Re: There is No Altruism

From: Eliezer S. Yudkowsky (
Date: Wed Mar 23 2005 - 17:54:16 MST

Chris Capel wrote:
> Hmm. Well, how are we defining altruism here? If you say that altruism
> is acting against your own self-interest to benefit others, then you
> have a point. That definition breaks down under close scrutiny. So
> let's replace it with a more robust definition:
> Altruism is a quality that some people attribute to others, the
> altruists, to explain their actions. The others, which we may call
> altruists, have unusual value systems which cause them to act in ways
> which, to non-altruists, seem to go against the self-interest of the
> altruist. This is often because the actions of the altruist benefit
> others at the expense of some sort of societal success indicator, such
> as money, popularity, or free time, which are held to be more valuable
> by most people than the group which is benefitting from the altruist's
> actions. But the altruist is still acting purely in his own
> self-interest, from a behavioral point of view. The altruist himself
> my agree with this assessment, or he may agree with other people. In
> either case, the altruist holds two different value systems in mind.
> He describes himself to the world using the world's value system, but
> acts using his own value system. If he is especially perceptive, he
> also describes himself using the value system he acts by. If so, the
> label "altruist", to him, doesn't mean that he acts against his own
> self-interest, but is simply a word to describe his peculiar value
> system, which he is still consistent to. He may describe himself as an
> altruist to identify those notable aspects of his value system, and
> for no other reason.
> Does anyone have a problem with this definition? I think it resolves
> any difficulties.

Chris, I think that the essential confusion here rests on a failure to
distinguish the possession of a want from the reference of a want. My
goal system is made up of wants - that's who I am, in that facet of me
that is my goal system. The "wants" may *refer to* internal quantities
like happiness, or external quantities like Jane having a lollipop. If
the referent of my want is a nice thing that happens to me, like
happiness, we usually distinguish those kinds of wants as
"self-interested", while if the referent of my want is a nice thing that
happens to Jane, we call that kind of want "altruistic".

But to chide me as being "self-interested" for implementing my wants is
confused. It mixes up the map and the territory. My goal system is
made out of wants, and the difference between selfishness and altruism
lies in the referents of those wants. It's like saying that I am
"neuron-interested" because my goal system is implemented by a brain or
"atom-interested" because my brain is made of atoms. Clearly, since all
this wanting and goal-directed behavior takes place inside a brain, it
isn't really about Jane getting a lollipop - it's about atoms. These
notions of "self-interest" and "altruism" are equally incoherent;
whatever you do, it *really* happens "because of" atoms.

That's about how much sense I hear in saying that all goals have
self-interested *referents*, just because, no matter what I achieve, it
happens "because of" my goals. Of course. What else should it happen
because of? But it doesn't follow that my goals' referents, the things
I'm trying to achieve, are internal events.

Eliezer S. Yudkowsky                
Research Fellow, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence

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