Altruistic Fish and the

Altruistic Fish and the Morality of Death

I am indebted to two wonderful bloggers, Arthur Silber and Don Watkins, who have forced me to think about altruism in ways I never have before. (Both know more about Objectivism than I do, which I find humbling as well as challenging.)

Bearing in mind that I am a bit out of my depth where it comes to Objectivism's fine points, I think I'll talk about my personal experience with fish altruism. The applicability of this to humans is itself debatable, but as I just finished likening bloggers to fish, I think I'm on the hook...

Knowing what I know about the extremely limited brain power of fish, if I say their behavior is "altruism" I might very well deserve to be called anthropomorphic in the extreme, mightn't I? Well, if altruism is not conscious altruism (but something else -- occurring almost instinctively, and at the neurophysiological level), then it is an error to use the term "altruism" as we normally use it to describe what passes for unselfishness in human beings. But if we are therefore in error -- if the word "altruism" actually describes a baser, more natural process -- then I see no reason why it is erroneous to label certain fish behavior as "altruistic" any more than it is erroneous to so label human behavior.

For years I owned several 50 gallon tanks with large cichlids. What happened during a particular morning feeding routine was that I threw in the usual chunks of corned beef, which I tried to disperse in such a way that each fish got his fair share. The Oscar, being the greediest, was fed first, and then while he snarfed down his portion I'd typically toss the Jack Dempsey a nice morsel, and so on. But one day, the Jack Dempsey was standing right in line for his anticipated beef chunk, which drifted down about two inches in front of him. He was about to snarf it down when -- all of a sudden! -- a juvenile Jack Dempsey I'd added not long before began swimming towards it from the opposite side of the tank. Even though there was plenty of time, the big Jack Dempsey stopped dead in his tracks, and seemed to watch as his little "soul brother" devoured a chunk of beef far too large for him to swallow immediately. This was certainly not a case of intimidation (for the size factor rendered that idea preposterous on its face). Nor was the big guy not hungry, for he immediately grabbed and swallowed the following two pieces.

I had already read about "parenting" behavior -- for which the Cichlds generally (and the Jack Dempsey in particular) are noted, but what on this day I learned about a phenomenon called "flock tending" -- which may arise in apparently unrelated fish of the same species. It was quite obvious; my big Jack Dempsey took a "personal" interest in the wee one, and sometimes, for no reason at all, he'd just poke his head in and check out the little fish up close. This would frighten the little fish a bit, but the big one was very gentle and not once made an aggressive move. (Visually, the big one was eight to ten times larger than the baby.) This display of "unselfishness" was breathtaking to behold, as it was so against the big fish's basic instincts, and seemingly out of character for Jack Dempseys generally.

I never expected to see that in a fish.

What lessons might there for humans I don't know. But if "altruism" is something which occurs at an instinctual level in fish, the implications are quite profound. For starters, we ought to reexamine the whole meaning of the word "anthropomorphism."

If generosity and unselfishness is not altruism in humans, then it certainly is not altruism in fish.

So what the hell is it?

Maybe it depends on which "school" you owe your loyalty...

One thing is for sure; the Oscar would not have done that for a Jack Dempsey!

According to C.T. Onions, altruism simply means devotion to the welfare of others -- so the definition would apply to parental-style sharing in fish as much as it would to the same behavior in man.

Might it be that what concerns us is not so much the behavior, but, rather, the motive? If someone walked up to you on the street and handed you a hundred dollar bill, you would be wise to be wary. But here's a true story I witnessed years ago -- at a gay bar in New Orleans. There was an ancient queen -- really old, really effeminate, and obviously on his last legs. Except he wasn't even on his last legs, as he was in a wheelchair. The man's face radiated pure joy, and I swear to God, he was passing out huge amounts of cash! Hundreds, twenties, fifties -- it did not matter to him. He was having the time of his life just giving money away to attractive young men. Watching carefully, I could see nothing remotely sexual about this behavior, and I doubt that the man was capable of sexual gratification. But even if he was, that was not his goal; he just wanted to see young men happy in a gay bar with his cash!


This behavior irritated the hell out of a young military-looking guy, who was following at the "wheels" of the old man, angrily attempting to stare down all takers, his face contorted into the angriest, most Calvinistic scowl of moral authority he could muster. In some cases, he succeeded in taking back the money (sometimes grabbing it as was dropped guiltily to the floor by those he shamed) and handing it back to the old queen. The old queen laughed at him and tried to hand him the money back -- as if this too was all part of his "fun."

Clearly, most decent people (certainly most altruists) would maintain that an old man like that should be placed in a home and cared for. But I don't know about that. He looked quite happy to me -- and he certainly did not appear senile.

If this was altruism, it was not the type of which society would approve, that's for sure. (By the way, it gave me the creeps at the time, and I did not take any money. It struck me that the old man and the intermeddler were both slightly cracked. Each one was "altruistic" -- but in very different ways. And the whole scene -- in the midst of languid southern humidity and extravagant alcoholic decrepitude -- took on a Tennessee Williams, grand guignol, "Death in Venice" sort of decadence. I knew that the old man was soon to die, and I did not quite trust what might happen to me psychically if I took his money...)

Are we insufficiently trained in the understanding of the guilt mechanism? Is this why we have an entire body of law which attempts to functionally erase last minute decisions by people in contemplation of death? I have noticed that even when reputable charities are involved, "altruism" is given severe scrutiny by the courts. (Of course, the latter bend over backwards in favor of often greedy relatives, who are said to "deserve" "altruism" -- of which they are legally considered to be the "natural objects.")

What's the matter? Donít we trust the dying? What is "competence" and who gets to decide? And is this ageist? Would we tolerate in a young person behavior we would never allow in the old?

I don't know how altruistic it is, but to contemplate one's mortality, one's own death, is to grow. Therefore, the argument can be made that people who near death are better capable of knowing what they are doing.

Is altruism the Morality of Death? We all die, do we not? I learned something invaluable from contemplating/experiencing the deaths of those I loved, and from contemplating/almost experiencing my own death. Just as all men are created equal, all men die equal. There is a great leveling which we all must face, and which we all tend to deny, try to avoid. Unless you believe that spending huge sums on tombs, embalming, mummification will make any difference, there comes a point where there is nothing more that you can do, and you achieve that true equality which comes from death, whether you want it or not! Running around in this life trying to achieve inequality may be lots of fun, and it may make you feel good, but it does not count with God, gods, infinity, eternity, or whatever you might call it. (And even if you're an atheist, it still doesn't count much when you're dead, does it?) I realized that regardless of religious belief, what you are now, you are eternally. So that means if you are alive, you must try to make each moment count, lest you waste eternity like the rest of the lost souls swimming about. To waste now is to waste eternity, no matter how you look at it.

That said, the difference between us and fish is that we know we will die, and fish do not. We fear death, and fish do not. Altruism being an inescapable, possibly ineradicable, fact of nature, is it not possible that a few people, a long time ago (demagogues who desired great power) tried to create a link between natural altruism and man's profound fear of death? If so, then such a link is man-made, and profoundly evil. It has brought misery to millions.

We cannot undo altruism, but undoing this artificial link is a good idea. Putting an altruistic pricetag on the soul perverts natural altruism, and is NOT a Classical Value.

Altruism as the Morality of Death is unnatural, and I think Ayn Rand was right to condemn it as that.

But -- I say this as someone who believes that altruism is natural.

posted by Eric on 06.12.03 at 06:56 PM

April 2011
Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
          1 2
3 4 5 6 7 8 9
10 11 12 13 14 15 16
17 18 19 20 21 22 23
24 25 26 27 28 29 30


Search the Site


Classics To Go

Classical Values PDA Link


Recent Entries


Site Credits