- A popular stick against which to measure the residual component of animal behaviour not explained by an economic model.
- A rhetorical flag to imply that your argument is hard-nosed realism and that conflicting argument is airy-fairy groundless idealism
In case (2) we can file it next to “individual free will”, “will of the people”, and “selfishness”, as one of those irritating terms with implied air quotes that it is polite to pause to acknowledge doesn't mean anything before proceeding to argue as if it does. That is, while I find “altruism” a defective framing, it is at least a good juncture to muse about what we do attempt to optimise, and at what scale, and how we talk about that.
In case (1), the usual caveats about model construction apply. Also it is worth making explicit what scale the “altruism” is suspected to occur at. (altruistic genes? individuals? with respect to other alleles? The whole genome? A whole society?), or you will wade into a weird rocky landscape of gene-versus-individual-versus-group-selectionism.
Altruism is also a useful term in engineering problems: See “design of collectives” a la Wolpert, for the study of how to design optimal utilities, or “mechanism design” for the study of how to align individual and collective incentives in market and legal transactions. See “behavioural economics” for the study of what people actually do.
TODO: Discuss real-world use and occurrence of “altruism”, esp. altruistic punishment, and the rhetoric of altruism. Gary Becker-style models of utility. See also cooperation for group selection-ish stuff, cancer, eusociality, genetic, social, individual and other kinds of learning.
Martin Sustik, anti-social punishment
Herrmann, Thöni and Gächter found out that participants in some societies were engaging in what they've called “anti-social punishment”. They were punishing cooperators!
In fact, they were punishing cooperators so much that the cooperation-enhancing effect of pro-social punishment was entirely canceled.
To make it even more confusing, the anti-social punishment, unlike the pro-social punishment which had roughly similar level in all the participant pools, differed widely among the pools. While it was almost non-existent in the West, it was common in Eastern Europe, in Middle East and in Greece.
The authors then try to find out which aspects of the society are correlated with the high anti-social punishment rate:
With respect to antisocial punishment, we found that both norms of civic cooperation and rule of law are significantly negatively correlated with punishment (at P < 0.05). In other words, antisocial punishment is harsher in participant pools from societies with weak norms of civic cooperation and a weak rule of law. Additional analyses show that antisocial punishment also varies highly significantly with a variety of indicators developed by social scientists in order to characterize societies. Thus, the extent of antisocial punishment is most likely affected by the wider societal background.