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The Meme of Altruism and Degrees of Personhood
Amanda Stoel   Oct 8, 2012   Terasem Journals  

The struggle for civil rights has been one of constant movement through the centuries and it is by no means finished.

From a king having only rights, then onto the noble men, to all white men who owned land, to all white men, to men of color, to women. Despite ongoing struggles, there is a clear trend visible that shows a general increase in acknowledgment of rights (non-citizens, non-human animals, children, people with disabilities, womyn and minorities).

The fall of the Roman Empire

When thinking of Rome, the beautiful architecture, the sophistication of the empires literary (The Great Library of Alexandria) and political culture come to mind. Unfortunately these cultural glories were limited to a tiny privileged elite - those who owned enough land to count as gentry landowners. They represented maybe three percent of the whole population. Its structures were probably horrible reminders of inequality to pretty much everyone else.

The Romans had an economy based on slave labor. Cheap slave labor resulted in the unemployment of the people of Rome who became dependent on handouts from the state. At some point the ratio of slaves vs. non-slaves was five to three. The Romans attempted a policy of unrestricted free trade but this led to working class Romans being unable to compete with foreign trade. The government was forced to subsidize the working class Romans to make up the differences in prices. This resulted in thousands of Romans choosing just to live on the subsidies sacrificing their standard of living with an idle life of ease. The massive divide between the rich and the poor increased further still. The Romans dependency on slave labor led not only to a decline in employment, morals, values and ethics, but also to the stagnation of material innovation, whether through entrepreneurial or technological advancement. The terrible treatment of slaves led to rebellion and several Servile Wars, the most famous being the revolt led by Spartacus.

Captive barbarians were being fed to wild animals in the Coliseum, and its criminal law dealt ruthlessly with anyone seeking to remedy the highly unequal distribution of property.

In 650 AD, as in 350 AD, peasants were still laboring away in much the same way to feed themselves and to produce the surplus that funded everything else; for example, the full cost of the military via incredibly high taxes from which the elite was exempt. However, as the Empire grew, the cost of maintaining it and its armies, which the emperor’s powers depended on, grew with it. This cost eventually grew so great that any new challenges such as invasions and crop failures could not be solved by the acquisition of more territory. Intense, authoritarian efforts to maintain social cohesion by Domitian [the Roman Emperor from 81 to 96 AD] and Constantine the Great [the Roman Emperor from 306 to 337 AD] led only to an ever greater strain on the population which led small farmers to destitution or into dependency upon a landed elite. The barbarians invaded and marked the beginning of the fall of the Roman Empire. As the west fell, the east muddled through a while longer because it was a bit richer, but slowly, piece-by- piece, it too succumbed and gave way to feudalism.

The peasant revolt of 1381

Since the 14th Century, the word peasant has had a negative connotation and is not a neutral term. It was not always that way; peasants were once viewed as pious [Living next to God] and seen with respect and pride. Life was hard for peasants; life was hard for everyone. As nobles increasingly lived better quality lives, there arose a new consciousness of those on top and those on bottom, and being a peasant was not a position of equality. King Richard II tried a heavy-handed enforcement ‘the third poll tax’, the third in a line of poll tax experiments that became increasingly unpopular. The third poll tax was neither levied at a flat rate nor according to schedule; instead, it allowed some of the poor to pay a reduced rate, while others who were equally poor had to pay the full tax, prompting cries of injustice.

There had been many revolts already, but the peasant revolt of 1381 was the one that came to be seen as a mark of the beginning of the end of serfdom in medieval England. Although the revolt itself was a failure, it increased awareness in the upper classes of the need for the reform of feudalism in England and the appalling misery felt by the lower classes as a result of their enforced near-slavery.

The French Revolution 1789–1799 Liberté, Egalité, and Fraternité

If the guillotine is the most memorable negative image of the French Revolution, then the most positive is surely the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, one of the founding documents in the human rights tradition. Prior to the revolution many things were askew, the country was nearing bankruptcy and outlays outpaced income. This was because of France’s financial obligations stemming from involvement in the Seven Years War3 and its participation in the American Revolutionary War4. The country’s extremely regressive tax system subjected the lower classes to a heavy burden, while numerous exemptions existed for the nobility and clergy.

The Revolution itself is regarded by some historians as one of the most important events in human history. In fact, the Revolution is often seen as marking the “dawn of the modern era”. Within France itself, the Revolution permanently crippled the power of the aristocracy and drained the wealth of the Church, although the two institutions survived despite the damage they sustained.

The American Civil War

Before the American Civil War slavery separated the North and the South. The slavery issue addressed not only the well-being of the slaves (although abolitionists raised the issue), but also the question of whether slavery was an anachronistic evil that was incompatible with American values or a profitable economic system protected by the Constitution. All sides agreed slavery exhausted the land and that they had to find new lands to survive. The south feared living together with free blacks would cause sin and destruction; Northerners came to view slavery as the very antithesis of the good society, as well as a threat to their own fundamental values and interests [Foner, 1970].

Ending slavery became the only goal. War and slavery for the Confederacy’s 3.5 million blacks effectively ended when Union armies arrived; they were nearly all freed by the Emancipation Proclamation [Lincoln, 1863].

What we can observe here is a repetitive cycle through the ages, equality/abundance/progress vs. inequality/scarcity/transformation or collapse of a civilization. I contend this is due to the altruism meme; history constantly shows that it is in both human/non-human and economic interest to be altruistic, the more equality the more progress (in all its forms) we can see.

“When you call yourself an Indian or a Muslim or a Christian or a European, or anything else, you are being violent. Do you see why it is violent? Because you are separating yourself from the rest of mankind. When you separate yourself by belief, by nationality, by tradition, it breeds violence. So a man who is seeking to understand violence does not belong to any country, to any religion, to any political party or partial system; he is concerned with the total understanding of mankind.”

- J. Krishnamurti, “Freedom from the Known”

Genetic and memetic altruism

Human culture and organization are the creations of an animal; a large brained and evolved hominid. Social patterns came into existence because of drives, motivations, instincts and needs. Genes and memes drive human evolution. Where genes use us as battlebots in which competing genes slug it out (as in “survival of the fittest”/“natural selection”), memes are the driving force behind social evolution.

“Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.” [Dawkins, 1976]

Language, a very successful meme learned through imitation/knowledge sharing, evolved by individuals interacting with each other more and more frequently. Groups formed and humans became more altruistic hence, co-operative groups were more productive and sustained healthier, stronger, and more numerous members and made more effective use of information. Through the development of communities and social relationships we have become more ‘domesticated’ and subsequently, less aggressive.

Altruism is not only a superior moral faculty that suppresses basic selfish urges, but is rather basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable [Moll, et al 2006]. Both memetically and genetically we appear to be predisposed for altruism (well, most of us anyway).

Others do it too

Altruistic behavior is seen amongst many different animal species, from apes to cellular slime moulds. Altruistic behavior is even seen in tiny little robots [Waibel, Floreano, & Keller, 2011].

A great example of a non-human, animal altruistic society is that of meerkats. Meerkats have sentries where each has watch duty for about an hour and alert the rest of the group when a predator is nearby, thereby endangering him or herself as they also bring the predator’s attention to themselves. By doing so it ensures the higher probability of its group members’ survival and secures gene survival even though it may not be through offspring of its own. Young female meerkats take care of the young, even to the extent that when an enemy approaches they will collect the young meerkats and lay over them to protect them with their own bodies. A selfish meerkat in this group would have a higher probability of survival then the altruistic meerkat for certain, but imagine if the social arrangements were different? What if all the meerkats were selfish; no sharing of food and no raising the young meerkats together? Instead of sentries, the meerkats would have to spend most of their time looking out for predators while trying to hoard food to secure and protect resources while looking out for their own young. That is, if you live long enough to have young. Meerkats would not be able to have sustainable communities if it wasn’t for altruism.

Are selfish communities sustainable?

Selfishness has purpose when an entity is a lone wolf, but not when it is part of a social community. In a society selfishness leads to inequity. For both social and economic purposes, it makes a lot of sense to be altruistic in a community.

Research clearly indicates that the countries that fare poorly (measured by social gradients like crime, dropping out of school, mental illnesses etc.), whatever the outcome, seem to be the more unequal ones. There is a direct link from general social dysfunction to inequality [Wilkinson, 2011].

It’s not just that one or two things go wrong; it’s most things. Think of the expense, the human cost of that. Inequality is one of the major oppressors hindering a global change of mentality from scarcity to abundance.

I contend that a society based on selfish behavior is not sustainable. With that kind of social arrangement we loose social cohesion and oppressive conditions for both humans and other entities are created. Entire civilizations fall when selfishness reigns. Regardless of my personal feelings on whether or not altruism is innate, we need to progress to ensure continuation of the species.

The Technological Singularity and the Altruistic Singularity

The hard work of millions of scientists has turned countless science fictions into science facts. We now have technologies science fiction writers only fantasized about. Kurzweil argues, that whenever a technology approaches some kind of a barrier, a new technology will be invented allowing us to cross that barrier. He cites numerous past examples of this to substantiate his assertions. He predicts that such paradigm shifts have and will continue to become increasingly common and will lead to a “technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history” [Kurzweil, 2001]. We must ask ourselves the question: Is there an evolutionary pressure that weeds out zero sum predatory behavior and rewards crowd sourced/synergistic behavior? Not that selfishness in itself is always bad, for example: Linux was begun in stark competition with other large operating systems. Throughout history we can clearly see there is an increase in synergy/technology/science/cooperation, which for the sake of brevity and clarity, we can call an altruistic trend. We have increasingly more ‘faith’ in our fellow humans because we simply stand to lose if we don’t. When we start loosing faith our society will collapse.

For better or worse, we have become dependent on the societies we live in and in order to progress, in abundance and safety, we must endeavor to become more ‘altruistic’; we must engineer the ‘altruistic’ singularity.

Degrees of personhood

With the development of autonomic computing, ambient intelligence and our increased understanding of the animal world, our philosophical conceptions of human self-constitution and agency are being challenged more than ever before. We have come to a point where we have enough reason to reassess and emancipate the most basic concepts of law to extend the circle beyond humans and include such non-human entities as animals, artificial intelligence, or extraterrestrial life.

I argue that if we do not, we may be sowing the seeds of our own self-destruction. While we enslave other entities but refuse to take responsibility for them, we are creating ‘oppressive/predatory’ environments that will force these non-person entities to develop defense mechanisms; for example, the ‘self aware AI’ risks debate.

Much has been speculated about the development of AI’s and what they could be like. We could end up fighting for the same resources once computer intelligence develops self-awareness. AI could lay in waiting, biding its time until it is strong enough to show it’s ‘true colors’. Then there is the possibility of a ‘friendly AI’, but this requires we instill it with an altruistic nature. Of course, a good way to do this apart from proper programming is by example. What better way to ‘ensure’ a friendly AI then by treating it as an equal, giving it civil rights?

“Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave.” – Roy Batty Bladerunner

Humans including non-humans as persons may be a tough pill to swallow. Rather than trying to change the laws to include other species, I suggest we reject speciesism but do not try to say that all should be treated equal, that all lives have equal worth, or that all interests of humans and non-humans must be given equal weight. Instead, we make the more limited and defensible claim that where non-humans and humans have similar interests, we must not disregard or discount the interests of another being just because that being is not human.

I suggest we create a ‘scale’ to measure the degrees of personhood. All capacities and attributes that an entity possesses (collectively constituting personhood), for example: agency, intentionality, self-determination, etc., will place this entity into a certain category. Rights would then be extended to ‘the degree that the entity is a person’; great apes get many similar rights, insects get much fewer rights etc. For example, an entity that can display behavior of avoidance of physical pain (volition, intention) should be given the right not to receive pain from actions by humans.

From here to there

Broad acceptance of such a concept would be in the interest of many existing human and animal rights organizations, which with implementation of this scale will have a more solid legal standing. Not only for the civil rights of humans and non-humans today, but also for the humans and non-humans of the future.
We are standing at a crossroad, one road leads to a possible dead end for humans (and whatever potential we may have had), and the other road to a future free of suffering, filled with potential.



Dawkins, Richard. “The Selfish Gene,” [1976]. Retrieved June 298, 2012
Foner, Eric. Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War [1970].
Kurzweil, Ray [March, 2001]. “The Law of Accelerating Returns,” Kurzweil Accelerating Intelligence. Retrieved June 28, 2012
Lincoln, Abraham. “The Emancipation Proclamation,” [1863] Retrieved June 28, 2012 n/
Moll, Jorge, et al [October, 2006]. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), Vol. 103 Iss. 42: “Human fronto– mesolimbic networks guide decisions about charitable donation,” pg. 15623-8. Retrieved June 28, 2012
TED Blog (TED) [2011]. How economic inequality harms societies: Richard Wilkinson on (Video). Retrieved June 29, 2012 richard-wilkinson-on-ted-com/
Waibel M, Floreano D, & Keller L. [2011]. “A Quantitative Test of Hamilton’s Rule for the Evolution of Altruism.” E-Journal Public Library of Science. Retrieved June 29, 2012


[1] Womyn’s rights: “[O]ne of a number of alternative spellings of the word “women” used by some feminist writers.” Retrieved from

[2] Frank Maloy Anderson, ed., “The Constitutions and Other Select Documents Illustrative of the History of France 1789-1901” [Minneapolis: H. W. Wilson, 1904], 170-74. Retrieved June 28, 2012

[3] Robson, Eric. [1996]. The New Cambridge Modern History, Vol. 7: The Old Regime 1713-63. Retrieved June 28, 2012

[4] Membridge [n.d.] American Revolutionary War. Retrieved June 29, 2012


1. Ancient Library of Alexandria
2. Depiction of Revolt of Spartacus
3. Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, signed by Louis XVI, sealed with the seal of the king
4. Meerkat
5. AI Vitruvian Man


All true; unfortunately if the past is any guide (a platitude) it does not appear oppressors will respond to undiluted altruism, Christian ethics, Buddhist Right Action- Right Speech, or anything of the sort. Violence is right out—however civil disobedience is the way to go.

A note on the Civil War: it is complicated because the sentimental agrarianism of the South v the urbanising wage slavery of the North was probably—and poignantly—the most important factor. All the same, the Confederacy’s ironically unsentimental insistence on spreading slavery to the huge (over half the continent) Western territories and its willingness to fight a vicious war partly in defense of such an insistence, negated their dignified hankering after sprituality and nostalgia.

“...the sentimental agrarianism of the South v the urbanising wage slavery of the North was probably—and poignantly—the most important factor. All the same, the Confederacy’s ironically unsentimental insistence on spreading slavery to the huge (over half the continent) Western territories and its willingness to fight a vicious war partly in defense of such an insistence, negated their dignified hankering after spirituality and nostalgia.”

It would have included over half the continent because if the Confederacy had won it would have taken back free states.
Plus, the Fugitive Slave laws.
Asking, telling, the North to return fugitive slaves was, as you probably know, really pushing it on the part of the South; so any claim that Northern imperialism and wage slavery was a major cause of the Civil War (it was) is cancelled out.
It bothers me how libertarians don’t usually get the above, their oversights are what ruins libertarianism for me. They are sharp, they are do-ers, but they ignore far too much of what they don’t want to know, that which doesn’t fit into their frameworks. This matters because libertarians are integral to h+.




Great article, interesting perspective!

- About 25,000 people die every day of hunger or hunger-related causes, according to the United Nations.
- 925 million hungry people in 2010
- ILO estimates there were 153 million child labourers aged 5–14 worldwide in 2008
- 85% of sweatshop workers are young women between the ages of 15-25
- Almost half the world — over three billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day.
- At least 80% of humanity lives on less than $10 a day

Unfortunately we still live in a world where an economy is based on “slave labor”. Corporations simply move factories (and people) all around the world at the blink of an eye to keep 80% of the entire human species making under 10 dollars a day.

“we must engineer the ‘altruistic’ singularity.” - I don’t believe in my gut/intuition that when we create brain/minds that are “posthuman” that we can engineer them to be altruistic. Any mind, whether it be a singularity type of information / technological explosion or simply slowish gradual technological advances towards a posthuman world, that posthumans/the technological singularity - must learn what “altruism” is on their own. They must have the right to be autonomous being(s) instead of altruistic zombie(s). However my intuition also tells me that information like the stats listed above will lead a super-intelligent being to be altruistic. The logic for altruism is somewhere in the statistics and the compassion an intelligent mind has.

I have written about the degrees of personhood / consciousness myself, however it is a rough draft for a rather longer piece: The point of the article I wrote is that we must have some kind of system to rate consciousness/self/awareness/etc. However, that does not mean that we go out and torture worms because they may fall low on the scale, what it means to me, at least, is which animals we must respect much more than we do today, obviously cows, dogs, horses, chimps, rats, etc. The potential of such a system would probably mean the destruction of factory farms, which are not helping the human species anyway when it comes to food, not to mention the green house emissions they produce.

We do have a recent positive development in altruistic behavior of intellectuals:  “The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness”

I totally agree with your “From here to there”! Brain/Mind does have the potential to be immensely altruistic!

Some other thoughts on the here-and-now:
“Corporations set up sweatshops in the name of “competition”. In reality these corporations are not facing profit loses or bankruptcy, just too little profit! During this century, workers real wages have gone down while CEO’s salaries have skyrocketed. In 1965 the average CEO made 44 times the average factory worker. Today, the average CEO makes 212 times the salary of the average worker.

The problem is that corporations have skewed priorities. Expenses like CEO salaries and advertising costs are put before the well-being of their workers. In 2007, Mark G. Parker, CEO of NIKE, raked in $6,227,968 in total compensation (according to the SEC). In 2007, NIKE’s advertising budget was $678 million. Realistically, Nike could pay all its individual workers enough to feed and clothe themselves and their families if it would just devote 1% of its advertising budget to workers’ salaries each year! Corporations falsely claim that they are victims of the global economy when, in fact, corporations help create and maintain this system.”

“Corporations falsely claim that they are victims of the global economy when, in fact, corporations help create and maintain this system.”

Indeed, the emphasis, (and priority!), seems to be on “race to the bottom”?

There’s a good question for POTUS - why?

#Austerity #Occupy

Your suggestion of a scale by which we might establish degrees of Personhood caught my attention.

Might I ask where humanity should place the 10 week in-utero human fetus on your proposed scale?

Your points on Meerkat social communion is well taken, however not entirely accurate. There has been a popular programme on UK BBC called “Meerkat Manor” for a number of years. This has shown in depth how Meerkat siblings and cousins will form breakaway groups and compete to the point of murder of each other’s young. I guess Meerkats have more than a little altruism in their genetic makeup?

Whether this social competition is a power struggle or more complex, (to keep control of numbers to avoid intense predatory attention), the violence is none-the-less shocking and kind of dismantles the Meerkat cuddly image?

Most mammals have tendencies towards violence and social hierarchy in some form or another. Chimpanzees are vegetarians, yet will rip an intrusive spider monkey to shreds and then eat it! Lord of the flies reigns supreme - beware the next holocaust!

Murderous Meerkat Moms Contradict Caring Image, Study Finds

Concerning altruism in general. I would say that “reciprocity” is more important than blind altruism, (charity is less a socially driven trait and more a religious meme, especially for a contemporary Christian?) Unless an angel by nature, an altruist will expect some form of reciprocity at some stage, eventually to the point where thanks is not enough any longer - something to mull over for yourselves through inner reflection?

Universal Human and non-Human rights, (and responsibilities), can be supported with the promotion of the “reciprocity” meme and not merely blind altruism, which normally is taken as sign of weakness and vulnerability from predators and freeloaders?

“Do not do unto others that which you would not have them do unto you” (the Silver rule is superior here?)

“Do not do unto others that which you would not have them do unto you” (the Silver rule is superior here?)”

In advanced market economies as well as third world nations, screw unto others before they screw unto you is as you know regnant.

“Concerning altruism in general. I would say that “reciprocity” is more important than blind altruism, (charity is less a socially driven trait and more a religious meme, especially for a contemporary Christian?) Unless an angel by nature, an altruist will expect some form of reciprocity at some stage, eventually to the point where thanks is not enough any longer - something to mull over for yourselves through inner reflection? Universal Human and non-Human rights, (and responsibilities), can be supported with the promotion of the “reciprocity” meme and not merely blind altruism, which normally is taken as sign of weakness and vulnerability from predators and freeloaders?”

You got it. It’s like that everywhere and now that family ties, extended as well as more isolated nuclear, have diminished, so has altruism albeit freedom has increased overall. So it is—as always—mixed result. Also, when we think of altruism and reciprocity we usually think of tangibles, yet what of intangible power? Power is not in & of itself materialistic; power involves ‘only’ the reciprocity of the dominant-submissive relationship: power-ers control while power-ees submit to power-ers. But not necessarily physically, it can merely be powerful-yet-subtle psychic manipulation. I’ve been thinking of the neo-liberalism Alex used to mention, see it, literally see it on fancy packages, the containers of goods: multicolored designs becoming more sophisticated every year in the tech of producing the packages plus more sophisticated in promising neo-liberal Utopia. More subtle than false advertising, though, to a fetishist the promises are real, they matter. It is the sheer exaggeration, the promise that Acme Chocolate Covered Ants are so scrumptiously delicious you’ll just die of happiness.
Too complex & complicated to grasp in all its ramifications. Used to think I knew what was going on, but it was conceit, and beyond that the world becomes more complex, complicated. No wonder the original futurists were so chirpy: in 1968, say, things did appear a bit more comprehensible.


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