Altruism - reply to Jack

Jurriaan Bendien bendien at
Mon Aug 18 20:38:40 MDT 2003

Jack writes:

"a lot of words, jurriaan, but to what avail?  to say that"Altruistic
behaviour is, in the first instance, behaviour which is not self-interested"
is to prove my point that there is no such thing as altruism [stated a bit
differently: altruism is bullshit], since one can ONLY act in accord with
his/her perceived self interest."

This is just dogmatic assertion, and ignores my points. But you give the
game away already, by now talking about "perceived self-interest", which may
not be real self-interest evaluated from another point of view or from the
point of view of someobody else. Looks like a case of yanking up the
outboard motor again.

As I indicated, the concept of interests is a much more complex notion than
you apparently think. There is perceived self-interest and objective
self-interest, and perceived self-interest may, in the given case, only be
established through a perception of what the interests of others are in the
given situation, a perception which may be false, or true.

You can easily verify this by examining the strategic logic involved in
successive moves in a chess game, in which self-interest is continually
redefined. One could of course say that true self-interest simply consists
in winning the game, and this is the only motivator. However perceived
self-interest as shown by successive moves on the board to this end may be
irreconcilable with the alleged "true" self-interest, because the moves
actually made are not conducive to that true self-interest (for example
because the chess-player is a five-year old who does not know much about the
game). Then you have to explain, how it is possible that the chess player
does not act in his own true self-interest.

Anyway, in this case, you have to distinguish between the interest in
winning the game, the perceived interest in making particular moves in the
game, and the objective interest in the moves made from the point of view of
winning the game. This already suggests some of the modalities that I am
talking about in a simple way. Even so, it is easy to conflate goals,
intentions and interests.

The ontology of the "self" may of course be defined such that it can only be
"interested" from its own standpoint, not unlike a five year old boy who is
incapable of perceiving any interests beyond his own interests. But,
neurologically speaking, a mature human being can view or experience the
world through his own eyes and with his one body, or view an event from the
perspective or experience of another person he is interacting with, or
view/experience an event as an observer from the outside. Happily, this not
only makes altruism and egoism neurologically possible, but also allows us
to evaluate it objectively. Hence also the psychological notion of one
person=subjectivity, two persons=intersubjectivity, three

At a slightly more advanced level of thought, we can conceive of situations
in which a person X may do action P which is against her own interest, in
order to solicit action Q by person Y, where Q is in the interest of X, even
although it is not in the interest of Y. In this case, the consequence of P
is Q,  so that the interest of X is served, but the interest of Y is not,
even although P was not in the interest of X.

Your argument here is that P is nevertheless in the interest of X, because,
after all, it solicits Q, i.e. X is merely giving up something in order to
get something else, and persuades Y to provide it, even although this is not
in Y's interest. But this can only be considered a valid argument by
changing the evaluation of one interest relative to another (first it is
against self-interest, then for self-interest), and this is exactly the sort
of stuff that ideology and persuasion is made of: an attempt is made to show
that an action which from one point of view is not in one's self-interest,
is nevertheless in one's interest from another point of view. In other
words, an atttempt is made to reframe the perceived self-interest in another

I could continue the story by examining the response of Y to X, on the basis
of a perception that, although Q was not in the interest of Y, it was in the
interest of X, and what happens when X tries to explain that Y's perceptio
of the situation is wrong, since X had to do P in order to obtain Q. I could
also examine cases where X perceives only self-interest and Y perceives
mutual interest, and work up to more complicated cases, but I won't do that
now, because I have no interest in it.

The "avail" of the above considerations may not reside in yanking up the
outboard motor again, but it might be useful in an improved, less simplistic
game-theoretical approach to problems of class struggles and political
organisations. This might shed light on the actual logic of class warfare,
rather than the logic imputed to it by dogmatists who cannot make the
distinctions which I have referred to in this post, and my previous post.

Your argument about a political organisation would presumably be, that all
the persons who join it, have a self-interest which is the same; otherwise
they would not join it. In that case, there is no need for any democratic
procedure. In fact there is no need for any organisation. One function of an
organisation is precisely to articulate and express common interests,
discover what they are, reconcile different interests, and so on.


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