Nomological Net

Stray thoughts from here and there. The occasional concern for construct validity. No more logic. Fish.


faults in the clouds of delusion

Friday, May 11, 2007

You go your way and I go mine

I'm coming out the right end of a half dozen pegs of excellent Hrussian woshka so this may not have the usual pizzaz you've come to expect from my dobrovolski. Well, nyetverksy mind. C'est life. Wie komme Ich zum Bahnhof. Da?

I got into an argument over dinner yesterday evening. It was about the nature of altruism. I said I admired this cute little paper written by a researcher I consider God, in which altruism was represented as a negative weight on self-interest. My sophisticatedly combative colleague said that he disagreed with that definition of altruism as altruistic acts were performed because they fulfilled some larger self-interest. e.g., I might end up having less money as a function of having donated fifty bucks, but I feel like a bigger person, so that's not really altruistic of me to have donated.

So I said, oh, okay, what you have is a broader definition of self-interest.

He said no, what you have is a narrower definition of altruism.

I said so what's your definition of altruism?

He said -- altruistic actions involve an overall negative payoff for the agent.

The food arrived so we dropped it right there. But before that, we'd been talking about this East-European exchange student who'd sent out an email announcing a farewell party the next day (i.e., today). We went for her farewell party today. The idea of a party was in itself quite an exception -- never heard of this before. But what really blew us away was the lengths this girl had gone to. There was enough of a spread that twenty-odd people ate and about half the food was left over. More than 70% of the alcohol was left over. She had her national flag up on the wall and music from her country playing. She organized a quiz about her country, and the winners were allowed to choose their prizes. Me and the altruistic guy from the previous evening tied for first; he went first, and given a choice between a doll and a bottle of alcohol he picked up some of her excellent vodka. I went next and got this Georgian wine that she called 'premium'. (My Ukranian friend says this brand was Stalin's favorite.) There was actually so much stuff that everyone got a prize and there was still acres of stuff left over.

I've never heard of something like this before. Our parties are usually more socialist.

On our way back we wondered about the many possible reasons why she did it.

Is *this* altruism?


Postscript - the next morning

I discovered a napkin in the back pocket of my jeans. As I pulled it out I remembered I'd scribbled on it an exchange I'd had during the party:

- So what happened to your drink, man?
-I don't know! [Concerned look] I just poured myself one -- and then I guess I drank it all down.


Blogger Vivek Kumar said...

Comrade Dobrovolski,

It is strange that you say "Our parties are usually more socialist" while talking about the party thrown by someone from a (possibly) former Soviet (and hence, Socialist) Republic :)

You see, Comrade, this is how the Soviets like to party. It was so in the past, and it is so today. Quite possibly, it will be so in the future as well.

More seriously, I was given an explanation about Soviet/Slavic/Russian hospitality by a Russian. Perhaps that would explain this "anomaly".

It is a matter of great pride for a Russian (using it as a generic term now) host that the guests would actually leave food not only on the table, but also on the plate. To the host, it shows that (a) you loved the food so much that you piled it up on your plate, and (b) you are so full of the amazing food that you just can't eat any more.

I was also told that Russians go great lengths in laying lavish spreads while entertaining guests (and yes, I can assure you that it is so) for the reasons outlined above.

As you can see, this is exactly opposite the Indian etiquette: Thou shalt not waste your host's food. To us, it signals that you did not like the food or perhaps that you are insensitive to food wastage (and hence to the millions who starve everyday).

Interesting how people in very similar socio-economic conditions have evolved entirely different perspectives on this issue.

5/11/2007 11:53 PM  
Blogger Perspective Inc said...

That made for such an interesting read... :)

5/12/2007 12:16 AM  
Blogger km said...

LOL :)) Nice post. You are amazingly lucid even after all the imbibementologistics.

My 2 kopeks:

Altruism is essentially a kind of judgment and therefore, a value imposed from the outside. Which, IMHO, makes it essentially meaningless.

For example, is a mango tree altruistic? What about the man-eating tiger of Rudraprayag?

5/12/2007 4:46 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

Comrade Viveknikov,

thanks indeed for the very informative exposition -- i'd forgotten i had an expert in my midst :-) what you say makes a lot of sense.

you should have been there :-D

thankew. lucidinthesky - that's my middle name.

i agree it makes sense to look at altruism as a kind of value judgment -- hadn't thought about it that way. it does come down to the attributions one makes.

i'm not sure why that should be meaningless, though.

(i can see this degenerating into another of those discussions on free will.)

5/12/2007 10:53 AM  
Blogger Arthur Quiller Couch said...

What did you teach her anyway?

(word verif: whafugp. Blogger KNOWS.)

5/12/2007 12:57 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

my winsome ways.

5/12/2007 10:53 PM  
Blogger Big Wave said...

there was a quiz??
wild party, that!

i see your 2 kopeks km, and i raise you err 1: i'd say the man-eating tiger of rudraprayag being an altruist depends entirely on the relationship of the title-giver to the man (eaten). if he were to eat bal thackeray for example...mmm, tasty thought.

5/13/2007 4:11 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

big wave:
totally. did i mention we got napkins for correct answers? things got a little messy when the question was "name all the soviet republics" and everyone was due one napkin per republic correctly named.

re: the tiger, i always thought it was a leopard. maybe the story grows in the telling. also, isn't this another of those funny-punctuation stories? "man eating tiger-of-rudraprayag" would certainly make headlines -- altruistic motives or otherwise.

5/13/2007 11:12 PM  
Blogger Revealed said...

Hah! This is my pet theory. I agree with said sophisticat and his definition of altruism. Very aptly put.

What she did *wasn't* altruism. It was just bizarre.

5/14/2007 6:24 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

you mean it's one of your current pet theories, right?

off to the winsome ways remedial classes with you.

5/14/2007 8:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ariely? loewenstein? slovic?


5/15/2007 11:55 AM  
Blogger Chimera said...

what about those who devote time for others? are they also altruists?

and those who donate money to avoid higher taxes...

like they say in India the biggest factor that begging thrives is because people think that altruism is the surest way to heaven :)

5/15/2007 2:44 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

nota. lehmann -- a cut above, in my book. ijrm 2001.

princess c:
nice examples, thanks! i think it comes down to the negative weight on self-interest in the end.

please keep commenting (at this level)!

5/15/2007 11:29 PM  
Blogger Revealed said...

Yesh, yesh current pet theory. And we refuse to go to the remedials. You will have to drag us there kicking and screaming.

Point is that nothing can be altruistic unless you broaden the description of altruism.

5/16/2007 1:05 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

slippery slope!

can anything be anything unless the relevant definition is broad enough?

even nothing?


5/16/2007 9:09 AM  
Blogger Revealed said...


Didn't want to state my case properly and then have everyone jump on my back and tell me what an idiot i am. Lose-lose situation this is turning out to be!

5/17/2007 5:09 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

time for a new pet theory.

this fine line between blogging and academia is a good thing, innit?

5/17/2007 1:46 PM  
Blogger Revealed said...

Hahahaha. You said it :)

But y'know you really should make it sometime when I can also be there, no? This whole blogger union thing without me is most absurdly unfair!

5/17/2007 9:57 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

funny how the point of the post degenerated from altruism to just truism.

5/17/2007 10:48 PM  

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