Introduction: The biology of psychological altruism.


One of the longest running philosophical debates about the humanmind is the debate about psychological altruism: are people ever driven by purely selfless goals or are they always moved to action, in some “ultimate” way, by their selfish interests? Over two millennia ago, the Chinese philosophers Mencius and Xunzi wrestled over this question; several hundred years ago, the English philosophers Thomas Hobbes and Joseph Butler fought over the same topic. Even with tools of contemporary psychology and philosophy, this debate admits of no easy resolution (Stich, Doris, & Roedder, 2010). We can state the problem of altruism somewhat more rigorously by appealing to two distinctions. The first is the distinction between ultimate and instrumental desires. Some of my desires are instrumental, in the sense that I possess that desire only because I believe that satisfying it will lead to the satisfaction of some other desire. My desire to earn a paycheck is instrumental if the only reason I want a paycheck is because I want to make my rent this month. Some desires, however, are non-instrumental, or “ultimate.” The second distinction is between self-regarding and other-regarding desires. This is a distinction regarding the content of one’s desires. Some of my desires are about my own welfare, and some of my desires are about the welfare of others. Using these distinctions, we can phrase the problem of altruism in the following way: do people ever have ultimate, otherregarding desires? Or are all of our ultimate desires selfregarding? One might think that there is little new to be said on this wellworn debate. However, we think that this would be a grave error. Evolutionary biologists now have the conceptual tools to analyze several types of helping behaviors and to think about their evolutionary roots. More specifically in our opinion, Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson (1998) have brought about a significant advance in the altruism debate by relying on evolutionary considerations. They argued that altruists would be more reliable at raising children (and engaging in other kinds of adaptive helping

DOI: 10.1016/j.shpsc.2015.11.007

Cite this paper

@article{Garson2016IntroductionTB, title={Introduction: The biology of psychological altruism.}, author={Justin Garson and Armin W. Schulz}, journal={Studies in history and philosophy of biological and biomedical sciences}, year={2016}, volume={56}, pages={1-2} }