It Depends on What You Mean by Altruism

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1 It Depends on What You Mean by Altruism Jordan Kiper University of Connecticut John O Day (2011) argues for a kind of mutualism when answering the question: Is there any room for altruism in Spinoza s ethics? Before commenting on O Day s argument, I would like to stress here that there is much in his paper that deserves praise, and there is much in his line of inquiry with which I agree. For instance, he effectively summarizes one of the most exciting and contested works in western philosophy, namely, Spinoza s Ethics (2006 [1667]). In doing so, O Day outlines with utmost clarity Spinoza s profound views on God, human nature, and the good life for humankind as a mutually contemplative one. Furthermore, O Day argues that, when considering whether or not altruism is consistent with Spinoza s ethical theory, an argument can be made for both sides of the question. I could not agree more. In his Ethics, Spinoza moves from hedonistic satisfaction, as associated with conatus, to a well-ordered society, as associated with virtue. Indeed, this leap from hedonism to mutualism and from the domain of descriptive metaphysics into ethics is both fascinating and challenging; and I myself still struggle with it. I often wonder, too, like O Day, whether it agrees with egoism or altruism, and how it agrees with other aspects of ethical theory and moral psychology. It is with great pleasure, then, that I provide comments on O Day s inquiry, mostly because I have similar questions to his own. My comments therefore aim less at criticizing and more at interrogating his argument in order to understand if, and how, altruism fits into Spinoza s Ethics. For sake of brevity I will be right to the point. Though I agree with what O Day says about Spinoza, I am concerned about what he says or rather does not say about altruism itself. For when it comes to his treatment of altruism, O Day forfeits an explanation of what he specifically means by the term and implies a definition that tends to obscure more than it clarifies. This is truly unfortunate on two fronts. First, altruism is an important concept that spans philosophy and biology alike, and, as such, it comes in a variety of flavors. The perennial favorites are biological, psychological, and sociological, each of which conveys different meanings specifically in terms of motivation that may or may not agree with Spinoza s ethics. O Day s question, then, albeit a fascinating inquiry, would have even more philosophical depth if it asked what particular kind of altruism Spinoza s ethics makes room for. Second, by not defining altruism, I worry that O Day s rather tightly threaded argument could unravel at its seams. For example, his implicit definition suggests that altruism is the motivation for anything other than

2 self-preservation (O Day 2011: pp. 6; 7; 10). But such a definition is far too broad, for it implies that every motivation that does not concern the preservation of the self is somehow altruistic. If so, then altruism would include self-destructive behaviors, bad habits, and arguably numerous leisure activities. As a final point, the whole crux of O Day s argument is the assumption that altruism appears to have no leg to stand on in Spinoza s ethics (pp. 1; 6-7). Though a reasonable premise, its soundness depends on the particular kind of altruism O Day has in mind. Hence, I wish to inquire: What does O Day you mean by altruism? Again, this question arises from my sincere desire to understand his account, not to refute it. To make progress on the question I will spend the rest of this brief commentary elaborating upon it and discussing its implications for O Day s argument. To begin, I think O Day needs to provide an explicit definition of altruism and briefly explain its underlying components to make his argument more precise. For as I bear it in mind his definition is still indistinct enough to make a case for or against altruism in Spinoza s ethics. Based on several passages in his paper, O Day suggests that altruism is the motivation for action that goes beyond self-preservation. Of course, whether this agrees with Spinoza s ethical system comes down to what O Day means by motivation, action, and self-preservation. Because I do not have the space to explore these underlying components in detail, I will only point out two opposing propositions that follow from them. If altruism is feeling motivated to act on what one believes is not in one s self-interest, and Spinoza, as a matter of fact, defends a form of psychological egoism, as O Day suggests, then Spinoza s ethics does not allow for altruism. However, if altruism is being motivated by natural dispositions or unconscious inclinations to perform costly acts that are beneficial to another but not in one s immediate self-interest, then a case for altruism could be made regardless of Spinoza s psychological egoism. This is because the former proposition reflects a narrow conception of psychological altruism, while the latter reflects a broad conception of biological altruism. I will have more to say about the different kinds of altruism momentarily. For now, I point out these two propositions to show that they follow easily from O Day s implicit definition. Still, I believe O Day needs a precise definition for two further reasons. The first is to evade absurd implications. Once again, O Day at times seems to propose that altruism is simply being motivated for anything other than self-preservation (pp. 1; 6; 7; 10). If that is the case, then suicidal people who feel motivated not to preserve themselves are somehow altruistic, which, other things being equal, is somewhat outlandish. The second is to avoid conflating altruism with mutualism. For when defending altruism in Spinoza s ethics, O Day claims that reason promotes solidarity among human beings that is beneficial to everyone (p. 11). But a case in which two or more partners benefit from association is not altruism but rather mutualism. Nonetheless, despite arguing for altruism throughout his paper, O Day rather

3 abruptly concludes by defending mutualism, not altruism. He says, If one lives by the tenets of Spinoza s ethical philosophy, there is no need for altruism; the mutual benefit of all mankind is built in (p. 12). Such a bait and switch is confusing, if not misleading. I am therefore left with the following question. Is O Day arguing for altruism or mutualism? Regardless, without a clear definition, he appears either to conflate altruism with mutualism or to slide from altruism to mutualism somewhere amid his argument. More substantially, O Day speaks of altruism as if it were a straightforward concept but it is not. Since Plato s Republic, theorists have debated what altruism is, and, most importantly, what motivates it (Stitch et al. 2010: 147). In what remains of my commentary I would like to address the three main types of altruism to show that each maintains a different theory of motivation and thus diverges over what it means to be altruistic. Furthermore, I hope to suggest that, contrary to O Day, one form of altruism looks prima facie compatible with Spinoza s ethics, namely, biological altruism. From a naturalistic perspective, no other approach has made more sense of behaviors that benefit others at the cost of the agent than evolutionary biology. For prior to the so-called modern synthesis, such behaviors posed a serious conceptual problem: any behavior that diminishes the survival or reproductive success of an individual in lieu of another should be naturally selected against. Yet such behavior persists, begging the question why? The solution came in three waves. First, William Hamilton (1963; 1964) showed that altruistic behavior is a mode of kin selection, whereby the costly act of helping one s relatives contributes to one s genetic fitness in future generations. Second, Robert Trivers (1971) demonstrated that people are likely to benefit others at personal cost if and only if others provided past benefits or could provide future benefits. Third, Richard Alexander (1987) and William Irons (2001) showed that people engage in costly acts that benefit others in order to acquire the social benefits of having a good reputation. With each solution, the proximate mechanism for altruism is the motivation for affection, friendship, or social approval, while the ultimate mechanism is the motivation underlying all of life, namely the drive for genetic fitness, that is, the preservation of genetic being. It seems to me that biological altruism might coincide with aspects of Spinoza s ethics. First, because genetic fitness compels individuals to persist in their genetic being and to oppose everything that can annul its existence, it resembles Spinoza s conatus. Specifically, like conatus, genetic fitness serves as the fundamental, underlying principle of self-preservation, which, in terms of biological constraint, is written into the genes that undergird the central nervous system and the human mind. Though entirely speculative, this point seems to be suggested by O Day as well when he says, the human mind is hard-wired into the principle of conatus (p. 4). Second, because pain and pleasure have evolved to contribute to survival and

4 reproductive success, Spinoza s own words echo the evolutionary biologists creed on human emotions: happiness consists in a man s being able to preserve his own being (Spinoza 2001 [1667]: 112). Third, Spinoza argues that, based on the conatus, humankind can nevertheless strive for mutual benefit (pp ). This idea is akin to Trivers (1971) notion of reciprocal altruism, which states that people can mutually benefit from temporarily reducing their fitness to help others so long as others do the same at some future time (pp. 45-7). In light of these points, I think O Day might not be correct to insist that altruism has no leg to stand on in Spinoza s ethics. Biological altruism appears to have some foothold. Nevertheless, I imagine that O Day would side less with biological altruism and more with psychological or sociological altruism. Allow me to address these in turn. Psychological altruism is the view that people can and do and sometimes ought to choose what is in the interest of others and not in their self-interest. Examples include Aristotelian and Kantian philosophy, both of which insist that people should act not from natural inclination but rather from the sense of duty to be virtuous for its own sake (Stitch et al. 2010: 148). Altruism here is thus defined by actions that conflict with self-interest but agree with the motivation to do what is right because it is right. Putting aside the discussion of what is right, if this is the form of altruism that O Day has in mind, it does not seem to coincide with Spinoza s purely egoistic basis of ethics. After all, O Day himself states that it is impossible for Spinoza to understand virtue outside the pursuit of what is advantageous to oneself (10). Moreover, if the pursuit of self advantage allows human beings to enter into mutual benefit, as O Day argues, then Spinoza s ethics is still motivated by self-interest, not duty. Hence, Spinoza seems less open to psychological altruism and more receptive to egoism or mutualism. Sociological altruism is the view that people will incur personal costs to help others when the former feels an emotional response to the latter s distress. For instance, Thomas Aquinas and Adam Smith both argued that it was sympathy, pity, and compassion that compelled people to help others when doing so was costly (Stitch et al. 2010: 170). Likewise, experimental psychologists Batson et al. (1991: 58) have recently demonstrated that altruism is ultimately the product of empathy that is, an other-oriented emotional reaction to seeing someone suffer and desiring to end it. Altruism here is thus defined by actions that do not necessarily conflict with self-interest but stem from one s desire to see another s misery come to an end. Although this form of altruism seems promising for Spinoza s ethics, one should keep in mind that it is based almost entirely on emotions while Spinoza s is based almost exclusively on reason (Spinoza 2001 [1667]: 112). Furthermore, where Spinoza s ethics take root in self-preservation, sociological altruism takes root in selfsatisfaction, the former being an interest in the self, while the latter being an interest

5 of the self. It seems unlikely, then, but perhaps not impossible, that Spinoza s ethics would agree with sociological altruism. So what are we left with? It seems to me that biological altruism is perhaps the most likely answer to O Day s main question. However, I admit that even this form of altruism, despite coinciding with aspects of Spinoza s ethics, might not agree with his overall ethical system. With regard to O Day, I imagine he will reach instead for psychological or social altruism, given Spinoza s emphasis on reason and social harmony. If so, to make his argument conclusive, O Day carries the burden of showing how exactly one of these forms of altruism, or another, fits into Spinoza s ethics. In the spirit of Socratic interrogation, I leave my comments as mere ponderings amid a dialectical turn. On that note, I would like to thank O Day for reasoning through these issues and providing me with the opportunity to ponder them further. Indeed, as Spinoza once remarked, there is no singular thing in nature that is more useful to man than a man who lives according to the guidance of reason (Lin 2009: 258).

6 References Alexander, R The Biology of Moral Systems. New York: Aldine De Gruyter. Batson, C.D., Batson, G., Slingsby, J., Harrell, K., Peekna, H., & Todd, R.M. (1991). Empathic Joy and the Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61: Hamilton, W.D. (1963). The Evolution of Altruistic Behavior. American Naturalist, 97: Hamilton, W.D. (1964). The General Evolution of Social Behavior I & II. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 7: Irons, W. (2001). Religion as a Hard-to-Fake Sign to Commitment. In Randolph M. Nesse (ed.), Evolution and the Capacity for Commitment. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, Lin, M. (2009). The Power of Reason in Spinoza. In O. Koistinen & V. Viljanen (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza s Ethics. New York: Cambridge University Press, O Day, J. (2011). Finding Room for Altruism in Baruch Spinoza s Ethics. Spinoza, B. (2006 [1667]). Ethics. In M. L. Morgan (ed.) & S. Shirley (trans.), The Essential Spinoza: Ethics and Related Writings. Indianapolis: Hackett Company, Stitch, S., Doris, J.M., & Roedder, E. (2010). Altruism. In J.M. Doris (ed.), The Moral Psychology Handbook. New York: Oxford University Press,

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