On Accidental Altruists

Gordon Tullock:

All of us like to think that we are better, more altruistic, more charitable, than we actually are. But, although we have this desire, we don’t want to pay for it. We are willing to make a sacrifice of perhaps 5 percent of our real income in charitable aid to others. We would like to think of ourselves, however, as making much larger transfers without actually making them. One of the functions of the politician in our society is to meet this demand. (more)


As an adolescent I seem to have deeply internalized the idea of great scientists/visionaries as heroes. I long judged my efforts by their standards – what would increase the chance that I would become such a person, or be approved by one. Marching to the beat of this unusual status audience drummer often led me to “non-conform” by doing things that less impressed folks around me. But I very definitely wanted to impress someone. (more)

Let me admit it here and now: I am an accidental altruist, driven more by ambition than empathy. I have sought glory by understanding deep mysteries of quantum physics, disagreement, and human hypocrisy, by foreseeing the next great era after ours, and by inventing and deploying new forms of info aggregation in governance.

I happen to believe that such actions will in fact give an unusually large expected benefit to the world. This is because I believe that in our era a great many things go quite wrong because we do not understand ourselves and our future, and because we aggregate info badly. But, I must admit that I might still pursue similar glories even if they gave little benefit. And perhaps even if they created modest harm.

Now it is not a complete accident that our society offers glory to those who improve our governance or deepen our understanding of the world and ourselves. Or that more glory often goes to those whose contributions seem more likely to benefit us all. This is a somewhat functional way for a society to coordinate to improve itself. But the credit here should probably go to the slow process of cultural selection, whereby cultures with more functional institutions win out in competition with other cultures.

I suspect that many will think less of me if they see my altruism as more accidental, relative to intentional. And this makes sense to the extent that people use altruism as a signal of niceness. That is, if you use how nice someone is toward the world as a whole as signal of how nice they would treat you as a friend, spouse, colleague, etc., then it makes sense to put less weight on accidental niceness. We accidental altruists probably tend to be less nice.

But if what you wanted was just to encourage more altruism toward the world, I’d think you’d mostly just want to celebrate people more who actually do more good for the world, without caring that much if they are driven more by glory or empathy. Sure, when faced with an option where they might gain glory by hurting the world, such a person might well choose it. But in areas where pursuing glory tends mostly to help the world, my guess is that the world is helped more if we just praise all good done for the world, intend of focusing our praise mainly on those who do good for the purest of reasons. And I think we all pretty much know this.

So why don’t we just celebrate all good done, regardless of motive? I’d guess it is because most of us care less about how to help the world overall, and more about how to use the altruism of others as a signal of their personal inclinations and abilities.

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