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Making virtue ethics less self-centered

February 27, 2014

Virtue ethics is often accused of being “self-centered” or egoistic in some way. The virtuous person is only doing what they are doing “because they want to”. It strikes me that one way of dealing with this is to consider the case of some trying to become virtuous.

One way of looking at this seems open to the egoistic objection. This is when we consider the student of virtue saying “I want to become generous” or “I want to become modest”. This certainly seems self-centered. I want to gain this virtue because it is good for me to gain this virtue and be seen as virtuous – my reason for becoming virtuous seems centered on me.

But what about if we look at the learning of virtues as a widening of ethical considerations? Instead of saying “I want to become generous”, I say “I want to be concerned for those who have less than me” and “I want to always bear in mind that I do not need all my wealth”. These phrases point the desire to be virtuous away from me and towards the other. So, can we characterise being virtuous in terms of ethical considerations?

We can. The virtuous person acts as she does because she is virtuous (ok, that sounds circular, but…). A generous person responds in the way they do because that is how a generous person responds to a particular ethical consideration. What makes the person generous is the fact that they consider the specific ethical consideration they are responding to worthy of consideration in the first place and that they place a particular weight on such considerations and the need to respond to them. We learn to become generous by realising that particular ethical considerations are worth paying particular attention to (someone is worse off than me, someone is my friend etc.) and becoming the sort of person who cares about these ethical considerations and is willing to respond to them appropriately. And so on for other virtues. We are virtuous when we have a broad range of ethical considerations and respond to them as part of who we are.

Socrates would have us believe that the only virtue is “good judgement”. This isn’t the case, but applying good judgement to our range of ethical considerations is what the virtuous person does. It is the range of our ethical considerations that determines what virtues we are capable of embodying when doing so.

Heidegger and Being

May 2, 2013

In the past I’ve often been very dismissive of continental philosophy. In comparison to analytic philosophy it has seemed less rigorous, more dismissive of knowledge claims and to be the source of the relativism and post-modernism that I dislike in much contemporary discourse. That dismissiveness is now changing. I’ve been trying to expose myself to a wider range of philosophy, including continental philosophy, and I think it actually has a lot of important things to tell us. Like any philosophical tradition it gets it wrong at times, but such is life.

The first thing that I now realise about continental philosophers is that even if I don’t agree with all (or any) of their conclusions often they are still talking about issues that are important to me, in ways that can start me thinking about deep and meaningful questions. Camus’ discussion of suicide for example, or Sartre’s “existence precedes essence”. And I’ve always been a fan of Kierkegaard for just this reason. Now I’ve discovered Heidegger, who for some reason has got me very interested in his take on “being”.

The question Heidegger asks is “what is ‘is’?” He thinks that there is something fundamentally flawed with the approach that philosophy had previously taken to the nature of being. When we ask “what is a chair?” or some such question, we miss an implicit assumption in the use of the word “is” – we assume we know what it means for something to be.

I have a copy of Being and Time that I have been reading about more than actually reading, but which I will be getting stuck into soon. In it, Heidegger lays out what he sees as the three modes of being.

Firstly we have the “present-at-hand”. This is the traditional “substance ontology” – there are objects and they have properties. The presence of the object is in terms of it’s properties: “This wooden stick is brown”, “this lump of metal is solid” etc. This is the sort of being that Heidegger takes to be at the heart of how Western philosophers have treated metaphysics. It is rooted in the use of the word “is” to denote presence in the present – “what is a hammer” means “what are the properties of that object that I call a hammer now” or something like that.

But, says Heidegger, there is a second kind of “being”, the “ready-at-hand”. Consider the wooden stick and the lump of metal. When they are combined in the form of a hammer we do not perceive them (at least when we are hammering and the hammer is functioning properly). We perceive the hammer as a hammer, we use it without being conscious of the present-at-hand nature that it may possess.

Finally there is the mode of being called “Dasein”. This seemingly untranslatable German term is the mode of being that we as humans have (that isn’t to say that non-humans couldn’t also have it, but we are the only beings we are aware of who do). It is that mode of being for which this being is itself an issue (to paraphrase Heidegger). We are entities that exist in such a way that we have a pre-reflective understanding of being, distinguishing us (or our mode of being) from the present- and ready-at-hand. However, we shouldn’t think of Dasein as a subject, something separate, an entity in its own right. Rather, Dasein emerges from our interactions with the world and our understanding of “being”. Obviously this is all rather complex, and I need to get stuck into Being and Time before I can actually claim to understand any of it.

So, after that cursory summary, an obvious question is why we should care if this is true or not. Listening to a series of lectures on Heidegger by Dreyfus he gave a striking example of how Heideggerian philosophy has impacted the field of artificial intelligence that I think shows why this sort of talk matters.

What Dreyfus calls “good old-fashioned AI” has as its basis the idea that artificial intelligence can be formed on a basis of facts about the world – what objects there are and what their properties are. According to this view the present-at-hand is all that is necessary for an intelligence to interact with. However, Dreyfus came along and pointed out that there is something missing.

Consider an AI system that has a description of a hammer. It knows what the object is made of, what its properties are. But there are two important things to note. The first is that there is a fact missing from the substance ontology, the fact that “this is a hammer”. How do we know that it is a hammer? It is something that we learn by using tools in a ready-at-hand way. We may be able to recognise equipment as a hammer, but only through having learnt that it is indeed a hammer by using one as a hammer. It is not simply present-at-hand.

Secondly, what are the relevant facts about the hammer that we have to know in order to use it? We should know for instance that the grooves on the handle are designed our us to grip better. Which means we need some facts about hands and how we hold things. But what is a hand? Do we need facts about the body? Where do we stop. The problem of deciding what facts are relevant is difficult to solve. It was proposed to have a list of facts and a list of which facts were relevant. But which of these “relevances” are themselves relevant?? And so on.

These are both points that come from a Heideggerian standpoint. His philosophy was used to demonstrate that good old-fashioned AI was a doomed project – and indeed it hasn’t gone anywhere. So Heidegger and his concept of “being” has something important to tell us and can help us think about interesting problems.

And one final reason to like Heidegger – Terrence Malick was a Heidegger scholar at MIT. He studied Heidegger and proposed a phd thesis on “worlds” in Heidegger, but was told he had to do real philosophy. So he quit philosophy, went to film school and made some awesome films that make use of Heideggerian concepts. The Thin Red Line is one of my favourite films, and it turns out that when I thought is was more philosophical than most films I wasn’t imagining it…

Why philosophy? Should I spend my time philosophising?

April 3, 2013

Why should you find philosophy interesting? Even if you do find it interesting, why should you spend your time reading and thinking about philosophical questions? Is it a waste of time? These are questions that have been plaguing me for a while now, and I think I’ve finally got some (at least partial) answers.

This all got started when I was thinking about a classical thought experiment relating to consequentialism. Basically the thought experiment asks you to consider a situation in which you are walking along wearing your brand new £1000 suit and you pass a pond and see a child in danger of drowning. You are the only person in a position to help. Do you jump in and ruin your suit or keep on walking?

Hopefully you dive in and save the child. If there are no other considerations than the ones given above this seems like the intuitive (and right) response. Peter Singer draws the conclusion that, if you should effectively lose £1000 to save a child you should also donate £1000 to a charity that will use this money to save a child. The act (lose £1000) and the consequence (save a child) is the same in both cases. This is a pure consequentialist conclusion, and Singer lives up to it by donating significant amounts of his own money to charity.

While it raises lots of interesting questions about the nature of consequentialist judgement, the question it raised for me was, if the conclusion holds for donating money, surely it also holds for “donating” time. If I am happy to lose 30 minutes saving the drowning child, shouldn’t I also spend 30 minutes on some good cause (say vaccine advocacy) that will also save a childs life?

It seems to me that this is a harder conclusion to ignore than the monetary conclusion. While donating money seems significant, it is usually others who do the hard work on the ground, using their time to put my money to work. It is at a distance from me and the remoteness can lead me to say that I shouldn’t donate the money. But with time it seems different. It is me putting in the work, I am the one who is making the difference. The consequentialist gain seems more personal and therefore harder to ignore.

The obvious question is now: instead of talking about a theoretical ethical problem, why aren’t I out there fixing an actual  problem? Why spend the majority of my spare time reading and thinking about philosophy when it doesn’t appear to have the equivalent impact on real-world problems that using the same time volunteering for charity, say, would have?

For the sake of full disclosure, I will admit that while this problem has been really bothering me, I didn’t set down all philosophy and concentrate on this one problem until I had made my mind up one way or the other; I enjoy philosophy and this is obviously why I spend my time on it. So I have in a way been seeking an ethical justification for an enjoyable pastime. That doesn’t mean that I don’t firmly believe in the conclusions I’ve drawn, just that it hasn’t been an entirely open-minded thought process.

As a starting point for answering this problem, I think that if philosophy was just comprised of the stereotyped “academic” style of philosophy in which only obscure questions with absolutely no application to real life were considered, then the objection would hold. I am not at the forefront of modern philosophy, creating new knowledge for the sake of knowledge – I am learning for the sake of learning and my time could be spent doing much more to help others. If what I do (not what philosophers in general do) makes no difference whatsoever, then yes, I should spend my time differently, at least by cutting down on the amount of philosophising I do and replacing it with some other form of activity.

But… philosophy isn’t like this. It is a common misconception that philosophy is a waste of time and inapplicable to real life – just this weekend a friend was disparaging philosophy with exactly this accusation. But this is fundamentally misguided. Imagine someone saying:

I think philosophy is a waste of time and has no bearing on real life. But, I do think we should consider how best to act towards others, what basis we have for our beliefs and what it is in our lives that gives us meaning.

That seems to me to be as incoherent as saying:

I don’t think feminism is useful. But we should be on the lookout for sexism in society and do our best to overcome it.

What is being dismissed is something fundamentally different from the natural meaning of the term. Feminism just is being on the lookout for sexism and trying to overcome it. Philosophy just is thinking about the good life, about ethics, about lifes problems. Our imaginary speaker may mean a particular subset of the discipline being dismissed (academic philosophy and radical feminism perhaps), but they certainly do not mean the discipline as a whole.

So the question becomes: is it the case that we should believe the statement:

I do think we should consider how best to act towards others, what basis we have for our beliefs and what it is in our lives that gives us meaning?

I believe the answer to this is yes, and on the basis that our beliefs affect our actions, that we should all acknowledge that philosophy can and does have an impact on our lives.

What effects does thinking about philosophy have? It can make us think about whether our beliefs are true, and hence whether our actions are based on true beliefs about the states of affairs in the world that our relevant. It can make us think about how we live our lives and the impact that our life choices make upon ourselves and others. It can help us mind the meaning in our life and face the difficulties that get thrown at us along the way to the end of life. It can show us what matters and what doesn’t. It can give us the ability to see things from the point of view of the other and hopefully make more informed ethical choices. Surely these are all good things?

Importantly, philosophy provides a framework around which to discuss these things with others. This is philosophy at its most important, an argument amongst peers about philosophical issues through which we can come to have our cherished beliefs challenged and come to a new understanding that we are not capable of alone, and one that furthers all those causes listed in the previous paragraph.

My conclusion at this point is that philosophy can and does have a positive impact both for myself and others (as well as being fun). But now we run headlong into the wall that I always find myself up against when dealing with consequentialism. How do I measure different “goods”? Is the good of spending my time doing charitable work worth more than the good of my spending the same time arguing about ethics with friends? From a consequentialist perspective, how would I measure these two goods in a way that lets me compare them? I don’t think there’s a good answer, and the consequentialist argument finds itself at a standstill.

The differences between the time and money arguments now become important. One is that in the money argument we faced comparable acts and outcomes: lose £1000, save a child. In the time argument this is not the case. Spend time differently, get a different positive outcome. This is an important difference and one that I have not been able to get beyond.

At the end of the day, perhaps we need to be more pragmatic. There are people who are much better able to spend their time directly helping others. Everyone is different, with varying talents and interests. I love philosophy and seem to be good at arguing about it. Hopefully now and in the future I will have a positive impact on the lives of others, even if it is very indirect. If I have persuaded one person that humanism is a better philosophical outlook than Christianity then I count my intellectual life a success, even if it has taken years for an initial seed to grow large enough to displace the religious ethic. That thought keeps me reading and arguing, and hopefully will for a long time to come.

Religious Experience and Existential Angst

February 23, 2013

I’ve been thinking about existentialism and it’s relationship with religious experience. While it may not be immediately obvious, I think there is a connection between the basis for existentialism and religious experiences that can tell us something about the epistemic status of those experiences.

Existentialism starts from the position of existential angst. This is the dread or despair that comes with a realisation that life is ultimately meaningless. This can take a variety of forms:

  1. Personal – One day I am going to die and that renders my goals and values meaningless.
  2. Impersonal – The world is essentially unknowable and impersonal and my relationship with the world therefore has no meaning.
  3. Temporal – The universe is billions of years old and will continue for billions of years after humans are gone, are star has exploded, our world evaporated. Human values are therefore a transitory blip on the cosmic clock and can have no ultimate meaning.
  4. Spatial – The universe is so big compared to the fraction of the surface of a small ball of rock that we live on, and so inhospitable to all forms of life that we are familiar with, that human values become so small and insignificant that they can have no ultimate meaning.

Of course, you are welcome to combine these cheerful thoughts in any way that you see fit.

How does this relate to religious experience? One obvious property of religion is that it tells us that life does have meaning, and in particular that human values are part of that meaning. It seeks to reject one or more of the bases for existential angst.

One of the things that has stuck in my mind since first learning about the philosophical tradition surrounding religious experience is how they sounds so familiar to me. Religious experience, according to William James, is characterised by four properties:

  1. Transient – not a permanent mode of experience, and the subject returns to some state of “normality”.
  2. Ineffable – impossible to describe in words.
  3. Noetic – the experience gives us knowledge of something otherwise inaccessible to humans.
  4. Passive – it isn’t possible for the subject to control the experience.

I think there is another overarching principle that unites these four properties into a “religious” experience: the experience is mystical in nature. It collapses the distinction between the subject that the “other” is some sense. The subject feels that they have become “one” with the universe. For the religious believer, or someone brought up in a cultural context in which this mystical aspect interpreted within a particular theological framework, these experiences are labelled as experiences of a god or gods, or some other underlying metaphysical framework.

Minus this theological baggage, I have had many experiences that fulfil this definition. When I’m sailing I occasionally find myself in a state that I can only describe as a “religious” experience (believers will contend that it isn’t religious as I don’t attribute the experience to a god, but other than that label I haven’t heard a definition that doesn’t feel like a natural fit to my experiences). These are, by definition, impossible to fully describe, but thinking about existentialism has helped me start to put words to what I experience.

The religious experience erases existential angst, even if only temporarily. I find myself alone at sea, at night, staring at the moonlit sea. All that matters is being me, here and now. Spatial and temporal existential angst can have no meaning in such a setting. There is no universe, apart from the sea around me. There is no past, no future, there is only the present moment. I know everything that it is important to know, my meaning is being here having this experience. Existence becomes intensely personal….

Then after a moment that feels much longer I lose the feeling and return to “normality”. And realise that I will never be able to describe accurately what I felt, just do my best to put myself in situations where I can recreate the feeling.

The point of this is that I know just how powerful religious experience is, and I attribute that power to the fact that existential angst disappears. I think we all have to acknowledge the power of the different forms of dread that cause this angst, and at one point or another I’m sure everyone has paused to consider the meaningless of the human condition. Religious experience gives us reason to dismiss these deep concerns when we are forced to temporarily believe that we have meaning and enduring value.If we have a background of theological tradition to bring to the experience it can provide the framework to fix a long-term belief that this meaning and value exists externally to the “normality” we routinely experience. While I know that my experience was transitory and not an accurate reflect of a “higher” reality, the religious believer comes to see it as access to a truth.

Does this work? Surely the very nature of religious experience precludes it from allowing us to discern any meaning for humanity at large? A religious experience tells me that I have a meaning, but the collapse of spatial, temporal and personal causes for existential angst to me here now and the fact that this overrides the impersonal cause for existential angst tells me something else: this meaning is completely unrelated to others and the human project at large. Once the experience is over I have no obvious way of extending the temporary feeling of meaning in my life to the lifes of others without ungrounded presuppositions of a theological nature.

To summarise an overly long post – religious experience negates the causes of existential angst temporarily and for an individual only. I see no reason to extend this negation to others or humanity at large given that they have no way of knowing or experiencing what I have experienced.

The Subjection of Women

February 10, 2013

Following my last post, another issue that came up that was interesting was the question of a sort of relativism: if someone is content with their situation, who are we to judge that it is bad?

In a little more detail, the problem is as follows. Say that someone is born into the bottom of the caste system in India. We may judge that the caste system is a bad thing, as it systemises discrimination, leads to extreme problems relating to things like marriage outside the caste, and generally contributes to limiting the well-being of individuals via the accident of birth. The counterargument is that many people are content with their lot – they are born into the caste system, do not consider it a bad thing and help to perpetuate it. If we judge it to be a bad thing we are either being paternalistic or just plain wrong. It can’t be bad as we can point to someone who is affected and is content (I will call this person Bob).

The argument certainly seems attractive at first glance. We don’t want to say that there is only one way to live “the good life”. Indeed, the good life would seem less attractive if everyone we encountered was interested in exactly the same things as us. So, maybe the caste system is just another form of the good life, which Bob exemplifies.

The answer to this is as follows. While there are different forms of the good life, it is not the case that Bob’s contentment means that (s)he is living one of them. Indeed, Bob may be part of a system that is helping to perpetuate the means by which Bob is being held back from the good life.

This was pointed out by John Stuart Mill in 1869 in The Subjection of Women. In a utilitarian argument, Mill argues for equality of the sexes. He notes a possible counterargument of the form above:

But, it will be said, the rule of men over women differs from all these others in not being a rule a rule of force: it is accepted voluntarily; women make no complaint, and are consenting parties to it.

Western readers cannot fail to agree with the fact that for many (but not all) women, the system of inequality was accepted voluntarily. As Mill goes on to point out:

All men, except the most brutish, desire to have, in the woman most nearly connected with them, not a forced slave but a willing one, not a slave merely, but a favourite. They have therefore put everything in practice to enslave their minds. The masters of all other slaves rely, for maintaining obedience, on fear; either fear of themselves, or religious fears. The masters of women wanted more than simple obedience, and they turned the whole force of education to effect their purpose. All women are brought up from the very earliest years in the belief that their ideal of character is the very opposite to that of men; not self will, and government by self-control, but submission, and yielding to the control of other. All the moralities tell them that it is the duty of women, and all the current sentimentalities that it is their nature, to live for others; to make complete abnegation of themselves, and to have no life but in their affections.

Society made it such that women came to belief that there position in society was that that made men superior. They became “willing slaves”. This does not mean that their situation is good! If we accept that women should not have been treated thus, surely we should accept the analogous argument relating to the caste system?

Another point worth noting relating to their lot is this:

a great number of women do not accept it. Ever since there have been women able to make their sentiments known by their writings (the only mode of publicity which society permits to them), an increasing number of them have recorded protests against their present social condition

Women had been arguing vocally for some time in favour of improving their conditions. We could note Mary Wollstonecraft arguing for the education of women 100 years before Mill wrote. Mill was continuing this tradition, and pushing it further. While Wollstonecraft argued that women should be educated to make them better at their “womanly” roles at home (with some nods towards further emancipation), Mill argues that they should be educated to give them the chance to be mens equals in life, not just at their “complementary” roles to those of men. We can find similar examples of arguments against the caste system. Not everyone is content.

These are just two lines of argument relating to the idea that contentment with life implies we shouldn’t criticise the conditions of that life.There are also arguments about rights and about different forms of the concept of equality. But those would fill another couple of posts, so I’ll leave them for now!

Logical Preconceptions

February 3, 2013

Some interesting conversations recently have brought up some issues that are worth thinking about in detail. The first is this: what preconceptions do we bring to an argument, either in discussions with others or when engaging with a book/article?

The context in which I started thinking about this was an argument over atheism. I was told that I only sought out arguments that agreed with my preconceptions, in this case that there is no god or gods. This is a serious accusation, and the closed-mindedness that it implies is something that many religious communities are accused of on a regular basis.

Luckily the book I had in my hand at the time was a prime example of why this doesn’t apply – it was arguing for religious agnosticism, a position that I find very unsatisfying. That said, the book was giving me food for thought and making me reassess the grounds on which my own beliefs are formed. There’s also the fact I spent a term reading a lot of theology – not exactly a close-minded reading list for me.

Having said all that, I wanted to add what preconceptions I do bring to arguments, or at least those preconceptions I’m conscious of. At the time, I could only think of a short list:

  1. An argument must be logical; and
  2. Any proposition must be backed up by evidence, which I take to mean the broad claim that there must be sufficient reasons to think that the proposition is true (this could be physical evidence, scientific consensus, a decent argument, and probably a number of other evidences).

This seems like a decent list to me. There are some minimal requirements for an argument to precede, and I think this list embodies them. Other ideas I take into an argument, such as the idea that there are no gods, are not fixed premises, but propositions which are very secure given my background beliefs and as such have a higher burden of proof for someone wishing to persuade me of their falsity. The important difference between my fixed preconceptions and these beliefs is that without the preconceptions I do not think rational discourse is possible.

All of which leads me to a question I was asked in an argument recently: what do I mean that at argument must be logical? A gut reaction to this question is to reject it – we all know what it means to make a logical argument, and to call this into question is to open up our discourse to a form of relativism that I don’t really want to imagine, with people deploying different “logics” when needs must.

But on reflection there are some interesting thoughts to have here. In what follows I draw on a Rationally Speaking podcast that I happened to have listened to recently.

A logical argument is, to my mind, an argument that we can express in the form of a valid deductive argument, with a conclusion following from a set of premises. The deductive argument may be modified slightly to proportion the probability of the conclusion according to the probability of one or more premises being true, but the general form remains.

An important tool in my armoury of “logical” arguments would be that a proposition p cannot be true at the same time as it’s negation, ¬p. We cannot contradict ourselves. This seems clear… but it isn’t necessarily the case that a logical system requires this. There is a view in logic called dialetheism, which says that it is possible for p and ¬p to be true at the same time.

Consider the liars paradox, the sentence “this statement is false”. If the statement is true then it is false. If it is false then it is true. Intuitively the response to this statement is to say that it is nonsense – the contradiction that is implicit in it renders in meaningless. Meaningless could be seen here to be in opposition to notions of truth – a statement is true, fales or meaningless. Another response is dialetheism. We say that the liars paradox is both true and false. There are a number of other responses, which I won’t go into here…

Having said this we have a problem. In classical logic it is a well-known fact that if we are given two propositions p and ¬p we can use them to prove any arbitrary statement q. q could be the statement 1+1=3, which is provable based on the premises “the sun is made of cheese” and “the sun is not made of cheese”. The truth of any statement, no matter how obviously false, can be established based on a paradox. This is a problem known as explosion – everything, including contradictions, becomes true. This leads to the problem that, while the dialetheist might want a particular p and ¬p to both be true, they don’t want every contradiction to be true – they want to control the explosion of truth.

To deal with this problem we would need a paraconsistent logic. This is a logic system that in some way says that contradictions don’t explode. For example. we could have a requirement of relevance of premises to the conclusion. As the substance making up the sun is not relevant to the nature of mathematics, the example given above would not hold.

What all this calls into questions is the idea that an argument must be logical in an intuitive way – there are forms of logic in which contradiction is accepted, and a carefree bandying around of such technical terms as used above calls into question the very foundation on which our discourse is built.

The solution to this problem now seems obvious – we should avoid these technical terms. The answer to the question “what do you mean by logic” is this: informal logic. Informal logic analyses how we argue in “natural language”. It doesn’t deploy technical concepts from logic except to clarify the logic that we actually use when arguing in everyday settings. If we rely on informal logic we have the full classification of logic fallacies to deploy when encountering bad arguments and, importantly, the principle of non-contradiction!

This may seems circular. An argument is logical if it is logical. But this is not the case. The argument is that and argument is logical if it follows a certain set of rules,those laid out in informal logic. We are not allowed to use logical fallacies in an argument for the reason that classical logic, as it applies to the language in which we argue, says that they do not imply the truth of a conclusion given the premises.

There are important settings for formal logical systems, but our everyday discourse and argument is not one of them. We should deny people the ability to muddy the waters with the dirt of relativism. A statement about god, about homeopathy or about history cannot be both true and false. There are standards of conversation, and that is one of them.

Altruism and morality

January 24, 2013

I’m reading Philip Kitcher’s The Ethical Project. He starts off by defining altruism, which brought to mind a problem with the use of altruism (or, similarly, sympathy) as a basis for an ethical system. If this will be a problem confronted by Kitcher I don’t know, but here is the objection.

Kitcher defines three types of altruism:

  1. Biological altruism is behaviour that is detrimental to ourselves but that helps ensure the spread of my genes. Consider rescuing a sibling from drowning but yourself drowning in the process. You share genes with your sibling and as such have helped ensure their survival.
  2. Behavioural altruism is behaviour that is detrimental to our immediate desires but that helps fulfil the desires of others (as we perceive them). This may or may not be for the sake of the other; we may behave altruistically in the belief that it will be reciprocated at some future point in time, hence the behaviour is not other-directed.
  3. Finally, psychological altruism is defined as behaviour that is different from it would be were the other involved (and their desires) not present, that is aligned with their desires in some way, that is caused by consideration of their desires and that is not motivated by self-directed concerns. Psychological altruism is what we usually think of when we discuss true altruism.

Psychological altruism intuitively seems like a good thing. We would hold someone who acts on the basis of psychological altruism as morally praiseworthy. It may be tempting therefore to attempt to formulate an ethical system around this altruism. Perhaps we could say that psychological altruism is necessary for moral action. This is similar to the claims made by Mercer, Darwall and indeed George Eliot in relation to sympathy.

Here’s the problem as I see it. In an ethical system we want to be able to say whether particular actions are good or bad. This can be in relation to our own actions or the actions of others. For the former, we could imagine asking ourselves what the altruistic thing to do is. So far so good. However, in the latter case, how do we know that someone is acting with psychological altruism? The actions performed by the psychological altruist could be identical to those of the behavioural altruist.

What distinguishes psychological from behavioural altruism is the final condition that action is not motivated by self-directed concerns. Without perfect knowledge of the motivations of an agent we can never know if this is the case. We know what our own motivations are (well, this could be debated, but for the sake of argument let’s assume it’s true), but we can only form beliefs, impressions, ideas about what the motivations of another may be. We can only form tentative conclusions about the type of altruism exhibited by another.

Where this leaves us is only being able to say “their action was probably good” or something similar. Is this really what we want from an ethical system? It’s a similar objection to that made to theories of virtue ethics. While consequentialist and deontological theories allow an objective assessment to be made of an action, virtue ethics is vague and hand-wavey. We want an ethical theory to give us concrete results, and an ethics motivated by altruism doesn’t seem to be able to supply it. It can’t differentiate between actions performed for self-directed reasons and those performed for other-directed reasons except in theory, and hence seems to fail.


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