Rebirth of Reason

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Thursday, October 9, 2014 - 4:27pmSanction this postReply

That's a very clear and well focused article.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2014 - 4:28amSanction this postReply

"Incompatibility" in the title implies egoism and altruism are mutually exclusive. Most of the content assumes the same. So the implicit categorical framework for the article is the upper Venn diagram shown here -- with some slips.

Joe wrote: So even if an action seems compatible with altruism and egoism, which is unlikely, that compatibility is not proof that an action is both altruistic and egoistic. It is chosen based on at most one of those standards.

The use of "unlikely" and "compatibility" here is the first slip. The second sentence quickly returns to mutually exclusive categories. It is not "unlikely" that a parent acts to benefit his or her own child, one spouse acts to benefit the other, or a worker acts to benefit somebody else (boss, the firm, client, patient, etc.).

Like I have said elsewhere (here and here), mutually exclusive categories are okay for depicting moral ideals (or standards) but are grossly inadequate for categorizing particular actions. The categorical framework shown in the lower Venn diagram is better than the upper one. One way to show that is by comparing the two diagrams. Call the five distinct areas of the lower diagram areas 1-5, counting left to right. The left circle of the upper diagram maps to area 2. The right circle of the upper diagram maps to area 5. Thus areas 1, 3 and 4 of the lower diagram are unmapped, or left empty, which implies that the upper diagram fails to recognize actions that I would put in areas 1, 3 and 4.

Another way to show which diagram is better is to try to categorize some particular actions. Consider the following.
1. John Doe steals a lot of money (without being caught).
2. John Doe undertakes an exercise and diet program to improve his fitness along with a goal of entering a 10-mile race in a few months.
3. John Doe swaps a riding lawn mower he no longer uses with a friend in exchange for a set of tools the friend no longer uses.
4. John Doe buys a bicycle for his young daughter, or braces to straighten her teeth, or contributes to a charity to help fund research for a disease that took a relative's life.
5. John Doe drops his aspiration to get a music education and then become a concert pianist to satisfy his domineering mother's demand that he go to medical school and then become a doctor.

These actions, numbered as above, fit in the same-numbered areas of the lower diagram. But where do they fit in the upper Venn diagram? #2 obviously fits the "egoism" circle. #5 obviously fits the "altruism" circle.  #1, #3, and #4 must all be shoehorned into the "egoism" circle, along with #2, treating all four of them as equivalent despite the substantial differences among them. The reader might object to calling the first action "egoism", but "altruism" or "egoism" are the only two choices available using the upper diagram as the categorical framework (and rejecting the lower diagram).

Joe wrote: An egoistic act is one chosen because of the benefit to yourself. An altruistic act is one that is chosen because of the benefit to others. The fact that an act benefits both is beside the point.

I disagree with the last sentence, which contains another slip since it conflicts with the title. Facts about a significant part of human behavior are not "beside the point". Whether an act benefits another person is not "beside the point", especially if said benefit is intentional. The fact remains that actions are often purposely done to benefit another person in addition to or besides the actor, such as the examples I gave in my third paragraph above.

The 'altruism' category per the upper diagram makes a package-deal of benefitting others and self-sacrifice. The 'altruistic action' category of the lower diagram makes no such package-deal.


(Edited by Merlin Jetton on 10/15, 10:39am)

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Wednesday, October 15, 2014 - 11:09amSanction this postReply

Like I have said elsewhere..., mutually exclusive categories are okay for depicting moral ideals (or standards) but are grossly inadequate for categorizing particular actions.

This is where Merlin's argument goes off the tracks. If you categorize an action so as to align it with a moral code, then it must be done according to the characteristics of the moral code and not some different system.  Actions arise out of motivations and the motivations may well arise out of the person's moral beliefs. In this case, it is the moral belief that is needed to categorize the action.


Notice that in Joe's post he said, "It [the action] is chosen based on at most one of those standards."  That is the heart of the issue.  People choose, and many of these choices are made on the basis of their moral beliefs.


Maybe we know the motivation, as in when we create a hypothetical that implies or explicitly states the motive. "He wanted to spend the money on his own children, but he followed the beliefs of his church and gave the money to a fund to help other children." Or, we don't know that the motivation, as in the statement, "He stopped and took a few minutes to comfort a fellow worker that was going through a hard time."  Why did he do that?  Was it a "Christian duty" or was it that this person was important to him?


There is nothing wrong with a category system that might be labled as, "Actions as per who benefits" along with a set of rules that define how we parse things into the categories. Are the benefits restricted to financial benefits?  If not, must they be material benefits, or can positive emotions count as a benefit?


There could be a different category system that we might describe as, "Actions as per who benefits categorized by the actors primary motivation."  Now we would have the same kinds of questions as before ("What do we mean by 'benefits'?") but we also need a motivation.  This means we need to know the value system that was in play to generate that motivation which generated that action.  And this would take us to a parsing of moral belief to their respective moral codes.  Only then could we say that an action was altruistic or egoistic.  And because the moral systems have to be defined ahead of time, we would have a definition of what they each are.  This takes us to those moral ideals or standards (not actions) that Rand and Comte and Merlin all understand and mention as being incompatible with each other.


Because the moral ideals (moral systems) are mutually exclusive, the actions that are categorized will end up being mutually exclusive.  We might end up seeing some actions that are categorized as "altruistic and both benefited",  but we will never see "altruistic and egoistic and both benefited."  The person has a moral belief that in a clash between choices of selfishness and selflessness will resolve in favor of one or the other.  We can't get past the fact that the moral belief is where the categorization of human actions has to come from and that as moral ideals altruism and egoism are mutually exclusive.


Moral beliefs come before the motivations we are interested in, and moral beliefs generate the kinds of motivation we are looking at.  Human actions of the sort we are interested in can not exist apart from a motivation.  The motivations exist before the action occurs.  The assignment of a given moral nature to an action can't turn around and redefine the morality according to who benefits from the action while still maintaining that there can be incompatible moral standards and ideals.


Merlin's injection of "beneficiary" as a means of attaching the tag "altruistic" or "egoistic" to an action is a fallacy.  That isn't how these tags have to be understood and chosen.  

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