The Living Thing / Notebooks : Altruism

  1. A popular stick against which to measure the residual component of animal behaviour not explained by an economic model.
  2. A useful keyword to look out for in rhetoric to alert you that someone is committing the fundamental attribution error, probably by taking some axioms from undergraduate economic theory as empirical facts of some sort. Or perhaps via a residual of Abrahamic belief in immortal atomistic souls.

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 mandatory 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” occurs at (altruistic genes? individuals? with respect to other alleles? The whole genome? the whole society?), or you will wade into a weird grumpy 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, cancer, eusociality, genetic, social, individual and other kinds of learning.