Saturday, June 10, 2017


319. Conformism, reputation, empathy, and morality

In my earlier analysis of altruism I contrasted it with self-interest, and conflated it with the desire to be seen as a loyal member of a group. Here, I want to refine the analysis by distinguishing between conformism, empathy-based person-to-person altruism, and morality.

Conformism may lead to altruism, defined as making sacrifices for others, but it is in fact part of self-interest: one conforms to demands for altruism on pain of being punished by exclusion, which, depending on circumstances of dependency, may jeopardize survival. This may be part of an instinct towards altruism. This is related to reputation as a social mechanism that I recognized as part of self-interest.

I proposed that altruism may be based on morality, outside particular relationships, or on feelings of empathy or identification between persons, within specific relationships. It may also carry intrinsic emotional value, in ‘feeling good to do good’. It forms a basis for acts of consolation, protection, help or support.

Person-to-person benevolence is to a large extent instinctive, varying between people, depending on their genetic inheritance, upbringing, and life path. It is aided by a potential for empathy, in the brain, embodied in ‘mirror neurons’. We simulate in our selves what other people are seen to do and to suffer. As a mother moves a spoonful of food to the baby’s mouth, she opens her own. We feel the pain we observe in others.    

Morality is public, collective. Based on some underlying ethical values it is a generalized set of goals or guidelines shared in some group. It is less automatic, non-instinctive, and it is based on reason, culture, or religion, or some combination of them.

These factors underlying altruism may be in conflict but they may also support each other.

In their analysis of motives for pro-environment conduct, Linda Steg et al.[i], proposed three possible motives for conduct: hedonic (pleasure), gain-oriented (self-interest) and moral. Pleasure and gain may mostly go against pro-environmental conduct, avoiding its efforts and sacrifices, but may also support moral considerations. There may be intrinsic value in the pleasure of ‘doing good’, and it may yield status and reputational gains to be seen to do good. Making sacrifices may also signal wealth as enabling one to make sacrifices.

These effects depend on situational factors, such as seeing others comply or not with pro-environmental behaviour. Here conformism also kicks in. 

Similarly, hedonism and self-interest may go against the morality of altruism, but morality may also be supported by intrinsic value (pleasure), and social status and reputation (gain).

However, one still has to deal with the parochial nature of altruism, with a bias towards in-group others and against outsiders, discussed in preceding items of this blog.

Of course, much also depends on what kind of ethics underlies morality. Earlier in this blog I discussed the three main ethical systems: Utilitarian (going back to Bentham and J.S. Mill), duty-oriented (going back to Kant), and virtue-based (going back to Aristotle). Of these three, virtue ethics is the most pluralistic, allowing for different dimensions, of utility, survival and self-interest, pleasure and duties.

I propose that to engage in a consideration of possible mutual reinforcement of self-interest, pleasure and morality one needs to adopt a multi-dimensional virtue ethics. That is no small step as long as economic considerations are dominant, with economics firmly based on utilitarian ethics.



] Linda Steg, Jan Willem Bolderdijk, Kees Keijzer, and Goda Perlaviciute, An integrated framework for encouraging pro-environmental behaviour: The role of values, situational factors and goals, Journal of environmental psychology, 38(2014), p. 104-115.