Altruism Thought Expiriment

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Altruism Thought Expiriment

Postby ergo » Thu Nov 08, 2007 3:45 am UTC

Daniel Golemen, Social Intelligence wrote:The argument has long been made that we humans are by nature compassionate and empathic despite the occasional streak of meanness, but torrents of bad news throughout history have contradicted that claim, and little sound science has backed it. But try this thought experiment. Imagine the number of opportunities people around the world today might have to commit an antisocial act, from rape or murder to simple rudeness and dishonesty. Make that number the bottom of a fraction. Now for the top value you put the number of such antisocial acts that will actually occur today.

That ratio of potential to enacted meanness holds at close to zero any day of the year. And if for the top value you put the number of benevolent acts performed in a given day, the ratio of kindness to cruelty will always be positive. (The news, however, comes to us as though that ratio was reversed.)

Harvard's Jerome Kagan proposes this mental exercise to make a simple point about human nature: the sum total of goodness vastly outweighs that of meanness. “Although humans inherit a biological bias that permits them to feel anger, jealousy, selfishness and envy, and to be rude, aggressive or violent,” Kagan notes, “they inherit an even stronger biological bias for kindness, compassion, cooperation, love and nurture – especially toward those in need.” This inbuilt ethical sense, he adds, “is a biological feature of our species.”

I came across this quote awhile back and it's had me thinking.

Although the ratio of kind "acts" to cruel "acts" will always be positive, does this majority of kind "acts" make up for the cruel ones. e.g. How many kind "acts" does it take to make up for one murder? Can you truly quantify a value to actions relative to one another?

On a side note, the above quote mentions the media and its fascination with cruel actions. Why is it that human beings prefer hearing about "cruel" acts? Mirror neurons in our brain respond to actions when we see them. So when you watch someone throw a baseball, the same part of your brain you would use to throw a baseball shows activity. From this studies have shown that looking at happy people can make you happier. So, one can only conclude that this focus on negativity brings us down as a race.

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Re: Altruism Thought Expiriment

Postby Mighty Jalapeno » Thu Nov 08, 2007 4:42 am UTC

Let's make a violent act ten points, and murder 100 points. Most good acts will still count as one.

How does this work now?

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Re: Altruism Thought Expiriment

Postby VannA » Thu Nov 08, 2007 6:13 am UTC

My brain is really not working today, but there was somebody who, for you utilitarianistic principles, was attempting to rate actions on a points basis.
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Re: Altruism Thought Expiriment

Postby Umlaut » Thu Nov 08, 2007 9:41 am UTC

What about the whole deterrence deal? If you start going knife crazy all up and down the office, there will be very real consequences for you. Now, what if there were no consequences? No fear of punishment, no fear of retribution, and no fear of failure. People can do some pretty horrible things when these fears don't exist, just look to any oppressive regime. People don't go around cutting off hands because they have a hand quota of 10 hands a day, they do it because they can and because they're evil. Does this outweigh the good? I don't know, but it's worth considering.
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Re: Altruism Thought Expiriment

Postby Razzle Storm » Thu Nov 08, 2007 10:08 am UTC

ergo wrote: How many kind "acts" does it take to make up for one murder?


Two smiles, one kiss, and four servings of breakfast-in-bed.

That's the way to save the world. Seriously. Who ever wanted to kill someone after getting breakfast-in-bed?
Last edited by Razzle Storm on Sun Nov 11, 2007 5:07 am UTC, edited 2 times in total.

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Re: Altruism Thought Expiriment

Postby The Mighty Thesaurus » Thu Nov 08, 2007 10:11 am UTC

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Re: Altruism Thought Expiriment

Postby Dark Ragnarok » Thu Nov 08, 2007 10:12 am UTC

The point system would make the acts void of meaning.

I wouldn't support the system. However, on a sub level of humanity it probably exists. What I mean is people do put some value on how you go about compensating for your mistakes. Apology is one form. The extension of the duration to the same mistake is another form. Then again after so much of that and if it becomes merely like the point system, it becomes void anyways.

Anyways no amount of good will overwrite a bad one. Who would proclaim Hitler as a savior if he cured Cancer, AIDS, and (humor me) created world peace (the kind that's no major country based wars, not no conflict)

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Re: Altruism Thought Expiriment

Postby Biskitty » Thu Nov 08, 2007 4:42 pm UTC

I'm of the belief, as is a lot of literature out there, that is is no such thing as true altruism.

I'm sure you are all getting ready to shoot me down in flames... but WAIT, here me out.

It's been suggested that 'altrusim' on appears to occur because it provides:

Emotional satisfaction
Reduction of negative feelings in the actor


and further:

natural selection favours animals that are altruistic if the benefit to each is greater than the cost of altruism

So... erm... we are all really terrible? Eeek. What a horrible thought. The literature does suggest that the case though. Check this out if you want to read more or just google "psychology of altrusim"):

Batson, C. Daniel. The Altruism Question: Toward a Social-Psychological Answer. Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum, 1991.

As for the kind to cruel acts ratio... golly, that's a toughy. Say for example you murder someone with intent the next day and then lay down your own life to save another's the next. Does that mean the 'debt' has been repaid? I don't know. Gonna have to sit on the fence for a while and puzzle over that one :roll:
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Re: Altruism Thought Expiriment

Postby Infornographer » Thu Nov 08, 2007 6:18 pm UTC

Any functioning society requires benevolence to some degree, even hardcore objectivists will concede that. The study seems to make the claims that because humans practice benevolence more than they practice malevolence, humans have a biological predisposition towards doing "good" things. I disagree completely, and would contend that humans do these good things mostly because they expect to benefit (even if that benefit only comes in the form of living in a better society).

Kagan has a rather odd definition of "goodness", specifically, he has a negative definition. "Goodness" constitutes all acts one does not perform. By this measure, I could consider myself infinitely good. I could go kill my neighbor, but I don't. I could kill his neighbor, but I don't. I could conceivably do an infinite number of "bad" things, but I don't, therefore by his logic my "meanness" to "goodness" ratio equals zero.

His argument boils down to "we have the physical ability to do lots of bad things, but we don't, therefore we have a physical (biological) predisposition towards doing good things." In this construction, the fallacy becomes obvious. He claims instantiated meanness/potential meanness = inherent meanness/inherent "goodness".

I will concede I have based this post entirely on the text of the original post, and have little to know knowledge of Kagan's work beyond that context.
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Re: Altruism Thought Expiriment

Postby Barbie » Thu Nov 08, 2007 8:30 pm UTC

ergo wrote:On a side note, the above quote mentions the media and its fascination with cruel actions. Why is it that human beings prefer hearing about "cruel" acts?

This is probably just for practicality. Imagine the length of a news program that reported all the good things that happened during a day. Cruel acts are newsworthy because of their relative rarity.
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Re: Altruism Thought Expiriment

Postby VannA » Thu Nov 08, 2007 10:58 pm UTC

Biskitty wrote:
As for the kind to cruel acts ratio... golly, that's a toughy. Say for example you murder someone with intent the next day and then lay down your own life to save another's the next. Does that mean the 'debt' has been repaid? I don't know. Gonna have to sit on the fence for a while and puzzle over that one :roll:


Given I am of the belief that there are justifiable reasons for killing somebody.. its not so much an issue for me.

If you rape somebody, then die saving 30 school children.. I'd still call you reprehensible.

I don't generally believe one act cancels another, at all. I don't think the two things belong on the same scale.

And I'd have to make a case by case judgement on whether or not such a person was worth my time.

In any case, we are off topic, really.

I still believe most morality boils down to "I'd rather not have this happen to me, so I won't do it." And "I'd like it if this happened to me, so I will do it."

They both require the leisure of time, and a lack of survival pressures.
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Re: Altruism Thought Expiriment

Postby nick » Fri Nov 09, 2007 1:34 am UTC

Personally, I find it hard to believe there is no true altruism, but the more I read about this stuff the less I know what to believe about it anymore.
Here's another interesting post about the "problem" of altruism.
Biskitty wrote:So... erm... we are all really terrible? Eeek. What a horrible thought.

Right. I figure it's bad, but it can't be that bad. ;)

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Re: Altruism Thought Expiriment

Postby malarkie » Fri Nov 09, 2007 1:46 am UTC

Most humans are altruistic to the point of not being seriously inconvenienced. Others because it was ingrained in them. Still others because they want other people to like them because of the good things they do.
Antogonistic humans come from conditions adverse to them, or some psychological issues.
One good act can't cancel another bad act. Unless it was stealing money and then repayment plus interest.
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Re: Altruism Thought Expiriment

Postby Sastira » Sat Nov 10, 2007 5:08 am UTC

I'm selfish.

Why?

Because I do great things for other people. I spend a significant amount of time helping others. I am a "counselor" to all of my friends. I listen for hours as they vent, cry or ask advice. I do thousands of dollars worth of free work for people who simply can't afford my services, but need what I am able to provide. I get calls at two in the morning from clients in a panic because they need something early the next day and I climb out of bed, get dressed, head on over and take care of them.

Yet I'm still selfish.

Why?

Because all these wonderful things I do, I do because it makes me happy. One of the few things in my life that makes me happy is helping others. I live for the (usually short) feeling of happiness, joy and sometimes elation that I receive by seeing the smile of gratitude or relief on the faces of those I help.

I know I have a point in here somewhere...

*rummage*

Ah yes, here it is:

For me, it seems that the good things I do for others, I do for my own benefit.

As a race, it seems to me that our "nature" is not slanted toward good or evil, but rather to selfishness. We are all selfish. Everything we do, we do to acheive our own goals in life.

I use the term "selfish" in a different way than most. The majority of people I have interacted with view the term "selfish" in a negative light. They believe the inherent connotation of the word is negative. This isn't so. Selfish, in my opinion, is a good thing. Being selfish is what allows each of us, as an individual, to survive. If you always gave away everything you had, you'd have nothing left for yourself. Being "selfish" does not mean "taking something from another person at their expense". It means "doing what you need to do to take care of yourself".
It is quite possible, under my definition of the word, to do something to take care of yourself that is at the expense of another person. My point in this bit about selfishness is to show that it isn't inherently negative.

So, my original statement of how I am a very selfish person is true. I help others constantly because it gives me what I need: Happiness.

There are great acts in our race. There are also terrible, horrible acts. But each of these acts, whether great or terrible, are done out of selfishness... out of a need of that person, a need they must fulfill. What might that need be? I certainly don't know, but there is a need somewhere in their minds that causes them to do what they do.

And that concludes my first post to the XKCD forums! If I did anything out of order (I tried to stay on topic (my mind tends to wander)), please let me know!

-Sastira

EDIT: I completely forgot the following:

As for the question as to why people "prefer" to see acts of violence and similar on television, just ask yourself:

Which would you rather see? A dog, or a velociraptor?

We see "ordinary" all the time. People just living their lives. Rarely do we see the that which is out of the ordinary, thus the fascination.
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Re: Altruism Thought Expiriment

Postby JayDee » Sun Nov 11, 2007 1:29 am UTC

I must be missing something. Reading wikipedia on Altruism, it seems I certainly am.

Why does the fact that it makes you happy cancel out the good act, for lack of a better term? If human beings were predisposed to doing good things, that seems the most obvious mechanism - doing good things making people happy.
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Re: Altruism Thought Expiriment

Postby malarkie » Sun Nov 11, 2007 8:28 am UTC

Because then we are doing it to feel good, not to be good people.
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Re: Altruism Thought Expiriment

Postby notzeb » Sun Nov 11, 2007 9:08 am UTC

ergo wrote:Although the ratio of kind "acts" to cruel "acts" will always be positive,

Indeed. Because there's been at least one of each in the history of the universe, and positive/positive = positive.

Also, no matter how cold and calculating you try to be, there's always that little voice in the back of your head saying, "saving the cute little bunny rabbit is the right thing to do". At some level, humans are programmed to act irrationally. Here's an example of what I'm talking about: it is very difficult to bring yourself to steal something from someone else, no matter how small the chance of getting caught, right? But now imagine that it rightfully belongs to you. It's suddenly much easier (morally) to steal it!

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Re: Altruism Thought Expiriment

Postby Nath » Sun Nov 11, 2007 10:01 am UTC

malarkie wrote:Because then we are doing it to feel good, not to be good people.

The way I see it, 'good people' are simply people who feel good when they do good things.

Why does it seem like there's some circular logic in there?

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Re: Altruism Thought Expiriment

Postby malarkie » Sun Nov 11, 2007 6:11 pm UTC

Because it is circular logic. There are no absolutes in a discussion like this.
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Re: Altruism Thought Expiriment

Postby Nath » Sun Nov 11, 2007 9:34 pm UTC

Who said anything about absolutes? Feeling good and doing good things are both matters of degree. Therefore, so is being good.

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Re: Altruism Thought Expiriment

Postby KingAl » Sun Nov 11, 2007 10:01 pm UTC

The point being that 'goodness' is ultimately subjective anyway, as there's no external basis on which to judge it, and in that sense no absolutes - except from the perspective of society. As such, any discussion of goodness is necessarily circular, because it relies solely on its own assumptions.

malarkie wrote:Because then we are doing it to feel good, not to be good people.

This seems to assume there aren't non-good alternatives that provide the same gratification. There's choice involved, which I feel is the central point.

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Re: Altruism Thought Expiriment

Postby JayDee » Sun Nov 11, 2007 11:59 pm UTC

malarkie wrote:Because then we are doing it to feel good, not to be good people.

So, assuming that it feels good to do good things, there are no good people?

Or there are good people as a side-effect of less-than-good motivations, maybe. Still seems loopy to me.
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Re: Altruism Thought Expiriment

Postby malarkie » Mon Nov 12, 2007 1:02 am UTC

KingAl wrote:This seems to assume there aren't non-good alternatives that provide the same gratification. There's choice involved, which I feel is the central point.


Well, non-good would be bad right? Bad would get you in trouble, hurt your health, make you alone. So not being bad is helpful to you.
JayDee wrote:Or there are good people as a side-effect of less-than-good motivations, maybe. Still seems loopy to me.


It is. That's why it's circular.
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Re: Altruism Thought Expiriment

Postby KingAl » Mon Nov 12, 2007 9:45 am UTC

No, non-good could be morally neutral, or even in this context a lesser good. Going to the park, seeing a moving film.

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Re: Altruism Thought Expiriment

Postby malarkie » Mon Nov 12, 2007 11:35 pm UTC

Going to the park and watching a movie don't help anyone. They are done for your own enjoyment, making them selfish acts, and therefor bad.
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Re: Altruism Thought Expiriment

Postby Owehn » Tue Nov 13, 2007 12:07 am UTC

The point is that sometimes non-altruistic actions can provide the same amount of (or more) enjoyment (or pleasure, or whatever good feeling is being argued) than altruistic actions, so the decision to be altruistic isn't always self-centered.
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Re: Altruism Thought Expiriment

Postby Sastira » Tue Nov 13, 2007 12:08 am UTC

malarkie wrote:Going to the park and watching a movie don't help anyone. They are done for your own enjoyment, making them selfish acts, and therefor bad.


So do you define "bad" as the absence of "good"? To be a "good" person must you always be in the service of others? Is there a middle ground?

Going to the park and watching a movie don't hurt anyone. They are done for your own enjoyment, making them selfish acts, but not taking away from anyone else, therefore they are not bad.

Would that be a more true statement?
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Re: Altruism Thought Expiriment

Postby zenten » Tue Nov 13, 2007 3:01 pm UTC

malarkie wrote:Going to the park and watching a movie don't help anyone. They are done for your own enjoyment, making them selfish acts, and therefor bad.


So you're being bad right now, by posting and reading these forums?

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Re: Altruism Thought Expiriment

Postby Maurog » Tue Nov 13, 2007 4:19 pm UTC

Theoretically speaking, if you found a magic box which gives a hungry man somewhere in the world 10 grains of rice every time you push a button, are you morally obliged to never stop pushing that button?

Does throwing the box away make you a bad person?
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Re: Altruism Thought Expiriment

Postby zenten » Tue Nov 13, 2007 4:25 pm UTC

Maurog wrote:Theoretically speaking, if you found a magic box which gives a hungry man somewhere in the world 10 grains of rice every time you push a button, are you morally obliged to never stop pushing that button?

Does throwing the box away make you a bad person?


I'm morally obliged to have a device built which pushes that button really really fast, and make sure that it is highly redundant/durable.

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Re: Altruism Thought Expiriment

Postby malarkie » Tue Nov 13, 2007 10:37 pm UTC

/intellectual exercise.

I'm out of ideas. I am really a romantic at heart, but it's interesting to argue the other point of view.

And yes, you are bad person if you throw the box out.
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Re: Altruism Thought Expiriment

Postby notzeb » Sun Nov 18, 2007 4:10 am UTC

But what if destroying the box is the only way to save a dog trapped in a well?

What if it's Fry's dog?
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Re: Altruism Thought Expiriment

Postby hobo386 » Mon Nov 19, 2007 3:41 am UTC

Maurog wrote:Theoretically speaking, if you found a magic box which gives a hungry man somewhere in the world 10 grains of rice every time you push a button, are you morally obliged to never stop pushing that button?


Theoretically speaking, that box is http://freerice.com/.

Of course, technically, it isn't a magic box, and it doesn't have an unlimited supply. While it is good to give food to starving people, we have to realize that since the box is not unlimited and that rice has to come from somewhere, it is probably better to just farm rice on your own and give it away. Even better, give the starving man land on which he can farm rice.

Its kinda like that one Confucius quote about teaching a man to fish and how it is better than just giving the man a fish; instead, its more like telling a man to give another man a fish...

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Re: Altruism Thought Expiriment

Postby KingAl » Tue Nov 20, 2007 8:43 pm UTC

Also, the not-a-registered-charity-and-potentially-earning-some-muppet-thousands-of-dollars is a bit of a disincentive.

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Re: Altruism Thought Expiriment

Postby xkcd_n00bz » Wed Nov 21, 2007 3:51 am UTC

Can we count neutral acts as good or evil?

Walking down the street, I do NOT trip the old woman coming the other way. Is that a good act? It would certainly be evil if I did, so me not doing it is "more good" relatively speaking. The inverse scenario can also be postulated.

This brings to mind, is the world a net creater of good or of evil? If in balance, is it always in equalibrium at any given point in time, or does it sum to zero over time?

If a net creater of good or evil, have we reached an equalibrium a set distance away from neutral? If so, with every additional net gain of a person to the world population, each person must, on average, be a little less good. Or evil, depending on where we are.

If not in equalibrium, is the world getting more good (or evil) at a linear rate? Exponentially more so?


Hey, this was a fun thought experiment! If I had the time, I'd write a book and go on the talk-show circuit.
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Re: Altruism Thought Expiriment

Postby Axman » Wed Nov 21, 2007 4:20 am UTC

This is, like, the opposite of altruism, which is doing good for the sake of doing, not points.

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Re: Altruism Thought Expiriment

Postby Brooks » Mon Nov 26, 2007 8:38 am UTC

ergo wrote:On a side note, the above quote mentions the media and its fascination with cruel actions. Why is it that human beings prefer hearing about "cruel" acts?


I can't speak to the altruism side, but this bit at least is clear to me. The news, by definition, is about the unusual. Like the old saw goes, "dog bites man" is not news while "man bites dog" is. So to the extent that the news focuses on the cruel and disgusting, that's confirmation that those things are unusual. It's not at all that we "prefer" hearing about those things. Commercial enterprises, which the media are, can't make money by talking about stuff we all see every day. Who would pay any attention at all?

So, yeah. I believe that good actions far outweigh bad. However, we are all so programmed for good (or at least neutrality) that bad actions are shocking and attention getting. Given that the media are in the business of attracting our attention (so that it can be applied to ads), it's not at all surprising that most news stories are about something that's wrong.


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