Is it really impossible to refute selfishness?

"Truly selfless action is extremely rare (or in reality never occurs at all)"

Economics and evolutionary biology have difficulty explaining human altruism

The American Wesley Autrey was waiting at a subway station with his two daughters when a man had an epileptic fit. Autrey immediately clamped a pen between his teeth to keep the man from biting his tongue. Then the man was able to stand again, but when the subway pulled in, he staggered and fell onto the platform. Autrey immediately jumped after. But because the man was too heavy, Autrey pushed him between the rails and lay down on him. Five cars rolled over Wesley Autrey. There was only two centimeters of space between his head and the train. His comment on the unusual act: "I only saw one person who needed help. Then I did what I had to do."

Valentin Filipenko was riding his bicycle near Rostock when he saw two boys playing on a frozen lake. Seconds later, the thin sheet of ice broke. Filipenko reacted immediately, ran out onto the lake and broke through the ice himself. He took turns keeping the boys afloat until the rescue workers arrived.

Individual cases? The French psychologist Jacques Lecomte was able to prove in his book "La Bonté humaine" that such rescue acts occur far more frequently than one would expect: When it was particularly cold in France in December 2010, people jumped into ice-cold water almost every day to save others. However, these reports only appeared in the respective local media.

Altruistic acts exist. No question. But it is astonishing how much intellectual energy thinkers (especially economics and evolutionary biology) expend to grant the predicate of a really existing altruism at most in absolutely exceptional cases.

Narrowing definitions

"An altruist is essentially defined by being willing to limit his own consumption in order to increase the consumption of others." Or to put it more generally: "If a person acts in such a way that the action is costly for him, but benefits someone else, then the person concerned behaves altruistically," writes Gary Becker, recipient of the Alfred Nobel Memorial Prize for Economics.

The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins also defines altruism in the parameters of a cost-benefit calculation in which life appears as a zero-sum game: "An organism (...) is considered altruistic if it behaves in such a way that it benefits the welfare of another, like one Organism increases at the expense of its own well-being. "

Significantly, different definitions of altruism do not come into focus at all. The International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences defines psychological altruism as "a state of motivation aimed at increasing the well-being of another". The social psychologist Daniel Batson sees it similarly. For him, "altruism is a motivation that ultimately aims to increase the well-being of another".

All of these definitions do not imply an inevitable victim attitude and are closer to the human horizon of experience than the radical narrowing view of economics and evolutionary biology, which, trapped in the conviction that life is a zero-sum game, define that increasing the well-being of one is inevitably reducing the Wellbeing of the other.

Psychological egoism

The arsenal of intellectually sophisticated arguments is astonishingly large, which simply more or less deny the existence of altruism or at least want to expose it as significantly less selfless than it seems at first glance.

Bernard Mandeville, Dutch doctor and contemporary of Adam Smith, for example, had a clear explanation for people who risk their lives to save others: "

There is no merit in saving an innocent child who was about to fall into the fire. The action is neither good nor bad, and whatever benefit the child may get from it, we are only doing it in our own best interest. For to have seen his fall and not have sought to prevent it would have caused a torment that the instinct for self-preservation forced us to avoid.

Bernard Mandeville

The simplest, but also the most radical attempt to refute the existence of altruism is made by representatives of so-called psychological egoism. This is based on the conviction that the goal behind all human behavior and striving (including the unconscious) is nothing more than increasing one's own well-being and realizing one's own desires. According to the conviction of evolutionary biologist Michael Ghiselin: "Scratch an altruist and see a hypocrite bleed." According to this selfish reading, the benefit experienced by the person who is helped is only a kind of intermediate step - a means to the ultimate goal of achieving personal benefit.

Of course, this assessment of the human psyche corresponds exactly to the human benefit maximizer. Specifically related to human behavior, psychological egoism sees behind a good deed, for example, the actual motivation to increase one's personal reputation. Another real engine is feeling good. So we would only do a good deed so that we can bask in the bliss of a clear conscience. The psychologist Robert Cialdini was therefore convinced that the sight of a beggar is so burdensome, for example, that a person wants to free himself from this burden by giving the beggar money. So the motivation is not generosity, but rather the selfish desire to feel better about yourself. In this context, reference is also made to the great satisfaction that organ donors feel, or the feeling of happiness when the Jews were successfully rescued during the Holocaust.

The conclusion, therefore, is that people enjoy great pleasure in acts of altruism. Therefore, through his apparent altruism, people simply satisfy their own well-being, i.e. their egoism, which was the actual motor for their decision to take an apparently altruistic act.

A logical circular argument

The logic behind psychological egoism hides a telling circular argument. It is assumed that people only do things that they enjoy themselves. Conversely, it is concluded that the fact that a person did something proves that he did it for personal enjoyment. Matthieu Ricard elegantly deconstructs:

The weakness of psychological selfishness lies in the claim that it alone makes it possible to explain all human behavior. It is selfish not to give a child a plum (you want to keep it to yourself) and it is selfish to give it to him (you do this to have a clear conscience).

As a result of the above-mentioned circular argument, it is impossible to prove that there is actually a selfless act. Even Jesus or Mahatma Gandhi could be assumed that the self-sacrifice actually testifies to an egoistic motive. Gallantically, however, this could never be conclusively refuted. Hence the theory of psychological egoism is always correct. But it is not falsifiable and, according to Karl Popper, simply not a scientific approach.

Strictly speaking, all that remains of psychological selfishness, as Norman Brown explains, is the assertion "that man is motivated by his own desires" - a statement of extremely pitiful intellectually banality.

As we shall see later, however, the psychological egoism is refuted by numerous experiments.

An altruist shouldn't feel satisfaction

The view of psychological egoism, based on economic thinking, that it is simply a contradiction in terms that an altruist feels satisfaction (because then the action would inevitably be classified as egoistic, since it gives the person concerned a profit). As a consequence, this also means: Only the worse you feel after an action, the more likely you are to be an altruist. But that is a very questionable attitude, one could also say: a downright masochistic view of people.

Matthieu Ricard, Buddhist monk, translator of the Dalai Lama and doctorate in molecular biology, consequently puts his finger on a central mistake:

Just because you feel joy when you do something good for another, or because you get comforts for yourself as a result, an act as such does not become selfish. Real altruism does not require that you suffer yourself when you help others, it does not lose its authenticity by the fact that it is accompanied by a feeling of deep satisfaction.

Matthieu Ricard

Altruism in no way excludes the pursuit of good for oneself, as this is compatible with the wish that others will do well. Life is just not a zero-sum game, as economics always assumes. Actions can certainly increase the well-being of other people without losing your own well-being. "The dividing point between altruism and egoism lies (...) in the nature of our motivation," states Matthieu Ricard. Do I help so that I feel like a noble person afterwards, or do I help so that the other is better? At the latest when answering this simple question, the all-important difference between selfish and altruistic behavior becomes apparent.

Reciprocal altruism: "Like you to me, so I to you"

While the approach of psychological egoism simply rejects the independent existence of altruism, so-called reciprocal altruism quite admits that there may be altruistic acts in certain respects. However, this only happens if - as in the barter transaction - it can be expected that an altruistic act will be responded to. The vernacular describes this attitude with the phrase "One hand washes the other."

Representing many scientists who are convinced that reciprocal altruism explains altruism, the biologist and scientific theorist Franz M. Wuketits should be mentioned at this point:

Egoism is the driving force behind the willingness to help, the starting point for all social action and all morals. All living things - humans are no exception - are naturally selfish. (...) Altruism - be it with wolves or other 'socialized' species - is based on reciprocity: the helpful individual benefits from his own behavior. Strictly speaking, there is no real, but only reciprocal altruism, for which the popular parlance like "One hand washes the other" or "As you me, so I you" has found: the paradox of social evolution, in which Egoists "invented" altruism dissolves on the level of reciprocity. It is fair to assume that truly selfless action without any medium to long-term prospect of personal gain is extremely rare (or in fact never occurs at all).

Franz M. Wuketits

In fact, from an evolutionary perspective, processes of reciprocity are easy to explain because everyone who cooperates has a direct advantage. Amazingly, however, many attempts to prove reciprocal altruism in the animal world have failed. For example, Alicia P. Melis, Brian Hare, and Michael Tomasello found "that chimpanzees brought together by chance did no more help to an individual who had just helped them than to one who had not helped them."

The anthropologist and behavioral researcher Michael Tomasello, Co-Director of the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, draws attention to a fundamental problem with the attempt to explain reciprocal altruism:

The first problem is that reciprocal altruism has no explanation whatsoever for the very first altruistic act, which it claims must be based on blind optimism or chance. The second problem is the powerful impulse to renegade: once you've given me my advantage, I have no incentive to get you yours in return.

Michael Tomasello

Indirect reciprocity: I will help you and someone else will help me

Skeptics of altruism have other well thought-out counter-arguments: Altruism is "an investment in capital that is called trustworthiness and which later pays nice dividends in the form of other people's generosity. Therefore, the cooperative person is anything but truly altruistic." So the entrepreneur and author Matt Ridley, who hereby gives a more complex explanation for the existence of altruism, which is often referred to as so-called indirect reciprocity.

For the mathematician and biologist Martin. A. Nowak, indirect reciprocity is even a mechanism that drives the evolution of cooperation. To function, you need a name so that the good deed can be linked to the concrete increase in the recognition of a person. According to Nowak, indirect reciprocity could even be an important reason for the development of language and the surprising size of the human brain: "So that our selfless attitude is appreciated by many and our reputation is strengthened, more than language is necessary. We need intelligent and receptive brains. Indirect reciprocity relies on what others think of us. "

Relatives selection and nepotism

The concept of group selection, stemming from evolutionary and sociobiology, could be a more complex explanation for altruistic behavior. This concept has also found its way into economics. The background for the elaboration of the concept of kinship selection was the fundamental question of how altruistic behavior could be preserved to this day in evolution, which at first glance clearly seems to favor egoistic behavior. The geneticist William D. Hamilton, who developed the theory of kinship selection alongside Maynard Smith in the 1960s, observed that altruism only pays off when it happens among relatives.

According to this theory, from the point of view of evolution, relative selection developed because humans try in this way to ensure that more of their genes are passed on to the next generation. Nowak writes:

If the main task of individuals was to pass on their genes to the next generation in a competitive struggle, then logically they also paid a price in order to provide relatives, i.e. people with the same genes, with a benefit.

Martin. A. Nowak

It is therefore inevitably logical that a person should be just as concerned about the well-being of his identical twin as he is about his own. It seems equally logical that, according to this theory, "the probability of experiencing altruism for second cousins ​​is 1/16 as great as for children and siblings". Even if evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins limits the mathematical radicalism of the theory a little, saying that "the 'true' degree of kinship is perhaps less important in the evolution of altruism than the best estimate of the degree of kinship that an animal can receive," so are yet the limits of this theory are evident. For as convincing as this theory is thought and mathematically justified (and not least therefore is very attractive to economists), it is also obvious that it completely fails, for example, to explain the behavior of Wesley Autrey and Valentin Filipenko Offer.

Group selection

As the name suggests, group selection assumes that altruism is not limited to kinship, but rather that altruism is behavior that should benefit the entire group. Indeed, in contrast to great apes, early humans are distinguished by the fact that they not only helped relatives and friends, but also began to additionally help their (potential) community partners, regardless of how their relationship with them was in the past.

The idea of ​​group selection goes back to Charles Darwin. He saw the altruistic act as a behavior that can triumph over egoism in evolution:

A tribe, which comprises many members, who in a high degree possess the spirit of patriotism, loyalty, obedience, courage and sympathy and are therefore always ready to help one another and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, becomes over the most other tribes prevail, and this would be natural selection.

Charles Darewin

Science instead of myths

It is surprising and thought-provoking how much intellectual energy a number of thinkers have expended to refute or at least reduce the existence of altruism to the maximum. Just as if altruism were an unpleasant challenge for one's own image of man, which it is essential to get rid of argumentatively.For example, before Richard Dawkin's critical eyes, only blood donation had the characteristic of genuine altruism. He is a little embarrassed about this admission, because he writes in the introduction: "It may be that I am naive, but I feel tempted to view blood donations as a real case of pure, unselfish altruism."

Significantly, the supporters of this fundamental skepticism of altruism are not very interested in scientific research on this topic, which, as already seen above, refutes, for example, the explanatory approach of reciprocal altruism in its universal claim. Let us therefore now turn to the assessment of science in relation to the explanatory approaches presented.

"The dividing point between altruism and egoism lies (...) in the nature of our motivation", stated Matthieu Ricard, as mentioned above. A number of important experiments have used this very juncture to get to the bottom of the question of the extent to which altruism exists or is just a disguised egoism or a form of intended reciprocity.

While it is of central importance for an egoist that he himself carries out the good deed and accordingly reaps the laurels for it (be it inner bliss, be it social recognition), it is crucial for the altruist that the sufferer is helped. An experiment by Robert Hepach, Amrisha Vaish and Michael Tomasello with toddlers came to the conclusion that "two-year-old toddlers are just as happy when they help someone in an emergency as when they see that person is being helped by a third party - and in In both cases they are more satisfied than when the person is not helped at all ". Tomasello comments on this result as follows:

In an important sense, this means that an interest in reciprocity (either direct or indirect) cannot be the evolutionary basis for helping young children because one would have to do the act oneself to benefit from reciprocity so that one would be a helper can be identified and refunded later.

Michael Tomasello

Daniel Batson of the University of Kansas and his team performed numerous experiments with adults that confirm the above result. The true altruists (i.e. those who felt the greatest empathy for the victim) felt the same satisfaction about the end of the victim's suffering, regardless of whether they could actively prevent the suffering themselves or simply knew that the victim would not end up having any Received more power surges. Their satisfaction is based on the end of the suffering of the other - whether or not they themselves were the acting person, on the other hand, was not decisive. Batson summarizes his findings as follows:

The results of 25 research papers carried out over 15 years have confirmed the assumption that true altruism, based solely on the motivation to enable the welfare of the other, really does exist. (...) To date there is no plausible explanation for the results of these studies, which would justify them with selfishness.

Daniel Bateson

Facts instead of myths

The human being has the capacity for selfless altruism, at the center of which stands the person who is to be helped, and not one's own ego, which wants to bask in the light of a good deed. There is also strong evidence that humans naturally bring this quality with them.

So maybe it would be time to insist less on egotistical explanatory patterns for altruism and to align economy and society in this sense than to be interested in one's own, apparently astonishingly unknown nature. The nature of man.

Used literature:

Becker, Gary S .: Economic explanation of human behavior.
Dawkins, Richard: The Selfish Gene.
Klein, Stefan: The sense of giving. Why selflessness triumphs in evolution and why we get stuck with egoism.
Lecomte Jacques: La Bonté humaine. Altruism, empathy, générosité.
Nowak, Martin A. with Highfield, Roger: Cooperative Intelligence. The secret of success of evolution.
Precht, Richard David: The art of not being an egoist. Why we want to be good and what keeps us from doing it.
Ricard, Matthieu: All-encompassing charity. Altruism - the answer to the challenges of our time.
Singer, Tania: Compassion in Business. Tomasello Michael: A Natural History of Human Morality.

(Andreas Westphalen)

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