Do we have altruistic intentions?Petr Kratochvil

Initially, it seems pretty obvious to most of us that, at Christmas, we buy presents for the people that mean most to us.  We could spend the same money on ourselves, rather than spending it on gifts for those we care about. Last year it was predicted that the average amount a family spent on Christmas was about £800. The amount therefore that people would save over their lifetimes if they were not to buy presents, would be significant. When we buy these presents, it feels quite intuitive that we are doing so to benefit others.

It is uncontroversial that people can sometimes act altruistically. An altruistic act is an act that benefits others, giving presents at Christmas being a good example. People can, however, act in an altruistic manner without having altruistic intentions - they could have an ulterior motive.  A more controversial question is whether humans could ever have altruistic intentions, which is what people usually refer to when they ask if humans are ever altruistic. Why do humans ever give to each other? When someone gives to another human, is it always ultimately motivated by self-interest?

A familiar scene for mostWikipedia

At first, it might seem very obvious that we can have altruistic intentions. However, I could buy loads of thoughtful and meaningful presents for loved ones at Christmas, but still not be altruistic – even if I do so because I want them to be happy. To be truly altruistic, the end goal needs to concern the well-being of others. Egoists claim that this isn’t possible - everyone’s intentions are ultimately self-interested. I might want to buy my friend a present because it makes them happy, but I could have ulterior motives for wishing for my friend’s happiness. For example, I might want my friends to be happy with their presents so that they would think of me as a good friend which would increase my popularity, or to avoid guilt that I would feel if they were unhappy if I didn’t get them a gift. My end goal is egoistic –  I have an ulterior motive to benefit myself. Alternatively, altruists claim that some people’s intentions are, at times, ultimately focused on benefiting others. An altruistic motivation would be ‘I want to give my friend a present because it will make them happy’, and there is no motive beyond that.

The question has traditionally been answered by philosophy, but, recently, evolutionary theory has been utilised. Insights from evolutionary biology are used to look at whether altruistic or egoistic behaviour would be advantageous, and are then used to draw conclusions about what motivations would be most adaptive.

"People can, however, act in an altruistic manner without having altruistic intentions - they could have an ulterior motive. "

Evolutionary theory has often favoured egoism – it was originally thought that natural selection seemed to favour selfish behaviour. At first, it was thought that it would be more adaptive to promote our own genes. In the present day, the difference has less impact on survival. In trivial situations such as Christmas, an altruist merely would waste resources giving gifts that would not be reciprocated by egoists, and egoists would benefit by receiving gifts with none of the cost. In the environment of our ancestors, this situation would be a lot more drastic – it would be quite literally a ‘life or death’ situation. An altruist would sometimes help others rather than benefit themselves, which would decrease their own chance of survival. Alternatively, an egoist could always benefit themselves whilst also scrounging off the charity of altruists. Egoists would be more likely to survive to pass on their egoist genes, and egoism (as a behaviour) would be propagated by natural selection. Often, it is then inferred that egoistic behaviour would be more reliably produced by egoistic motivations; so it is likely that natural selection would act based on selfish motives.

However, in Unto Others, Sober and Wilson employ insights from evolutionary biology to argue against hedonism; the most convincing form that self-interested motivations would come in. A hedonist would want to seek pleasure and avoid pain, with self benefit arising from maximising pleasure and minimising pain. This would involve us wanting to buy presents for our own pleasure, or to avoid pain of guilt if we do not buy a present for those we feel we should.

Sober and Wilson argue that egoism is unlikely to have been favoured evolutionarily. If we consider a group theory of selection, altruistic behaviour would be favoured. Group selection is the idea that natural selection sometimes acts on whole groups of organisms, and it would favour altruistic groups that co-operate and nurture children over egoist groups who fight each other and neglect children. The more successful, altruistic group would have a higher number of altruistic genes, leading to the evolution of altruistic traits that are group-advantageous.

On its own, altruistic behaviour tells us little about motivations, but Sober and Wilson argue that this behaviour would be more reliably produced if we have an altruistic intention. Sober and Wilson argue that egoism, specifically hedonism, needs some very complex processes to reliably produce altruistic behaviour. In the example of present giving, an inherently altruistic act, the correct emotions must be present in order for it to be altruistically motivated. We must feel a sufficient amount of pleasure when we help people, or pain when we do not, to act in an altruistic manner. For example, to nurture children, we would have to have the right amount of guilt to produce enough pain that we want to help our offspring, rather than help ourselves. This link would be less likely to fail if we were to be altruistic, which would be directly linked to altruistic behaviour, so an altruistic motivation is more likely to produce an advantageous altruistic behaviour. Given how important altruistic behaviour is, evolution would likely favour any motivations that are reliable in producing this response. If the behaviour was not reliably produced by selfish motivations, those who are egoist would die out and we would be left with altruistic genes. As it is more adaptive to act altruistically, it is more adaptive to have a motivation that more reliably produces this action.

Returning to Christmas, the season of giving, we conclude perhaps fortunately that from the standpoint of evolutionary biology, it seems possible that Christmas is also a season of altruism. So, enjoy your Christmas dinners and new pairs of socks safe in the knowledge that you are at least evolved enough not to have to add ethical dilemmas to the festive mix