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(2009) Plural action, Dordrecht, Springer.

Lending a hand

Hans Bernhard Schmid

pp. 131-151

In conclusion of the second part of this book, I shall come back to a topic that has been lurking in the background of all previous chapters of this section: the question of altruism. I have argued above that the concept of altruism is insufficient for capturing the motivational structure of cooperation (Chapter 5), coordination (Chapter 6) and commitment (Chapter 7). It is now time to address the question concerning the structure of altruism. Over the past decade, the concept of altruism has come to play an increasingly important role in social science. This is particularly true in experimental economics, where altruism is routinely quoted when it comes to explaining the vast discrepancies between the observed behavior in the experiments, and the predictions based on the standard economic model of human behavior. In this debate, as well as in some other contexts, altruism usually means having "pro-social' or "other-directed' preferences. It is observed that people are not always egoistic in terms of the somewhat narrow conception of self-interest that is still at work in much of economic theory. The conclusion that is usually drawn is to drop the assumption that individuals are only interested in what they can get for themselves in favor of a wider conception that extends to such preferences as benevolent desires, preferences for reciprocity and fair dealing, and the inclination to punish transgressions against the norms of fairness even if one is not directly affected by that transgression, and if punishment is costly to the punisher (cf., e.g., Fehr and Fischbacher 2003; Henrich et al. 2004).Thus the term "altruism' has become something of an indicator for what one might call the defensive strategy in recent economic theory. Proponents of this strategy acknowledge systematic deviations between the economic model and actual human behavior, but tend to believe that it is possible to correct this shortcoming simply by widening the class of human preferences. Not all participants in the debate, however, believe that such amendments to the model will do. Authors such as Amartya K. Sen have voiced serious doubts concerning this defensive strategy (Sen 1977, [1985] 2002; Peter and Schmid [eds] 2007). These authors favor what one might label the critical strategy, claiming that much more radical conceptual changes than a simple expansion of our view of human desires will be needed in order to come to an adequate understanding of human action, changes that affect not only our notion of motivation, but our concepts of the agent's identity and the nature of choice, too.

Publication details

DOI: 10.1007/978-90-481-2437-4_8

Full citation:

Schmid, H.B. (2009)., Lending a hand, in H. B. Schmid, Plural action, Dordrecht, Springer, pp. 131-151.

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