7.19.2007

Happy For You

A couple of days ago, I caught an old episode of the Ellen show when Beyonce Knowles was the guest. It was Beyonce's 25th birthday, and Ellen surprised her by bringing out her childhood dance teacher. When Beyonce saw her teacher—for the first time in years—she was overcome with emotion. She covered her mouth with the back of her hand, and started crying.

And to my surprise, so did I.

Could our brains have a built-in capacity for experiencing "altruistic pleasure"—that is, feeling good about other people feeling good? Last month, NYT columnist John Tierney wrote about new research done by neuroscientists at the University of Oregon, in which they scanned the brains of 19 female subjects while they made decisions, via a computer, about donating real money to charity. As Tierney explains:
Sure enough, when the typical student chose to donate to the food bank, she was rewarded with that warm glow: increased activity in the same ancient areas of the brain — the caudate, nucleus accumbens and insula — that respond when you eat a sweet dessert or receive money. But these pleasure centers were also activated, albeit not as much, when she was forced to pay a tax to the food bank.
Now the philosophical question (which Tierney explores in a related blog entry) is, Does activation of a neurological pleasure center mean that people are: Truly Altruistic (because we have this innate wiring system that makes us feel good about helping people); or, Truly Selfish (because we're not actually behaving in order to help others, but just to make ourselves feel good)?

Ouch, makes my head hurt even thinking about. But the distinction, though subtle, is important. Viewed through the "lens"—I hate that phrase, but whatever—of evolutionary biology, I don't see how we can be anything but Truly Selfish.

At the end of the blog post, Tierney asks his readers: "...what do you think is your chief motivation in making charitable donations? Do you give because it makes you feel good, or because you (in accordance with Kant’s ideal of praiseworthy altruism) are painfully carrying out your duty?"

Forty-nine people commmented...Some goodies:

Trite:
Does it really matter why a person does something kind or compassionate for another person, for an animal, or for the environment? The point is that if every single human being would perform an act of kindness, this world would be a better place. —Bobbi

Pretentious:
A world in which positive relational networks enable one’s own pleasure to be generated from facillitating another’s sounds pretty ethically desirable to me. —Chris

Dismissive:
What this debates lacks is the admission that nothing is ever simple in human culture. —Mitch

Either Chauvinistic or Insightful, can't decide which:
all the participants were female—motherly love is as altruistic as it gets —David

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