Discussion Forum on Altruism 2


Discussion Forum on Altruism

After reading all the two articles found below, Article 1 “Empathy is the Secret Ingredient . . .” and  Article 2 “Five Ways to Become a Really Effective . . .”: –

Write a  Five paragraph reflection answering the questions below  [A paragraph is 3 to 6 sentences in length]): (Please write in your own words)..

  • What is your understanding of “Altruism”?
  • What concepts did you appreciate in both articles and why?
  • Is there anything that you would like to challenge in either of the articles and why?

This is due on or before June 6

Article 1

Empathy is the secret ingredient that makes cooperation – and civilization – possible

April 10, 2019 6.47am EDT

What goes into all for one and one for all? Africa Studio/Shutterstock.com


  1. Arunas L. Radzvilavicius

Postdoctoral Researcher of Evolutionary Biology, University of Pennsylvania

Human societies are so prosperous mostly because of how altruistic we are. Unlike other animals, people cooperate even with complete strangers. We share knowledge on Wikipedia, we show up to vote, and we work together to responsibly manage natural resources.

But where do these cooperative skills come from and why don’t our selfish instincts overwhelm them? Using a branch of mathematics called evolutionary game theory to explore this feature of human societies, my collaborators and I found that empathy – a uniquely human capacity to take another person’s perspective – might be responsible for sustaining such extraordinarily high levels of cooperation in modern societies.

Social rules of cooperation

For decades scholars have thought that social norms and reputation can explain much altruistic behavior. Humans are far more likely to be kind to individuals they see as “good,” than they are to people of “bad” reputation. If everyone agrees that being altruistic toward other cooperators earns you a good reputation, cooperation will persist.

This universal understanding of whom we see as morally good and worthy of cooperation is a form of social norm – an invisible rule that guides social behavior and promotes cooperation. A common norm in human societies called “stern judging,” for instance, rewards cooperators who refuse to help bad people, but many other norms are possible.

This idea that you help one person and someone else helps you is called the theory of indirect reciprocity. However, it’s been built assuming that people always agree on each others’ reputations as they change over time. Moral reputations were presumed to be fully objective and publicly known. Imagine, for instance, an all-seeing institution monitoring people’s behavior and assigning reputations, like China’s social credit system, in which people will be rewarded or sanctioned based on “social scores” calculated by the government.

But in most real-life communities, people often disagree about each others’ reputations. A person who appears good to me might seem like a bad individual from my friend’s perspective. My friend’s judgment might be based on a different social norm or a different observation than mine. This is why reputations in real societies are relative – people have different opinions about what is good or bad.

Using biology-inspired evolutionary models, I set out to investigate what happens in a more realistic setting. Can cooperation evolve when there are disagreements about what is considered good or bad? To answer this question, I first worked with mathematical descriptions of large societies, in which people could choose between various types of cooperative and selfish behaviors based on how beneficial they were. Later I used computer models to simulate social interactions in much smaller societies that more closely resemble human communities.

The results of my modeling work were not encouraging: Overall, moral relativity made societies less altruistic. Cooperation almost vanished under most social norms. This meant that most of what was known about social norms promoting human cooperation may have been false.

Evolution of empathy

To find out what was missing from the dominant theory of altruism, I teamed up with Joshua Plotkin, a theoretical biologist at the University of Pennsylvania, and Alex Stewart at the University of Houston, both experts in game theoretical approaches to human behavior. We agreed that my pessimistic findings went against our intuition – most people do care about reputations and about the moral value of others’ actions.

But we also knew that humans have a remarkable ability to empathetically include other people’s views when deciding that a certain behavior is morally good or bad. On some occasions, for instance, you might be tempted to judge an uncooperative person harshly, when you really shouldn’t if from their own perspective, cooperation was not the right thing to do.

This is when my colleagues and I decided to modify our models to give individuals the capacity for empathy – that is, the ability to make their moral evaluations from the perspective of another person. We also wanted individuals in our model to be able to learn how to be empathetic, simply by observing and copying personality traits of more successful people.

When we incorporated this type of empathetic perspective-taking into our equations, cooperation rates skyrocketed; once again we observed altruism winning over selfish behavior. Even initially uncooperative societies in which everyone judged each other based mostly on their own selfish perspectives, eventually discovered empathy – it became socially contagious and spread throughout the population. Empathy made our model societies altruistic again.

Moral psychologists have long suggested that empathy can act as social glue, increasing cohesiveness and cooperation of human societies. Empathetic perspective-taking starts developing in infancy, and at least some aspects of empathy are learned from parents and other members of the child’s social network. But how humans evolved empathy in the first place remained a mystery.

It is incredibly difficult to build rigorous theories about concepts of moral psychology as complex as empathy or trust. Our study offers a new way of thinking about empathy, by incorporating it into the well-studied framework of evolutionary game theory. Other moral emotions like guilt and shame can potentially be studied in the same way.

I hope that the link between empathy and human cooperation we discovered can soon be tested experimentally. Perspective-taking skills are most important in communities where many different backgrounds, cultures and norms intersect; this is where different individuals will have diverging views on what actions are morally good or bad. If the effect of empathy is as strong as our theory suggests, there could be ways to use our findings to promote large-scale cooperation in the long term – for instance, by designing nudges, interventions and policies that promote development of perspective-taking skills or at least encourage considering the views of those who are different.




Article 2

Five ways to become a really effective altruist

February 8, 2016 5.53am EST


  1. Julian Savulescu

Sir Louis Matheson Distinguishing Visiting Professor at Monash University, Uehiro Professor of Practical Ethics, University of Oxford

  1. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong

Professor of Practical Ethics, Duke University


Effective altruism is a philosophy and social movement which aims not only to increase charitable donations of time and money (and indeed more broadly to encourage leading a lifestyle which does good in the world), but also encourage the most effective use of these resources, usually by looking for measurable impacts such as lives saved per dollar.

For an effective altruist, the core question is: “Of all the possible ways to make a difference, how can I make the greatest difference?” It might be argued, for example, that charity work isn’t the best use of time; a talented financier may be better off working for a bank, and use their earnings to pay for others to work for charities instead.

To this end, those in the movement often perform complex calculations to determine which charities and careers do the most good – something that is frequently attacked. Charitable causes that effective altruists have argued should come lower in our list of priorities include charities like the ALS Association, which benefited from the viral ice bucket challenge, and the arts.

These comparisons are not based on the worthiness of the cause, the good it does or even the levels of suffering it alleviates, but the cost to benefit ratio. For example, Peter Singer, a moral philosopher and icon of the effective altruism movement, has argued that homelessness and infant mortality in the developed world should have a lower priority than equivalent causes in the developing world. It isn’t that these problems are trivial or undeserving, but because of a greater impact per dollar.

Effective Altruism is exciting and beneficial in many ways. It gets people to think about how to help others, and encourages people to act in ways that do help others. Many people don’t contribute as much as they should, maybe because of doubts about the difference it will make or where to put their efforts. But while we wholeheartedly support the movement, calculating which causes are better than others risks being oversimplified. So here are five practical ways to become a really effective altruist instead.

  1. Don’t support useless or harmful causes

This is uncontroversial and already a central tenet of effective altruism. We all agree that waste and harm are bad, and many charitable causes do more harm than good – so let’s avoid them. However, there are lots of altruistic acts that do some good — often lots of good — even if they’re not the best. Different people can contribute in different ways, and diversity spreads benefits to many worthwhile causes. Aiming for only the best option leaves little leeway for individuality and experimentation, and can instead turn many people off.

  1. Do what you enjoy and excel at

Doesn’t work on me. Dog by Shutterstock

If people aren’t able to build sturdy houses, they shouldn’t volunteer for Habitat for Humanity. And if they don’t enjoy working with animals they don’t volunteer at the RSPCA. The same goes for financial contributions. If the most good that my money can do is to help free animals in factory farms but I really don’t care about these animals then I’m unlikely to give as much, as often, or for as long as I would for a cause that I deeply care about. The idea that we should work for or contribute to the most effective charity, regardless of what we care about, is self-defeating. Most people’s passions aren’t that flexible – they can’t or won’t start caring about a cause simply because a calculation tells them to. Better to follow a passion than be demotivated.

  1. Spread the love

If you really are passionate about a cause, encourage others. If they are not passionate about your cause, encourage them to help others in their own way. We can do more to improve the world if we get other people to help out.

If we were to try to determine which person has done the most good in history, we’d get different answers. Effective altruism can come from inspiring others, by being a teacher or a good parent for example. Take Singer, he hasn’t prevented nuclear war or eradicated small pox, but he has led very many people to help others. In turn, these followers have followers themselves, who help others more than they otherwise would have.

A teacher should get some credit for the good that his students do but would not have done if not for his teaching. We can do good both directly and indirectly, by inspiring others.

  1. Use carrots rather than sticks

Praise where its due. Carrot by Shutterstock, CC BY-NC-SA

If someone is doing good and more good than most but could still do more, then they deserve praise and encouragement. To encourage people to do better, we should be generous with praise for those who do more good than is common and add more praise for those near the top. Criticising those who fall short of the ideal only discourages others. If we’re right, then criticism should be reserved for those who fall well below what most people do to help the needy.

  1. Avoid overconfidence

Really effective altruism aims to do the most good over all time. The world, present and future, is a very uncertain place. It is difficult to predict what will do the most good, either now or far in the future. Humility is necessary in the face of this uncertainty. Who would have thought that the invention of the mobile phone would have done so much good or knows what the final effect of the communications revolution will be.

As the philosopher John Stuart Mill recognised, originality, diversity, and experiments in living are necessary to discover what is the best life. The same applies to the well-being of others. Be willing to revise your goals in the light of new evidence and reflection.



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