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Why Do We Give?

Reflections on altruism in the season of giving

When my sister-in-law asked me for gift suggestions for this season, my first thought was for her to make a donation to charity in my name. I am not alone. Americans give around $300 billion a year to charity. There are, of course, many different reasons as to why people give. Some give to feel a sense of value and satisfaction, some give to give something back, some give because they believe in the cause of a charity, and so forth. Although these reasons are worth thinking about in specific cases, they do not really get at a more basic question. Why do humans give at all? Or, put slightly differently, are we humans fundamentally altruistic or selfish?

The answer from the Unified Theory (UT) is that we have deep potentials for both. That we have deep potentials for self-interested behavior probably does not come as a surprise to many. But deep propensities for altruism? Given that the UT is naturalistic and evolutionary (as opposed to supernatural/mystical) how is it that we can truly have altruistic propensities? Aren't all naturalistic theories ultimately selfish at their core? Doesn't Darwin's theory say that any animal that sacrifices their interests for others would inevitably be weaker and less fit than those who focused solely on their own interests?

The answer is no. Many decades ago, evolutionary biologists worked out how altruism evolves and because it is grounded in modern evolutionary theory, the UT incorporates these explanations. From the vantage point of the UT, there are four deep explanations for altruism: 1) nepotistic altruism; 2) reciprocal altruism (mutualism); 3) group-based altruism; and 4) moral justification.

Let's start with nepotistic altruism. Imagine two primate infants. One mother dotes on the infant, feeds it, nurtures it, protects it, and cuddles it. The other mother focuses only on her own needs, and basically neglects the infant. Now, which infant is more likely to survive and go on to reproduce? Clearly, the first one. The mother's altruistic care helps foster the reproduction of her kin. So, is it really altruistic? Yes. The mother has internalized the interest of the child and sacrifices on its behalf, which is the definition of altruism. Granted, it is selfish at the level of the gene, but nonetheless altruistic at the level of the organism.

The logic of nepotistic altruism extends beyond parent-offspring into all kin. We share 50% of our unique genetic makeup with our parents and siblings and children, 25% with our grandparents, uncles, aunts, nieces, and nephews, 12.5% with cousins, and so forth. Biologists realized that actions that benefit the reproductive capacities of kin benefit one's genes. Thinking about this in terms of behavioral tendencies that would evolve, imagine that my brother and I are part of a tribe that has had difficulty hunting lately, and we are both extremely hungry. I am fortunate and spear a wild pig. I cook it up and eat my fill, but my brother returns empty handed. He is hungry and requests some meat. Should I give it to him? Speaking solely from a gene's eye view, the answer is probably. Because I have eaten my fill, the remaining meat is now less valuable to me. Let's give it an arbitrary energy value of three units. My brother, however, is famished and the same amount of food is worth a value of eight energy units to him. Biologists realized that behavioral tendencies would be selected for in a manner that can be represented in the following simple equation c<rb, where "c" is the cost in fitness to the individual sacrificing, "b" is the benefit in fitness to the other individual and "r" is the degree of genetic relatedness. In the current example, giving away the meat costs me three, but it benefits my brother eight and since he shares 50% of my genetic material the overall benefit to my fitness is four and thus natural selection would result in animals that had the tendency to share under these circumstances. This conclusion is reached without even considering other factors, such as the impact of my sharing versus not sharing on his future behavior toward me.

Nepotistic altruism was the kind that first evolved. It got the ball rolling, building in capacities to identify another's interests, along with the motivation to act in accordance with those interests. With nepotism laying the groundwork, another form of altruism took hold, called reciprocal altruism. Reciprocal altruism involves sacrificing in the short term to receive some benefit at a later time. When you buy a friend's lunch who forgot their wallet and they return the favor the following week, you have engaged in reciprocal altruism. Although not incredibly common, there are clear examples of reciprocal altruism in other animals. Vampire bats, for example, have been well documented to share food with unrelated individuals and expect the favor to be returned. Reciprocity is enormously common in human relations, and it is one of the defining features of long-term relational bonds. [Indeed, according to the Influence Matrix, altruism (or cooperation) represents one of the central relational process variables that humans utilize to navigate the social waters.] Although we are all embedded in a sea of reciprocity, the nature of the reciprocity in humans varies as a function of the intimacy of the relationship. Casual acquaintances tend to engage in much more immediate and clear tit-for-tat exchanges than more intimate friendships and romantic relationships. For example, if a new acquaintance has you over for dinner, it is likely that there will be much stronger pressure to acknowledge the act and return the favor than if a best friend does so. Nevertheless, both friendships and romantic relationships are built on the bonds of reciprocity, and warmth, kindness, and reciprocal liking (the positive attitude both individuals feel toward one another) are some of the most influential factors in determining friendships.

The third form of altruism is sacrifice for the good of the group. When the Arizona Cardinal Pat Tillman gave up his football career and joined the armed forces-and was subsequently killed in Afghanistan-that was a prototypical example of group-based altruism. The concept of group-based altruism has a long and controversial history in biology, but it has more recently been gaining credibility and I am favorably inclined. Examples of group selection processes have been observed in organisms as diverse as bacteria and lions. From a human psychological perspective, it is clear that humans identify with and invest in groups, it is seems very possible that humans are motivated to seek out niches that they can fill in groups.

The fourth form of altruism is moral altruism, which entails sacrifice for others mediated via the individual's justification system. Moral altruism is uniquely human, although it likely has its motivational and emotional roots in the other three forms, especially reciprocal and group-based altruism. (See this article by Jon Haidt). Perhaps the most universal moral message involves a form of "do unto others" and Steven Pinker has recently made an interesting argument about how moral arguments and justifications might lead to a less violent more cooperative place. According to the Justification Hypothesis, a powerful motivating force is the need to maintain a justifiable state of being. Thus, individuals are expected to experience dissonance when they behave in a manner that is morally unjustifiable. (For research related to such questions, I recommend the book, The Science of Giving).

In the end, the UT proclaims that humans are as naturally altruistic as they are naturally selfish. Both are behavioral propensities that can be developed or quashed depending on feedback and consequences. So long as we give and give effectively, altruism will continue to grow.

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