Global Ethics Corner: Do Good Guys Really Finish Last?

Apr 1, 2010

Benefits from altruism include approval, enhanced image, and neural stimulation--feeling good. Yet if you act selfishly you will have more resources, and your individual behavior is unlikely to break down society. Everyone has to choose. What will you do?

Is cooperation always based on self-interest?

This reciprocal altruism is strategic cooperation, captured in the phrase, "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours." Biologists indicate that individuals of many species often act kindly and that kindness is usually extended to genetic relatives. The payoff is preservation of DNA.

What if, in addition to relatives you are truly altruistic? Evolution suggests that providing your resources to potential competitors is maladaptive. Being a good guy means expending resources without reciprocal benefits, hence finishing last.

So, how is truly altruistic behavior explained? Perhaps helping is simply inappropriate altruism, simply maladaption.

The explanation comes if we look beyond the individual level. "…[F]airness to strangers … evolved along with other norms in complex societies." "… [T]rue altruism … may be the key to our species' success by providing the social glue that allowed our ancestors to form strong, resilient groups." (See Constance Holden, "Playing Fair Came Late," Science Now, March 18, 2010.) Societies need shared norms and cooperative behavior.

Altruism is adaptive, its evolution in society is explained by an individual's approval from secular or religious authority, by enhanced social image, and by personal neural stimulation.

Nevertheless, a free-rider problem remains. You don't have to abide by society's norms. If you act selfishly you have more resources, and your individual behavior is unlikely to break down society.

What will you do? Everyone faces this personal choice. Maximize your benefit or abide by larger cooperative social norms?

By William Vocke

For more information, see:

John Tierney, "Moral Lessons, Down Aisle 9," The New York Times, March 23, 2010, D1+
Constance Holden, "Playing Fair Came Late," Science Now, March 18, 2010
Mark Buchanan, "Charity begins at Homo Sapiens," NewScientist Life, March 12, 2005

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