Re: There is No Altruism

From: Chris Capel (
Date: Wed Mar 23 2005 - 19:59:28 MST

> Chris Capel wrote:
> >
> > Altruism is a quality that some people attribute to others, the
[snip long definition]
> > 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.

On Wed, 23 Mar 2005 16:54:16 -0800, Eliezer S. Yudkowsky
<> wrote:
> 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 very instructive, thanks. I think, though, that there is some
confusion over the term "self-interest". I believe that the word, as
really used by many people, means "whatever is consistent with your
goal system." Since most people have goal systems centered around
themselves, the term "self-interest" was appropriate and natural, and
thus came into use even though it's not generally accurate--it fails
in the unusual case of altruists. (Perhaps this is the source
linguistic confusion that lead this whole messy question in the first
place.) So if you substitute "acting consistently with your own goals"
in my definition for self-interest, I think it makes sense, in light
of your response. In fact, I think it's basically what you were saying
in different words.

Actually, this use of "self-interest" can be a philosophical assertion
of sorts. People can and do believe that the only real, proximate
referents of human goals are parts of the human psyche. I think this
may be central in the mind of the original poster. But thus far in
this thread this particular question has been completely begged by
those attacking the idea of altruism. Perhaps the OP would like to
expand on why he believes this, if that is the case?

Let me have a go at my definition with the substitution performed.

Altruism is a quality that some people attribute to an unusual breed,
the altruist, to explain his actions. The altruist has an unusual goal
system, one which causes him to act in ways which, to non-altruists,
seem to be self-contradictory--to go against the goal system of the
altruist, which must, after all, *really* be self-centered deep down.
After all, that is true for most people. This is often peceived to be
such 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 the most worthy goals of any, by
most people. The illusion of this self-contradiction is only effective
because the outward-facing goal system of the altruist is so
unthinkable to the majority, conditioned as they are to be good little
mindless consumers with one-sided interpersonal relationships.

The label "altruist", to the altruist, doesn't mean that he acts
against his own self-interest, against his own goal system(!), in
other words, but is simply a word to describe the fact that his goals,
which he is still tautologically consistent to, are more
outward-facing than usual. He may describe himself as an altruist to
identify those notable aspects of his goal system, but for no other

Chris Capel

"What is it like to be a bat? What is it like to bat a bee? What is it
like to be a bee being batted? What is it like to be a batted bee?"
-- The Mind's I (Hofstadter, Dennet)

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