Altruism: That’s just bad economics

September 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

How many decisions do people make everyday?  How many are conscious?  Unconscious?  While the jury is still out trying to “average” the number of decisions one makes in a day, the number is staggeringly high.  For, example, with each key I punch by moving my finger to type this blog post, I make a decision.  With each break in typing to think, I make a decision.  There are several more decisions that divide these to but go unnoticed on a macroscopic level.  But what spurs me to make each decision?  In economic terms, it’s the marginal utility of each action.  In other words, it’s the amount of satisfaction I stand to gain from following through with my next decision.  It’s the benefit I can receive.  And like most decisions are difficult to name, so too are the more intangible benefits.  But I would argue that every single decision is made for self-benefit in some way.  In seemingly selfless actions, like donating money, I stand to gain satisfaction and that tingly feeling that you’ve done something good.  I briefly researched “altruistic actions,” and found articles entitled “Taiwanese pursue happiness through altruistic actions,” and “Altruism in Action: Japanese Surfer Hero Rescues His Wife, Mother and Others.”  In the first, the Taiwanese gain happiness.  In the second, the pain he stands to suffer if he does not save his family, many may argue, is incentive enough to risk his life.  Thus, I problematize the existence of fully self-less, or altruistic, actions and very strongly oppose the repercussions of implementing altruism-inducing genes.

At its most basic level, altruism would upset the balance of incentives in the world.  By no means do I oppose the development of a more “self-less world,” but I feel as though altruism does not exist for a reason, it does not make sense.  To implement a genetic code that upsets the very nature of human development would have vast consequences.  While ideally it would lead to a world in which everyone helps one another, to tamper with the very nature of decision-making, the core of societal development would have innumerable external consequences.  Especially in a world already established with non-altruistic people.  How would these new gene-bearers fair against those that do not make self-less actions.  After all, they are still seeking for their satisfaction in life.

But I question you all, if one is misinformed and unintentionally causes the benefit of another with nothing to gain, is that altruism?  If a dollar bill falls from my pocket without my knowledge and one who needs it finds it, is that altruism?  I raise this question, because my argument against this gene emerges from a definitional conflict with reality.  Altruism does not logically make sense, but perhaps it falls under one of the many illogicalities of the world we live in.  And if it does, the consequences of such actions on a biological level are still questionable.

-Kevin M.



The “Selfish” Gene

September 23, 2012 § 1 Comment

Genetically engineering one’s kid to be altruistic would be, in my opinion, a terrible idea. Altruism is “the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.” I would like my kid to be kind, sure. But like any parent, I imagine I’d want my child to have the best life he or she could have, and oftentimes, you have to be a little selfish to get what you want. Of course, this all depends on just how altruistic this “altruism” gene would make the child. If it was just “I’m going to make it so my kid’s the kind of person who would allow his friend to have the last candy, even when he wants it for himself,” then that’s one thing. Having a child so altruistic that he would grow up to pass on promotions because someone else wanted the same promotion is another thing entirely. What if the kid turned out so altruistic he couldn’t even support himself because he gave everything away?

The thing about altruism is that, by definition, it does not help the person being altruistic—except by perhaps ingratiating him to others. As a society, we value altruism because selflessness is upheld as a virtue. Certainly, it makes our world a more pleasant place in which to live. But as a mother, I’ll care more about the possible negative effect an overactive “altruism” gene might have on my child’s personal wellbeing than the possible positive effect it might have on the nebulous societal wellbeing.

In addition, I feel like there’s a big difference between “programming” a child with things like height, hair color, and diseases-susceptibility and programming him or her for traits that edge closer to the “nurture” side of the nature/nurture spectrum. Some people are naturally more selfless than others, sure, but life events affect one’s attitude to a great degree. I could just imagine my kid getting some kind of complex because every time he or she has a selfless thought or wants to help someone, s/he thinks, “Is this really me? Am I just feeling this way because my parents gave me this gene?”

There might come the situation, of course, that everyone starts programming their kids to be naturally altruistic. If this were possible, our world might run more smoothly (Or it might not. Would excessive altruism lead to less competition and less drive to succeed and innovate? Or perhaps the same drive would be there, but be supported instead by a desire to make the world better and easier for all). However, I find it hard to believe that such a situation would ever exist. As I said, on the whole, parents will act in whichever way will give their offspring the best possible chance at life, and bestowing them with a tendency for altruism just won’t provide the benefit they desire.


-Kat Zhang

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