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)

Me:

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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  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    I suspect that many will think less of me if they see my altruism as more accidental, relative to intentional.

    Some would respect you more if you entirely dropped the ruse that following your interests will—intentionally or accidentally—help the world.

    • http://badoutcomes.blogspot.com/ Robert H.

      Seriously, Robin. “Here is how I fantasize that people will react to my motives in a world where everyone thinks I am a famous and important thinker” isn’t a very compelling starting point. How about looking at people actually regarded as important thinkers who contributed to human welfare? Do people think less of the wright brothers because they were capitalists? Archimedes, because Hiero probably paid him? Einstein because he cared how others regarded him?

      • oldoddjobs

        People do tend to think less of humanity’s prominent benefactors if they are too explicitly self-interested. (That much is obvious to me, at least!) There seems to be a general disdain for the mere pursuit of one’s livelihood, because this involves having “interests”. Those of us who have to work to earn a living necessarily have these base “interests”, while those who live off and manage society, either through politics or academia, are uniquely “disinterested” and supposedly have no personal ends in sight – they merely serve us money-grubbers with our petty “interests”.

        Do people think less of the Wright brothers because they were capitalists? Yes, insofar as they are regarded as capitalists they are not respected. If they had explicitly devised the airplane “for the good of humanity” you can bet they would be far more exalted.

        I disagree with W above:

        “People whose achievements produce high public value are typically
        celebrated even if their motives are selfish (e.g. obtaining wealth and
        fame).”

        I just don’t see this. Maybe I should visit America?

      • VV

        I just don’t see this. Maybe I should visit America?

        I don’t know since I don’t live there.

        But examples abound: Edison, Watt, da Vinci, etc.

      • IMASBA

        The Wright Brothers were probably not the first ones to invent the airplane and even if they were we have proof others followed within mere months and years. The Wright Brothers patented the airplane first and that patent was so restrictive (it held back airplane development for years and the US federal government finally forced them to form a patent pool) that all in all the Wright Brothers did more damage than good, so yes, them being shrewed capitalists had an impact on history and this case is an example of why the public is and should be wary of too much selfishness.

      • oldoddjobs

        “too much” of anything is by definition bad, right? Do you like too much salt on your fries?

        I do not see taking advantage of the government’s patent system as being overly capitalistic per se.

    • IMASBA

      “Some would respect you more if you entirely dropped the ruse that following your interests will—intentionally or accidentally—help the world.”

      This.

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  • IMASBA

    “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.”

    This isn’t at all obvious. Rewarding luck isn’t much of a selection strategy, it would just encourage assholes to maximize the appearance of doing well, and even saints can’t force luck. It would also be a betrayal of all those people doing invisible good things (the group that collectively does most of the good things in the world) and those trying to do a lot of good things but failing because of bad luck. Society is better off encouraging these groups than the assholes who are looking to gain from positive PR.

    • Rudd-O

      “it would just encourage assholes to maximize the appearance of doing well”

      People already do that. It’s called “voting”.

  • Rudd-O

    The primary function of the politician, sociopath par excellence, is to exploit all human biases to serve his own corrupt personal riches and power mania.

    Inducing the population to conceive of mass extortion as “altruist, social work” is one of the ways in which they accomplish their primary function.

  • VV

    People whose achievements produce high public value are typically celebrated even if their motives are selfish (e.g. obtaining wealth and fame).

    People who try to oversell achievements of questionable public value for selfish motives are scorned.

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

      I think that’s correct, and it’s explained by the fact that the underlying ethical offense is one of misrepresentation rather than arrogance per se. This isn’t the standard evol. psych. view (and Robin’s) that foragers resent self-promoting signaling per se. I apply my (misrepresentionist) analysis to “pompous writing” in Verbosity affronts the court. ( http://tinyurl.com/agft7ga )

      Related issues concerning signaling norms are discussed in a Meteuphoric essay and Comments: An illicit theory of costly signaling [ http://tinyurl.com/m4lvkz4 ]

      [Title of the Meteuphoric essay is funny. Should be "A theory of illicit costly signaling"]

  • Anonymous

    One problem with people who advertise their intentions to make the world a better place is that they often cause harm in the process.

    Advertising these intentions is often a way to tell others, “I am not an evil guy. All this violence that I will do to others is done only because I am wise enough and benevolent enough to understand it will lead to more good than harm.”

    Compare with, “All the violence I will do is done for my self-interest, but it may or may not lead to overall better outcomes later.”

    Who do people cheer for? Who gets a free(er) pass on violence?

    Who is more dangerous?

  • Alexander Gabriel

    I do agree we tend to credit people who agree normatively with us rather than those who build the intellectual scaffolding that makes a debate even possible. It is a tendency to keep in mind.

  • efalken

    Kids are less culpable for their position, so charity towards them is less conflicted (fewer incentive problem, problems of preventing karma).

  • Ronfar

    I like glory! It’s fun!

  • John_Maxwell_IV

    “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.”

    Whenever you say “should”, you are saying “should” relative to some goal. “Credit” is about status. To best achieve the goal of building an effective society, assign status (credit) to individual humans who make valuable contributions, so that other humans will see making valuable contributions as a good way to achieve status.

  • John_Maxwell_IV

    “So why don’t we just celebrate all good done, regardless of motive?”

    Fear of assigning relatively less trustworthy people high status?