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