I can be wrong, but

There is a dangerous notion in our society of praising altruism and condemning selfishness. In this post I will attempt to convince you that not only is such attitude immoral, but also irrational, and I’ll attempt to do that while not praising selfishness either.

The common argument is that morality talks about what ought to be done, rather than what is, and thus it cannot be tackled on by science which only tells us about how things are, rather than how they ought to be. Can morality be a fruit of nothing but reason? Go home Kant, you’re drunk.

There are many moral scenarios that we might contemplate, some are really tough nuts to crack and it’s hard to have an unanimous judgement about them. I’d like us to consider a scenario that doesn’t go that far, a scenario that may be on the edge of our imperfect moral judgements but shouldn’t be difficult for anyone, I hope: A patient with a fatal heart disease arrives at a hospital, he will die unless he immediately receives a surgery, at which point there is an 80% chance he will die within a week. At the same time, in the same hospital there are 5 other patients in a need of organ transplantation who will otherwise die within a week. Our heart disease patient happens to have same blood group and is otherwise compatible with all of the 5 other patients in need of organs, and his organs can save them all. In such a scenario, is it moral to let the patient with heart disease die and save the other 5?

Attempts at rational morality have been done in the last century, and there are some done this century – most notably by Sam Harris who, in his Moral Landscape, claims that morality is the maximising of wellbeing of conscious creatures. Such notion, although it might sound correct at first, fails when confronted with our case above. I’d argue it is immoral to sacrifice the patient with heart disease in order to save any other life, and I think I might have a good reason to believe so.

What if our patient learns that there are the other 5 that he might help, and he decides to sacrifice himself to help them, is that moral? As someone who strongly believes in freedom, I cannot see a reason why such a sacrifice should be forbidden, people kill themselves in less meaningful ways – being free includes the freedom to end own life, thus such act of altruistic self sacrifice is perfectly acceptable. Would it, on the other hand, be moral to try and convince said patient to sacrifice, not to mention to force it upon him? I’d argue that demanding altruism, in this case at least, is immoral. Is it selfish of the patient to want to keep all his organs intact for as long as there is a chance he might live? You may argue it is, I’d argue it’s not that simple and that it is by no means immoral of the patient to wish to live.

Game Theory describes four different relations between agents that affects their wellbeing:

  1. Selfishness – the act of harming others for the sake of helping oneself.
  2. Altruism – the act of harming oneself for the sake of helping others.
  3. Spite – the act of harming oneself in order to harm others.
  4. Cooperation – the act of helping others and oneself.

Selfishness and altruism are in conflict with each other, can thus someone be both selfish and selfless? Here lays the trap that so many fall into. We like to deal with absolutes, and we like things to be white and black, but it never really is so simple, is it? What will save us from ambivalence? Maybe we shouldn’t be saved from it. Maybe we should rather cherish it.

The truth, usually, is somewhere in between. Aristotle argues that the golden mean isn’t necessarily in the exact middle between two states, but can be closer to one extreme than the other. It might very well be that virtue is somewhere between selfishness and altruism, but if it is so – where is the border? Aristotle also claims that one doesn’t need to have exceptional intellect to figure out the golden mean, but rather that it can be achieved by nothing but common sense. I hate arguments from common sense, as common sense has proven to be insufficient or even downright inconsistent with reality in many fields of science, Quantum Mechanics for one. However, since common sense is a product of evolution, and so is all of our emotional hardwiring, empathy and will to live in packs, then it might be so that common sense is the proper tool for solving problems of morality.

If asked which of the 4 relations listed above is the best case scenario it doesn’t take a lot to point at cooperation. Why is that? What is the unique trait of cooperation that all other relations lack? Is it that it’s beneficent? Maybe, but so is selfishness or altruism (the question is: to whom?). No, the unique trait of cooperation is that it is the only relation that doesn’t produce harm. And here, I believe, is where Sam Harris got his premise wrong:

Maximising wellbeing is not the virtue of morality, avoiding doing harm is.

Does our patient with heart disease hurt others by willing to live? Maybe, but helping others would harm himself in ultimate way, too. That, I argue, excuses him completely – as it does the doctors that perform a surgery on him with only 20% chance of survival within a week. I wouldn’t claim this to be a revelation, after all it is nothing new - Primum non nocere.

In the age of science and exponential technological progress, in the age where majority of the people on this planet still latch onto one kind of superstition or another, I think we need proper morality more than ever. We need a reasoned out morality, rather than one based on faith or emotion. Whenever we jump on our judgements too fast, either due to emotion or faith, the result often can be more harmful than expected. I could bring on many examples of this, and many could be arguable by one group or another. I was therefore when watching a TED talk from this year which, among many of it’s values, perfectly exposes the errors of our social so called morality:

We need a morality based on reason, a morality thought out and discussed. If we fail to achieve that, what does that make us?

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Comments on: "On Altruism, Selfishness and Morality" (4)

  1. Martin said:

    Hi Ivy.
    Interesting blog.
    I was influenced by Ayn Rand to not think of altruism as the basis of reality. I’m not sure I ever thought so. But Rand has such a block headed idea of altruism and is even denser about morality that I shake my head in disgust that so many take her seriously.

    Lately I’ve come to think of morality as set of inherited attitudes that all social animals need to BE social animals. Also I think morality is closely related to language; we interpret certain situations morally. Like our ability language interpreters our moral interpreter is hugely informed by culture.


    • Oh most certainly different cultures have different morality, and even within any culture you may find that people have different moral virtues – which is one of the reasons why Rand resonates in as many people as she did (and does). It’s quite interesting to see where we go, ethics has been a topic of philosophers for ages, but discussing morality only became a mainstream thing with the advent of new atheism and globalization…

  2. Hi Ivy! Nice article. I think you will really enjoy reading the below. It is one of the best takes on ethics and why it matters to a person and what it is objectively based on that I have seen.

    • Thanks! That does sound like my kind of a book, though I’m taking a break from “serious” literature for Baroque Cycle, can get to it as soon as I’m done with it (I’m the end of book 2 out of 8 now :D).

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