Economics and Philosophy



Christine Claviena1 and Rebekka A. Kleina2

a1 University of Lausanne

a2 University of Heidelberg


To understand the human capacity for psychological altruism, one requires a proper understanding of how people actually think and feel. This paper addresses the possible relevance of recent findings in experimental economics and neuroeconomics to the philosophical controversy over altruism and egoism. After briefly sketching and contextualizing the controversy, we survey and discuss the results of various studies on behaviourally altruistic helping and punishing behaviour, which provide stimulating clues for the debate over psychological altruism. On closer analysis, these studies prove less relevant than originally expected because the data obtained admit competing interpretations – such as people seeking fairness versus people seeking revenge. However, this mitigated conclusion does not preclude the possibility of more fruitful research in the area in the future. Throughout our analysis, we provide hints for the direction of future research on the question.

Christine Clavien is Junior Post-doctoral Lecturer at the University of Lausanne. Her recent books include Je t'aide moi non plus: biologique, comportemental ou psychologique, l'altruisme dans tous ses états (Vuivert, 2010) and, co-edited with Catherine El-Bez, Morale et évolution biologique; entre déterminisme et liberté (PPUR, 2007). Her current focus is on topics related to human sociality and the examination of interdisciplinary bridges between biology, economics, philosophy and psychology.

Rebekka A. Klein is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Heidelberg. Her recent books include Sozialität als Conditio Humana (Edition Ethik, 2010), which will be published in English as Sociality as the Human Condition (Brill, 2011). Her current focus is on the methodology of experimental economics and neuroeconomics.


Many thanks to the editor, three anonymous referees, Philip Kitcher, Daniel Kelly, Michel Chapuisat, Benoît Dubreuil and Chloë FitzGerald for correction, advice and comments on previous versions of this paper.