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The question of whether altruism exists remains a central, if not foundational, issue for a number of disciplines, including philosophy (in particular, moral theory), psychology, biology, and economics. At stake here is the altruism versus egoism debate. In recent years, this debate has been shaped and informed by a substantial body of experimental work. This has meant that while a priori arguments for and against the existence of altruism can be and have been developed, the issue has taken on a significantly more empirical flavour.
A Scientific Search for Altruism is firmly situated in this trajectory. In this volume, Daniel Batson draws upon more than three decades of experimental data and evidence to cast serious doubt on the egoist position. While for followers of Batson’s work this latest offering will cover familiar territory, (Such as Batson 1991, 2011). this contribution is pitched at a wider audience, and in this respect, much of its strength and value lies in its engaging, careful, and jargon-free discussion of the innovative empirical work on altruism that has been carried out by Batson and his colleagues.
Structured in four parts, the book pits various egoist hypotheses that have been proposed to explain altruistic behaviour against Batson’s favoured hypothesis, the empathy-altruism hypothesis. The empathy-altruism hypothesis claims that we are motivated to help another in need not because of any perceived benefit to ourselves, but out of an empathic concern for the other. Part I introduces the hypothesis, its conceptual components, and a basic outline of the experimental method used to investigate it. Part II shows how different versions of egoism fail to predict and explain the observed experimental results, thus lending greater credence to the empathy-altruism hypothesis. Part III examines more general conceptions about the relations between the self, others and their place in wider groups that might provide alternative ways to support the egoist interpretation, but which are once again found empirically wanting. Part IV considers the broader philosophical, societal and political implications of a reversal in perspective that takes altruism, and not egoism, as a central component of our interactions with others.
Not just any helping behaviour counts as altruism. As Batson sets out in Part I, a defensible conception of altruism needs to take into account the goals and motivations of the agent. This may seem obvious, but as Batson shows, there are alternative conceptions of altruism in use across other disciplines, such as evolutionary biology, that make no reference to the agent’s goals and as such result in a far too inclusive definition of altruism (15-17). Articulating altruism with reference to the goals, desires and motivations of the agent not only provides a firmer grip on the notion, but also enables us to more precisely distinguish between altruism and egoism. For egoism, helping someone in need is only ever a means to reaching the ultimate goal of increasing my own welfare. By contrast, for altruism, self-interest is not the ultimate goal of helping, but instead an unintended consequence. Genuine altruism is motivated by the ultimate goal of increasing another’s welfare for their own sake.
This raises the question of the source of altruism, which brings us to the core proposal of the empathy-altruism hypothesis, namely that altruism is grounded in empathic concern for another person. Batson characterises empathy as an ‘other-oriented emotion elicited by and congruent with the perceived welfare of someone in need’ (29). It serves as an umbrella term for a range of other-oriented emotions felt for someone in need, such as ‘sympathy, compassion, tenderness, soft-heartedness, sorrow, sadness, upset, distress grief, and more’ (29). Thus, the empathy-altruism hypothesis predicts that when we feel empathy for someone in need, we are more likely to help the person evoking such an emotional response.
Although Batson identifies empathic concern as the root of altruistic action and behaviour, this does not by itself vindicate the empathy-altruism hypothesis. For it is entirely plausible that empathy can also motivate egoistic behaviour. One possibility is the ‘remove-empathy hypothesis’ (34), which claims that empathic concern for someone in need is an uncomfortable and distressing emotional state, and as such we are motivated to do what we can to help another because this may be the most effective way to remove that distress. Therefore, in order to test and establish the link between empathy and altruism, it must be possible to not only create experimental conditions that induce empathic concern in subjects, but that also manipulate their underlying motivations too, in order to
[…] determine whether benefit to the person in need was (a) an ultimate goal, with benefit to the helper being an unintended consequence (altruism); or (b) an instrumental goal on the way to the ultimate goal of benefit to the helper (egoism) (26)
Thus, empirical investigation of the connection between empathy and altruism has to rest on two related but independent experimental manipulations: the manipulation of empathy itself (the independent variable) and the manipulation of the underlying motivation (the dependent variable).
There are established methods for inducing an empathic response under experimental conditions which Batson relies on, such as instructing the subject to take the perspective of the person in need (high empathy) or instructing the subject to assess the victim’s situation in as detached and objective a fashion as possible (low empathy). It is the second manipulation that presents the conceptually more interesting challenge. As our motivations cannot always be clearly read from our actions, it is necessary to elicit patterns of behaviour that can then be used to infer the ultimate goals that motivate the subjects. One possible way to do this would be to vary the costs of helping. Intuitively, if we help someone in need even when the costs of doing so are high, the thought goes, then we must be doing so for altruistic reasons. The problem here, Batson argues, is that, except in pure (but extreme) cases of self-sacrifice, helping someone more normally results from a mixture of motives, both altruistic and egoistic. This is because even if our motivations for helping are ultimately altruistic, we still take account of the costs involved. As Batson notes, ‘the impulse to act on an altruistic motive evokes an egoistic impulse to reach the altruistic goal at minimal cost’ (38). Thus, using the costs of helping does not provide a clear way of determining whether the motivation to help was altruistic or egoistic.
Batson’s innovative approach is to focus instead on the costs of escaping (i.e. varying whether it is easier or harder for the subject to escape having to help someone in need). What this enables is a clear distinction between the results predicted by the empathy-altruism hypothesis and those predicted by the egoist alternative. The various versions of the egoist explanation would predict that if the costs of escaping are low (i.e. they are essentially presented with a ‘Get out of jail free’ card), then even in high empathy conditions, subjects would choose to escape rather than help, since that provides the most cost-effective way to remove their empathic concern. By contrast, if the empathy-altruism hypothesis is correct, varying the costs of escaping should not produce marked differences in behaviour since the only viable way for subjects to meet their ultimate goal (removing another’s need and/or increasing their welfare) is by actually helping the person in need, regardless of the costs of escaping. By manipulating both variables it is possible to identify patterns of behaviour that would follow if altruistic behaviour is motivated by a genuine desire to help someone in need for their own sake.
This conceptual analysis and experimental design provides much of the machinery that shapes the ensuing discussions in Parts II and III. Part II examines several egoist explanations for helping someone in need, including: (i) the empathy-specific-punishment hypothesis, which holds that we help to avoid censure from others in the form of shame or guilt; (ii) the empathy-specific-reward hypothesis, which, conversely, argues that helping behaviour is explained by subjects seeking praise and pride; (iii) the sadness-relief hypothesis, which claims that it is the desire to boost mood and relieve the personal sadness experienced by an observer of someone in need that motivates helping; and (iv) the empathic-joy hypothesis, which states that we are motivated to help someone in need because of the pleasure that is experienced from doing so. What Batson repeatedly shows is that each of these egoist alternatives do not yield the experimental results that one would expect if they were correct. Instead, the results consistently favour the empathy-altruism hypothesis.
Part III moves beyond the reporting of experimental results to consider less orthodox ideas that have gained traction in some circles in philosophy and psychology, which would provide alternative ways to explain altruistically motivated helping behaviour. One such idea is the notion of ‘self-other merging’. The idea here is that an empathic emotional response to someone in need produces a form of mutual identification between the helper and the other person, such that ‘you no longer see yourself and the person for whom you feel empathy as distinct individuals’ (151). Batson takes such a view to be at root another form of egoism because, if through my empathic concern I ‘merge’ with you, your needs then become mine, and so helping you would really be a way to help myself. Batson argues, rightly in my view, that such ideas cannot explain the empathy-helping relationship. The studies cited in support of self-other merging typically do not manipulate empathic concern and so do not rule out other explanations for helping others in need.
At times the discussion here moved too quickly. While we can accept that claims like that of self-other merging might be limited in terms of their empirical applicability, their significance may not lie in this specific context but rather in the more general assumptions with which we approach the altruism/egoism debate. Batson, for example, sets up egoism as the default position and cites its pervasiveness in the wider intellectual context (such as the theory of rational choice in economics or in certain conceptions of evolutionary theory) as evidence of this. From this perspective, altruism should be an anomaly. But while it might make sense to frame the discussion in this way for dialogical purposes, this should not be at the expense of asking the more fundamental question of what entitles us to take egoism as the default position in the first place. Although views like that of self-other merging might sound far-fetched, they do enable us to approach the debate from a different perspective, one that takes our empathic concern for and sense of mutual identification with others as a starting point in the debate, rather than a mystery that needs to be explained.
Such a volte-face is in any respect the kind of position that Batson himself moves towards in Part IV. While the preceding discussion in Parts I-III is focused on the experimental study of altruism, Part IV takes the reader through a more general discussion of how altruism is possible at all, examining its biological and psychological antecedents, and in doing so engages insightfully with other areas of research such as developmental psychology and primatology. In the final chapters, Batson considers the positive implications for the recognition that altruism, empath and helping one another are much more likely and common at the psychological level than we are routinely presented with. Such studies suggests that empathy-induced altruistic motivation means that not only are we much more likely to help each other, but also that such help is more sensitive and much less fickle help than commonly thought (212-214). This is complemented by further research that suggests that the empathy-altruism approach could translate into practical policies in conflict resolution and education (217-219). Of course, the prevalence of empathy-induced altruism is not a panacea and Batson discusses some of its negative implications in chapter 14.
In sum, there is much on offer in this work. Batson argues convincingly that altruism is a much more widespread phenomenon in human behaviour and society than standard accounts of our psychology would suggest. It presents compelling evidence for the claim that empathy makes altruistic behaviour significantly more likely alongside situating this idea within its broader philosophical and psychological contexts. As noted above, although much of the discussion draws on previously published work, Batson’s command of the experimental research provides an exceptionally lucid entry point into the empirical psychology of altruism, and as such, this volume would be an engaging resource not only for undergraduate and graduate students, but also to anyone approaching the topic for the first time.
Batson, C. D. 1991. The altruism question: Toward a social-psychological answer. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum Associates
Batson, C. D. 2011. Altruism in humans. New York: Oxford University Press
© 2019 Harry Lewendon-Evans
Harry Lewendon-Evans, Independent Researcher