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After Summarizing Sober and Wilson’s Evolutionary Argument in Favor of Psychological Altruism, Critically Evaluate This Objection, Including Tiberious’s Response to This Objection

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The development of Altruism. Altruism is a term that derived from the Latin language, means “to others” and “of others”. It served as an antonym for “egoism” that refers to other-regarding behaviors. According to the literature, the definition of altruism contains many facets. Author of “The Heart of Altruism: Perceptions of a Common Humanity”, Kristen Renwick Monroe, defines altruism as “entailing action, with no conditions or reward-seeking, that is intended to benefit another without regards to the personal diminution that may occur.” Intentions count more than consequences, says Monroe.

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Unto Others, a collaboration between Elliott Sober, one of the founders of the modern philosophy of biology, and David Sloan Wilson, one of the most creative theoreticians in evolutionary studies, wades into this turbulent stream [of evolutionary biology ideology] at precisely the point where so many other adventurers have been swept away: the problem of the origin of altruistic behavior… At first sight Unto Others appears to be a reformulation of the now orthodox view of the evolution of altruism. It is, however, a great deal more subversive than that, for, if its alternative scheme is taken seriously, evolutionary biologists should stop characterizing the process as one in which genes drive organisms to develop particular characteristics that maximize their fitness… Unto Others is precisely that combination of radical reexamination of a system of explanation, an examination from the roots, with a rigorous technical analysis of both biological and epistemological questions that we all are supposed to engage in. What marks off their intellectual production is not its ideology but the seriousness with which they have taken the intellectual project. The hinge of Sober and Wilson’s argument is a rejection of the prejudice that natural selection must operate directly solely on individuals. They point out that groups of organisms may also be the units of differential reproduction… A large part of Unto Others is taken up with a classic problem in philosophy and psychology that is analogous to the evolutionary question of whether the appearance of altruism at the individual level is really selfishness at the genic level. Is human altruism really egoism, or even pure hedonism, in disguise? …In the end, Sober and Wilson are entirely forthright in saying that they have consciously adopted a pluralistic perspective.

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Firstly, it is pluralist in structure: it does not say that all of one’s ultimate desires are for the well-being of others (this would obviously be false). It merely claims that some of one’s ultimate desires are for the well-being of others. By contrast, psychological egoism (the major alternative thesis it contrasts with) is monistic in structure: it claims that all of one’s ultimate desires are for one’s own well-being only (Sober & Wilson 1998, 228). Secondly, the above characterisation of psychological altruism rests crucially on the concept of an ‘ultimate’ desire. Ultimate desires are opposed to instrumentalist desires, in that the latter are derived from the former by means of intervening beliefs or belief-like states. Spelling out what this ‘derives from’ means is quite tricky, but for present purposes, it is enough to note that it is widely accepted that a ‘rough and ready’ criterion for a desire to be instrumental is that the only reason why the desire is held is that the agent has some particular belief or belief-like state

While this criterion is unlikely to do justice to all cases, it is all that is needed for the discussion here (Stich 2007; Sober & Wilson 1998, 217-222; Goldman 1970). Now, a brief look at Sober & Wilson (1998) is enough to make clear that option (A) can be immediately discarded: Sober & Wilson quite clearly do not pretend that their arguments could achieve anything so sweeping as the establishment of the truth of the thesis of psychological altruism. Equally clearly, though, conclusion (E) is advanced by them: they are explicit in noting that they seek to show that evolutionary theory can provide considerations speaking in favour of the truth of altruism – which is all that giving evidence amounts to here (Sober &Wilson 1998, 12). The situation with respect to (M) is more ambiguous, however: while it is nowhere explicitly endorsed, a number of Sober & Wilson’s remarks at least suggest acceptance of it. For these reasons, it seems best to proceed on the assumption that Sober & Wilson accept both (E) and (M).

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By and large, what is wrong with those who do not care about others for their sake? It could be the case that such individuals are themselves worse off for their lack of altruistic motivation. That is what a eudaimonist must say, and we have not objected to that aspect of eudaimonism

It could also be the case that there is a failure of rationality among those who are never altruistic or insufficiently altruistic. But it should not be assumed that there must be something else that goes awry in those who are not altruistic or not altruistic enough, beyond the fact that when they ought to have cared about some individual other than themselves, they failed to do so.

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Sober E. and Wilson, D. S.: 1998, Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Batson C. D.: 1991, The Altruism Question: Towards A Social-Psychological Answer, Lawrence
Erlbaum Associates, Hillsdale.

Carey, S.: 1998, Knowledge of Number: Its Evolution and Ontogenesis, Science 242: 641-642.

Goldman A.: 1970, A Theory of Human Action, Prentice-Hall, Princeton.

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