Welcome to European Tribune. It's gone a bit quiet around here these days, but it's still going.
Selfishness is not the same as self interest.  Not even neoclassical economics allows for selfishness.  Altruism, however, is just as misplaced as selfishness is, and, contrary to what you've just said, there really isn't very much evidence for it in any field of social science.  What there is more evidence for is that people act out of expectations of reciprocity in some way.  For example, Alberto Alesina has done a lot of work showing that altruism is based on racial affinity -- racism.  People are generous to others like them, not to everyone, and that explains a lot of the variation in welfare state generosity between countries.  Those countries which are more racially homogeneous are more generous than those countries which have high degrees of racial diversity, with the US having the most racial diversity of all.  
by santiago on Sun Mar 1st, 2009 at 03:17:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Of course, high racial diversity also correlates strongly with being a colonial power and/or a slave economy, both of which undercut organised labour as a power bloc (for reasons that should be obvious).

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Sun Mar 1st, 2009 at 03:38:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Quite true, but what Alesina finds is more important in undercutting labor is a winner-take-all electoral system rather than proportional representation which allows for radical parties to have direct political representation, rather than negotiated representation with one of two major parties.
by santiago on Sun Mar 1st, 2009 at 06:07:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It's one of the key stupidities of neoclassical economics that it confuses selfishness with self interest. I doubt you'll find many neoliberals who could explain the difference in practice. And their actions certainly don't support a reading with any particular evidence of nuance.

Altruism isn't just reliably observed in the social sciences, it has a biological foundation - mirror neurons seem to explain it quite adequately.

There's no uncontrived Darwinian explanation which explains why people get incredibly attached to their pets, but they do.

Anyone who's ever paid a vet's bill can tell you about non-reciprocal altruism. There's no objective benefit to owning a pet - e.g. most cats aren't even that good at keeping vermin at bay, never mind defending anyone against hostile people or larger predators, and pet fish don't do much of anything at all - but humans will lavish food, attention, affection and resources on them all the same.

There may be a perceived subjective benefit, but once you accept that, it's no step at all to accepting why altruism exists too.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Sun Mar 1st, 2009 at 03:48:15 PM EST
[ Parent ]
There is no dispute that unreciprocal altruism exists.  The problem is that it does not occur systematically enough to explain why people behave the way they do to each other.  Social science has tried for two centuries now, and there has been little success (although some studies do claim to find it).
by santiago on Sun Mar 1st, 2009 at 06:10:49 PM EST
[ Parent ]
how systematically is systematically enough?  I'd say that that is to vague an argument to philosophically employed, capble of salami slicing any opposing argument.

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.
by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Sun Mar 1st, 2009 at 06:38:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]
That you can make a mental model of it good enough to make a prediction and observe the evidence that the prediction is true.  Same standard that applies to self-interest as the principal motivation for human behavior.  There aren't many good models of altruism that explain much about what happens in the real world.  But there are lots of good models of self-interest and lots of evidence to back them up.
by santiago on Sun Mar 1st, 2009 at 10:57:09 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm ssure thats down to results being more easily experimentally observed. Altruistic results tend to be more indirect, and so less easily testable.

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.
by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Mon Mar 2nd, 2009 at 08:33:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
That's not necessarily true, although certainly a possibility. Quite a bit of work is currently being done in this area related to the phenomenon of migrants sending remittance payments to family members in their countries' of origin, which has exploded in volume in the last 20 years all over the world.  Sociologists (Massey and Stark being the most prominent in this) have tested specifically for altruism or reciprocity, and most of the evidence comes down on the side of reciprocity -- migrants' families provide something, or provide a source of security of the migrant's interests, in return for remittance payments which smooth consumption patterns of their families back home.  
by santiago on Mon Mar 2nd, 2009 at 11:14:18 AM EST
[ Parent ]
A I recall we had some discussion in relation to Robin Upton's

Altruistic Economics

here in the past.

I remember attending his presentation with Ros Stock at LSE of this paper a few years ago.

Altruistic Economics: a Framework for Interaction Between Sympathetic Peers

In particular I was struck by the concept of Sympathy

s where 0 < s < 1

No doubt such a parameter (essentially "indifference value") is a staple of Heterodox Economics of which I am sublimely unaware, but the analysis that followed interested me until I found my maths getting a little rusty....


We present a numeric framework for explicit modeling care relations between peers.

By allowing agents to express their sympathy for their friends in such a concrete form, it provides a mathematical underpinning for the notion of 'wealth as relationships'.

A procedure is derived for the calculation of indirect sympathy relationships, permitting appropriately sympathetic treatment of friends of friends, friends of friends of friends and so on.

This is set in context as the basis for a collaborative, non-zero sum, network-based economy that could reward rather than punish altruism as a basic assumption.

2/ Sympathy

Sympathy is understood as an expression of the strength of feeling of one party for another, as evidenced by preparedness of one party to forego a gain to self so as to bring about a gain to the other.

2.1 Linear Sympathy

The simplest non-trivial sympathy model makes a crude but useful approximation. Sympathy is expressed as a scalar, s, defined with respect to a particular resource as follows: One party has sympathy for another if they are indifferent between receiving s units of a resource themselves and the other party
receiving 1 unit of that resource....

7/ Discussion

Classical market-based economics assumes that trading occurs only between independent self-maximisers disinterested in one another's welfare. Since it conflicts absolutely with what is known of human behaviour from psychological and sociological angles, this represents a serious flaw in the foundations of the theoretical edifice of modern economics.

A corollary to this is that many people in capitalist societies have come to draw a sharp distinction between their personal lives, where personal relationships are important, and their professional lives, in which they appear to be incapable of legitimate expression.

Altruistic Economics is a quantitative framework for structuring expressions of sympathy between peers.....

"The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed" William Gibson
by ChrisCook (cojockathotmaildotcom) on Sun Mar 1st, 2009 at 04:03:59 PM EST
[ Parent ]
This doesn't appear to be, strictly speaking, a model of altruism as socialist political theory would define altruism (fraternity).  Rather it is merely a conventional model of self interest with altruism defined as one of the self interests around which an actor maximizes utility. From what I can see briefly, it appears to be completely consistent with neoclassical economic theory.
by santiago on Sun Mar 1st, 2009 at 11:02:03 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Altruism, however, is just as misplaced as selfishness is, and, contrary to what you've just said, there really isn't very much evidence for it in any field of social science.

Repeating what you said before without any more evidence does not make for a stronger case.

I'm really not in the mood to dig out the vast literature on altruism. In fact one of the philosophical issues that presents a problem from the Darwinian point of view is why would someone (or animal) sacrifice itself for other. Nevertheless we see instances of this all the time.

From the dictionary:
Selfishness - devoted to or caring only for oneself; concerned primarily with one's own interests, benefits, welfare, etc., regardless of others.
Synonym -  self-interested, self-seeking, egoistic; illiberal, parsimonious, stingy.

The key is that one type of behavior is focused on self and altruism is focused on the other.

You have not added anything to your case. And as I said ethical principles don't depend upon psychology they are a matter of fairness and equity.

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Sun Mar 1st, 2009 at 04:16:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]
There is a large, not vast, literature on altruism, and it is the basis for socialism as a political philosophy.  I'm pretty familiar with it, but, like most social scientist ranging from Marxists to Austrian School rightists, I don't find it very convincing, empirically.  With all its faults, even simplistic selfishness just explains the data on human behavior better, and classic self-interest, which includes as a subset the desire to help others, explains it even better, both theoretically and empirically.  That's why the literature is so much more vast for non-altruistic assumptions.  
by santiago on Sun Mar 1st, 2009 at 06:17:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]


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