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. keiths:
    You think that Alan, as a layman, has no right to an opinion on this?Seriously?

    Keith:
    I am not sure if the topic is still the original statement that group selection is no longer a “viable evolutionary hypothesis”. That point is settled to my satisfaction by the full series of arguments and counter-arguments at Edge.org which you linked to earlier: group selection IS still a viable scientific hypothesis.

    To me, that just means there is no consensus among reputable, knowledgeable scientists and that it is an hypothesis still under active consideration by the scientific community as a whole.

    Of course, anyone can put forward an opinion in an open forum. But opinions in open forums will not change the scientific status of an open issue.

  2. “one finds them in both secular and religious writing.” – BruceS

    Yes, in different ways.

    As above: “the purpose you currently hold ends at death, which differs from the Abrahamic faiths.”

    “Certainly I agree one’s worldview makes a huge difference.”

    I’m glad we are agreed about that. Some people sadly sweep it under the carpet, thinking their myopia should be marketable.

    “I’d first exclude the extremes of a nihilist position, such as how Alex Rosenberg is often presented, and of a fundamentalist”

    Well, Rosenberg is who he is and believes what he does. How he is (mis)presented by others doesn’t change that. Is he a nihilist? I agree that his position is both extreme and unnecessary. Yet he seems to fool a growing number of people who are anti-religious in the USA, whether in reaction to the anti-science fundamentalists or the because of the obviously superficial intelligence of USAmericans who reject wisdom and philosophy.

    Scruton, for example, would never win an ‘idol’ contest in the USA, but that doesn’t make his criticisms of ‘trivial evolutionary explanations’ any less valid.

    “Ignoring those extremes, is there really a difference in how a thoughtful religious person and a thoughtful non-religious person would approach the question of how to life the current life with purpose and with other people?”

    Yeah, I’d still contend there is. Here’s a link to an event that answers to your questions better than I could.

    It was somewhat of a surprise that despair seemed to ‘vote’ out hope and reconciliation in the Toronto audience (though in Canada this has become a serious issue) at the end. I felt bad for Hitchens as he faded away so angrily. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ddsz9XBhrYA

    Those who would reduce ‘altruism’ to biology or even restrict it only to non-humans are missing Scruton’s point (human beings vs. soldier ants). I expect Alan Fox to keep missing the point on purpose, trying to win an anti-group selection conversation. Anything but to face the deeper roots of ‘altruism,’ which necessarily involved religion in its founder A. Comte, even if in the so-called ‘religion of humanity.’

    “The social instincts…naturally lead to the golden rule.” – Charles Darwin (1872)

    “Let us try to teach generosity and altruism because we are born selfish.” – Richard Dawkins (1989)

    “Only the soul, the divine entity in humanity, is capable of altruistic love for the other.” – Nel Grillaert (2008)

  3. SophistiCat: You have yet to even acknowledge the existence of the other side, apart from a few stalwarts whom you discount as cranks.

    The only opinion I expressed about personalities was that E O Wilson is someone I greatly admire but that he is not infallible. I made no comment at all about David Sloan Wilson or Elliott Sober, other than mentioning them as current proponents of “group selection”. What I question is whether a biological model of “group selection” exists that is a better explanation of a real biological phenomenon, rather than selection at the level of the gene. Survival or environmental selection, artificial selection, kin selection and sexual selection all model observed phenomena.

    Have you managed to find recent publications on group selection yet?

    There is a lot of material but not so much that is putting forward models for observed aspects of biological evolution. The idea seems to overlap into psychology and philosophy of science.

    Do you know what the other side says? Whether and how it addresses the criticisms leveled by Coyne and Pinker?

    Coyne’s criticism is simple. “Show me the evidence!” No, I haven’t seen any straightforward explanation of biological “group selection” as a viable hypothesis with examples from real biology.

    Do you know enough to adjudicate this debate to your own satisfaction? For myself, I answer the latter question in the negative.

    I think I count myself able to make the judgement on whether evidence is there or it isn’t; If it is there, surely someone can link to it. The one paper you linked to, for instance is discussing cultural evolution, which has nothing to do with genetics. The other by Leigh seems a fair approach to the controversy. Leigh doesn’t mention much in the way of candidates for group selection. Cooperative behaviour between pairs of hermaphrodite fish is mentioned. He also points out the problem that “group selection” means different things to different people.

    The authors of Evolutionary Explanations for Cooperation remark

    …we do not need to waste more time on the group selection debate, which was resolved over 20 years ago [10,114]. Group selection is just an alternative way of doing the maths — most workers prefer the kin selection approach because it is usually simpler, more powerful, easier to link with empirical studies and avoids semantic confusion [1].

  4. p.s. why doesn’t someone start another thread on ‘group selection’ vs. ‘individual selection’ (or selfish gene) rather than diverting from the theme of “Roger Scruton on altruism”? Too often it happens that reductionistic thinkers simply cannot elevate to deal with ‘altruism’ above the minimally biological level. That really does tell something important about atheists and agnostics in contrast to theists; the latter take things to a higher level. (And no, ‘secular’ is not the right word here BruceS – have you read Charles Taylor or David Martin on the ‘new’ understanding of secular within a religious context?)

  5. BruceS: I am not sure if the topic is still the original statement that group selection is no longer a “viable evolutionary hypothesis”. That point is settled to my satisfaction by the full series of arguments and counter-arguments at Edge.org which you linked to earlier: group selection IS still a viable scientific hypothesis.

    Perhaps I was wrong to say

    …talks of group selection as if it were still a viable evolutionary hypothesis.

    and say ” which has not so far been shown to produce better biological explanations than kin selection etc.” But working biologists generally don’t seem to favour the idea. I certainly wouldn’t describe the discussion as to whether “group selection” is a worthwhile approach as controversial. I still see the challenge for proponents of “group selection” as being to come up with some hypothesis that better explains reality. Examples would be good.

  6. Gregory:
    p.s. why doesn’t someone start another thread on ‘group selection’ vs. ‘individual selection’ (or selfish gene) rather than diverting from the theme of “Roger Scruton on altruism”? Too often it happens that reductionistic thinkers simply cannot elevate to deal with ‘altruism’ above the minimally biological level. That really does tell something important about atheists and agnostics in contrast to theists; the latter take things to a higher level. (And no, ‘secular’ is not the right word here BruceS – have you read Charles Taylor or David Martin on the ‘new’ understanding of secular within a religious context?)

    Interesting. You illustrate my point that a lot of stuff on altruism and group selection isn’t talking about biology.

  7. “You illustrate my point that a lot of stuff on altruism and group selection isn’t talking about biology.”

    What made you think that it was? Flash your biologist credentials or STFU? Myopic delusions of grandeur anyone?

  8. Gregory

    Gregory: Flash your biologist credentials or STFU?

    I don’t understand the purpose of the question mark in your sentence, Gregory. The Scruton quote, in the OP, has him talking about biology. He uses words such as “altruism, organism, adaptation, genes, genetic and evolutionary explanation”. On the other hand I notice he has

    written over thirty books, including Art and Imagination (1974), The Meaning of Conservatism (1980), Sexual Desire (1986), The Philosopher on Dover Beach (1990), The Aesthetics of Music (1997), Beauty (2009), and Our Church (2012).

    I wonder if he shares my view that sex played an important rôle in the development of art and art appreciation.

  9. Bruce,

    Of course, anyone can put forward an opinion in an open forum. But opinions in open forums will not change the scientific status of an open issue.

    Agreed. I was just pointing out the absurdity of SophistiCat’s statement to Alan:

    Jerry Coyne, right or wrong, has a right to his opinion, being an expert in the subject (although even experts can be ill-informed about some topic). Are you an expert?

    Laymen are allowed to have opinions here at TSZ, and I can vouch for the fact that SophistiCat him or herself has benefited from that allowance in the past.

    Gregory:

    Flash your biologist credentials or STFU?

    SophistiCat and Gregory,

    Shall we submit our CVs and resumes so that the moderators can decide which discussions we are fit to participate in?

  10. Gregory,

    Those who would reduce ‘altruism’ to biology or even restrict it only to non-humans are missing Scruton’s point (human beings vs. soldier ants).

    Is someone here arguing that only non-humans can be altruistic? That would be a tough thesis to defend.

    Regarding the reduction of altruism to biology, I would say that moral reasoning is thinking, and that thinking is ultimately reducible to biology. Can you offer any evidence that something transcendent is going on?

  11. keiths:

    Regarding the reduction of altruism to biology, I would say that moral reasoning is thinking, and that thinking is ultimately reducible to biology.Can you offer any evidence that something transcendent is going on?

    Keith:
    The phrase “Ultimately reducible to biology” is a sticking point for me.

    I think this is just the ought/is gap again. Sure, human behavior supervenes on the physical, including moral behavior. And, as I’ve said, the the mechanisms for implementing moral behavior as well as rudimentary moral behavior reflect our evolution.

    But culture and reason are much important things to talk about for human moral behavior. Anyone who thinks human moral behavior can be explained only by biology, or even primarily by biology, is wrong. Although I suspect that no one is that extreme.

    Despite the primacy of culture, I would also say that it is wrong to ignore biology: for example, it constrains (ETA: realistically implementable) alternatives for moral codes.

  12. Gregory:
    (And no, ‘secular’ is not the right word here BruceS – have you read Charles Taylor or David Martin on the ‘new’ understanding of secular within a religious context?)

    Thanks for the recommendations. I have the latest Taylor book of essays on reserve at the library based on previous recommendations (I suspect his ~900 page book would not be a good starting point for me). I don’t know David Martin but will look into him.

  13. Alan Fox: I still see the challenge for proponents of “group selection” as being to come up with some hypothesis that better explains reality. Examples would be good.

    Fair enough. I don’t have any dog in that fight and have not looked at the issue in detail.

    I agree that evolution has bequeathed us with implementation mechanisms for morality and basic moral attitudes which culture works with (and culture is primary in morality). I don’t really care which mechanisms of evolution dominated in creating that biological substrate.

  14. keiths, to Gregory:

    Regarding the reduction of altruism to biology, I would say that moral reasoning is thinking, and that thinking is ultimately reducible to biology.Can you offer any evidence that something transcendent is going on?

    Bruce:

    The phrase “Ultimately reducible to biology” is a sticking point for me.

    I think this is just the ought/is gap again.

    The is/ought gap would come into play only if I were arguing that altruism is an objective good. I’m not. I’m saying that independently of whether you think altruism is a good thing, it is ultimately a biological, and hence physical, phenomenon.

    Sure, human behavior supervenes on the physical, including moral behavior. And, as I’ve said, the the mechanisms for implementing moral behavior as well as rudimentary moral behavior reflect our evolution.

    But culture and reason are much important things to talk about for human moral behavior. Anyone who thinks human moral behavior can be explained only by biology, or even primarily by biology, is wrong. Although I suspect that no one is that extreme.

    It depends on what you mean by “can be explained”. My view is that moral behavior can in principle be explained solely in terms of the physical. Otherwise I wouldn’t be a physicalist!

    As a practical matter, however, I agree. It would be goofy to try to explain moral behavior in terms of networks of interconnected neurons without reference to higher-level phenomena.

  15. keiths:
    It depends on what you mean by “can be explained”. My view is that moral behavior can in principle be explained solely in terms of the physical. Otherwise I wouldn’t be a physicalist!As a practical matter, however, I agree.It would be goofy to try to explain moral behavior in terms of networks of interconnected neurons without reference to higher-level phenomena.

    Keith:
    That is also basically my view.

    But I would change the last paragraph’s emphasis to say it is wrong (rather than just “goofy”) to try to use biological or even scientific language to hold moral conversations with other people or to understand the ought-to questions of morality.

    But I’ll leave the meaning of “wrong” in that sentence ambiguous!

  16. Bruce,

    But I would change the last paragraph’s emphasis to say it is wrong (rather than just “goofy”) to try to use biological or even scientific language to hold moral conversations with other people or to understand the ought-to questions of morality.

    Explaining moral behavior is very different from discussing morality or advocating moral behavior. The former is descriptive while the latter is normative.

  17. keiths:

    The is/ought gap would come into play only if I were arguing that altruism is an objective good.I’m not.I’m saying that independently of whether you think altruism is a good thing, it is ultimately a biological, and hence physical, phenomenon.

    To be clearer about what I was thinking:
    For animals, altruistic behavior can be defined behaviorally, so I agree with you.

    For people, I see it as more complicated. It would depend on whether you include psychological states as part of the definition and, if you do, whether there as a moral aspect to those states.

    Example: if one gave to charity because one thought it was the right thing do to, full stop.

  18. Bruce,

    For people, I see it as more complicated. It would depend on whether you include psychological states as part of the definition and, if you do, whether there as a moral aspect to those states.

    This gets back to what we’ve been discussing on the Critique of Naturalism thread. I draw a distinction between “I think I ought to do X” and “I ought to do X”.

    “I think I ought to do X” is descriptive. I am simply describing the state I am in — the state of thinking that I ought to do X — without asserting that this thought represents a genuine, objective moral obligation. Being in that state is a function of my brain, and thus can be described in purely physical terms. It’s declarative, not normative.

    “I genuinely, objectively ought to do X” is normative, and it’s the kind of ought that cannot be derived from an is. Describing my brain state will tell you (in principle) what I believe about doing X, but it won’t tell you whether doing X is objectively moral or immoral. For that you need a free-floating ought that is not dependent on any physical facts.

    As a physicalist, I think the physical world is the whole shebang. There’s nothing else, as far as I can see, and that includes objective morality.

  19. The origin of the term ‘altruism’ is attributed to A. Comte, who wanted to highlight ‘love of others’ (i.e. rather than love of self).

    Sure, there is a minority of people, a vast minority, in this world who would claim ‘love’ (and imagination, knowledge and wisdom, etc.) is ‘only physical’ because they believe (like a disease) that there is nothing other than the physical.

    Scruton sees through the reductionist view of altruism and wants to elevate it back to its original meaning and beyond. I haven’t read Scruton’s book, but just going by the quotation provided: “all the difference in the world” (re: human vs. non-human), “moral law, regardless of genetic advantage” and “the genetic explanation [of altruism] is trivial.”

    The key here is that some people elevate or want to elevate altruism (and themselves) and others don’t want to or psychologically can’t.

    If keiths wants to bring out his CV, that’s fine, show it – I’ll call his bluff – because up until now he’s cowering behind an anonymous pseudonym spewing ridiculous ideas and not backing down to anyone (Lance Stephenson anyone?) in his bid to ‘WIN’ for his primitive atheist physicalism. In my experience, that’s not the type of person who inspires others and I don’t plan on engaging with someone who holds such a myopic view of humanity – physical alone.

    You are welcome, BruceS – the Taylor book is easy to summarise re: new meanings of ‘secular’ in a religious context. Everybody believes in something, whether framed as ‘worldview’ or ‘theology.’ That’s a ‘human universal’ according to USAmerican anthropologist Donald Brown.

    Alan, it’s on the table for you to expand on what you wrote: “a lot of stuff on altruism and group selection isn’t talking about biology.” Obviously I agree with you. But what made you ever think that it was just about biology? Were biologists busy whispering in your ear that it was so?

    Altruism and ‘group selection’ are both quite comfortable topics in sociology (and somewhat in social psychology), but they take on a strangely different meaning when discussed by ‘biologists’. I agree with Joe F. and others here, however, that there does seem to be support for ‘group selection’ in biology. But that’s simply a different conversation than what Scruton is getting at in the OP’s quotation. Biological ‘altruism’ is far too narrow and dehumanising for conversations about ‘real altruism,’ which elevate above mere biology.

  20. Gregory: Alan, it’s on the table for you to expand on what you wrote: “a lot of stuff on altruism and group selection isn’t talking about biology.” What made you think that it was just about biology? Altruism and ‘group selection’ are both quite comfortable topics in sociology (and somewhat in social psychology), but they take on a strangely different meaning when discussed by ‘biologists’.

    There’s the first problem. Kantian Naturalist once responded to a request from me for a definition of some new concept by saying it wasn’t helpful to be hidebound by definitions. (I tried searching for the exchange but haven’t found it yet.) A lot of time could be saved if we all made clear in what sense we are using words that carry several meanings. Much of the talk around biological group selection would be thus avoided. Better yet to lose the term altogether. The same applies to “natural” and its misleading antonyms: artificial, unnatural, non-natural and supernatural, when all can be accommodated using real and imaginary.

    I think sociology as a discipline would be taken more seriously if it were to become a bit more reality based. I’m an advocate for cross-disciplinary study. Cross-fertilization could spur new research and ideas. Sociologists could learn a lot from ‘biologists’ and probably more from biologists

    Altruism would be a case in point. When Scruton can make facile analogies between soldier castes in ants and how some soldiers behave in extreme warfare conditions, one does wonder if a couple of biology seminars might prove useful.

    Biological ‘altruism’ is far too narrow and dehumanising for conversations about ‘real altruism,’ which elevate above mere biology.

    Indeed ‘biological altruism’ is a narrow subject. I haven’t heard of a single real example of pure altruism (rather than reciprocal altruism, kin selection, fitness display etc) being yet found in other species.

    Whether and how often people behave genuinely altruistically is an open question.

    ETA Don’t get me started on reification. There’s a reason it’s only one letter different from deification! 🙂

  21. keiths:
    Explaining moral behavior is very different from discussing morality or advocating moral behavior.The former is descriptive while the latter is normative.

    Keith:
    OK, if you are using that definition of “explaining” then I agree.

  22. keiths:
    .For that you need a free-floating ought that is not dependent on any physical facts.

    Keith: I agree with a lot of what you say.
    I personally am still open to meanings of objective that involve the right kind of intersubjective process. Mathematics would be objective in that sense even to a non-Platonist.

    Also an open question for me: can there be a “free-floating ought” which supervenes on the physical world but is not describable even in principle in the language of science? I don’t have any more to say on this, but it the question is not resolved for me.

    This comes up in one of Sean Carroll’s latest posts— scroll down to the (15th or so) comment by Ryan Reece and see Sean’s reply. Sean is definitely a physicalist but I read him as saying that science cannot be used to explain free floating oughts but they still exist.

    ETA: Reading one of Sean’s linked posts on moral reality, I’d now say his position is close to yours. There is a good interchange on that position in the comments of the moral reality post.

    (One other quibble: you might need more physical facts than brain state of one person to understanding meaning of that person’s thoughts, eg twin earth thought experiments).

  23. Alan Fox:
    I think sociology as a discipline would be taken more seriously

    This should be fun… I suspect someone is going to point out that you should have included the phrase “more seriously by people with my worldview“.

    I’m an advocate for cross-disciplinary study. Cross-fertilization could spur new research and ideas. Sociologists couldlearn a lot from ‘biologists’ and probably more from biologists

    That cross-fertilization sounds like evolutionary psychology or even anthropology. I do tend to mix them up. The post you link to from Gregory does talk about different ways of categorizing science.

  24. Gregory:
    You are welcome, BruceS – the Taylor book is easy to summarise re: new meanings of ‘secular’ in a religious context. Everybody believes in something, whether framed as ‘worldview’ or ‘theology.’ That’s a ‘human universal’ according to USAmerican anthropologist Donald Brown.

    I am not sure if you saw my other post, but I still would appreciate any recommendations on an undergraduate introductory textbook about worldviews and their effect on one’s scientific beliefs, and in particular in what way, if any, science can “overcome” any bias worldviews introduce. I found Dewitt’s Worldviews; any thoughts on it? It might be a bit too rudimentary, even for me.

    But what made you ever think that it was just about biology? Were biologists busy whispering in your ear that it was so?

    ETA: Oops, on re-reading your post, I see that was addressed to Alan, not me. But I’ll leave my following stand just to clarify my position.

    I was not clear — once I started to think about it, I never believed that morality was primarily about biology.

    I agree with SophistiCat’s post on the problems with Scruton’s “overdetermined” argument.

    But other than that quibble, I think Scruton’s basic point is right.

  25. Gregory, to Alan:

    Flash your biologist credentials or STFU?

    keiths:

    Shall we submit our CVs and resumes so that the moderators can decide which discussions we are fit to participate in?

    Gregory:

    If keiths wants to bring out his CV, that’s fine, show it – I’ll call his bluff –

    Gregory,

    My entire point is that nobody should have to flash his or her credentials in order to express an opinion here. Whether Alan is a biologist is irrelevant. His arguments should be judged on their merits.

    Likewise, you are welcome to express your criticisms of ‘primitive atheist physicalism.’ I do hope that someday you will take the next step and present an actual argument in favor of your position, as Alan has.

  26. Alan,

    When Scruton can make facile analogies between soldier castes in ants and how some soldiers behave in extreme warfare conditions, one does wonder if a couple of biology seminars might prove useful.

    That’s unfair to Scruton. He’s drawing a disanalogy between ants and humans:

    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.

    I think his argument is flawed, obviously, but not because of a facile analogy between ants and humans.

  27. “When Scruton can make facile analogies between soldier castes in ants and how some soldiers behave in extreme warfare conditions, one does wonder if a couple of biology seminars might prove useful.”

    Altruism is first and foremost a sociological term. That it has been high-jacked by reductionist biologists (or that reductionistic thinkers persist in this here) doesn’t change that. Altruism is about human beings, not ants. Alan Fox obviously wants small-brain talk instead of humanistic elevation. As a result, I am quickly losing interest in this conversation, for reasons already given, which reflects the poverty of inspiration by participants at this blog.

    BruceS, as for “an undergraduate introductory textbook about worldviews and their effect on one’s scientific beliefs” that’s a good question. It does seem to be a missing need in higher education nowadays, don’t you think? I’d recommend Jose Casanova’s “Public Religions in the Modern World,” Pope Benedixt XVI & Jurgen Habermas’ “The Dialectics of Secularisation: On Reason and Religion,” Umberto Eco and Carlo Maria Martini’s “Belief or Non-Belief: A Confrontation” (http://www.worldreligions.psu.edu/belief_or_nonbelief.htm) or Robert Bellah’s “Habits of the Heart.” But none of these is specifically focused on ‘science & worldview.’

    Ronald Numbers’ “Galileo Goes to Jail and other Myths about Science and Religion,” John H. Brooke’s “Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives” or Willem Drees’ “Religion and Science in Context” might serve better. These all go beyond the old ‘warfare’ model.

    You might find some interesting discussions and presentations here, BruceS: http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/

  28. Gregory,

    Altruism is first and foremost a sociological term. That it has been high-jacked by reductionist biologists (or that reductionistic thinkers persist in this here) doesn’t change that. Altruism is about human beings, not ants.

    That’s as silly as insisting that computer specialists have hijacked the terms ‘read’ and ‘write’, which can always and only refer to human activities.

    Alan Fox obviously wants small-brain talk instead of humanistic elevation. As a result, I am quickly losing interest in this conversation, for reasons already given, which reflects the poverty of inspiration by participants at this blog.

    I would have thought you’d seize the opportunity to ‘elevate’ the conversation by explaining why altruism cannot be explained in naturalistic terms.

  29. Bruce,

    I personally am still open to meanings of objective that involve the right kind of intersubjective process. Mathematics would be objective in that sense even to a non-Platonist.

    Intersubjective agreement on morality exists, and its existence is certainly an objective fact, but that doesn’t make the content of those agreements morally binding in an objective sense.

    Also an open question for me: can there be a “free-floating ought” which supervenes on the physical world but is not describable even in principle in the language of science? I don’t have any more to say on this, but it the question is not resolved for me.

    It’s an interesting question. I think it’s ruled out by Hume’s Guillotine, which doesn’t depend on reductionism as far as I can see.

    ETA: Reading one of Sean’s linked posts on moral reality, I’d now say his position is close to yours.

    That’s my impression, too.

    (One other quibble: you might need more physical facts than brain state of one person to understanding meaning of that person’s thoughts, eg twin earth thought experiments).

    That’s true only if thoughts pick out unique propositional content. I don’t think they do, which was the point of this exchange I had with KN.

  30. BruceS: That cross-fertilization sounds like evolutionary psychology or even anthropology. I do tend to mix them up.

    People should bite bits off reality to chew as that seems often the only way to make science manageable but meeting up in the pub to talk over stuff can be more valuable than some grant. I’m fascinated by field studies in anthropology; archaeology and linguistics and less impressed by some of what I tend to think of as the social sciences.

  31. keiths: That’s unfair to Scruton. He’s drawing a disanalogy between ants and humans:

    Is “disanalogy” a word? It’s this I have a problem with:

    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.

    Well, of course there is! There is absolutely no comparison to be made or conclusion to be drawn. It’s straight from the Denyse O’Leary School of Journalism. Facile is kind.

    ETA and it’s bad biology!

  32. Alan,

    Is “disanalogy” a word?

    Yes: disanalogy

    It’s this I have a problem with:

    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.

    Well, of course there is!

    Then you’re agreeing with Scruton. What’s the problem?

    He sees human altruism as entirely different from ant altruism, and it sounds like you do too.

    ETA: Thanks for doing the embed on Gregory’s video.

  33. keiths: He sees human altruism as entirely different from ant altruism, and it sounds like you do too.

    Well, no. There are two separate issues.

    What is going on in ant colonies? It’s fascinating, we’ve hardly scratched the surface. Talking about ant altruism is on the level of “look at the cute monkey”. Scruton seems not interested so why mention it.

    Is altruism a real phenomenon in human society? Scruton seems to take it as a given. I’m not so sure.

  34. Alan,

    Talking about ant altruism is on the level of “look at the cute monkey”. Scruton seems not interested so why mention it.

    He’s very interested in it, because it falls under the umbrella of ‘altruism’ as defined by evolutionary biologists. So does human altruism.

    Scruton’s point is that an ant’s altruism is instinctive, while human altruism relies on moral reasoning. The ants aren’t reasoning about their sacrifice, so their behavior requires a genetic explanation. The humans are reasoning about their sacrifice, so a genetic explanation would be superfluous, according to Scruton.

    It’s a bad argument but not a facile one.

    Is altruism a real phenomenon in human society? Scruton seems to take it as a given. I’m not so sure.

    Oh, absolutely it’s real. Wouldn’t you say that it’s altruistic, for example, to make an anonymous gift to a charity that helps people halfway around the world with whom you’ll never interact? You’re giving up money and receiving nothing in return other than your own gratification at having done a good thing.

  35. keiths: The ants aren’t reasoning about their sacrifice, so their behavior requires a genetic explanation.

    Well, no. Sterile worker and soldier castes are not the carriers of the genome. The queen is. So loss of sterile caste members is of no consequence, genetically.

  36. keiths: Wouldn’t you say that it’s altruistic, for example, to make an anonymous gift to a charity that helps people halfway around the world with whom you’ll never interact?

    Well, not necessarily. There’s something (unless I’m reifying) called “fitness display”. Also who feels good about giving? The giver? Is that worth something?

  37. keiths: The humans are reasoning about their sacrifice, so a genetic explanation would be superfluous, according to Scruton.

    Not sure about this either. I’d suggest emotions are involved when people make extreme sacrifices.

  38. keiths, paraphrasing Scruton:

    The ants aren’t reasoning about their sacrifice, so their behavior requires a genetic explanation.

    Alan:

    Well, no. Sterile worker and soldier castes are not the carriers of the genome. The queen is. So loss of sterile caste members is of no consequence, genetically.

    The sterile caste members aren’t transmitters of the genome, but they most certainly are carriers. This is important, because they get their altruistic behavior from their genes. So yes, altruism in ants has a genetic explanation.

    keiths:

    Wouldn’t you say that it’s altruistic, for example, to make an anonymous gift to a charity that helps people halfway around the world with whom you’ll never interact? You’re giving up money and receiving nothing in return other than your own gratification at having done a good thing.

    Alan:

    Well, not necessarily. There’s something (unless I’m reifying) called “fitness display”.

    Notice that I specified an anonymous gift to charity. It isn’t a “fitness display” if no one knows about it.

    Also who feels good about giving? The giver? Is that worth something?

    Sure, it’s worth a lot. But that doesn’t mean that the act isn’t altruistic (particularly in the biological sense of the word). Altruists generally feel good — very good — about helping others.

    keiths:

    The humans are reasoning about their sacrifice, so a genetic explanation would be superfluous, according to Scruton.

    Alan:

    I’d suggest emotions are involved when people make extreme sacrifices.

    Of course emotions are involved, but that doesn’t mean that moral reasoning must be absent.

    Scruton’s error is in thinking that moral reasoning is somehow completely independent of genetics.

  39. keiths: The sterile caste members aren’t transmitters of the genome, but they most certainly are carriers. This is important, because they get their altruistic behavior from their genes. So yes, altruism in ants has a genetic explanation.

    There’s no feed-back. All the genes do in a sterile caste worker is define the phenotype of that worker. It’s somatic. The only thing that can affect the alleles of a population of ants is differential survival of queens.

    ETA Oh sure, the colony with the feistiest soldiers is going to give the best chance of survival to its gene pool store – the queen.

  40. keiths: Notice that I specified an anonymous gift to charity. It isn’t a “fitness display” if no one knows about it.

    I read something recently about ‘”anonymous” charity givers usually becoming well-known for the fact among their peer group. I’ll have another look to see if I can find it. What can we say about truly anonymous charity givers? How do we know they exist? 🙂


  41. Alan Fox
    : Not sure about this either. I’d suggest emotions are involved when people make extreme sacrifices.

    Emotions are involved as the proximate cause to action but reason was involved in setting up the cultural moral code that led parental and societal training for that emotional reaction. For example, think of how overall US emotional responses have changed over the last 200 years to situations like animal fights, women’s emancipation, inter-racial marriage.

    Well, not necessarily. There’s something (unless I’m reifying) called “fitness display”. Also who feels good about giving? The giver? Is that worth something?

    This sounds like an appeal to the theory called egoism. As the linked SEP article discusses, one can separate descriptive egoism from moral (normative) egoism.

    Descriptive egoism says that people DO act always in their best interests as they understand them. This theory about human behavior is refuted by counter-examples eg soldiers who jump on grenades or mediocre swimmers who die trying to rescue others (or even their pet dogs). As well, the SEP references experimental refutations.

    Moral egoism is the theory that people SHOULD act in their best interests only: for example, a person should avoid getting their trousers wet rather than save a child drowning in shallow water (you can specify that no one will ever know what choice is made if think that makes a difference to how one OUGHT to act).

    This is repugnant advice on its face and none of the commonly held moral theories would support such behavior. There are also logical arguments against such a moral code at the SEP, if you think they are needed.

  42. Alan,

    There’s no feed-back. All the genes do in a sterile caste worker is define the phenotype of that worker. It’s somatic. The only thing that can affect the alleles of a population of ants is differential survival of queens.

    ETA Oh sure, the colony with the feistiest soldiers is going to give the best chance of survival to its gene pool store – the queen.

    Right, and that’s true even if their feisty behavior gets them killed defending the queen. It’s the genes that are selfish, not the soldier ants who are carrying them.

  43. BruceS: Moral egoism is the theory that people SHOULD act in their best interests only: for example, a person should avoid getting their trousers wet rather than save a child drowning in shallow water (you can specify that no one will ever know what choice is made if think that makes a difference to how one OUGHT to act).

    I’m a realist. Emotional reactions get people killed and don’t achieve the intended result I’ve seen more than one report of an owner drowning trying to save their dog. The dog scrambles to safety.

  44. Bruce,

    I have not read it yet, but I just came across this summary of approaches to meaning by a computer scientist/neuroscientist (and a prof at my Alma-mater!) that may interest you:
    Contemporary Theories of [Mental] Content

    Thanks for the pointer.

    (In any event, I strongly suspect you’ll agree with the opening quote)

    Yes! That attitude is one of my favorite things about the Buddha.

    Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. – Buddha (Anguttara Nikaya, Tika Nipata, Mahavagga, Sutta No.
    65)

  45. Alan,

    I don’t think I ever gave the impression that that was not my point.

    Sure you did, in this exchange:

    keiths:

    The ants aren’t reasoning about their sacrifice, so their behavior requires a genetic explanation.

    Alan:

    Well, no. Sterile worker and soldier castes are not the carriers of the genome. The queen is. So loss of sterile caste members is of no consequence, genetically.

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