In my article “For Jesus and Angels? The off-putting side of Christian hospitality” I explore the grounds for hospitality within two biblical passages. The Atheist Missionary responded to the discussion as follows:
“I’ll give you a much easier underlying explanation/justification/motivation for hospitality and it has nothing to do with Jesus or the Bible. 2 words: reciprocal altruism.”
So what is reciprocal altruism, exactly? As the term suggests, it is the extension of kindness, generosity, benevolence with the expectation that such will eventually be returned in kind. John Cartwright summarizes the concept as follows: “You scratch my back now and I’ll scratch yours later.” He continues, “In the case of reciprocal altruism, aid is given to another in the hope that it will be returned.” (Evolution and Human Behavior: Darwinian Perspectives on Human Nature (MIT Press, 2000), 86.)
My favorite example of reciprocal altruism in nature is found in the vampire bat. As Lindzey et al. write:
“vampire bats share their blood with other bats under two conditions: with genetic relatives and with nonrelative bats who have shared with them in the past…. Bats seem to remember who has helped them in the past, and they reciprocate in the future.” (Gardner Lindzey , Daniel Gilbert and Susan T. Fiske, The Handbook of Social Psychology, vol. 2, 4th ed. (McGraw Hill, 1998), p. 986).
Alas, Lindzey et al. fail to describe how the bats share their blood even though that is the best part. (The generous bat vomits his blood into the mouth of the other bat; such selflessness brings tears to one’s eyes!) However, Lindzey et al. do note the significance of reciprocal altruism as an observed phenomenon:
“The theory of reciprocal altruism … has important implications for social psychology. It provides an evolutionary basis for key social psychological phenomena such as cooperation, helping, altruism, and social exchange. “ (Ibid.)
In 1998 reciprocal altruism even climbed to the top of the charts with New Radicals’ smash hit “You get what you give”. Never before was ethics this danceable:
Presumably, The Atheist Missionary thinks that the Darwinian benefits of reciprocal altruism for fitness explains why we ought to be morally good and hospitable: because we too may need help one day. As Aesop’s fable of the lion and the mouse reminds us, even a lion might benefit in the future by extending kindness to a mouse now. How much more ought we to extend kindness to others so that we might benefit in the future?
All this is to say that I don’t doubt that there is value in the concept of reciprocal altruism. But does it really provide the deepest explanation for moral value, obligation, and action? And are our questions about hospitality as a test case of moral value, obligation and action really solved with these two words?
Hardly. I responded to The Atheist Missionary with the following counter-example:
“The problem is that there are countless isolated cases that don’t feed into the reciprocity cycle. Say, for example, a business man late for a meeting in a strange city sees a homeless man beaten and unconscious. Should he help knowing that doing so might mean he misses the meeting and loses the large contract? In moments like that one hopes a person has something more substantial than “reciprocal altruism” to inform their moral compass.”
The Atheist Missionary then offered the following reply:
Randal, I can think of a host of indirect benefits that could accrue to your businessman. First of all, you know perfectly well that money often means a lot less to people who already have plenty of it (i.e. losing the contract may not be as big a deal to him as you may think). Even if the contract is of utmost importance, your businessman might want to use this example as a teaching moment for his children. He might do it in the hope that someone else, somewhere else might return the favor to him in a moment of need. It might just make him feel good when he does something nice for someone who has no ability to return the favor. How do you feel when you make a Kiva donation?
I take this response as an attempt to defeat my counter-example by proposing several ways that kindness to the homeless man might indeed feed into the reciprocity cycle of reciprocal altruism. Let’s see if these various responses succeed.
In his first response The Atheist Missionary speculates that maybe the businessman doesn’t really care about money and contracts and business that much. Pace The Atheist Missionary, it is more likely that he does care. Indeed, it is likely that he cares very much. After all, most folk don’t reach positions of influence and power without valuing greatly that which they pursue. And regardless, we can simply render that explicit in the thought experiment: so yes, he does care very much as most businessmen do.
Next, The Atheist Missionary opines that the man might help the poor bloke “as a teaching moment for his children”. (Since his children aren’t mentioned as being present, I assume that The Atheist Missionary is suggesting the businessman might help the poor man so that he can have a real life anecdote that he might share later.
But wait: what’s the point of the anecdote? Remember, The Atheist Missionary has based hospitality (and, by extension, moral action) all on reciprocal altruism. So how does this example provide a visible demonstration of the principle? It doesn’t. In fact, if the businessman wants an illustrative anecdote for his children, he’d be far wiser to bypass the poor wretch, make the meeting on time, and complete a business deal that more effectively illustrates reciprocal altruism.
At this point The Atheist Missionary lapses into a response of desperation: “He might do it in the hope that someone else, somewhere else might return the favor to him in a moment of need.” Note that this response places the motivation for the businessman to act wholly upon the possibility that others might identify him as the good Samaritan and reciprocate.
Let’s illustrate how flimsy this rationale is by filling out the picture a bit. Let’s say that the businessman is an operative for the NSA working in China as a businessman. He recognizes that making others aware that he provided aid to the unconscious man will place himself and his mission at risk. Consequently, there is no way he can benefit from helping the man. If he is to help, he must do it anonymously. But now with the requirement of anonymity, he loses any possible benefit and thus, on The Atheist Missionary’s terms, any moral motivation to action.
This brings us to The Atheist Missionary’s last response: “It might just make him feel good when he does something nice for someone who has no ability to return the favor.” Note that this rationale no longer appeals to reciprocal altruism and thus it falsifies The Atheist Missionary’s claim that reciprocal altruism can explain hospitality (and by extension ethics). Instead, this final response sets aside concerns of reciprocity and simply bases moral action on those actions that produce good feelings in the actor.
Needless to say, this final response is an absolutely terrible basis for ethical action for a simple reason: many people feel good doing evil things. The pedophile, for example, “feels good when he” sexually assaults children. Clearly that fact provides no moral basis at all for engaging in acts of abuse against children. Consequently, the production of good feelings is wholly irrelevant as a basis for moral action. Everything depends on whether that which makes one feel good is rightly ordered.
So to sum up, no, reciprocal altruism is clearly not an adequate basis for moral action generally or hospitality in particular.
If you like this article, please consider joining The Tentative Apologist Kiva Group to support entrepreneurs in the developing world. You may feel good doing so, but that’s not why you do it! 😉