Batson observed that increased empathy correlates with increased helping behaviour, SEP then describes as follows:

He found that the altruistic hypothesis always made superior predictions. Against the unpleasant experience hypothesis, Batson found that giving high-empathy subjects easy ways of stopping the experience other than by helping did not reduce helping. Against the punishment by others hypothesis, Batson found that letting high-empathy subjects believe that their behaviour would be secret did not reduce helping. Against the self-administered reward hypothesis, Batson found that the mood of high-empathy subjects depended on whether they believed that help was needed, whether or not they could do the helping, rather than on whether they helped (and so could self-reward). Against the self-administered punishment hypothesis, Batson found that making high-empathy subjects believe they would feel less guilt from not helping (by letting them believe that few others had volunteered to help) did not reduce helping.

SEP concludes that this is very bad news for Psychological Egoism - and I think a large part of me is inclined to agree - though I certainly have niggles with the experiment, it does seem like strong evidence in favour of altruism.

My question is this - how have Batson's experiments been received by philosophers in general, and how effective a refutation do they consider it to be?

Any other arguments for/against Psychological Egoism and any interesting extra reading you know of relating to the subject (of Batson's experiments or of psychological egoism) would be most welcome within this context as well.

  • 1
    I tried to get rid of content that made the question appear as asking for opinions (which would be out of place for an SE site. I hope it still covers your needs as it now stands.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jul 30 '17 at 15:00

I cannot directly answer to Batson as I do not have the time to put into research there, but there happens to be something in my current research that matches with the gist of this question. I would like to offer another perspective and very important series of experiments that undermine psychological egoism, namely the experiments conducted by Tomasello et al. The reference here will be Why we cooperate (2009).

Tomasello is testing the abilities of apes versus human infants. The findings presented in the above-mentioned book is summarised by Lenny Moss in his chapter The Hybrid Hominin: A Renewed Point of Departure for Philosophical Anthropology in Honenberger, P. (Ed.). (2015). Naturalism and Philosophical Anthropology: Nature, Life, and the Human between Transcendental and Empirical Perspectives. Springer. (pp. 171-182) as follows:

There are two general observations about human sociality that can be made on the basis of these studies and it is the second upon which I want to elaborate. The first is that human infants, even prior to language, possess a cognitive infrastructure, a cognitive capacity for ‘we-intentionality’ that so far as we know, no other species possesses. This breakthrough understanding by Tomasello surely must be one of the most significant achievements of contemporary experimental psychology. The second, I think less explored and developed observation, is that infants are deploying these capacities in cooperative acts as ends-in-themselves, and I would refer to this as pertaining to the affective infrastructure of human sociality and sociability. How and why are cooperative acts in-themselves attractors for human infants? And have we uncovered another window onto the origins of humanity in the primordial Hominin Group? (p. 178, bolded mine)

This strongly suggests that humans in an of themselves are indeed not egoistic. They are fundamentally social, they have the inherent motivation to help other human beings (and animals, for that matter - but they cannot understand this) in fulfilling their intentions. As he writes just before:

Tomasello has gone to some pains to show that helping behavior in human infants is spontaneous and not predicated upon parental rewards and that infants will even forego an individually enjoyable activity to engage in helping behavior.

In other words: Tomasello is careful in excluding egoistic motivation for the behaviour.

This shows that egoism is indeed not a psychological fact, but, if anything, a culturally learned behaviour.

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