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Ep184 - David Sloan Wilson: Does Altruism Exist?

  • Broadcast in Education
Mixed Mental Arts

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In 1759, while working as a tutor, Adam Smith wrote a book called The Theory of Moral Sentiments that begins as follows: "How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrows of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous or the humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it." In 1776, that same Adam Smith would write The Wealth of Nations, the book that would establish capitalism. To a modern audience, for whom the idea of selfishness is synonymous with capitalism, this seems incredibly strange. However, it wasn't strange at all. Smith was primarily interested in improving the well-being of humanity. To him, it was clear that market forces were one of the great tools for doing this. However, this does not mean that Smith believed that humanity was entirely selfish. In fact, as the opening of The Theory of Moral Sentiments makes clear, he rejected a view of humanity as purely selfish as absurd. We help others for no benefit other than the joy of seeing it. Some might argue that this is, in and of itself, selfish. After all, we give as a way of increasing our own happiness but that we are wired to derive joy from that shows that that sort of altruistic behavior confers an evolutionary advantage. And whether or not altruism exists has been a matter of some controversy for some time in evolutionary cir