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It's one of the key stupidities of neoclassical economics that it confuses selfishness with self interest. I doubt you'll find many neoliberals who could explain the difference in practice. And their actions certainly don't support a reading with any particular evidence of nuance.

Altruism isn't just reliably observed in the social sciences, it has a biological foundation - mirror neurons seem to explain it quite adequately.

There's no uncontrived Darwinian explanation which explains why people get incredibly attached to their pets, but they do.

Anyone who's ever paid a vet's bill can tell you about non-reciprocal altruism. There's no objective benefit to owning a pet - e.g. most cats aren't even that good at keeping vermin at bay, never mind defending anyone against hostile people or larger predators, and pet fish don't do much of anything at all - but humans will lavish food, attention, affection and resources on them all the same.

There may be a perceived subjective benefit, but once you accept that, it's no step at all to accepting why altruism exists too.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Sun Mar 1st, 2009 at 03:48:15 PM EST
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There is no dispute that unreciprocal altruism exists.  The problem is that it does not occur systematically enough to explain why people behave the way they do to each other.  Social science has tried for two centuries now, and there has been little success (although some studies do claim to find it).
by santiago on Sun Mar 1st, 2009 at 06:10:49 PM EST
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how systematically is systematically enough?  I'd say that that is to vague an argument to philosophically employed, capble of salami slicing any opposing argument.

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.
by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Sun Mar 1st, 2009 at 06:38:25 PM EST
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That you can make a mental model of it good enough to make a prediction and observe the evidence that the prediction is true.  Same standard that applies to self-interest as the principal motivation for human behavior.  There aren't many good models of altruism that explain much about what happens in the real world.  But there are lots of good models of self-interest and lots of evidence to back them up.
by santiago on Sun Mar 1st, 2009 at 10:57:09 PM EST
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I'm ssure thats down to results being more easily experimentally observed. Altruistic results tend to be more indirect, and so less easily testable.

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.
by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Mon Mar 2nd, 2009 at 08:33:33 AM EST
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That's not necessarily true, although certainly a possibility. Quite a bit of work is currently being done in this area related to the phenomenon of migrants sending remittance payments to family members in their countries' of origin, which has exploded in volume in the last 20 years all over the world.  Sociologists (Massey and Stark being the most prominent in this) have tested specifically for altruism or reciprocity, and most of the evidence comes down on the side of reciprocity -- migrants' families provide something, or provide a source of security of the migrant's interests, in return for remittance payments which smooth consumption patterns of their families back home.  
by santiago on Mon Mar 2nd, 2009 at 11:14:18 AM EST
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