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In 1851, Comte coined the term 'Altruism' in order to describe how human beings are made to live, care and love each other. From this he derived, the widely known motto Vivre pour autrui. Based on the emerging positivism of the 19th century, through his research and its methodologies coupled with the first strands of evolutionary theory, he argued that our brains have structures which he designated 'altruistic'. Essentially, these structures are innate tendencies to bond and care for others, and they are a product of our human evolution and not the product of some metaphysical creation. Pfaff's The Altruistic Brain is undoubtedly a "remix" of Comte's theory where, instead of only biology and anatomy, we have neurobiology and neuroscience in an attempt to prove that we have evolved to be altruistic.
Overall, Pfaff's book is well-written and delivers its introductory goal, to explain "a set of new ideas in neuroscience to readers who lack a scientific background" (p. vii), with aplomb. The book is divided into two parts, Part One: Chapters 1-5, and Part Two: Chapters 6-9. The first part successfully meets the author's objective to synthesize the latest scientific findings from all neurological disciplines into a theory which demonstrates how we have evolved into being altruistic. In this part, a review of the relevant evolutionary theories is offered and links are made to relevant neuro-scientific research in order to show that "our brains are wired to produce altruistic behavior" (p.13). This part concludes with The Altruistic Brain Theory (ABT), which is a five-step theory for the altruistic functioning of brains. Each step is explained neurologically via familiar examples of altruistic conduct and at the same time linked to research which supports the relevant explanation. The second part of the book tackles the essential questions which spring from such a theorization of human nature. For example, if we are made to behave altruistically, then why is it the case that we often do not? In this part the author locates those issues that hinder our innate tendency to behave in harmony with our physiological make up, and offers suggestions for how we need to act, both at individual and collective levels, in order to promote and enhance our capacities, capacities which are the foundation of our being and which have secured our well-being and our evolution over the millennia.
It certainly follows that, if we accept that we are made by nature to be altruistic, then we need to find ways to live in harmony with what we are, otherwise our well-being and the progress of our civilization will be stymied; to such an end, and on an optimistic note, the author draws from relevant contemporary practices, already implemented by societies and institutions which promote altruistic behavior, to propose similar practices that could resolve even the most difficult and controversial ethical issues such as corruption, war, genocide, aggressive behavior, and so on. Overall, the author not only provides a complete scientific theoretical argument about human ontology, but he also attempts to apply that argument to everyday common concerns in order to test it to its limitations. The latter is one of its strongest points since it makes the link from theory to everyday life, that is, from scientific research to social and cultural practices, thus constituting a holistic effort to boost the evidentiary support of the theory altogether.
So, how are we made to act altruistically? ABT posits (Chapters 2 and 3) that each altruistic act has five Steps. The first step is true of all acts; the brain represents the act to be performed before it happens and sends the relevant signals, not only to the muscles as a command to contract, but also sends "an identical message back to the sensory systems" (p. 55), so in this way the system 'knows' what will happen; this phenomenon is known as 'corollary discharge'. The next step is the representation of the person(s) toward whom the act is intended. The brain creates an image either of a specific person or "visualize[s] a generic" person (p.57). The third step is the most important. The image in step 2 is blurred and converged into an image of the self, based on a process called 'cross-excitation', then, when the brain evaluates, in step 4, whether the act is to be performed toward the other person, it will be accomplished based on an evaluation of the image of the self "(we always have an image of ourselves in our brain)" (p.58) which has been blurred/merged with that of the other "created" at step 2. This process, described as an "ethical switch" (p.60), leads to step 5, which is the performance (or not) of the act based on whether that act would have been beneficial for the self. This five step process is evaluated by the author as similar to the Golden rule of morality: "The positive generous act occurs because it matches the way he [sic] himself must be treated" (p.61). Essentially, the way we act toward the others is based on treating the other as oneself, or the familiar maxim: Do as you would be done by.
Whereas the theory successfully explains what happens in those cases we refer to as altruistic, it fails to address how we engage in such acts. To use one of the author's examples, I see an older fellow human trying to lift a cart over a staircase and struggling. What will make me, motivate me, or even just attract my attention to start the process that ABT explains, to help her lift the cart? The whole issue of Altruism lies outside the 5 steps, it lies right before. It is their antecedent. There is something that attracts my attention. Something that affects me in the direction of engaging in the process that ABT posits. What this motivation consists in is rather difficult to explain in purely reductive neurologically universal ways. This is the same structure as the common critique of physicalist reductionist theories of the mind, and unfortunately ABT cannot overcome it. So, we may well reduce our actions and thoughts to brain states, and even to find universality in all human beings, but we will never be able to reduce them in such a way as to match the conditions for these brain states for every human being. In the case of altruism this amounts to explaining these conditions which motivate one to be altruistic or to be altruistic toward some and not others. Having failed in this respect, ABT is left merely providing a scientific stamp for our common knowledge, that we can be altruistic and that we can be habituated (p. 159; p. 222-3) to be altruistic.
In an austere reading, ATB is not really a theory about altruism traditionally construed. Unfortunately, the author does not provide an approximate definition of what he takes altruism to be, so we are left to infer a definition from the examples cited, which pick out different empirical situations which require instinctual responses, or acts which require reflection or deliberation. And this creates a problem for the theory. The author does not make a definite commitment about whether 'the cross-excitation', this image blurring, is conscious or not which is of crucial importance to register the act as altruistic or not. The example he gives of the young person who took the bullet for his girlfriend, fits the category of instinctual act. The fireman who decides to leave his present enjoyment to go and rescue someone deliberates in one way or another. If I am conscious of the blurring and I see the Other as myself and match the way I want to be treated then there is utility, a form of heteronomy in the Kantian terms that the author uses, which, incidentally, he negates on page 61, but later affirms when he equates altruism to a form of empathetic reciprocity based on utility: "It is precisely such trading – you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours – that brings corruption within the ambit of the Altruistic Brain" (p. 214). If the act, conversely, is based on an unconscious blurring then we need an account of how, as mentioned earlier, we engage instinctually. The blanket reason that the author offers of a wired tendency for the continuation of the species cannot fit the bill because, as we know, some have this tendency and some do not.
A further contradiction springs from the example of the young individuals who are sacrificing their lives for their partners. The Golden rule cannot apply in this case because, if I am to do unto others what I wished that they would do unto me, and I die, as a foreseen consequence of my action, then this cannot have been the unconscious motivator for my action, for I am now dead and the action has no long-term personal benefit. In this case and in the absence of such a motivator, I do something of which I do not expect a return, which is indeed pure altruism as most people understand the term. But the author cannot explain it with the ATB theory because step 5 would have yielded a "no-go" if it refers strictly back to the self – the blurred image of self-other. Why would I do something for another, based on the benefit that it would later confer on me, if I am to die as a consequence of my action? So in this case the author attributes this action to an unconscious benefit for the community "which is why - in evolutionary terms – we can have expected it" (p. 68). But now the reader will be baffled. Is it the self or the community for whom altruistic behavior is performed? And then the next question must surely be: Which community? In the first part we have a clear attribution to a community benefit overall and then, in the second part, we have a selective restricted community benefit reduced to particular local group, where the act is intended without an account of how the choice is made. Clearly, there is some choice at work; a 'choice' of which images are being blurred, which is another way of phrasing the earlier problem of what motivates someone to engage in an altruistic act toward some and not others. Even with its best explanatory power, ABT cannot account for this crucial distinction.
Briefly, if I use a Foucaultian term, there is an ideological mark to be found in the margin of this book. The altruism being proposed is not the reciprocal one finds in the works of Mauss, for example, and in the philosophy of the Ubuntu culture, which is crucial positive anthropological research in this sphere, an yet not mentioned in the book. The altruism proposed by Pfaff is a paradoxical form of empathetic reciprocity within the antagonistic framework of capitalism: "ABT becomes a tool for a healthy capitalist economy" (p. 171). If we take ABT to be true and really try to "create conditions that favor our natural inclinations", then (p.141) it follows that altruism becomes incompatible with any kind of antagonistic laissez-faire. Merging self and other in an empathetic reciprocity seems anti-nomical with capitalism which is conditioned on rivalry and antagonism.
Finally, the book is successful in introducing the reader to the latest neuroscientific findings about the function of our brain, and the author makes an impressive attempt to weave these findings with evolutionary theory into an argument about an innate human tendency for altruism as empathetic reciprocity, just like Comte did. Yet, it utterly fails to account for the phenomenon of altruism. It just explains a phenomenon of glossed utility in scientific terms.
© 2015 Iraklis Ioannidis
Iraklis Ioannidis, PhD Candidate in Philosophy,The University of Glasgow