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Niall Scott's and Jonathan Seglow's Altruism is the latest addition to the Open University Press survey series Concepts in the Social Sciences, and describes itself as, 'the first introduction to the idea of altruism'. This small, brief book (136 pages, excluding bibliography and notes) draws on several different disciplines to clarify what altruism is and how it functions in personal and public life.
Altruism is already familiar in everyday life and, unlike terms such as 'postmodernism', needs little explanation to be intelligible. It can be understood as an action that takes some account of the interests of those other than the actor, or a motivation to help others without regard for what such action might bring in return.
The book starts with a brief historical review, and then considers the relationship between altruism and ethics, evolutionary theory, social psychology and public policy in a chapter-by-chapter analysis. The sixth and final chapter draws on insights from these different approaches to determine the role of altruism in public life.
The first chapter relates how altruism has been understood historically. For the Greeks, narrow egoism was a kind of mistake: humans are social animals and should act accordingly. Later thinkers explained altruism by equating acting for others with a kind of rational duty: reason tells us to help others where this involves no significant cost to ourselves. Others saw altruism as a non-rational, affective response to others, one that could be strengthened through institutions such as the family.
Scott and Seglow devote most of the chapter on ethics to coverage of Kant's attempt to derive (altruistic) motivation from reason. Compassionate feelings are commendable, but can focus on our nearest and dearest to the neglect of more distant others. Supposedly altruistic acts, such as organ donation, can be directed towards an unacceptably narrow set of beneficiaries, as when the donor's family wishes to donate only to those of the same race. Still, we can, 'educate ourselves to expand the range of our moral sympathies' (p37). However, if altruism must be 'disciplined' through a rational commitment to impartiality, are altruistic dispositions as we commonly value them redundant?
Chapter three raises the question: if evolutionary theory reveals a competitive struggle between organisms, driven by a genetic code, then how could altruism ever have emerged?
The authors discuss the standard Darwinian answer that altruism is a contribution to group survival. Strong objections, centered on self-serving opportunistic free-riders and the coherence of the idea of group selection itself (after all, genes are passed on by individuals), have led to other answers: organisms are altruistic towards kin (pp44-6); or, as outlined by game theory, co-operative or 'altruistic' exchanges are preferable to hostility or uncoordinated competition (pp48-55). The authors also criticize the field of sociobiology for its speculative explanations of human conduct.
Chapter four discusses empirical studies in social psychology and whether apparent acts of altruism can still be regarded as such after an agent's psychological attitudes have been laid bare. Research on social learning, arousal reduction (acting so as to reduce anxiety or arousal), empathetic identification and moral learning (altruistic responses are one of several stages in a person's moral development, p62) suggest certain non-altruistic factors condition altruistic acts, including considerations of cost or the gender or racial group of the one in need (pp73-5).
In modern times, altruism has been extended beyond the sphere of individual action, to include needs of the population that are met by institutions, regardless of the goodwill of any particular individual: 'In contemporary liberal democracies the welfare state bridges the gap between needy individuals and the limits of their fellow citizens' readiness to give' (p89). Chapter five asks how altruism fits into the orthodox economic model of self-interested preference-maximizing rational agents. Some argue altruistic acts are self-interested acts that are 'efficient' in a market context (p92), or bring social approval (p93). The authors suggest altruism is a form of reciprocity, incorporating elements of both self-interest and egoism.
Up to this point, the book can be read simply as an introduction to key themes in the altruism debate. However, the final chapter is more ambitious. It weaves together the conclusions of earlier chapters to redefine the relation between altruism, self-interest and the welfare state: reason gives form to benevolent feeling (chapter one); reciprocity is a form of altruism (chapter two); the conviction of a shared common humanity is the most powerful source of altruism (chapter three); and creative altruism - action beyond institutional precedent and duty - is a vital form of social life (chapter four). These claims suggest the welfare state is not the product of a mutually caring community, nor of self-interested actors hedging against risk. Rather, it is founded on 'mixed communitarianism' (pp122-5). Welfare policies instantiate reciprocity not unconditional concern, yet people avoid free-rider responses in cases ripe for exploitation (p121) because their deepest view of themselves is couched in terms of solidarity and interdependence. Professionals in the voluntary or charitable sectors will find this section particularly worth reading.
In summary, the book aims to treat a key concept extensively yet remain an introductory text, and there is a clear limit to the discussion of altruism within each discipline. While the result is sometimes little more than a list of different views about altruism, this is sufficient depth for an introductory text, and the book functions like an annotated bibliography directing students towards more detailed studies and primary sources. Examples, too, are plentiful. Particularly useful are the conceptual resources provided for engaging with popular sociobiology and evolutionary theory.
In the book, key ideas are reinforced by making the same points in slightly different forms throughout the text. This benefits beginners but the repetition and simplified treatment of issues familiar in their own discipline might frustrated the 'academics' mentioned on the back cover who, supposedly, are also able to profit from this book. Perhaps the greatest value for more advanced readers is the inter-disciplinary nature of the text. Someone already familiar with the treatment of altruism in philosophy, for example, and so uninterested in the ethics chapter, can find an overview of work on altruism in social psychology, social theory and the evolutionary sciences. Reading Altruism reminds one how refreshing it is to consider other disciplines' treatment of a familiar issue. Instead of seeking more fine-grained distinctions one is prompted to start one's train of thought from another point in social discourse.
© 2008 Andrew Lambert
Andrew Lambert is currently finishing his PhD in Philosophy at the University of Hawaii. His research interests include ethics, social and political philosophy and Asian philosophy. His is currently working on the relationship between moral theory and personal relationships.