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Elster: Altruistic behavior and altruistic motivations

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Elster. Altruistic behavior and altruistic motivations.

In Brief

Elster asks one general question: How do we sort out altruistic acts that spring from altruistic motivations from altruistic acts that spring from motivations that mimic or simulate altruism?

If your main motivation is to help somebody, and you happen to get a benefit (a "warm glow," perhaps), then it's altruism; if your main motivation is to get the warm glow (or some other benefit), and you happen to help somebody, then it's not altruism.


  • Altruistic motivation: a desire to enhance the welfare of others at a net welfare loss to self.
  • Altruistic act: an action for which an altruistic motivation provides a sufficient reason.

Can self-interest mimic altruism?

Assuming that agents have a reasonably long time horizon, enlightened self interest may mimic morality. This is essentially the idea of reciprocity or the tit-for-tat strategy. People are better off occasionally helping each other than going it alone because the favor will be returned later, if not by person B, then by C, D or E. He also points out how the punishment/reward mechanisms used by other people can induce altruistic behavior.

Comment: There seems to be a theme here. Like the experiments of Batson, Elster says that when altruistic behavior occurs when no one else is looking, and therefore, when others are unable to punish or reward such behavior, it is likely to spring from altruistic motivations. Therefore, experiments designed to test this hypothesis must be double-blind.

Can passion mimic altruism?

Can emotions make a non-altruistic agent act as if he cared about the welfare of others? The main emotions Elster targets here are pride (the desire to be well thought of by others) and shame (the desire not to be badly thought of). Shame is connected to the presence of another person, an outside observer. Thus, the reason that social norms are effective is because others can observe what the agent is doing and shame him into mimicking altruistic behavior.

Is altruism possible and knowable?

A key issue in answering this question is an understanding of the "warm glow" effect. This is the satisfaction one takes from the act of giving. If this "warm glow" is part of one's satisfaction, can we say that the motivation behind helping behavior is still altruistic? Elster appears to articulate a "but for" test (a legal concept). If we would not have performed the action but for the warm glow we knew we were going to receive afterwards, then we are not acting altruistically. But how do we tell the difference?

Elster discusses brain scan experiments in which subjects who were treated ungenerously in a trust game had the option of imposing a punishment on their partner. In one condition, punishment was costly, in another it was costless. The experimenters scanned the brains of 11 subjects who imposed the maximal feasible punishment in the costless condition. Among these subjects, those whose reward circuits were more highly activated also imposed more severe punishments in the costly condition.

Elster says these results support the hypothesis that expected satisfaction from punishment induces the decision to punish and therefore, "biological altruists" punish defectors because they expect it will make them feel good, not because they want to benefit others. This is supposedly evidence against the existence of altruistic behavior.

Comments and Criticism

I don't think this study shows what it claims. What does one's decision whether to impose punishment on a person who directly wronged him or her have to do with altruism? Just because you get pleasure out of punishing someone who wronged you doesn't mean that altruism doesn't exist. In other words, the connection in this experiment is too direct--the desire for revenge is a common emotional response--and thus, this experiment does not test whether altruism (defined by Elster as the desire to enhance the welfare of another at a net welfare loss to self) exists.

In addition, the question lurking beneath the surface is, if we want to help other people, yet it also makes us feel good to help other people, is that therefore not altruism?

In the end, Elster doesn't leave us with any answers to the question of whether behavior can be truly altruistic and whether altruism is measurable: "Until the day scientists can conduct brain scans at a distance, we shall not know."