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Bioaltruism reconsidered

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Altruistic behavior is often regarded as sociobiology's most central theoretical problem, but is it? Altruism in biology, bioaltruism, has many meanings, which can be grouped into two categories. The first I will callcommon bioaltruism. It is primarily of ethological relevance. The second,evolutionary bioaltruism, is a special category in evolutionary respects in that it may indeed pose a problem for evolutionary theory. These categories are logically independent. Moreover, both of them are logically different from altruism in its everyday psychological or moral sense. Sociobiological examples of bioaltruistic behavior concern bioaltruism in the first sense only, so the theoretical problem ‘altruism’ is supposed to pose, is indeed nothing but a theoretical problem and the bioaltruism that actually occurs has no evolutionary relevance. Nevertheless, evolutionary theory is relevant to our understanding of the possibility of common bioaltruism, and that possibility — even though bioaltruism is conceptually different from ethical altruism — is relevant for ethicists: it sheds light on what we can ask people to do or not to do.

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Voorzanger, B. Bioaltruism reconsidered. Biol Philos 9, 75–84 (1994). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00849915

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Key words

  • Altruism
  • ethics
  • ethology
  • evolution
  • sociobiology