Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Idle Thoughts -- Reciprocal Altruism vs Ideal Altruism

Outline the most attractive and most problematic points associated with reciprocal and ideal altruism.

Reciprocal altruism states that altruism exists because by giving one expects to receive a similar act in reciprocity in the future.
Reciprocal altruists generally regard this as an evolved trait. That is to say, they recognize human beings as social animals and show how this trade benefits the survival of the individual. There is a bitter current debate in evolutionary biology which sheds some light on this problem. Ethridge and Gould developed a system in which they believe that an adaptation such as reciprocal altruism can benefit survival of the herd, troop, or other group, not just individuals.  Other biologists, led by Richard Dawkins, contend evolution can only act on the level of the individual. Either way, it is clear that reciprocal altruism would be of great benefit to survival.

How this would work, from a Wikipedia article:   Stephens shows a set of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions “… for an instance of reciprocal altruism:[2]

the behaviour must reduce a donor's fitness relative to a selfish alternative;[2]
the fitness of the recipient must be elevated relative to non-recipients;[2]
the performance of the behaviour must not depend on the receipt of an immediate benefit;[2]
conditions 1, 2, and 3 must apply to both individuals engaging in reciprocal helping.[2]
There are two additional conditions necessary "…for reciprocal altruism to evolve:"[2]

A mechanism for detecting 'cheaters' must exist.[2]
A large (indefinite) number of opportunities to exchange aid must exist.[2]

The first two conditions are necessary for altruism as such, while the third is distinguishing reciprocal altruism from simple mutualism and the fourth makes the interaction reciprocal. Condition number five is required as otherwise non-altruists may always exploit altruistic behaviour without any consequences and therefore evolution of reciprocal altruism would not be possible. However, it is pointed out that this “conditioning device” does not need to be conscious. Condition number six is required to avoid cooperation breakdown through backwards induction—a possibility suggested by game theoretical models.[2]

End of wiki quote.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reciprocal_altruism

And guess what? One of the examples they use is the vampire bat. Somebody thinks like I do!

The benefit of reciprocal altruism for those who accept it is that it gives a natural basis for a moral position. Because we are social animals, this trait naturally involved.  Furthermore, it does not turn us in the biochemical robots. We do have a choice. We can attempt to cheat, although there also can be negative consequences if we are caught doing so. It is a natural explanation for a very moral position, something very comforting for those who do not believe in God, but do believe in morality. Similarly, those who believe in God may find it comforting that science can support one of their moral positions.

Some find problems with reciprocal idealism in that to them it sounds like morality is being reduced to a matter of making a business deal.  Is an act really moral if you only perform it in expectation of reciprocity?  This attitude as well summed up by a biblical story. And guess what, it's from Matthew!

Matthew 6. Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them:otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: That thine alms may be in secret:and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.

In other words, reciprocal altruism isn't good enough for God . If you're only giving in order to get something back, what you get back is the only reward you'll get. We will get no reward in heaven. You really should give in secret.  in other words, you should practice not reciprocal altruism, but ideal altruism.

Ideal altruism goes much further. It declares that it is always good to sacrifice for others. An example of this in real life would be Mother Teresa who dedicated her life to taking care of others at the expense of her own health and welfare.  It might surprise some to realize that is actually a possible scientific basis for some of this kind of self-sacrifice. Some evolutionary biologists are convinced that, assuming Dawkins' selfish gene concept is basically correct, people would sacrifice tremendously in order to help close relatives, who would pass on some of their genes to the next generation.  After all, your children have half of your genetic makeup and your genetic make up is shared in lesser degrees by other relatives. Of course, this would only apply to relatives. So it does fail to explain ideal altruism in general.

It is interesting to note that while Western evolutionary biology often focuses very heavily on competition, Russian evolutionary biology often focuses on cooperation. Both points are actually important, the difference in emphasis is largely cultural. (Gould)

Ideal altruism appeals to many emotionally. It is commonly seen as noble and pure. In practice, it is a very difficult thing to do. It requires you to act against your own best interests on a regular basis.  It can be argued that such an extreme act of self-sacrifice would actually be selected against in evolutionary development. 
It can also be pointed out that while it is obviously good to help others is it really wrong to do things to help yourself? You are a person too, doesn't that mean you deserve your own help?

Of course, as indicated by the biblical passage from Matthew, there are many who believe that your ultimate spiritual reward is worth more than any material or reward here on earth . That would mean that even ideal altruism, from a religious viewpoint, does give you benefits. You just don't get to collect them until after death.

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