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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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