Why Think Of The Children?

When a cause seems good, a variation focused on children seems better. For example, if volunteering at a hospital is good, volunteering at a children’s hospital is better. If helping Africa is good, helping African kids is better. If teaching people to paint is good, teaching children to paint is better. If promoting healthy diets is good, promoting healthy diets in kids is better. If protecting people from war is good, protecting kids from war is better. If comforting lonely people is good, comforting lonely kids is better.

Why do most idealistic causes seem better when directed at kids? One explanation is that kids count a lot more in our moral calculus, just as humans count more than horses. But most would deny this I think. Another explanation is that kids just consistently need more of everything. But this just seems wrong. Kids are at the healthiest ages, for example, and so need health help the least. Even so, children health is considered a very noble cause.

For our foragers ancestors, child rearing was mostly a communal activity, at least after the first few years. So while helping to raise kids was good for the band overall, each individual might want to shirk on their help, and let others do the work. So forager bands would try to use moral praise and criticism to get each individual to do their kid-raising share. This predicts that doing stuff for kids would seem especially moral for foragers. And maybe we’ve retained such habits.

My favored explanation, however, is that people today typically do good in order to seem kind, in order to attract mates. If potential mates are considering raising kids with you, then they care more about your kindness toward kids than about your kindness toward others. So to show off the sort of kindness that your audience cares about, you put a higher priority on kindness to kids.

Of course if you happened to be one of those exceptions really trying to just to make the world a better place, why you’d want to correct for this overemphasis on kids by avoiding them. You’d want to help anyone but kids. And now that you all know this, I’ll wait to hear that massive rumbling from the vast stampeed of folks switching their charity away from kids. … All clear, go ahead. … Don’t be shy …

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  • IMASBA

    “When a cause seems good, a variation focused on children seems better.”

    You don’t have to look far for an explanation, there are three actually:

    1) children are more vulnerable, caring for them demonstrates you are willing to defend the most vulnerable, you could view this as a form of signalling if you want, plus kids really need more help because of their vulnerability

    2) children are more “innocent”, even civilian adults can be partly responsible for a war (maybe they voted for it or participated in propaganda that led to the war), the phrase “women and children” is based on this idea (and from a time when women could not participate in politics) or other problems, children never are because they don’t get to make decisions, this also means children can be more easily transformed into something other than what their parents were (for example de-nazification of Germany after WW2)

    3) children are often the best investment, they are the easiest to (re)educate and saving a child with cancer leads to a greater number of living years saved per dollar

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

    If the welfare of children is hypermoralized for mating, people who have already mated and had children should be less susceptible to charities aimed at children. If the cause of the hypermoralization is ancestral communal childcare, then people should be more susceptible when they’re already mated: those with children would face greater communal pressures to reciprocate child rearing duties. (The first prediction is firmer than the second, which could benefit from more information about how child rearing was distributed by foragers.)

    Do folks become less intent to signal kindness after they’ve mated (controlling for age)? Do charitable contributions drop off or increase after mating? Seems like the efficient charity people should have the data somewhere.

    • vaniver

      “Do folks become less intent to signal kindness after they’ve mated
      (controlling for age)? Do charitable contributions drop off or increase
      after mating?”

      It seems that emotional affect towards children is increased by having children, but I’m not sure how that alters kindness to external parties. Signalling to the people you share child-rearing duties with will mostly be a factor of doing chores, not donating to distant charities.

      It also seems that the total effect of parenthood might be negative while the direct effect is positive, in that parents might devote a larger portion of disposable income to pro-child charities but have less disposable income because of the costs of childrearing.

  • vaniver

    It seems like many investments in children have larger upsides than comparable investments in adults. Suppose you remove a cancer that kills in 3 years from a 5 year old- their expected remaining lifespan is now much longer than removing a cancer that kills in 3 years from an 85 year old. Similarly, it seems plausible that the total effect of comforting a lonely child is higher than the total effect of comforting a lonely adult (because personality is probably more malleable at younger ages, people with more remaining lifespan will remember comfort for longer, etc.).

    I don’t think the upside is large enough to explain the entirety of the bonus charitable causes targeted at children receive, and so it seems likely to me that we need at least one of these signalling explanations, but that they’re probably significantly weaker than the total effect.

    • Anonymous

      But children are cheaper to replace. If a 3-year-old dies, all you have to do is make a new one, which takes you about 4 years. Not trivial, but far less than replacing a 20-year-old.

      The parsimonious explanation is that we have a nurturing instinct because we are a K-selected species, and proudly display it because we are a social cooperation species.

      • vaniver

        “But children are cheaper to replace. If a 3-year-old dies, all you have to do is make a new one, which takes you about 4 years. Not trivial, but far less than replacing a 20-year-old.”

        Sure- which matches the grief patterns that parents anticipate feeling.

  • JW Ogden

    1. Children make longer term allies.

    2. Why do we in the USA lavish health care and money, through Medicare and SS, on the old and not as much on children? Is it because old people vote?

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

      Why do we in the USA lavish health care and money, through Medicare and SS, on the old and not as much on children?

      The elephant in the room, as it relates to Robin’s other theorizing.

      It suggests that altruistic signaling by helping children or by caring for the old each serve distinct functions.

      Here’s a stab at an explanation, according to Fiske’s role-regulation theory. Helping children serves communal-sharing and caring for the old serves authority-ranking.

      Medicare (I’m claiming) is based on the high status of being old. But this conflicts with common observation. (I recall Robin’s contemplating whether people used voting machines rather than more convenient paper ballots because they didn’t want to seem old.)

      Here’s the answer. When we vote, we think of old people in far mode, where they are high status: they “deserve respect.” When we decide on the mechanism to use for voting purposes, we are doing something concrete, so near-mode kicks in. When we think of old people in near-mode, we don’t think of the essential attribute, old age, but all the contingent things we observe–which indicate that the old have less status.

      The old are high status in far mode; low status in near mode.

      • Noumenon72

        You should be a co-blogger!

    • Julia Wise

      Practically all children have adults that care very much about providing for them. A lot of old people don’t have people that care about them as much.

    • MFawful

      “Why do we in the USA lavish health care and money, through Medicare and SS, on the old and not as much on children? Is it because old people vote?”

      Children are covered under SCHIP and Medicaid. Of course, spending on children is vastly lower than on old people, but that is mainly because kids are far, far healthier than old people, so they need very little health care.

  • Ted Sanders

    Kids do count more in our moral calculus. See all the ways that we favor the lives (not autonomy, but lives) of kids over adults. Do you have more evidence to support the claim that kids count equally? (Note: even if people say they don’t value kids over adults, they still may.)

  • Julia Wise

    >If helping Africa is good, helping African kids is better.

    Well, yes. Young kids are more vulnerable to disease. Help a sub-Saharan child make it to age 5, and you just increased their lifespan significantly.

    http://blog.givewell.org/2007/12/04/what-a-life-saved-means/

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      “Between ages 5 and 45, people in sub-Saharan Africa have relatively similar mortaility rates to those in the developed world.” That probably means those 5 year olds have about the lowest mortality of any folks in Africa. Yet I’ll bet folks are a lot more interested in reducing their mortality even further than in decreasing adult mortality.

      • Julia Wise

        That’s 5 and up – I was talking 5 and under (20% mortality rate). Look at the graph on that page.

      • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

        But since we feel that aiding the health of 7 year old kids is just a good a cause, the higher mortality of 2 year olds doesn’t explain why we favor kids so in charity.

      • IMASBA

        Those under age 5 are still children and I bet they have very high mortality. Plus people miss out on a lot more experiences if they die at age 10 than they would if they died at age 45, so people see it as much more tragic, and, related, there’s a chance that 45 year old caused his own demise (for example a drug addict or a mercenary) while a dying 10 year old child is always a victim of something because it’s supposed to be under supervision and not allowed to decide to do dangerous things.

  • Terri

    Protecting children is a sacred value for most people.

    Theoretically, a society could handle childhood very differently. The relationship between older children and parents could be mutually voluntary, with children having their own citizenship status instead of dependency status. No legal obligation to obey adults, but no legal rights to get child support for free.

    Unsupported children could earn their own money, sell labor or sex, seek charity, live on the streets or obtain cheap euthanasia.

    It would be economically efficient, give more options to everyone, remove obligations from everyone, and those additional children who really don’t want the resulting life could just end it again without pain at any time.

    A higher death rate would be more than compensated by a higher birth rate (because the decision to have babies becomes very cheapr) and the children’s suffering would be controlled by their right to make now-forbidden choices, including suicide. This obviously wouldn’t work for toddlers, but it would work for older children.

    Of course, the same sacred values that are making you, the average reader, angry right now make this politically impossible. :)

    • IMASBA

      It is generally not possible to dehumanize one’s own children so for what you describe to happen humans would need to be stripped of empathy. The thing is that empathy is such an important quality for our species. Without empathy we could not peacefully coexist in anything larger than a family unit (and we’d probably not hold out very long with our romantic partners, so it would just be rapist solitary men and mothers with children roaming the land).

      • Terri

        I agree that it is politically impossible because of the reasons you describe, and that stripping humanity of empathy would have bad consequences.

        But not quite to the conclusion of extinction, and it is also important to realize empathy can have seriously negative consequences as well.

        When economists argue against a minimum wage, they don’t say people should have low-paying jobs – they usually say something like people are better off having low-paying jobs than no jobs.

        Giving the option, but not the obligation, to live under harsh conditions to more children can be seen as an act of empathy in a similar fashion.

        Empathy is often paired with scope-neglect, which can be a public choice problem when inevitable trade-offs are concerned.

        Paul Bloom has written about this here (hyperlink safe for work this time).

      • IMASBA

        “This is retarded. No one loses options. The people who have empathy will just support kids voluntarily. The people without empathy only respond to incentives.”

        For people to accept a world like Terri describes the vast majority of people would have to be without empathy. It couldn’t be 50/50 or something like that.

        “But not quite to the conclusion of extinction, and it is also important to realize empathy can have seriously negative consequences as well.”

        It WOULD lead to extinction because people couldn’t trust each other anymore and even if they did anything you build would quickly be raided/stolen. Basically it would be like life in a failed state, but even worse. No technology or infrastructure beyond the stone age level would remain and lone humans without technology generally cannot survive in the wild.

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

        It WOULD lead to extinction because people couldn’t trust each other anymore and even if they did anything you build would quickly be raided/stolen.

        Empathy isn’t required for trust. While it’s true that psychopaths lack empathy, it isn’t true that lacking empathy produces psychopathy; another psychiatric disorder shows lack of empathy: autism. Autists are not typically distrusting or sociopathic. (Paranoids are characteristically distrustful, yet may be very empathic.)

        You idealize empathy because you see it as the basis for sociality. But empathy (it seems to me) evolved not to make us altruistic but to help us be manipulative and exploitive.

        (For what psychopaths lack, see “What’s morality for” — http://tinyurl.com/6mq74zp )

      • IMASBA

        Aren’t you as a psychiatrist supposed to know that autists DO have empathy (they care about other people, and want to help them they just don’t know how, like a husband who wants to be there for his wife but can’t decipher her, but they will definitely help out on trivial matters or when they get a clear assignment)?

        I really don’t see how humans without empathy would be different from existing large solitary predators, except that those predators actually have the strength, speed, claws, keen senses and (compared to humans) fast reproduction needed to survive without the support of a group. But even large solitary predators have shown rudimentary empathy in some situations and wouldn’t allow healthy young to just wander off (and get eaten).

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

        they care about other people, and want to help them they just don’t know how, like a husband who wants to be there for his wife but can’t decipher her, but they will definitely help out on trivial matters or when they get a clear assignment

        The conclusion I draw is that morality ( http://tinyurl.com/7dcbt7y ) is entirely possible in the absence of empathy.

      • IMASBA

        A comparison with corporations (agents without empathy) is in place here. Sure a corporation COULD be friendly to the environment and it would even have some logical reasons to do so, but as soon as one competitor stops caring about the environment it all goes to shit. It’s the same for people without empathy: they could stick to the rules, but they’ll be very tempted to break the rules whenever it suits them.

      • Anonymous

        This is retarded. No one loses options. The people who have empathy will just support kids voluntarily. The people without empathy only respond to incentives.

        IMASBA is clearly without empathy, or else he would stop commenting and instead earn more money, ya know, to feed the real starving kids.

    • IMASBA

      Simply put: humanity would go extinct without empathy, and rather quickly at that. Our bodies just aren’t equipped for a lifestyle without empathy.

    • Noumenon72

      I don’t really mind the concept of feral children, but that link is disgusting.

      • Terri

        Yes. Sorry for the omission of a NSFW warning; I sometimes forget that other people are more sensitive to disgust or sexual taboos than I am.

      • ChessyPig

        It’s not so much disgust/taboos as ‘I don’t want this on my computer because people are incredibly sensitive about policing anything that smells of child porn these days’…

      • Terri

        It helps to know the actual law. It’s free speech and legal.

      • ChessyPig

        I assume you’re in the US? I’m in the UK. While we have the EU Human Rights convention, Free Speech isn’t as widespread a protection over here (not that I’m convinced it’s much of one in the US, given local ignorance of police officers to contend with).

      • Terri

        fyi, 2 new “Libertarian Utopia” stories are now also in the same web folder. But only for those who like perverted sci-fi, so be advised. (Nsfw.)

  • Matt

    From a purely utilitarian perspective, kids have more QALYs ahead of them, don’t they? As just one example, teaching a kid to read in a low income/literacy region is likely to produce 2-3x as many ‘literate human years’ than if you teach an illiterate 40 year old.

    • Sam Dangremond

      This is exactly what I was going to say.

      Seems like Robin just kinda forgot about the time value of money when making investments.

    • http://www.gwern.net/ gwern

      This also helps adjust for the health observation: yes, kids may be healthier but they also have easily 7x more possible years ahead than some 80-year-old.

  • Owen Cotton-Barratt

    I think the standard story is that children are at a formative stage, so help given to them now can compound and continue helping them throughout their lives. Adults, on the other hand, are fixed, and you can only help in the short run.

    I don’t think this extreme version can be correct, but there also seems to be something in the argument. It would be good to understand how strong it is.

    • Samuel Hammond

      Exactly. It reminds me of the positive literature on early childhood intervention. Children aren’t morally superior in the way humans are to horses. They just have a longer life ahead of them to reap the fruits of the intervention, and a better chance at being set on a new path. The formula is moral value * time left on earth * intervention-efficacy as a function of age.

      • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

        Almost everything we do for almost everyone mainly has short term effects. Long term effects are rare. Making someone less lonely now helps them now, but does almost nothing for them later.

      • Samuel Hammond

        Are mosquito nets and childhood vaccinations outliers then?

      • Matt

        This is an example of circular reasoning.

  • Samuel Hammond

    Is your ‘preferred theory’ ultimate or proximate? In other words, are we quasi-intentionally signalling our mate-value viz. parental investment, or are we unconsciously motivated to help children? Just want a clarification because often your claims like this strike me as vaguely teleological.

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

      Good question, but I find your language confusing.

      First, it’s not that we’re unconsciously motivated to help children. The OP is a subtheory within a signaling theory of altruism, so relying on inherent actual altruism would be a different theory.

      Quasi-intentional is vague; maybe you intended it that way. I suppose unconscious intentionality would count as “quasi-intentional” (assuming there’s room for levels of intentionality).

      But by observation, I’d maintain that signaling altruism is largely conscious. Altruist wannabes usually know not only that they are enhancing their status by appearing altruistic but that this is particularly image enhancing with the opposite sex (so I claim and think obvious). Robin isn’t discovering unconscious purposes; he is drawing connections between conscious thoughts that are often ignored or seen as isolated: e.g., charitable altruism, in general, is primarily signaling caring for mating purposes.

      • Samuel Hammond

        It would be useful if Robin defined some terms, like adaptation and spandrel, to clarify his speculations, For instance, do I eat pastries because they’re yummy, or because I am consciously aware of my forager environment’s caloric scarcity? I do it because its yummy, and as it happens they’re yummy because of that evolutionary history. Apply this to charity – people do charity because they genuinely think it helps plus it makes them feel good. Perhaps they have these instincts because of the signalling and distributional consequences in our ancestral environment. But those cynical motivations aren’t necessary for the mental module to function.

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

        people do charity because they genuinely think it helps plus it makes them feel good

        That’s certain a (logical) possibility. But it’s precisely what a signaling theory denies. Having a respectable evo. psych. theory is not equivalent to endorsing a signaling theory like Hanson’s.

        How would you distinguish one from another is a good question. One way is the fit with contemporaneous signaling circumstances. If you signal altruism more when you’re unmated—rather than in accordance with age where the age of marriage has risen—this would be evidence for the signaling explanation over the evolved-strategy explanation.

        I think signaling is largely introspectible (for me, a decisive line of evidence for its role, although it doesn’t prove exclusive causality). We ignore signaling in our conscious thinking rather than repress or suppress it. No one seems to want to tell me whether they agree.

  • http://www.gwern.net/ gwern

    > For our foragers ancestors, child rearing was mostly a communal activity, at least after the first few years. So while helping to raise kids was good for the band overall, each individual might want to shirk on their help, and let others do the work. So forager bands would try to use moral praise and criticism to get each individual to do their kid-raising share.

    Has any anthropologist ever observed this, or is this more just-so stories?

  • Nancy Lebovitz

    Additional hypothesis: adults have more memories of having been hurt by other adults than by small children. It’s easier to fantasize about children being innocent/harmless.

    This ignores, of course, the fact that almost all children will become adults, but I believe that gut-level responses don’t understand time.

    • Philip Goetz

      But everyone remembers being hurt by other children when they were children.

  • Christian Kleineidam

    I think the popular explanation is that children are both innocent and don’t have as much responsibility for their fate in life as adults.

  • Philip Goetz

    I think some of this has to do with the Western concept of “purity”. Christianity teaches us to think of humans as creatures who start free of sin, and get gradually weighed down with more of it the longer that they live. Older people are therefore more sinful, less “innocent”, and less-worthy than younger people.

    A culture that believed that people were more good than bad, or even that rights were earned by doing things rather than by not doing things, would suppose that older people had done more good and were thus more deserving than younger people.

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

      Christianity teaches us to think of humans as creatures who start free of sin

      Really? What about original sin?

      Freud taught that children are idealized because of adult repression of infantile sexuality. Whatever the reason, I don’t see how it can be blamed on Christianity when the default destination is hell.

      • Philip Goetz

        You’re right about original sin, but that only reinforces the point that Christianity teaches that humans are bad, so the more developed you are as a human, the worse you are.

  • Kodiakbear

    The researchers that performed the ‘pictures in lost wallets’ study

    http://consumerist.com/2009/07/11/cute-baby-photos-can-help-recover-lost-wallets/

    theorized that protecting children is instinctive in humans.

    I wouldn’t discount signaling either though. Recently I accidently stepped in front of a kid at Sams club for a sample of ice cream. I somehow failed to even see her.

    My though, how people were going out of their way to SHOW their dissatisfaction. That wouldn’t have happened 40 years ago. Then kids were expected to yield to adults.

    So, I guess that’s a vote for signaling.

  • http://priorprobability.com/ prior probability

    I like Hanson’s evolutionary approach, but (consistent with the evolutionary hypothesis) I would also add that another reason for directing charity towards children is that young people have more reproductive potential than older people

  • weareastrangemonkey

    A simpler answer?

    Two people need a life saving treatment today: a man who will definitely die in 30 days time and a five year old child. You can only give the treatment to one of them.

    The moral choice is obvious. Isn’t it?

    Most moralities have a strong consequentialist component. Roughly, more life (adjusted for quality of life) is good. If a child dies then we lose more lifetime in expectation than if an adult dies. The focus on children is therefore just a consistent application of this consequantialist component of human moralities.

    • M Wms

      Well, playing devil’s advocate, if an adult dies, we lose wisdom, complex skills, and life experience, whereas if a child dies, we don’t.

  • René Milan

    “you’d want to correct for this overemphasis on kids by avoiding them.” – Absolutely. While there are no moral, only utilitarian, reasons to assign a higher value to their welfare than to that of other humans, the idea of children’s exceptionalism has become a sacred cow which is used to justify implementing policies and manipulating culture in ways which lead to overprotection, denying them the right to experiences, and contribute to the suppression of a discussion of children’s sexuality. Needless to say the responsible parties have never bothered to listen to the children’s view in these matters.

  • VV

    Beware overly adaptive evolutionary explanations.

    Kids are cute. These cuteness cues are shared among all eutheria, thus they trigger a strong istinctive response in fairly ancient parts of the brain. This obviously evolved to make animals care for their own children, but the response isn’t perfect and is also triggered to some extent to any children, even of other species.

    Therefore, “save the children” campaigns evoke a stronger emotional response than “save the people” campaigns. Even when the effort isn’t specifically directed at children, those who rally support for a cause will often use literal poster children to get a stonger emotional response.

    My favored explanation, however, is that people today typically do good in order to seem kind, in order to attract mates. If potential mates are considering raising kids with you, then they care more about your kindness toward kids than about your kindness toward others.

    This appears to be wrong.

    A signal is effective only if it so costly to fake for a dishonest signaller that it is not worth the effort. Being generally kind to kids of others (for instance, by donating to a “save the starving African children” charity) costs approximately the same whether or not you are someone who will invest in rising your own kids or would run away and leave them. Therefore, the signal adds no relevant information.

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

      A signal is effective only if it so costly to fake for a dishonest signaller that it is not worth the effort. Being generally kind to kids of others (for instance, by donating to a “save the starving African children” charity) costs approximately the same whether or not you are someone who will invest in rising your own kids or would run away and leave them. Therefore, the signal adds no relevant information.

      Yes, precisely the Achilles Heel of homo hypocritus as a theory of the function of morality.

      I make this point in The habit theory of morality, moral influence, and moral evolutionhttp://tinyurl.com/alsd4l6 .

  • arch1

    Robin, even if your favored theory were true, *and* I knew it, I might still believe that there is no overemphasis on kids.

  • arch1

    So other things equal, does doing visible good correlate with things that correlate with mate-seeking? How about doing invisible good?

  • John_Maxwell_IV

    “And now that you all know this, I’ll wait to hear that massive rumbling from the vast stampeed of folks switching their charity away from kids. … All clear, go ahead. … Don’t be shy …”

    Sorry Robin, I don’t think the think-of-the-children set feature prominently among the readership of this blog.

  • CoolKid.Asia

    Why we need to think of the children? Simple = we’re all going to leave the world, and the ones continuing on are our children. Additiionally, when we’re older, how would we like to be treated by these future leaders?

  • @elopnetNow

    What about the fact that helping a child could be considered generally more impactful than helping an adult? While it may be true that children need less health help, its also true that giving a child a vaccine is extremely efficient in terms of cost/time. The fact that they need less help is even more reason to choose them to help when you consider impact vs cost. Putting effort into children usually has longer lifetime benefits than say, helping the elderly. Although, one could argue helping a parent will benefit the child more than directly helping the child, 2 birds and such, but it could work the other way too.

    For example, if i had to choose to help pay for fixing a cleft lip of a 50 year old or a 5 year old, my gut would say the 5 year old would benefit far more over the long term for the same cost. The 50 year old will have already lived a huge portion of their life with it, and will have ‘gotten used’ to living with it and adjusted their life accordingly, whereas a child would get the full benefit.

    Whether right or wrong, I think helping adults may be viewed as somewhat equivalant to giving a man a fish, while helping children are more equivalent to teaching them to fish.

  • Tim Tyler

    Much the same reasoning applies to most animal charity. Caring for helpless things sends positive signals to prospective partners.

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