to have a positive impact on the self’s welfare: Ps ↑ Sw.

Differentiating P and S helps keep clear the distinction between the subject and the object of goal-seeking action. When a person engages in altruism, aggression, prudence, or any other goal-seeking behaviour, the subject is the same; it is the person performing the action in order to pursue their goal. What differs across these behaviours is the object of that person’s immediate desire and action. In altruism and aggression the object is another; in prudence the object is the self.

Differentiating P and S is also useful in trying to keep separate two meanings of the slippery phrase “self-interest”.

Because they engage in goal-seeking behaviour, it is tempting to think of altruists as ultimately irredeemably “self-interested”. They are, after all, striving to achieve things they want and they presumably anticipate some sort of satisfaction if their goals are achieved. But because people pursuing any goal can be called “self-interested” in this sense, even if the immediate object of their desires and actions is not the self, perhaps the term “personal-interest” might be better here. People have all manner of goals or personal interests, only some of which have welfare of ‘the self’ as the immediate object of interest.

As well as being personally interested in the sense of having goals, the prudent are also self-interested in a much more direct way. Their personal interest is specifically to intentionally seek benefits for the self. The self’s welfare is the object of their immediate desires and actions. They have personal goals (“self-interest” #1) to promote their self’s welfare (“self-interest” #2).

People are also self-interested in this additional, intentional, direct sense when they seek to harm the self. For want of a better phrase, I shall call this “self-abuse”: Ps ↓ Sw. In prudence and self-abuse, people strive (and are therefore personally interested) to affect their own welfare (their self-interest). In altruism and aggression, people strive (and are therefore personally interested) to influence others’ welfare (other-interest). The table below illustrates these two different senses of “self-interest”.
(Personal goal)            Goal object                 

Aggression      s↓         “Other-welfare”, i.e., harm to other
Altruism          s↑         “Other-welfare”, i.e., help for other
Prudence         s↑         “Self-welfare”, i.e., help for self
Self-abuse       s↓         “Self-welfare”, i.e., harm to self

In my nextpost I will review one of the most sustained programmes of empirical research in the psychology of altruism. I will suggest that it has been severely compromised by almost everyone involved apparently failing to adequately appreciate this essential difference between these two different uses of the phrase “self-interest”.

Key points

The subject of action is the same whenever a person engages in goal-directed behaviour: it is the person engaging in the behaviour to pursue those goals.

Goal-seeking behaviours are differentiated one from another by the object of the action, e.g., help for another (Ps ↑ Ow), help for the self (Ps ↑ Sw), harm to another (Ps ↓ Ow), or harm to the self (Ps ↓ Ow).

Final thoughts and further reading

In trying to keep things as clear as possible, I have not mentioned above a third sense of “self-interest”. This is the notion that some things are ‘objectively’ good for people’s welfare, i.e., ‘objectively in their (self-) interest’. It is possible to say, for example, that a person attempting to be prudent acts from ‘self-interest’ (i.e., pursues personal goals) when trying to promote their ‘self-interest’ (i.e., to improve their welfare as they see it) but ultimately does not act in their ‘self-interest’ (i.e., because alternative actions would have better promoted that person’s objective welfare). I do not believe it is in helpful to continue to use the phrase “self-interest” as promiscuously as some do, especially when trying to understand the phenomenon of people intentionally trying to help others.

Blackburn, S. (2001). Ethics: a very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Also published as Being Good).
Jensen, M. C. (1994). Self-interest, altruism, incentives, and agency theory. Journal of Applied Corporate Finance, 7 (2), 40-45.  [Link]

How to cite this blog post using APA Style

T. Farsides. (2013, October 7). Where’s the “I” in altruism? Retrieved from

Image credits

Dr. Who and Clara link

Monday, 30 September 2013

Altruism and aggression

In my previous post I suggested that people sometimes act as they do because they want to help others and that to this extent they, their goals, and their behaviour can be called altruistic. This seems no more contentious than suggesting that people sometimes act as they do because they want to harm others and that to this extent they, their goals, and their behaviour can be called aggressive. I can think of few more worthwhile tasks than trying to understand people being altruistic or aggressive in these ways.

These conceptualisations of altruism and aggression are as elegant as I can make them. Multiple important things are and are not intended by the words I have very carefully chosen. I will explore all of them in later posts, but here are some headlines.

Altruistic and aggressive actions require an ability to conceive another’s welfare, motivation to influence that welfare, and the ability to pursue that goal. It is possible that things other than people can behave altruistically or aggressively if they have these capabilities. (Maybe certain animals, God, nature, groups, laws...?) It is also possible that, if they lack one or more of these characteristics, some people cannot behave altruistically or aggressively. (Maybe new-born babies, people in comas, the grief-stricken, narcissists, psychopaths...?)

Altruism and aggression are not mutually exclusive. It is perfectly possible to try to harm someone at the same time as trying to help them in other ways. (Think of an angry father holding his daughter just a little too tightly while explaining the importance of her not running out into the road again.)

A person being both altruistic and aggressive towards another can be called ambivalent. A person seeking neither to help nor harm another can be called indifferent. Altruism, aggression, ambivalence, and indifference capture all the orientations a person can adopt towards others.

No one can be altruistic or aggressive all the time, in every way, to everyone. When considering the possible existence of altruism or aggression it is almost always useful to ask, “Who is trying to help or harm whom and in what way?” (To whom and in what ways is a policewoman altruistic, aggressive, and indifferent when she shoots a man because she wants to prevent him killing some children?)

People do not always succeed in their sincere attempts to help or harm others. Even when they do succeed as intended, there may be unanticipated or unwelcome additional consequences. People who seek to help or harm others are altruistic or aggressive even if things do not turn out exactly as they wished. When deciding if a person is, was, or will be altruistic or aggressive, it is their goals to help or harm that count. (Is killing a sick animal altruistic or aggressive? What about relieving someone’s pain with drugs which are likely to kill them?)

It follows that the outcomes altruists or aggressors seek are intended to be helpful or harmful as they, the altruists or aggressors, understand those terms. Others may disagree with their assessments of what is helpful or harmful, including those they are trying to help or harm.

It is not only other individuals that people seek to help or harm. In my next post, I will compare and contrast people trying to influence others’ welfare (altruism and aggression) with people seeking to influence their own welfare (prudence and ‘self-harm’).

I hope you liked this post. If not, I apologise. I was trying to help.

Key points

Altruists seek to influence others’ welfare in ways that the altruists think are likely to be beneficial for those others.

Altruism requires an ability to conceive another’s welfare, motivation to influence that welfare, and the ability to pursue that goal.

When considering potentially altruistic behaviour, it is useful to ask, “Who is trying to help whom and in what way?”

Consequences other than those intended can result from altruistic acts.

Final thoughts and further reading

Parallels can be drawn between altruism and other goal-seeking behaviour and it is useful to draw them. People seem relatively reluctant to use the term “altruism” and relatively permissive in using the term “aggression”. I believe that the two are largely equivalent and should be used equally freely or equally restrictively. (Is a cat ‘playing’ with a mouse altruistic, aggressive, ambivalent or indifferent to its welfare?)

Carlsmith, K. M., & Sood, A. M. (2009). The fine line between interrogation and retribution. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45 (1), 191-196. [Link]
Rempel, J. K., & Burris, C. T. (2005). Let me count the ways: An integrative theory of love and hate. Personal Relationships, 1 (2), 297-313. [Abstract]

How to cite this blog post using APA Style

T. Farsides. (2013, September 30). Altruism and aggression. Retrieved from

Image credits

Soldier carrying child from link
Record cover from video link