This was an interesting article on David Hume's thoughts on altruism. First, he talks about how all altruism has an essence of selfishness:
All is self-love. Your children are loved only because they are yours: your friend for a like reason; and your country engages you only so far as it has a connection with yourself. Were the idea of self removed, nothing would affect you: you would be altogether unactive and insensible: or, if you ever give yourself any movement, it would only be from vanity, and a desire of fame and reputation to this same self.
He does not find this to be at all problematic (nor do I) because as he says: "The virtuous sentiment or passion produces the pleasure, and does not arise from it. I feel a pleasure in doing good to my friend, because I love him; but do not love him for the sake of that pleasure."
Yes, surely often that is true, but I don't think that is 100% the case. I think plenty of people do altruistic things not for the pleasure it gives them to serve someone that they love but for the pleasure it gives them to do any number of other things: appear good in front of others, get someone to owe them something, feel important or needed, etc. So, ok, old news -- altruism isn't as selfless as people sometimes pretend it to be,
But more interestingly perhaps for this crowd are his assertions, centuries ago, the oft heard (on this website) explanation for why would a sociopath ever choose to do something altruistic him or herself:
In the second place, it has always been found, that the virtuous are far from being indifferent to praise; and therefore they have been represented as a set of vainglorious men, who had nothing in view but the applauses of others. But this also is a fallacy. It is very unjust in the world, when they find any tincture of vanity in a laudable action, to depreciate it upon that account, or ascribe it entirely to that motive. The case is not the same with vanity, as with other passions. Where avarice or revenge enters into any seemingly virtuous action, it is difficult for us to determine how far it enters, and it is natural to suppose it the sole actuating principle. But vanity is so closely allied to virtue, and to love the fame of laudable actions approaches so near the love of laudable actions for their own sake, that these passions are more capable of mixture, than any other kinds of affection; and it is almost impossible to have the latter without some degree of the former. Accordingly we find, that this passion for glory is always warped and varied according to the particular taste or disposition of the mind on which it falls. Nero had the same vanity in driving a chariot, that Trajan had in governing the empire with justice and ability.
In other words, if all altruism has an element of narcissistic or selfish pleasure, then vanity can motivate altruism as well as a love of virtue. Yes, ok Hume, I follow and I agree. Plenty of sociopaths love to do altruistic things because it appeals to their own vanity, a la "I can do this thing better than anyone else, so I will and earn the self-satisfaction/praise/honor/reputation/gratitude/etc."
The only off thing about Hume's thinking to me is that he follows that thought immediately with this non sequitur: "To love the glory of virtuous deeds is a sure proof of the love of virtue." What? Didn't you just finish telling us that the love of virtuous deeds can come from vanity? So maybe I misunderstand him, do I?
I have forgotten how I got linked to this (sorry twitter people or emailers!), but it is a further explanation of the Gervais Principle, previously discussed on this blog, in which the author discusses the relative roles of the losers, the clueless, and the sociopaths in a modern work environment. The author, Venkatesh Rao, makes clear that he is not necessarily talking about clinically diagnosed sociopaths, but the way he defines them does share a lot of overlap with at least a certain subset of clinically diagnosable sociopaths:
I originally characterized “sociopath” as will-to-power people. Let me add a few more characteristics. First, sociopaths are driven by unsentimental observation of external realities, no matter how unpleasant. Second, they use the information they acquire through reality-grounding in skilled ways. Third, their distrust of subsuming communities and groups leads them to adopt personal moralities. Whether good or evil, the morality of a sociopath is something he or she takes responsibility for. Finally, and most importantly, sociopaths do not seek legitimacy for their private morality from the group, justify it, or apologize for it. They may attempt to evade the consequences of their behavior. In fact their personal morality may legitimize such evasion. Equally, they may, out of realistic and pragmatic assessments, allow themselves to be subject to codified group morality (such as a legal or religious system), that they privately disagree with. So they might accept consequences they feel they do not deserve, because they assess attempts at rebellion to be futile. But in all cases, they reserve for themselves the right to make all moral judgments. Their private morality is not, in their view, a matter for external democractic judgment. So yes, this entire edifice I am constructing is a determinedly amoral one. Hitler would count as a sociopath in this sense, but so would Gandhi and Martin Luther King. In all this, the source of the personality of this archetype is distrust of the group, so I am sticking to the word “sociopath” in this amoral sense. The fact that many readers have automatically conflated the word “sociopath” with “evil” in fact reflects the demonizing tendencies of loser/clueless group morality. The characteristic of these group moralities is automatic distrust of alternative individual moralities. The distrust directed at the sociopath though, is reactionary rather than informed.
It then goes on to contrast this group, characterized by the members' personal morality, with the clueless and the losers:
The key here is that the clueless and losers often externalize their moral sense, into some sort of collectively (and ritually) adopted code, thereby abdicating responsibility for the moral dimension of their actions entirely. You don’t have to think about the morality of what you do if you can just appeal to some code (religious texts are the main kind, but there are others, such as Hippie or Joe the Plumber codes). The morality that they defer to is always a codified communal version of the views of some charismatic sociopath, but it is the abdication of responsibility, as a group, by the clueless and losers, that amplifies the impact of both the Hitlers and Gandhis of the world. Without this group dynamic, Hitler would have been a random local psycho, perhaps serial-killing a dozen people. Gandhi might have been no more than a friendly neighborhood do-gooder. Which implies, by the way, that organized religion is incompatible with sociopathy. This entire view can be disturbing to some of you, so take a step back here. What do you fear most?An evil group or an evil person? Read Shirley Jackson’s thoroughly scary story of group insanity, The Lottery. Watch Children of the Corn. Would you rather live in a town where there is a sole vampire terrorizing the population, or be the sole non-zombie in a town that has gone all-zombie? Ask yourself, who scares you more — Hitler or the mindless army he inspired? Would you prefer the tyranny of a dictator or the tyranny of an illiberal democracy, where a mob tramples over individuals? Dictators can be overthrown. Can an evil group culture be as easily displaced?
I don’t want to offer flippant and easy solutions to these age-old moral conundrums. I just want to point out to those who are equating “sociopath” with “evil” (modulo any semantic confusion) that morality needs to be looked at in more complex ways.