Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Altruism turns me on

In a number of previous conversations, I've tried to explain why I think that people who decide to do "the right thing" aren't particularly praiseworthy.

Nice people do the right thing because they feel like it. They do not, in some spiritual sense, muster up The Will To Do Good and apply it to their situation. Instead, their values make them feel like doing the right thing instead of pursuing some other option.

Recent neuroscience seems to support this opinion. If you have a minute, read this article at the Washington Post.
The scientists stared at each other. Grafman was thinking, "Whoa -- wait a minute!"

The results were showing that when the volunteers placed the interests of others before their own, the generosity activated a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex. Altruism, the experiment suggested, was not a superior moral faculty that suppresses basic selfish urges but rather was basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable.
(h/t GKB.)


scoots said...

I'd be curious to see how this would apply in cases of people who have undergone major conversions –– selfish at one stage of life, then had a powerful religious experience, then altruistic.

Matthew said...

The article suggests that the ability to be altruistic is connected to the ability to empathize with others. I wonder whether these hypothetical converted people experienced a change in their ability to empathize as part of their religious experience.

That also makes me wonder ... does exiting adolescence count as a powerful religious experience?

Jason said...

Reading the article reminded me (as if I needed reminded)how challenging the call of Christ can be. Lots of people manage to do nice things--perhaps they're wired that way, as the article suggests--but being a Christ-follower surpasses being a nice person. Unfortunately, I think we sometimes make performing superficial nice deeds tantamount to following Christ. For example, it's pretty easy to give five bucks to a homeless guy or to contribute money to a charitable drive, but it's decidedly more challenging to take time to develop relationships with people in need, to live with continual compassion.

Matthew said...

I dunno, I suspect some people are also wired to "take time to develop relationships with people in need" and "live with continual compassion".

Or at least they're wired to be interested in those sorts of things.

Jason said...

Maybe some people have a proclivity towards that sort of character, but I'd venture to say that most people would find it challenging to exhibit that kind of character continually, yet that's part of the challenge of following Christ. I don't know that anyone manages to be that way all the time, but I believe the more we surrender ourselves to that kind of self-sacrifice, the more natural it becomes.

Matthew said...

Here's an interesting essay on altruism and evolution:

Evolution, Altruism and Ethics

The author gives a quick overview of the possible origins of altruism and the implications of evolved morality on Hume's and Kant's moral philosophy.

I think he gets a little muddled on free choice and its implications for morality, but it seems like a good overview.