The Good Samaritan and His Genes

The Good Samaritan and His Genes

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A morality that conserves human genetic material is welcome enough. But ultra-Darwinian biologists claim, with George Williams, “Natural selection … can honestly be described as a process for maximizing short-sighted selfishness” (1988, p. 385). Humans are so built genetically. Michael Ghiselin concludes his scientific analysis with memorable rhetoric: “No hint of genuine charity ameliorates our vision of society, once sentimentalism has been laid aside. What passes for co-operation turns out to be a mixture of opportunism and exploitation. … Given a full chance to act in his own interest, nothing but expediency will restrain [a person] from brutalizing, from maiming, from murdering–his brother, his mate, his parent, or his child. Scratch an `altruist’ and watch a `hypocrite’ bleed” (1974, p. 247).

 Richard Alexander concludes: “I suspect that nearly all humans believe it is a normal part of the functioning of every human individual now and then to assist someone else in the realization of that person’s own interests to the actual net expense of the altruist. What this `greatest intellectual revolution of the century’ tells us is that, despite our intuitions, there is not a shred of evidence to support this view of beneficence, and a great deal of convincing theory suggests that any such view will eventually be judged false. This implies that we will have to start all over again to describe and understand ourselves, in terms alien to our intuitions, and in one way or another different from every discussion of this topic across the whole of human history” (1987, p. 3).

 1. The Samaritan ideal

 A notable example of moral behavior is the Good Samaritan, a model example of helping another at cost to oneself (Luke 10.29- 37). The Samaritan–and this is important for our case–is not genetically related to the Jewish victim. “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans” (John 4.9, New Testament: An Inclusive Version, Oxford, 1995). Here is a recommended ideal, influential across two millennia of ethical history. Parallel models can be found in other traditions, virtually the whole of human history, as the widespread presence of variants of the Golden Rule illustrates.

 This influential idea (helping a neighbor, with sympathetic compassion) can be transmitted nongenetically, as has indeed happened in this case, since the story has been widely retold and praised as a model by persons in other cultures who are neither Jews nor Samaritans. We notice also that the idea is mixedly present in the real. There are thieves as well as Samaritans. But such failure is proof, not disproof, of the norm–an ethics that holds that one ought to help others.

 2. A Selfish Samaritan?

 Is it possible to describe the Samaritan’s behavior as being “selfish” in the Darwinized sense? Let us “start all over and describe his behavior in terms alien to our intuitions.” Let us “scratch this altruist and see if a hypocrite bleeds.” Genetics allows only one explanatory framework for any and all human (or animal) behavior, and so the Good Samaritan must be fitted into that explanatory box.

 Alexander concludes, “This means that whether or not we know it when we speak favorably to our children about Good Samaritanism, we are telling them about a behavior that has a strong likelihood of being reproductively profitable.” Conscience is a “still small voice that tells us how far we can go in serving our own interests without incurring intolerable risks” (1987, p. 102). “The main reward is reputation, and all the benefits that high moral reputation may yield. Reputation as an altruist pays” (1993, p. 188). Even the Bible enjoins, “Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days” (Ecclesiastes 11.1).

 The Good Samaritan–so this theory holds–is genetically unable to act for the victim’s sake. And so, all appearances to the contrary, there cannot be real altruism here (helping another at one’s own genetic expense), there must be a self-interested account. Of course the Good Samaritan did not think of himself as increasing the likely number of his offspring. He did not even know he had any genes. He had compassion on the victim. He knew the difference between crass self-interest and concern for others; thieves had robbed this hapless fellow, and he by contrast was trying to help him.

 But this concern for others, apparent to him, was only apparent. What the Samaritan intends is not what is resulting. Despite the intended altruism, the Samaritan’s act promotes his own genetic interest. The fact that it is some sort of appearance even to him is explained this way: the whole transaction works better if persons are self-deceived when they act as moral agents. The Good Samaritan gets these results by indirection. He has to want what he doesn’t really want to get what he really wants. Alexander explains, “I mean that such information is not a part of their conscious knowledge, and that if you ask people what they think their interests are they would usually give wrong answers” (Alexander, 1987, p. 36).

 The apparent sincerity guarantees the reciprocity. If the victim knew the Samaritan’s real motives (putting genes in the next generation), he would be disinclined later to reciprocate, had he such opportunity. If even the Samaritan knew his real motives, he would be a bad actor and his insincerity would leak out. So the Samaritan has to be blind to his own deepest motives, blind to the genetic impulses that fundamentally frame his behavior, he has to appear convincingly concerned, if the reciprocity is to go through. “If the theory is correct humans could not have evolved to know it, and to act directly and consciously in respect to it (1987, p. 38).

 Ruse and Wilson put it this way: “Human beings function better if they are deceived by their genes into thinking that there is a disinterested objective morality binding upon them, which all should obey. We help others because it is ‘right’ to help them and because we know that they are inwardly compelled to reciprocate in equal measure. What Darwinian evolutionary theory shows is that this sense of `right’ and the corresponding sense of `wrong’, feelings we take to be above individual desire and in some fashion outside biology, are in fact brought about by ultimately biological processes (1986, p. 179).

 The Good Samaritan is operating with an “ideal” that one ought to aid neighbors, but this is his delusion, his hidden reputation- seeking. The Good Samaritan (a half-breed himself, part Jew, part Gentile) really assisted the luckless victim on the Jericho road in order to leave more genes in the next generation. What a hypocrite! That selfish bastard!

 He doesn’t know this, but we can allow no disconfirming or confirming evidence from people’s verbal reports. Their conscious motivations are epiphenomenal; their deep genetic determinants are not available to them. Genes are microscopic and humans historically knew no more about their genes than do monkeys today. “Genes remained outside the range of our senses in all respects until the twentieth century” (Alexander, 1987, pp. 38-39). Humans, however, have long known what it means to be self-interested, and they have had to create an illusion of altruistic morality for the reciprocity to work.

 The logic is getting quite complex. The fundamental claim is that selfish persons outreproduce unselfish ones, but superimposed on that there is the claim that (really) selfish persons who are self-deceived into thinking they are unselfish outreproduce selfish persons who know their own selfishness. Really, those damned thieves will leave fewer offspring in the next generation. Neither the priest nor the Levite will do well either. Initially, the claim to be tested seemed simply that reciprocally cooperative persons outcompete combative ones. Good Samaritans outreproduce thieves.

 Later, the claim to be tested is that self-deceived Good Samaritans outreproduce thieves. Later still, the claim is also that tacit pseudo-altruism (altruism, really self-interest, but unawares) outreproduces even enlightened selfishness (persons made explicitly aware of their self-interest in reciprocal altruism). Deluded Good Samaritans outreproduce nondeceived, wised-up Good Samaritans.

 But there is no evidence even that altruistic persons are increasing in the genetic pool over selfish ones, or vice versa. Nor is there any evidence that altruists who are deceived about their motives are, over the centuries, outreproducing altruists who are introspective enough to realize the benefits of mutual cooperation. Meanwhile, one hardly needs evidence that cooperators do well in society.

 The difficulty of interpreting whatever behavioral patterns we find is going to be compounded by the fact that all verbal reports of motives have to be dismissed as unreliable. Since psychological, ethical, and experiential evidence is inadmissible, we could find it difficult to reach the conclusion that the biological determinants are underdetermining the outcome. On the other hand, until we admit that evidence, we could be incompetent to understand what is going on.

 3. Induced and inflated altruism

 The ethical game is really a competition in deception: the benefactor trying to appear more altruist than he or she is (inflated altruism); the benefitted trying to get more from an overly deluded benefactor (induced altruism). Alexander is forthright, claiming a “general theory of behavior”: “Society is based on lies. … `Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’  But this admirable goal is clearly contrary to a tendency to behave in a reproductively selfish manner. `Thou shalt give the impression that thou lovest thy neighbor as thyself’ might be closer to the truth (1975, p. 96).” If we think of a spectrum with total selfishness at one end and total altruism at the other, it is advantageous to move along this scale just so far as one remains on the portion of the spectrum that is only apparent altruism, combining self-interest with helping others. It is fatal to edge over any further.

 Super-Good Samaritans are suckers, outcompeted by self- deceived but successful Good Samaritans, who in turn outcompete wised-up Good Samaritans. The Good Samaritan must not edge past the point of his own self interests, not allow the groans of the wounded man to con him into too much risk, not promise to pay at the inn any more money than he is likely to gain benefits in return. He must resist induced altruism.

 But further, a super smart Good Samaritan can himself become a trickster. In the struggle between trick and countertrick, he can con the victim into thinking that his rescuer is more of a Good Samaritan than he really is. “Individuals are expected to parade the idea of much beneficence, and even of indiscriminate altruism as beneficial, so as to encourage people in general to engage in increasing amounts of social investment whether or not it is beneficial to their interests” (Alexander, 1987, p. 103).

 Though the Good Samaritan must not actually let himself be induced into being a super-Good Samaritan, if he can manage to appear this way to the victim, then the victim (or other admirers) will be all the more disposed to reciprocate with benefits, benefits to the Good Samaritan that now exceed the advantage conveyed by the Good Samaritan to the victim. The Good Samaritan, first found to be only apparently a loser in favor of the victim, is, at this second level of deception, found out to be inflating this appearance even more, so that he can win bigger still. That is why he told the innkeeper he would pay more, if needs be, on his return trip. He wasn’t being tricked into extra altruism; he was parading his beneficence for future gains. He is image building. The victim is twice victimized, once by the thieves and a second time by the Samaritan, who inflates his already only apparent altruism and suckers the victim into over-reciprocating later on.  That selfish bastard is at it again!

 Alexander concludes, summarizing both induced and inflated altruism: “The long-term existence of complex patterns of indirect reciprocity, then, seems to favor the evolution of keen abilities to (1) make one’s self seem more beneficent than is the case; and (2) influence others to be beneficent in such fashions as to be deleterious to themselves and beneficial to the moralizer, e.g., to lead others to (a) invest too much, (b) invest wrongly in the moralizer or his relatives and friends, or (c) invest indiscrim- inately on a larger scale than would otherwise be the case” (1987, p. 103). “Now biologists realize that the conflicts of interests that exist because of histories of genetic difference imply … that nearly all communicative signals, human or otherwise, should be expected to involve significant deceit” (1987 p. 73).

 Perhaps. But first a critic will be better advised first to check the logical structure of such evolutionary psychology applied to ethics. We may only be dealing with a blik, that is, a paradigm grown arrogant, interpreting and reinterpreting all evidence in its favor. The empirical facts, which seem to be frequently examined, may in fact make little difference. The theory absorbs the evidence into its position.

 If one’s categories are limited to the merely biological ones, one will have to call Good Samaritan behavior some kind of a mistake, dismissing the actor’s altruistic accounts of his behavior because they are anomalous to one’s interpretive categories. There must be deception here somewhere. The theory demands it, and phenomena cannot gainsay the theory. But the deception could be in the theory, not the phenomena, which is disposing us to interpret as an illusion the altruism that is in fact taking place before our very eyes. So far from understanding what is going on, one will miss a critical new turning point: the emergence of an ideal of altruistic love.

 “Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6.27)–that might result in peaceable societies that flourish and leave more offspring in the next generation, but it is certainly not evidently reciprocal altruism or enlightened self-interest. Nor can we dismiss it as Jesus inflating his self-image or inducing others to benefit him.

 Natural selection (maximum offspring) is being relaxed in favor of ethical selection (choosing the right deed), although ethical societies need not do poorly in competition with other societies. But this is more than group selection: the ethical tribe winning out over the non-ethical tribe. This is universal altruism; Samaritan helping out Jew. Universal altruism is emerging from reciprocal cooperation, surpassing group selfishness and xenophobia. When we do see deeply into what is going on, which is the more plausible explanation? A bleeding hypocrite? Or a Samaritan transcending his genes?


 Alexander, Richard D., 1975. “The Search for a General Theory of Behavior,” Behavioral Sciences 20:77-100.

 Alexander, Richard D., 1987. The Biology of Moral Systems. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

 Alexander, Richard D., 1993. “Biological Considerations in the Analysis of Morality.” Pages 163-196 in Matthew H. Nitecki and Doris V. Nitecki, eds., Evolutionary Ethics. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

&nbsp Ghiselin, Michael T., 1974. The Economy of Nature and the Evolution of Sex. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

 Ruse, Michael and Edward O. Wilson, 1986. “Moral Philosophy as Applied Science,” Philosophy: Journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy 61:173-192.