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Does altruism exist? Science and philosophy weigh in
We often praise selfless action, but it is even possible?
We often look up to selfless individuals as paragons of virtue. We remember those who saved others during the Holocaust at great personal risk as saints; we look in awe at those who turn down potential billions on medical patents in favor of keeping the cost of vaccines low; we praise those who give their lives for others as heroes.
Given how we typically view altruistic people favorably it is easy to understand why many ethical systems and religions would give altruism, the concern for the well-being of others, a place of honor. Jesus Christ preached on altruism frequently, Kant praised it, and we often think of the people who spit on it as monsters. Which makes the debate over if altruism even exists shocking.
What is psychological egoism?
Every philosophy 101 professor has heard the argument before:
- We act as we are motivated to by our desires.
- When we act on our desires, we are seeking the feeling of satisfaction that comes from fulfilling them.
- Since feeling satisfied benefits us, all actions have some level of self-interest to them.
If this argument is correct, then when I do something altruistic, saving a drowning child, for example, I am at least partially doing it because I need to fulfill my desire. Because of this, I cannot claim to have been entirely altruistic, if I can say I was altruistic at all!
This position is called psychological egoism and can also be argued for empirically. We can all think of a case where somebody was genuinely motivated by self-interest but tried to write their actions off as being for the greater good. Proponents of psychological egoism often argue that this is true for everybody; that we all act in our self-interest all the time and only rationalize our actions later.
Is altruism impossible?
There are two fundamental objections to this argument. The first is that it works a little too well; it is impossible to disprove it empirically.
Imagine for a moment that you are trying to come up with an example of a genuinely altruistic action for a person who subscribes to this idea; they can always devise a secret motive for anybody which make them at least somewhat egotistical. If you say that a person helped a drowning pig out of real concern for the animal, the egoist could say they only did it to soothe their conscience.
If you suggest Jonas Salk really did care about others when he refused to profit off the polio vaccine, the egoist can propose that he only wanted to look good. Since a person just trying to look good by taking a seemingly altruistic action wouldn’t admit it, it is impossible to disprove that they have this egotistical motivation.
However, ever since Karl Popper wrote his philosophy of science, falsifiability has been held up as a vital part of any theory. Anything which cannot be proven false is now considered unscientific and problematic. Such a view also doesn’t really tell us very much, if it just restates how everybody thinks already. But what about the logic? It seems pretty solid.
Beware: Thin logic ahead
The logic also isn’t quite as sound as it looks. It relies on a particular conception of desire and satisfaction. It is most frequently compared with how we experience the desire to eat.
We desire to eat because of how we feel. We then eat and feel satisfaction at having fulfilled our desire. We do not eat for the sake of eating in this case, but rather to feel satisfaction afterward.
However, some desires don’t function this way. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy gives an excellent example of one:
Suppose, for example, that I want my young children to be prosperous as adults long after I have died, and I take steps that increase to some small degree their chances of achieving that distant goal. What my desire is for is their prosperity far into the future, not my current or future feeling of satisfaction. I don’t know and cannot know whether the steps that I take will actually bring about the goal I seek; what I do know is that I will not be alive when they are adults, and so even if they are prosperous, that will give me no pleasure. (Since, by hypothesis I can only hope, and do not feel confident, that the provisions I make for them will actually produce the good results I seek for them, I get little current satisfaction from my act.) It would make no sense, therefore, to suggest that I do not want them to be prosperous for their sake, but only as a means to the achievement of some goal of my own.
This example shows us that the idea of desire working like hunger is not always true, which derails the argument. From a logical standpoint, psychological egoism is refutable. Most philosophers hold that altruism is possible as there doesn’t seem to be a reason why we can’t act altruistically, even if we don’t.
What does science have to say?
Science isn’t of much help, as various studies and books that try to understand our mental processes during acts of giving show mixed results that can be interpreted any number of ways.
A study that used MRI machines to map the responses of brains to altruistic behavior found that several parts of our brain are involved in making altruistic decisions. Altruistic giving lights up the part of our brains associated with emotional processing, mentalizing and perspective taking, self/other discernment, and our reward centers.
The authors suggest that “Together, activation in these regions is likely if individuals are actively engaged in thinking about not only the emotions and feelings of others but also about their own thoughts, feelings, and desired outcomes.”
These findings suggest that our brains get some reward for altruistic behavior, even if the motivation was selfless. However, the authors warn that “Future research is required to characterize the ecological validity of altruistic behavioral research on the way people actually live their lives.”
Richard Dawkins famously suggested that we have a “selfish gene.” This doesn’t mean that our genetic codes have wills they act on, or that we are hardwired for egotism either. Instead, he means that evolution favors genes that create consequences favoring their own survival. He uses this as a way to explain the existence of both egotistical and altruistic action since both motivations can be of use to survival.
This does suggest, however, that all altruistic action is for the benefit of our DNA. This might mean true altruism doesn’t exist at a fundamental level. However, the people who work for the benefit of others typically don't consider the survival of their genome when they act.
On the side of true altruism being real, we have professor C. Daniel Batson. He summarized a lifetime of experiments on altruistic behavior in his book Altruism in Humans. His conclusion is true altruism is possible, and that empathy is a primary motivator for these actions. He does, however, acknowledge that many factors are at play and that lab experiments always have shortcomings.
While the question of if we can act out of pure altruistic concern for others remains unsettled, our admiration for those who seem to remains well established. It may be some time before we know for sure if anybody can truly be altruistic. In the meanwhile, it can’t hurt to presume it’s real.
A Harvard professor's study discovers the worst year to be alive.
- Harvard professor Michael McCormick argues the worst year to be alive was 536 AD.
- The year was terrible due to cataclysmic eruptions that blocked out the sun and the spread of the plague.
- 536 ushered in the coldest decade in thousands of years and started a century of economic devastation.
The past year has been nothing but the worst in the lives of many people around the globe. A rampaging pandemic, dangerous political instability, weather catastrophes, and a profound change in lifestyle that most have never experienced or imagined.
But was it the worst year ever?
Nope. Not even close. In the eyes of the historian and archaeologist Michael McCormick, the absolute "worst year to be alive" was 536.
Why was 536 so bad? You could certainly argue that 1918, the last year of World War I when the Spanish Flu killed up to 100 million people around the world, was a terrible year by all accounts. 1349 could also be considered on this morbid list as the year when the Black Death wiped out half of Europe, with up to 20 million dead from the plague. Most of the years of World War II could probably lay claim to the "worst year" title as well. But 536 was in a category of its own, argues the historian.
It all began with an eruption...
According to McCormick, Professor of Medieval History at Harvard University, 536 was the precursor year to one of the worst periods of human history. It featured a volcanic eruption early in the year that took place in Iceland, as established by a study of a Swiss glacier carried out by McCormick and the glaciologist Paul Mayewski from the Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine (UM) in Orono.
The ash spewed out by the volcano likely led to a fog that brought an 18-month-long stretch of daytime darkness across Europe, the Middle East, and portions of Asia. As wrote the Byzantine historian Procopius, "For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year." He also recounted that it looked like the sun was always in eclipse.
Cassiodorus, a Roman politician of that time, wrote that the sun had a "bluish" color, the moon had no luster, and "seasons seem to be all jumbled up together." What's even creepier, he described, "We marvel to see no shadows of our bodies at noon."
...that led to famine...
The dark days also brought a period of coldness, with summer temperatures falling by 1.5° C. to 2.5° C. This started the coldest decade in the past 2300 years, reports Science, leading to the devastation of crops and worldwide hunger.
...and the fall of an empire
In 541, the bubonic plague added considerably to the world's misery. Spreading from the Roman port of Pelusium in Egypt, the so-called Plague of Justinian caused the deaths of up to one half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire. This, in turn, sped up its eventual collapse, writes McCormick.
Between the environmental cataclysms, with massive volcanic eruptions also in 540 and 547, and the devastation brought on by the plague, Europe was in for an economic downturn for nearly all of the next century, until 640 when silver mining gave it a boost.
Was that the worst time in history?
Of course, the absolute worst time in history depends on who you were and where you lived.
Native Americans can easily point to 1520, when smallpox, brought over by the Spanish, killed millions of indigenous people. By 1600, up to 90 percent of the population of the Americas (about 55 million people) was wiped out by various European pathogens.
Like all things, the grisly title of "worst year ever" comes down to historical perspective.
A machine learning system lets visitors at a Kandinsky exhibition hear the artwork.
Have you ever heard colors?
As part of a new exhibition, the worlds of culture and technology collide, bringing sound to the colors of abstract art pioneer Wassily Kandinsky.
Kandinsky had synesthesia, where looking at colors and shapes causes some with the condition to hear associated sounds. With the help of machine learning, virtual visitors to the Sounds Like Kandinsky exhibition, a partnership project by Centre Pompidou in Paris and Google Arts & Culture, can have an aural experience of his art.
An eye for music
Kandinsky's synesthesia is thought to have heavily influenced his painting. Seeing yellow summoned up trumpets, evoking emotions like cheekiness; reds produced violins portraying restlessness; while organs representing heavenliness he associated with blues, according to the exhibition notes.
Virtual visitors are invited to take part in an experiment called Play a Kandinsky, which allows them to see and hear the world through the artist's eyes.
Kandinsky's synesthesia is thought to have heavily influenced his 1925 painting Yellow, Red, Blue.Image: Guillaume Piolle/Wikimedia Commons
In 1925, the artist's masterpiece, "Yellow, Red, Blue", broke new ground in the world of abstract art, guiding the viewer from left to right with shifting shapes and shades. Almost a century after it was painted, Google's interactive tool lets visitors click different parts of the artwork to journey through the artist's description of the colors, associated sounds and moods that inspired the work.
But Google's new toy is not the only tool developed to enhance the artistic experience.
Artist Neil Harbisson has developed an artificial way to emulate Kandinsky by turning colors into sounds. He has a rare form of color blindness and sees the world in greyscale. But a smart antenna attached to his head translates dominant colors into musical notes, creating a real-world soundtrack of what's in front of him. The invention could open up a new world for people who are color blind.
A new study suggests that private prisons hold prisoners for a longer period of time, wasting the cost savings that private prisons are supposed to provide over public ones.
- Private prisons in Mississippi tend to hold prisoners 90 days longer than public ones.
- The extra days eat up half of the expected cost savings of a private prison.
- The study leaves several open questions, such as what affect these extra days have on recidivism rates.
The United States of America, land of the free, is home to 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of its prisoners. The cost of having so many people in the penal system adds up to $80 billion per year, more than three times the budget for NASA. This massive system exploded in size relatively recently, with the prison population increasing by six-fold in the last four decades.
Ten percent of these prisoners are kept in private prisons, which are owned and operated for the sake of profit by contractors. In theory, these operations cost less than public prisons and jails, and states can save money by contracting them to incarcerate people. They have a long history in the United States and are used in many other countries as well.
However, despite the pervasiveness of private contractors in the American prison system, there is not much research into how well they live up to their promise to provide similar services at a lower cost to the state. The little research that is available often encounters difficulties in trying to compare the costs and benefits of facilities with vastly different operations and occasionally produces results suggesting there are few benefits to privatization.
A new study by Dr. Anita Mukherjee and published in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy joins the debate with a robust consideration of the costs and benefits of private prisons. Its findings suggest that some private prisons keep people incarcerated longer and save less money than advertised.
The study focuses on prisons in Mississippi. Despite its comparatively high rate of incarceration, Mississippi's prison system is very similar to that of other states that also use private prisons. Demographically, its system is representative of the rest of the U.S. prison system, and its inmates are sentenced for similar amounts of time.
The state attempts to get the most out of its privatization efforts, as a 1994 law requires all contracts for private prisons in Mississippi to provide at least a 10 percent cost savings over public prisons while providing similar services. As a result, the state seeks to maximize its savings by sending prisoners to private institutions first if space if available.
While public and private prisons in Mississippi are quite similar, there are a few differences that allow for the possibility of cost savings by private operators — not the least of which is that the guards are paid 30 percent less and have fewer benefits than their publicly employed counterparts.
The results of privatization
The graph depicts the likelihood of release for public (dotted line) vs. private (solid line) prison inmates. At every level of time served, public prisoners were more likely to be released than private prisoners.Dr. Anita Mukherjee
The study relied on administrative records of the Mississippi prison system between 1996 and 2013. The data included information on prisoner demographics, the crimes committed, sentence lengths, time served, infractions while incarcerated, and prisoner relocation while in the system, including between public and private jails. For this study, the sample examined was limited to those serving between one and six years and those who served at least a quarter of their sentence. This created a primary sample of 26,563 bookings.
Analysis revealed that prisoners in private prisons were behind bars for four to seven percent longer than those in public prisons, which translates to roughly 85 to 90 extra days per prisoner. This is, in part, because those in private prison serve a greater portion of their sentences (73 percent) than those in public institutions (70 percent).
This in turn might be due to the much higher infraction rate in private prisons compared to public ones. While only 18 percent of prisoners in a public prison commit an infraction, such as disobeying a guard or possessing contraband, the number jumps to 46 percent in a private prison. Infractions can reduce the probability of early release or cause time to be added to a sentence.
It's unclear why there are so many more infractions in private prisons. Dr. Mukherjee suggests it could be the result of "harsher prison conditions in private prisons," better monitoring techniques, incentives to report more of them to the state before contract renewals, or even a lackadaisical attitude on the part of public prison employees.
What does all this cost Mississippi?
The extra time served eats 48 percent of the cost savings of keeping prisoners in a private facility. For example, it costs about $135,000 to house a prisoner in a private prison for three years and $150,000 in the public system. But longer stays in private prisons reduce the savings from $15,000 to only $7,800.
As Dr. Mukherjee remarks, this cost is also just the finance. Some things are a little harder to measure:
"There are, of course, other costs that are difficult to quantify — e.g., the cost of injustice to society (if private prison inmates systematically serve more time), the inmate's individual value of freedom, and impacts of the additional incarceration on future employment. Abrams and Rohlfs (2011) estimates a prisoner's value of freedom for 90 days at about $1,100 using experimental variation in bail setting. Mueller-Smith (2017) estimates that 90 days of marginal incarceration costs about $15,000 in reduced wages and increased reliance on welfare. If these social costs were to exceed $7,800 in the example stated, private prisons would no longer offer a bargain in terms of welfare-adjusted cost savings."
It is possible that the extra time in jail provides benefits that counter these costs, such as a reduced recidivism rate, but this proved difficult to determine. Though it was not statistically significant, there was some evidence that the added time actually increased the rate of recidivism. If that's true, then private prisons could be counterproductive.