Roger Scruton on altruism

I’ve just started reading philosopher Roger Scruton’s new book The Soul of the World, in which he defends the transcendent against the scientific conception of reality. Chapter 3 contains an interesting but wrong-headed argument to the effect that evolutionary explanations of human altruism are superfluous, because altruism can be explained perfectly well in moral terms. It’s particularly interesting in light of our discussions on the Critique of Naturalism thread, so I thought I’d share it:

An organism acts altruistically, they tell us, if it benefits another organism at a cost to itself. The concept applies equally to the soldier ant that marches into the flames that threaten the anthill, and to the officer who throws himself onto the live grenade that threatens his platoon. The concept of altruism, so understood, cannot explain, or even recognize, the distinction between those two cases. Yet surely there is all the difference in the world between the ant that marches instinctively toward the flames, unable either to understand what it is doing or to fear the results of it, and the officer who consciously lays down his life for his troops.

If Kant is right, a rational being has a motive to obey the moral law, regardless of genetic advantage. This motive would arise, even if the normal result of following it were that which the Greeks observed with awe at Thermopylae, or the Anglo-Saxons at the Battle of Maldon. In such instances an entire community is observed to embrace death, in full consciousness of what it is doing, because death is the honorable option. Even if you don’t think Kant’s account of this is the right one, the fact is that this motive is universally observed in human beings, and is entirely different from that of the soldier ant, in being founded on a consciousness of the predicament, of the cost of doing right, and of the call to renounce life for the sake of others who depend on you or to whom your life is owed.

To put it in another way, on the approach of the evolutionary psychologists, the conduct of the Spartans at Thermopylae is overdetermined. The “dominant reproductive strategy” explanation and the “honorable sacrifice” explanation are both sufficient to account for this conduct. So which is the real explanation? Or is the “honorable sacrifice” explanation just a story that we tell ourselves, in order to pin medals on the chest of the ruined “survival machine” that died in obedience to its genes?

But suppose that the moral explanation is genuine and sufficient. It would follow that the genetic explanation is trivial. If rational beings are motivated to behave in this way, regardless of any genetic strategy, then that is sufficient to explain the fact that they do behave in this way. And being disposed to behave in this way is an adaptation — for all this means is that people who were disposed by nature to behave in any other way would by now have died out, regardless of the reasons they might have had for behaving as they did.

…it illustrates the way in which evolutionary explanations reduce to triviality, when the thing to be explained contains its own principles of persuasion.

There are lots of interesting and intertwined errors here. Dissect away!

289 thoughts on “Roger Scruton on altruism

  1. walto:

    “Cheerful willingness to admit mistakes.” Hahahahaha.

    Exactly. Alan isn’t willing to admit his mistakes at all, much less cheerfully.

    I have no idea why this is such a big deal for him.

  2. Hahahahahaha.

    Definitely recommend the Trollope novel for you. It was also made for TV by the BBC, I believe.

  3. keiths: Altruism is defined as behavior that benefits others at a cost to the individual.

    It could also be defined as a sacrifice benefiting the reproductive chances of others at the cost of ones own reproductive chances. Nothing could be more true for sterile worker ants.

  4. Gralgrathor,

    It [altruism] could also be defined as a sacrifice benefiting the reproductive chances of others at the cost of ones own reproductive chances. Nothing could be more true for sterile worker ants.

    Yes. Petrushka, do you understand why we say that?

  5. keiths,

    Nonsense, Keith.

    keiths…the behavior of the sterile castes has a genetic explanation

    In a trivial and general sense and as Dobzhansky wrote “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution”.

    So in the genre of you making some kind of trivial semantic gotcha, everything in biology can be explained “genetically”.

    This does not in any way impinge on the fact that worker genes are not passed on in ants, (noting the exception Zachriel mentioned, I was aware this could happen in honey bees and am not surprised about ants.)

  6. Joe Felsenstein: Soldier ants or soldier termites do not behave as they do because they inherit the behavior (let alone the morphology) culturally. Their actions and morphology are phenotypes that are coded by genes…

    Indeed. This is a point seemingly lost on Keith who wishes to argue semantics, Ant “altruism” is genetic and biological, controlled by a network of pheromones. Which is why Scruton mentioning ants and humans in the same piece is facile. There is no altruism in ant behaviour, only “altruism”.

  7. keiths:
    Gralgrathor,
    Yes.Petrushka, do you understand why we say that?

    Say what?

    If, for some reason, a sterile individual has a mutation that increases its tendency toward self-sacrificial behavior, nothing it can do will increase its chances of passing on it’s unique genes.

    Assuming its self-sacrifice enhances the success of the colony, its self sacrifice is no more altruistic that the behavior of a specialized cell in an organism.

  8. It’s perfectly obvious that keith was wrong again. And yet, and yet….

    No cheerful admission. But don’t despair. I’m sure it’s coming soon. Right after his apology to me for calling me an antisemite (for the sin of using an expression St. Chistopher Hitch himself used three times.). Probably coming any minute now–and with a nice smile!

  9. walto: Probably coming any minute now–and with a nice smile!

    No, I think Keith is going for a Nobel in obnoxiousness! 🙂

  10. petrushka,

    But it’s not about those variations. Variations produced at the time of worker-production are lost; they’re of no consequence. It’s about the variations that occur in or prior to the production of the queen that produces them.

    Such a variation will be present in queen and workers. If this variation should affect worker-behaviour in such a manner that it improves the chances of the queen producing more offspring with that gene, then the gene will be successful. In a sense, workers affect the replication of their genes – the copies present in the queen of genes that are also present in them.

    Indeed, the copies present in the workers are not replicated. However, it’s still that gene that is successful, because of its effect on worker-behaviour.

    As you say, we probably all mean the same, and we’re all just mincing words and arguing semantics. Which is fun in its own way, but not as much fun as the third episode of the Hitchhiker’s Guide I’m watching.

    I’ll be right back.

  11. Gralgrathor: It could also be defined as a sacrifice benefiting the reproductive chances of others at the cost of ones own reproductive chances. Nothing could be more true for sterile worker ants.

    I see you followed my link to stuff by Samir Okasha so I’m surprised you write this.
    It’s somewhat anthropomorphic to talk of sacrifice. As Allan Miller has said, in eusocial insects such as ants one can regard the colony as a super-organism for selection purposes and consider sterile workers like parts of the “body”. Some loss of worker’s bodies in defence of the nest is sustainable and such behaviour will be reinforced by selection where colonies are competing for resources. The catastrophe (maybe salvaged by a worker becoming fertile and assuming the queen rôle in some cases) is loss of the queen, the repository of the colony germ-line.

  12. Gralgrathor: As you say, we probably all mean the same, and we’re all just mincing words and arguing semantics.

    I certainly think so. I also think Keiths particular confusion is to muddle the genotype and the phenotype.

  13. Alan Fox: It’s somewhat anthropomorphic to talk of sacrifice

    I didn’t intend the word to convey some sort of intentional stance. I was merely commenting on the *effect* of the behaviour: detrimental (extremely) to the chances of individual reproduction while promoting the chances of reproduction of ones genes through another individual. The biological term “altruism” isn’t concerned with intentions: merely with the effect of the behaviour.

  14. Alan,

    You’re free to dig the hole deeper, but do you really think it’s in your best interests?

    If you weren’t mistaken, then why did you withdraw your statement after a week?

  15. Gralgrathor: I didn’t intend the word to convey some sort of intentional stance. I was merely commenting on the *effect* of the behaviour: detrimental (extremely) to the chances of individual reproduction while promoting the chances of reproduction of ones genes through another individual. The biological term “altruism” isn’t concerned with intentions: merely with the effect of the behaviour.

    Sure, but as you mention it, the behaviour is not detrimental to the colony, and the germ-line is not lost if workers die. Indeed they are 0.75 related to each other so the behaviour makes sense “genetically”.

  16. keiths,

    Because I’m not looking to score points with you Keith. I respect other opinions here and will be guided by them. Your influence on me at least is counter-productive. What would you like to achieve? That we all learn something new and interesting is good enough for me.

  17. keiths: You’re free to dig the hole deeper, but do you really think it’s in your best interests?

    Have you stopped beating your wife? 😉

    ETA seriously, Keith, if it were just me that had an issue with your singular way of conducting yourself on a blog, I might pause for thought. But you have a track record now. You are serially obnoxious! 🙂

  18. Alan Fox: the behaviour is not detrimental to the colony

    No, but in one understanding of the notion, altruism is precisely concerned with the behaviour of the individual. It does not matter that their infertility is a consequence of chemicals acting on their gene-programmed bodies: their receptiveness to such signals is still programmed by their genes. Their genes that make their bodies behave in such a way as to promote the chances of copies of them being replicated by the queen.

    Of course, not using the term ‘altruism’ to describe this situation doesn’t change much. I don’t mind being told that ‘altruism’ doesn’t ordinarily describe this kind of situation. I’m not an expert in these matters, and am more or less getting this stuff directly from an old copy of The Selfish Gene. The explanation Dawkins gives makes sense to me, though, and the use of the word ‘altruism’ seems in place here – since the basics are much the same as kin-altruism between fertile individuals in non-eusocial populations.

    Alan Fox: the germ-line is not lost if workers die

    Indeed not – but dying (or not) is not the total extent of behaviour displayed by workers.

  19. Alan to Gralgrathor:

    Indeed they are 0.75 related to each other so the behaviour makes sense “genetically”.

    Exactly. So the behavior of the sterile castes does have a genetic explanation. Your mistake was to deny that, and to give bad reasons for the denial.

  20. keiths: Your mistake was to deny that, and to give bad reasons for the denial.

    Dust off that reading comprehension, old bean.

    “Genetic explanation” conveys what information precisely? Not much, in my view. Just the facts, Keith. Just the facts.

  21. Gralgrathor: The explanation Dawkins gives makes sense to me, though, and the use of the word ‘altruism’ seems in place here – since the basics are much the same as kin-altruism between fertile individuals in non-eusocial populations.

    I get the impression things have come full circle since Dawkins was first lauded for his ringing advocacy for gene-centred selection and his condemnation of group selection. There has been a revival of group selection which seems to be declining.I already linked to this paper famous for the number of signatories.

  22. Alan:

    ETA seriously, Keith, if it were just me that had an issue with your singular way of conducting yourself on a blog, I might pause for thought.

    Alan,

    You, petrushka, Neil and walto have all complained because I pointed out your mistakes and backed up my claims. The four of you are loathe to admit error and will go to great lengths to avoid it (witness this thread!).

    You clearly would rather not have your mistakes pointed out, but that is not a reason for me to tiptoe around your egos. This is The Skeptical Zone, and everyone’s views, including mine, are fair game for criticism here.

    We routinely point out the mistakes of the UDers. Why should we adopt a double standard? Don’t fall into the tribal mentality of considering certain people exempt from criticism because they’re on “our side”.

    If you make a mistake, be honest and admit it. No one is surprised that you make mistakes, but your refusal to take responsibility is quite unbecoming.

  23. keiths:

    Exactly. So the behavior of the sterile castes does have a genetic explanation. Your mistake was to deny that, and to give bad reasons for the denial.

    Alan:

    Dust off that reading comprehension, old bean.

    It’s right there in your own words, Alan.

  24. Alan Fox: There has been a revival of group selection which seems to be declining.

    I don’t mind notions of group selection, as long as their are grounded in, or at least compatible with, selection at the most basic level. The letter you linked seems sensible to me, at least the bit where it says that it is

    incorrect to suggest a sharp distinction between inclusive fitness theory and ‘‘standard natural selection theory

    As far as I’m concerned, they’re all just models for molecular interaction, and inclusive fitness seems apt for particular levels of interaction while still compatible with “standard natural selection”, whateverthehellthatis.

  25. keiths,

    I suggest you consider how you interact with others. Mike Elzinga, Zachriel, Walto, Neil Rickert, petrushka, me, I’m sure I’ve missed some. I already asked, what do you want to achieve? Do you want to persuade others to new thoughts and ideas? Communicating involves a two-way flow of information.

    Now this is extremely boring for me and others, those that haven’t already given up, so can I request a little peace from my mistake. I disagree with you that I have made a mistake about ant biology. You are not persuading me otherwise. Impasse. I’d rather get back to enjoying informative posts and lively discussion. You used to do that once, I think.

  26. Gralgrathor: I don’t mind notions of group selection, as long as their are grounded in, or at least compatible with, selection at the most basic level. The letter you linked seems sensible to me, at least the bit where it says that it is

    As far as I’m concerned, they’re all just models for molecular interaction, and inclusive fitness seems apt for particular levels of interaction while still compatible with “standard natural selection”, whateverthehellthatis.

    Dawkins made a similar point in “Selfish Gene””, I’m sure. I’ll see if I can find it though it might take a while. Something along the lines of organism or gene being a point of view dependent on what was appropriate.

  27. Alan Fox: Dawkins made a similar point in “Selfish Gene””, I’m sure. I’ll see if I can find it though it might take a while. Something along the lines of organism or gene being a point of view dependent on what was appropriate.

    I’d say the point of view from individual molecules and their replication is always appropriate, since molecular interaction and replication forms the basis for all life. Doesn’t have to be just genes either; one could apply the same logic to all parts of the cell – it’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem, really. But it seems logical that since animal behaviour is (at least in “less advanced” organisms) largely determined by embryological development, which is largely determined by subcellular molecular factors like genes, to start at that level.

  28. Gralgrathor,

    I’d love to see the start of a hypothesis that attacked the issue of how complex behaviours such as colony organisation, the building and housekeeping of the nest, foraging etc etc are encoded in the genome. The more we learn the more we realise how much we don’t know.

  29. Alan Fox: Gralgrathor, I’d love to see the start of a hypothesis that attacked the issue of how complex behaviours such as colony organisation, the building and housekeeping of the nest, foraging etc etc are encoded in the genome.

    I’d start by pointing out that the phrase “encoded in the genome” does no justice at all to the intricate chains of molecular interactions that extend from genotype (and other molecular subcellular factors -if and when) to phenotype.

  30. keiths,

    Because (A) yeah of course you did, as everyone here knows (no real need for me to link your incredibly assinine comment again), and (B) it might go a small way in showing you’re not a complete shmuck,as well as nuts.

  31. Alan:

    I suggest you consider how you interact with others.

    I’ve considered it quite carefully. The friction has come when I’ve dared to point out an error and the person responsible for the error didn’t like it. Now, few people actually like being wrong, but part of being a mature adult is to accept responsibility for mistakes and failures as well as successes.

    If someone points out a mistake, they are just doing what they’re supposed to be doing at The Skeptical Zone.

    None of us hesitates to point out the mistakes that UDers make. Why should there be a different standard for the people on “our side”? We should be setting an example, not succumbing to the worst aspects of tribalism.

    I suggest that you consider your own behavior. The refusal to acknowledge mistakes is not conducive to productive discussion. You’re not perfect, Alan. You make mistakes just like the rest of us. Why do you fight so hard to avoid acknowledging them?

    Now this is extremely boring for me and others, those that haven’t already given up, so can I request a little peace from my mistake.

    Take responsibility, Alan. You resurrected this debate after a week of quietude. You keep asking me to tell you what your mistakes were, when I’ve already made it perfectly clear. You dragged Joe into this.

    Yes, it’s boring as hell, but you won’t let it go.

    In effect, you already acknowledged your error (a week ago!) by withdrawing your claim that the behavior of the sterile castes doesn’t have a genetic explanation. It’s baffling to me that you can’t take the tiny last step of admitting that you withdrew your statement because it was wrong, especially when everyone here knows that it was.

    If you can’t summon the maturity to admit your mistakes, then by all means, just drop this.

  32. keiths: You, petrushka, Neil and walto have all complained because I pointed out your mistakes and backed up my claims.

    I don’t doubt that this is how it seems to you.

    Quite honestly, you have a severe Dunning-Kruger problem.

    I really suggest that you have yourself tested. I’m suspecting a possible high performing autism spectrum problem.

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