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The Egoism-Altruism Debate
A Psychological Perspective
Dan Batson, an experimental social psychologist, is a professor emeritus at the University of Kansas and the author of Altruism in Humans. His research focuses on the existence of altruistic motivation, the behavioral consequences of religion, and the nature of moral emotions.
Dan's presentation explored the egoism-altruism debate. He shed doubt on the common Western presumption that humans are always motivated by self-interest by providing experimental evidence that altruism does exist, and that it arises from feelings of empathic concern. In the ensuing discussion, the panelists compared Dan's research to Buddhist conceptions of how people can cultivate altruism, and the circumstances in which altruism may be extended to strangers and members of out-groups.
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Your Holiness, I know that you are deeply convinced that altruism and compassion play a crucial role in human life, and that for many years you have cultivated these qualities through your spiritual practice; so it may come as a bit of a surprise to hear that in Western thought, particularly in psychology and economics, there is much doubt and debate about whether altruism and compassion even exist. There is a conviction that all human action, no matter how noble and seemingly selfless, is motivated by self-interest or egoism. The question is always, what's in it for me? As research psychologists, my colleagues and I have been trying to address this issue and see whether the Western view is correct.
I would like to begin by talking about the egoism-altruism debate. Let me explain what those terms mean. In this debate, egoism is a motivational state with the ultimate goal of increasing one's own welfare. That is contrasted with altruism, a motivational state with the ultimate goal of increasing another's welfare. What I mean by "ultimate goal" here is not a first and final cause, but what the person is truly after in the situation. That's different from an instrumental goal, which is something one pursues as a means to some other end. The reason this is an important distinction is that egoism and altruism can both motivate helping behavior and cooperation, even very costly helping. But egoism claims that all acts of kindness toward others have the ultimate goal of increasing one's own welfare. For example, one could be seeking to feel good about oneself, to feel a warm glow, or to avoid guilt.
The question then becomes, are humans actually capable of altruism? In Western thought, the dominant view is universal egoism. Here's a nice description of it from the Duke de La Rochefoucauld: "The most disinterested love is, after all, a kind of bargain in which the dear love of our own selves always proposes to be the gainer some way or other."1 We're not just talking about material gains and punishments here; you could gain by avoiding social or self-punishment in the form of censure and guilt. The gains could also be social or self-rewards, such as getting praise from others or feeling good about yourself.
Another important possibility is that you help in order to reduce your own distress caused by witnessing another's suffering. That would still be an egoistic motive, because the goal is to benefit oneself. On that point the Dutch-born English philosopher and economist Bernard Mandeville made a rather extreme statement. He said, "There's no merit in saving an innocent babe ready to drop into the fire: The action is neither good nor bad, and what benefit soever the infant received, we only obliged ourselves; for to have seen it fall and not strove to hinder it, would have caused a pain, which self-preservation compelled us to prevent."2
Is this dominant egoistic view correct? That brings us to the empathy-altruism hypothesis. The hypothesis is that empathic concern produces altruistic motivation. This hypothesis is not original to me by any stretch; Charles Darwin, for example, proposed a version of it. A number of other people have also proposed this idea throughout history, but it's always been a minority view in Western thought. In this hypothesis, "empathic concern" refers to an other-oriented emotion evoked by seeing a person in need-a feeling for the person in need. It's not feeling as the person feels. Empathic concern includes feelings of sympathy, compassion, and tenderness for the other person. It's distinct from the feeling of personal distress I mentioned earlier-our pain at seeing the baby ready to fall-which is a self-oriented emotion.
Evidence has shown that empathic concern is associated with increased helpfulness. But this evidence, by itself, simply says empathy produces some motive; it doesn't say what the nature of the motive is. Is it an egoistic motive or an altruistic motive? When we help another person, we benefit the other, but we also receive self-benefits. The egoistic account is that the benefit to the other is simply instrumental; it's the means to the ultimate goal of benefiting ourselves. For example, an advocate of egoism might argue that when we feel empathic concern for someone who is suffering, we suffer too, and we are motivated to reduce our own suffering. It's just like personal distress in the sense that the motivation is to benefit ourselves, even if that motivation arises from empathic concern. That's an egoistic account.
The altruistic account is that benefitting the other is our ultimate goal. Our concern is for the other person's welfare. Yes, we benefit. We feel better about ourselves, perhaps we're happy that they feel better, and we avoid feeling guilt-but those are unintended consequences. They happen, but that's not why we act. We act because we want to help the other, not help ourselves. The research puzzle is how do we determine what a person's ultimate goal is in a given situation? You are acting to benefit the other, but is that an instrumental goal, or is that an ultimate goal?
To illustrate how my colleagues and I have tried to solve this puzzle, I'd like to briefly focus on one experimental procedure addressing the question of whether the motivation evoked by empathic concern is to relieve our own discomfort. In this particular experiment, female undergraduates individually observe another undergraduate, Elaine, perform a memory task. The observers do not know Elaine. Elaine's task involves trying to repeat back strings of digits to a research assistant. Elaine receives random electric shocks as she tries to remember the digits, ostensibly to study the effect of aversive conditions on the performance of such a task. (She does not actually receive shocks in this procedure. Participants are observing Elaine over closed-circuit TV, and what they're actually seeing is a videotape that we created for the experiment.) About halfway through the memory task, the assistant interrupts the procedure because it is clear that Elaine is finding the shocks very uncomfortable. Elaine explains that she may be finding the shocks so difficult because of a traumatic childhood experience when she fell off a horse onto an electrical fence. Elaine is in clear distress but says she will continue.
At this point, the observers are given a chance to help Elaine by taking her place-that is, do the memory task and receive the shocks. Half of them are told that if they don't take her place, they can just continue to observe her perform the task. We call this difficult escape. The other half are told that if they don't take her place, they will be free to go; Elaine will continue, but they will not have to watch. That's what we call easy escape. The idea behind this is that if participants are egoistically motivated to reduce their own empathic concern, then in the case of the difficult escape, they'll feel obliged to help, because that's the only way to turn off the stimulus that's causing their suffering. In the easy escape, they can simply leave, so they'll be much less likely to help Elaine. However, if empathic concern produces altruistic motivation, with the goal of relieving Elaine's suffering, participants feeling empathy should be just as likely to help when escape is easy as when it is difficult.
To test these competing predictions, we added another feature to the experiment. We assumed that watching Elaine react badly to the shocks would lead participants to feel a mixture of self-focused uneasiness and discomfort (personal distress) and other-focused warm, sympathetic feelings for Elaine (empathic concern). We induced half of the participants in each escape condition to misattribute their warm, sympathetic feelings to a drug they had taken as part of another experiment (actually a cornstarch placebo), and so they reported feeling predominantly personal distress as a result of watching Elaine. We induced the other half to misattribute their feelings of uneasiness and discomfort to the drug, and they reported feeling predominantly empathic concern.
What we found was that those participants for whom personal distress was dominant were much less likely to help if escape was easy than if it was difficult. That's the pattern we would expect if their motivation was egoistic, which seems to have been the case. What about the participants for whom empathic concern was dominant? For them, it made no difference whether they were given the easy or difficult escape option; a high percentage decided to help in both cases. (See figure 1.1.) This pattern is consistent with the empathy-altruism hypothesis. If your goal is to increase the other's welfare, leaving doesn't do that. The only way you can increase the other's welfare is by actually taking his or her place.
However, there are other egoistic explanations that could account for these data. For example, if the participants were motivated to avoid guilt, we would see this same pattern. But results of other experiments indicate that the motivation produced by empathic concern is not directed toward the ultimate goal of avoiding guilt. We've now conducted over thirty-five experiments to test various egoistic alternatives. The results of these experiments have supported none of the egoistic alternatives that people have been able to propose; the data consistently support the empathy-altruism hypothesis. So our tentative conclusion is that the human motivational repertoire is not limited to egoism or self-interest. Empathic concern does indeed produce altruistic motivation, and this motivation is actually quite powerful. Thus I believe that we need to take empathy-induced altruism into account in our understanding of human behavior, even in economic systems.
What leads us to experience empathy-induced altruistic motivation? Two conditions seem to be key: valuing the other's welfare, and perceiving the other to be in need. I think the process begins with valuing the other's welfare. If you don't value the other's welfare, even if you perceive the other to be in need, it will not lead to empathic concern. But if you do, these two together will produce empathic concern, and that is what produces altruistic motivation, at least this form of it. My question is, how does this view relate to the Buddhist view of compassion?
Thupten Jinpa: There is a somewhat parallel understanding of the process of cultivating compassion in Buddhist practice as well. For example, one of the key elements that is required for experiencing compassion for someone is some form of appreciation of the other, which leads to some kind of connectedness with the other. And on that basis, a sense of the unbearableness of the sight of the other's suffering arises. Together these lead to compassion.
Dalai Lama: Usually when Buddhists describe other sentient beings, we refer to them as mother sentient beings. That means others are as dear to you as your own mother. So first we try to develop that kind of perception of others as dear.
Dan Batson: That relates to valuing others' welfare. Then, with perceiving the other in need, it should lead to empathic concern.
Thupten Jinpa: In the Buddhist understanding, the process would be first to cultivate the perception of others as dear and worthy of your concern. Then, when combined with the perception of others' needs, you cultivate the motivation to help others, which would then lead to actual altruistic behavior, or action.
Dan Batson: It sounds like we see the process in much the same way, although what I'm referring to asaltruism is the motivation, which then would lead to the behavior.
Joan Halifax: Dan, does this hypothesis hold in relation only to someone who is from your in-group, like your family or your village, or also to a person who is stigmatized, or in an out-group, or in a nation that you are warring with?
Dan Batson: There has been research done on this, and certainly our tendency is to value the welfare of and feel more empathic concern for those who are near and dear. But it does seem that empathic concern can be evoked beyond the in-group, particularly if you can get people to focus and think about the suffering of others. We do that in the research; it's been done usually through what is called perspective taking, where you try to imagine what the other is feeling and how he or she is affected by the situation. I know the Buddhist contemplative tradition does it more through trying to think and discipline the thought, to automatically see the other as like mother, like child. But if you get people to take the perspective of the other, empathic concern seems to be evoked. We have found that we can do it for members of out-groups, stigmatized people, homeless individuals. It seems to be possible for anybody for whom you don't feel antipathy. That's where you lose the valuing of others' welfare, I think.
Dalai Lama: I always make clear that our discussion is simply on Buddhist science, and to some extent Buddhist concepts. These two things could be universal; the Buddhist religion is mostly for Buddhists. However, from a Buddhist practitioner's point of view, it's very important to discern whether or not your love, compassion, or sense of concern is based on attachment. As long as your sympathy or altruistic attitude is essentially based on attachment, then it is very limited. And that love or kindness or altruism based on attachment can easily change. Today, you feel concern. The next day, you wish harm and suffering on the other, because that is the nature of attachment. So for this practice you must first detach so there is no difference between an enemy and a friend. Your friends are sentient beings who want happiness and who also have a right to it. Your enemy also has the same right. So your sense of concern must be based on that understanding; that's the Buddhist way.
You mentioned that basic human nature is selfish. Now here, what is the exact meaning of selfish or egoistic? Egoism in a broad sense is just a feeling of "I." "I" is the center of the whole universe! That is present in all of us at all times. From the Buddhist viewpoint, even Buddha has that kind of egoism. Buddha naturally feels "I am." But that feeling of "I" has many levels. In order to practice altruism, we need a strong sense of self. This sense of self is the basis of willpower, the basis of enthusiasm, the basis of confidence. But on another level, with that "I" feeling comes attachment, and when attachment is there, hatred is also there. So some people, some sentient beings, form attachment to what they consider dear to them and useful to them. Attachment creates a feeling of closeness that brings a sense of concern, a kind of altruism. But because it's based on attachment, you cannot shift it toward your enemy, or to neutral people.
That belief, I think, is for Buddhists, not the general public. Other religions have parallel teachings. In theistic religions, the concept of a creator, as I understand it, has the same purpose: to develop faith toward God and to view all beings as created by God. All are from the same source, and you yourself have totally submitted to God. So that reduces negative egoism, and at the same time, when all others are created by the same source, there's no reason to make a distinction between "my friend" and "my enemy." If you go further, my enemy is also created by God.
Dan Batson: Let me just pick up on one thing that you said at the beginning there, which is that we all have egoistic motives, that is, self-interested motives. That's quite true. That's a helpful clarification here, I think, because the research demonstrating that we have altruistic motives is in no way demonstrating that we don't have self-interested motives. We certainly do, and in most situations both are operating. But we also need to recognize that altruistic motivation-that is, the capacity to care about the welfare of another-does seem to be within our nature.
Thupten Jinpa: To give an example, in the Buddhist context, one speaks of the highest form of an altruistic mental state, which is referred to as the awakening mind, or bodhicitta. Bodhicitta is characterized primarily by two aspirations. One is the aspiration to seek full awakening for the benefit of all beings, so that is other-centered, other-regarding. But along with it is also an aspiration to seek one's own enlightenment. So even there, there is recognition of the presence of self-interest.
Copyright © 2015 by Tania Singer and Matthieu Ricard