Is Altruism Real?

There’s been a discussion — okay, a tangent that Ive gotten sucked into — over at Daylight Atheism. It’s about whether altruism is real… and since I’ve had rather a lot to say about it over there, I thought I should come say it back here as well.

I’ve always been bugged by people who insist that there’s no such thing as altruism; that everyone is basically selfish, and only they themselves are honest enough to admit it. The core of the argument seems to be that even the most altruistic acts — running into a burning building to save people, devoting your entire life to medical research or social justice, driving to shithole towns twice a month to take care of prisoners with HIV, etc. — are done for reasons of one’s own. They’re done to make yourself feel good, to make people like you, etc. Therefore, the acts are selfish — and therefore, there is no difference between the selfishness of, say, an Albert Schweitzer and that of a Donald Trump.

So here’s my problem.

If you’re going to define the word “selfish” as any and all behavior that benefits you even in the slightest — even if that gain is only that you get a marginal increase in social status, or that you get to privately feel like a good person — then that makes the word “selfish” pretty much meaningless. It’s basically re-defining the word “selfish” as “voluntary.” (Tip o’ the hat to Tim Walters for this catchy phrasing.)

Let’s take a look at the definition of the word “selfish,” shall we? According to Merriam Webster Online, “selfish” means:

1: concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself: seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others

2: arising from concern with one’s own welfare or advantage in disregard of others (a selfish act)

Please note that the definition doesn’t say “concerned with oneself; seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being; arising from concern with one’s own welfare or advantage.” Doing those things does not make you selfish. Doing those things makes you sane. The key words are “excessively or exclusively,” “without regard for others,” “in disregard of others.” That’s what defines “selfish.”

This is a useful word. It’s a useful idea, a useful distinction to make. And it draws a clear distinction between the “you’re just doing that to feel good about yourself” kind of selfishness, and the kind of selfishness that’s what most of people mean when they use the word. Between, if you will, Albert Schweitzer selfishness and Donald Trump selfishness. These are different concepts. They’re different experiences. The experience of, “It makes me feel ecstatic and connected to make a contribution to humanity” is significantly different from the experience of, “Screw you, Jack, I’ve got mine.” It’s absurd to try to call them by the same name.

But there are other issues here, and they’re more than just semantics.

I am troubled by the idea that human beings are “really” any one thing. Human feelings, human motives, human nature itself, are all a big, complex, self-contradictory mess, and I find it very troubling when people insist on denying one part of human nature simply because we have another part that contradicts it. In particular, I’m troubled by the idea that, because our motivations are often a mixture of selfishness and altruism, and because altruism has a selfish component to it, this somehow negates the altruism, and only the selfishness is real. (And I find it interesting that the people arguing this don’t consider the possibility that this conflict negates the selfishness, and only the altruism is real.)

And perhaps most importantly:

Arguing that altruism isn’t real isn’t just unethical. It’s also factually inaccurate.

There is, in fact, increasing evidence that altruism is an essential part of human nature. Literally. It seems to be hard-wired into us genetically. As it is in other social species. (As is selfishness, of course. Both qualities exist, in pretty much everyone.) Denying its existence is like denying the existence of social hierarchies or sexual desire.

I never cease to be amazed by people who insist that everyone else really experiences life exactly the way they do, if only they’d be honest and admit it. And in particular, I never cease to be amazed by selfish people who insist that everyone else is fundamentally selfish, too, and just won’t admit it. It’s so obviously self-serving that it’s laughable.

No, there’s probably no such thing as “pure altruism.” Any completely self-sacrificing tendency would have been selected out by evolution in a hurry. But the fact that it isn’t pure doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.

If people want to behave selfishly — i.e., concerned excessively or exclusively with themselves without regard for others — I doubt that I can argue them out of it. I just wish they’d stop fooling themselves into believing that everyone else is really just like them and simply won’t admit it. If you genuinely lack altruistic feelings… well, everyone else is not just like you. There are people in the world who care about other people, who have empathy for them, who want to make the world better for everyone and not just for themselves. And the world is a better place because of it.

Yes, the care for other people is mixed with self-care. But that doesn’t negate it. The fact that you are missing out on a fundamental human experience is no reason to deny that experience’s very existence.

Is Altruism Real?

Sex, Lies, and Contraception: The Male Pill: The Blowfish Blog

I have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog, a rethinking about the science, the economics, and the gender politics of the question, “Why don’t they make a birth control pill for men?” The piece is titled, Sex, Lies, and Contraception: The Male Pill, and here’s the teaser:

The reality is that both women and men have sex with people they don’t entirely trust. They have sex with people they trust enough: people they trust not to beat them up, not to steal their car, not to paint their living room hot pink while they sleep. But both women and men have sex with people who they don’t trust enough to let them handle the responsibility, and make the decisions, about pregnancy and children. I think plenty of men would be happy to take a pill to ensure that their decisions about pregnancy and children weren’t being made by the hot number they met on Craig’s List three weeks ago.

If I were a single man, I’d sure as hell want that.

To find out more, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Sex, Lies, and Contraception: The Male Pill: The Blowfish Blog

It Isn’t Like That

Ingrid and I are going away for our 10th anniversary. (No, we’re not going to the French Laundry — we decided on the Madonna Inn, where we had our fifth anniversary, and where we got engaged.) I won’t be back on the blog until Tuesday.

While I’m gone, I wanted to leave you with this. I wrote this piece about ten days after my first date with Ingrid… and I’m astonished at how true it still is, ten years later. I still can’t get over how lucky I am.

It Isn’t Like That
by Greta Christina

“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun…”
-William Shakespeare, Sonnet 130

She is not the sun and the moon and the stars, and she is definitely not my sole reason for living. I wake up in the morning and go to sleep at night for many reasons, of which her existence is only one. She is not all I can think about; I spend time thinking about work, and friends, and what to have for dinner, without too terribly much trouble. I don’t feel the earth move or the sky fall, although I do feel a bit like I’ve been conked on the head by a giant vaudeville rubber mallet. I can talk to other people when she’s around, and I can keep my hands off her if I have to. I don’t feel that every minute spent without her is wasted, and there is at least some sunshine when she’s gone. I do not believe we were destined to meet, or that my life would be empty, or hollow, or even incomplete, without her. And her eyes, while large and lovely and the color of the ocean on a dark day, are, in fact, nothing like the sun, except in that they are big and round and bright. It isn’t like that.

It’s just that I grin and giggle and blush when I think of her, and sulk when she’s far away. It’s just that I feel a cold terrified rage at the thought that anyone, myself included, might hurt her. It’s just that I feel brave when I’m with her; not brave enough to slay dragons, but brave enough to feel what I feel and say what’s on my mind, which for me is plenty brave. It’s just that she knows what I mean, and I know what she means; not always, not as if we were soul-sisters or psychically linked, but enough, and much more than enough. It’s just that so many of the things that are good about her are things that are good about myself, things I would be happy to have grow stronger from being in her presence. It’s just that there isn’t anyone else, not even gorgeous movie stars, that I’d rather have in my bed. It’s just that a part of me that is hard and cool and distant, a part I rely on but don’t much care for, turns into oatmeal when I think about her. It’s just that I feel that my life is not entirely in my own hands, and, rather uncharacteristically, am not feeling that this is a problem. It’s just that she’s smart and funny and sane and thoughtful and cheerful and playful and good and sexy and beautiful, and it feels like a miracle — not a huge miracle, just a small one — that she seems to see me the same way.

I like it this way better. Much.

It Isn’t Like That

GOP Candidates and Buffy Villains: Separated At Birth?

If you’re not a Buffy fan, you probably won’t get this at all. If you are a Buffy fan, do not imbibe liquids while reading this, as you will spit them all over your keyboard.

It’s The GOP Primary Field in Buffy Villains — a guide to the Republican Presidential candidates, explaining them by comparing them to villains from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

My very favorite is Fred Thompson as The Judge: “His backers got all excited and made a big effort to assemble him. When they finally put him together, he turned out to be a lethargic mess and didn’t accomplish very much.”

And there’s quite a bit of debate over where to put Rudy Giuliani. It’s a toughie, but after giving it way too much thought, here’s my suggestion:


Constantly obsessing about a moment of glory in his past, to the point where it’s become pathetic. Convinced that this past moment of glory still makes him impressive and intimidating and worthy of respect… and prone to getting very agitated when people don’t share this opinion. Nowhere near as powerful as he used to be, but still a threat. Not completely incapable of human feeling, but ultimately craven and self-centered.

What are y’all’s thoughts? And what about the Dems? What Buffy villains — or flawed heroes — are they?

And thanks to Rebecca for the tip!

GOP Candidates and Buffy Villains: Separated At Birth?

All I Really Need To Know I Learned From Porn — Or Not

This piece originally appeared on the Blowfish Blog.

Porn is not sex education.

I’ll say it again: Porn is not sex education.

I’m saying this to everyone who’s reading this. But I’m especially saying it to parents: Porn is not sex education. So you need to make sure your kids are getting actual sex education. Because if you don’t, then all they really need to know about sex they’ll learn from porn — and they’re going to get it completely wrong.

This came up because of a piece I heard on the NPR radio show, “This American Life.” The program was on the topic of “talking to kids,” and it had a whole segment on talking to kids and teenagers about sex. The entire segment was excellent… but the part that jumped out at me was the teenagers saying that they didn’t have good information about sex. Specifically, they didn’t have good information about the actual mechanics of sex, what goes where and how.

And so they looked at porn.

And I didn’t know whether to vomit, throw things, or cry.

It wasn’t just the appalling state of sex education in our country that made me want to cry. Although that was a big part of it. The sex education these kids are getting from their schools is pathetic and insulting, and they know it.

No, what was really making me want to throw bricks through windows was that these teenagers were getting their sex education from porn… and I know, in great and vivid detail from the many years I’ve been watching porn, exactly how lousy that education will be.

Here is a very short list of things that people will get grotesquely wrong if they get their sex education from porn.

What women’s genitals look like. This is a biggie. If you’re looking at porn video to satisfy your curiosity about what a pussy looks like — well, standards of female beauty in porn are almost as rigid with pussies as they are with basic body types, and female genital cosmetic surgery in the porn industry is getting increasingly and depressingly common.

What male genitals look like. Another biggie — literally. Every time I read a letter to a sex advice columnist from a guy complaining that his dick is pathetically small — not like the guys in the porn videos — I want to scream and bite people. Male porn actors are specifically selected for their large genitalia. They are not a statistically representative sampling. Statistically speaking, they represent the far, far end of the bell curve.

The realities of female sexual response. This may be the worst offender of the bunch. There’s already enough ignorance about what gives women sexual pleasure and what gets us off, without “porn as sex ed” adding to the mix. Look, I have no doubt that there are some women out there who don’t need foreplay, get very aroused by giving blowjobs, have intense multiple orgasms from intercourse alone, and couldn’t care less if you touched their clit. But if that’s how you’re trying to get a woman off, you’re really not playing the percentages. Trust me on this.

The realities of male sexual response. If you’re getting your sex education from porn, you’re going to think that it’s normal for men to get rock-hard immediately, at will, and to stay rock-hard throughout the encounter until they come. You won’t necessarily know that (a) male porn actors are specifically selected for their ability to get wood and keep it; and (b) the omnipresence of wood in porn videos is due in large part to the miracle of video editing (and more recently to the miracle of Viagra).

To round it all off, we have the actual mechanics; the “What happens during sex?” stuff that the teenagers in the NPR story were desperately looking for. The sex in porn videos is choreographed to give a clear, unobstructed view of the penetration. It’s choreographed to look good — not to feel good. I shudder to think of a generation coming into their sexual prime thinking that reverse cowgirl and that stupid position where the woman sticks her leg up on the wall are the gold standard of the sexual nuts and bolts.

And all of that is just the tip of the sexual misinformation iceberg.

So I want to say a few things to parents:

1. Sex education in our country is in an appalling state. It has huge holes in it at best, and dispenses gross misinformation at worst.

2. If you think your kids aren’t seeing porn, think again. Even before the Internet, kids and teenagers were looking at porn. (How many of us swiped our dad’s Playboys for a peek? I sure did.) And with the Internet, the horse is definitely out of the barn

So do something. If you’re not comfortable talking frankly with your kids about sex yourself — and I have more sympathy for that position than you might imagine, I sure didn’t want to talk with my parents about sex — you need to make sure they have a way to get the information they want and need. Get them books. Point them at the Scarleteen or San Francisco Sex Information websites. Send them to the sex education programs offered by the Unitarians. Make sure there’s an adult in their life they can talk about sex with. Or suck it up, get over your discomfort, and talk to them yourself.

But for the love of all that is beautiful in this world, do not let them grow up thinking that they can get accurate, useful sex information from porn. They can — once they’re adults, of course — use porn to get entertainment, inspiration, arousal, even some interesting new ideas. But the sex information they’ll get from porn will be, if possible, even more useless and misleading than the sex information they’re getting from their schools.

All I Really Need To Know I Learned From Porn — Or Not

Carnivals and Circles: Skeptics, Feminists, and Liberals

Blog carnival time!

Skeptic’s Circle #78 is up at The Skeptical Surfer. My piece in this Circle: Untested by Definition: A Rant on Alternative Medicine. My favorite other pieces in this Circle: At Least a Skeptic by Whiskey Before Breakfast, on why skepticism matters in political leaders; and How to be a nice skeptic (and its follow-up piece, Bodytalk follow up), by The 327th Male, on a subject near and dear to my heart — how to question people’s beliefs without being a jerk about it.

Carnival of Feminists #51 is up at Philobiblon. My piece in this carnival: Which Side Are You On? Pro-Porn and Anti-Porn Arguments. My favorite other piece in this Carnival: A Feminist Critique of Superbad (You Heard Me) by Persephone’s Box.

Carnival of the Liberals #56 is up at Blue Gal. My piece in this Carnival: Hypocrisy or Bigotry — Which Is Worse? Huckabee and Guiliani on Gay Rights. My favorite other piece in this Carnival: Overshooting the Goal by Tangled Up in Blue Guy, on universal health care — and why it’s important, in politics as in other endeavors, to reach for more than what you ultimately want or will settle for.

(And I somehow missed this one when it came out, but Carnival of the Liberals #55 is up at The Greenbelt. I don’t have anything in this Carnival, but it’s still a good time, as always. My favorite piece: O NOES!! TEH SANCTITY!!!11!, by The Digital Cuttlefish, who completely outdoes himself in this hilarious poetic parody on same-sex marriage.)

If you’re a skeptical, feminist, or liberal blogger and want to get in on the Carnival Fun (and I strongly encourage you to do so, it’s a great way to expand your blog’s reach), here are submission forms/ info for the Skeptic’s Circle, Carnival of Feminists, and Carnival of the Liberals. Happy reading, and happy blogging!

Carnivals and Circles: Skeptics, Feminists, and Liberals

A Reality Show About Art: Project Runway

It’s somewhat alarming how quickly this happened.

I went from catching the last half hour of a rerun on the TV at the gym, to obsessively Tivoing every new episode plus every rerun from every single season that has ever aired… in the space of about four weeks.

I’ve sucked Ingrid into it as well. And we have totally gone to the bad place, watching hours-long marathons and even renting the season we missed on Netflix. In a matter of a few weeks, this silly reality show has become like “The Daily Show” or “The Office” — one of the very few TV shows that I never, ever want to miss.

So here’s the thing about this show, the thing you might not be expecting, the thing that surprised the hell out of me:

“Project Runway” is actually smart and interesting.

Yes, it’s fun, entertaining, easy-to-swallow pop culture fluff. But it’s fun, entertaining, easy-to-swallow pop culture fluff with some thought and substance behind it, and with perspective and light to shed on the reality of the human world.

Maybe I’m just rationalizing. But I don’t think so. And I have backup for my opinion. I mean, the whole reason I watched the damn show at the gym in the first place was that I’d read more than one article, by more than one smart and thoughtful TV or culture critic, with a headline reading something like, “Project Runway: Actually A Good TV Show.”

Subhead: “No, Really. Stop Laughing. I’m Serious.”

So here’s my Grand Theory of what I think makes “Project Runway” smart and interesting:

It’s a reality show about art.

Continue reading “A Reality Show About Art: Project Runway”

A Reality Show About Art: Project Runway

Chopped Salad

This one goes out to everyone who hates salad. Or who just doesn’t like it.

I’ve never been a salad fan. It’s not my sworn enemy the way broccoli is, and there have been individual salads in my life that I’ve quite enjoyed. But as a rule, I find salads tedious. A chore. Unobjectionable, but still something I eat because I feel that I should, not because I actually want to.

But I had this dish at a dinner party recently, a salad that I loved and actively enjoyed. I’d never even heard of it before this dinner, so I wanted to share it with the rest of y’all who don’t much like salads but wish you did.

It’s chopped salad.

It’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like. It’s a salad, with greens and stuff; but instead of the greens being in big leaves that you have to chew through like a cow, the whole thing is chopped up together into fairly fine pieces. The contents are totally green salad contents; but the vibe is more like a relish than a green salad.

And I had this flash of realization. The reason I don’t like salads isn’t that I object to the taste of lettuce or spinach or whatever. The reason I don’t like salads is the whole “chewing through the leaves like a cow” thing. That’s what makes it feel like a chore. When the greens and the goodies are all chopped up together, you get the deliciousness, without the “chewing your cud” experience. Plus you don’t have to wade through the big chewy leaves to get to the yummy treat parts; it’s all chopped up together, and you get little bits of the whole salad in every bite. And somehow, chopping it up into smaller bits brings out the flavor of the greens in a really nice way.

The one we had at the dinner party had nuts and cheeses chopped into the greens; so I made one last night with spinach and walnuts and blue cheese (which is what we happened to have around the house). It was marvelous. And easy-shmeezy. You basically just make your salad, chop it up as finely as you want (which took about five minutes), and dress it however you normally would. (Although I’d personally stay away from gloppy creamy dressings like ranch or blue cheese, since I think that would just make it a mess. I’d stick with oil and vinegar, oil and lemon juice, things like that.)

I’m not sure how it would work with a regular salad with lots of vegetables, like tomatoes and cucumbers and stuff. Although it might work just fine. But for the sort of salad with greens and nuts and bits of cheese, it’s yummers. I am now completely sold on the whole salad issue. Kudos to Jimmy, who has opened my eyes like no-one else before to the way of the salad.

Chopped Salad

What’s the Harm in a Little Woo?

When I write about religion and religious belief, I tend to write about the Big Ones. The famous ones, the powerful ones, the well-organized ones with millions of followers or more. The multinational brands; the Coke and Pepsi of spirituality. (Christianity, mostly, since, as an American, it’s the one I’m most familiar with, and the one that’s most in my face.)

But a comment on this blog made me realize that I need to talk about woo as well. In my Bringing Up Kids Without God post, I’d said, “It took me years — many, many years — to figure out that, ‘God/ the soul/ etc. can’t be definitively disproven’ didn’t mean, ‘It’s okay to believe anything I want.'” The commenter replied:

Ok, maybe here’s where the believer in me comes out, but… what’s wrong with believing in anything you want? Why ISN’T it ok? It’s one of the fundamental things our country was built on. It’s considered part of freedom. Freedom of (and I add “from” as well) belief.

I can see why belief in God can be problematic (well, actually, I don’t see why belief in just simply the concept of God itself is problematic, but rather the belief in all the dogma and crap that the Church piles on with it), but what about the other things? How does believing in, say, subatomic particles with free will hurt? As long as you’re not being held back by dogma, as long as something isn’t hurting you emotionally, as long as you don’t hurt others with it, why not do it? You once said you were GOOD at reading tarot cards back in your woo-woo days… if it works for you and it works for others, as long as reason stays the guiding point of your life, why not do it?

I’ve seen this attitude a fair amount among progressives and lefties. “The problem with religion isn’t the spiritual belief, but the power structure.” “I don’t belong to any organized religion, but I have my own spirituality.”

And while I see where this attitude comes from — and while many people I respect hold it, including this commenter — I don’t agree with it at all. Yes, I think the power structure of religion is harmful… but I think that spiritual beliefs are harmful as well. Even without the power structure.

So I want to talk about woo.

Neo-paganism. Wicca. Goddess worship. Astrology. Telepathy. Visualization. Psychic healing. The hodgepodge of Eastern and pre-modern religious beliefs imported into modern America — reincarnation, karma, chakras, shamanism etc. — that have been jumbled together and made palatable to a Western audience (what I call “Pier 1 spirituality”). Channeling. Tarot cards. Etc.

And I want to talk about why I have a problem with it.

Continue reading “What’s the Harm in a Little Woo?”

What’s the Harm in a Little Woo?