Neglecting Win-Win Help

Consider three kinds of acts:

  • S. Selfish – helps you, and no one else.
  • A. Altruistic – helps others, at a cost to you.
  • M. Mixed – helps others, and helps you.

To someone who is honestly and simply selfish, acts of type A would be by far the least attractive. All else equal such people would do fewer acts of type A, relatives to other types. Because they don’t care about helping others.

To someone who is honestly and simply altruistic, in contrast, acts of type M should be the most attractive. All else equal, such a person should more often do acts of type M, relative to the other types. A simply altruistic person is happy to help others while helping themself.

Now consider someone who wants to show others that they are altruistic and not selfish. To such a person, type M acts have a serious problem: since both selfish and altruistic people often do type M acts, observers may plausibly attribute their behavior to selfishness. Compared to a simply altruistic person, a person of this type finds type A acts more attractive, and type M acts less attractive. They want everyone to see them suffering, to show they are not selfish.

In fact, most people do seem to care just as much about seeming altruistic as about being altruistic. I thus predict a neglect of acts of type M, relative to acts of type A. For example:

  • Having kids. Observers often don’t credit parents for being altruistic toward their kids. They instead describe parents as selfishly wanting to enjoy the kids attention and devotion.
  • Having lovers. In a world of monogamous romantic pairs, someone who chooses not to pair up can force someone else to also go without a partner. So choosing to be part of a pair helps others. But observers often don’t credit romantic partners for altruism toward partners. They instead say lovers selfishly seek pleasure and flattery.
  • Inventing. While people in some kinds of professions are credited with choosing them in part to help others, people in other professions are not so credited, even when they give a lot of help. For example, nurses are often credited with altruism, but inventors are usually not so credited. Even though inventors often give a lot more help to the world. Perhaps because inventing seems more fun than nursing.
  • Marginal charity. Adjusting private optima a bit in the direction of social good helps others at almost no cost to yourself, but is hard for observers to distinguish from not doing so.

In sum, the more eager we are to show others that we care, the less eager we are to do things that both help us and help others. We instead do more things that help others while hurting us, so that we can distinguish ourselves from selfish people. Because of this we neglect win-win acts like having kids, being in love, and inventing. Which seems a shame.

Added 8a: Seems I’ve said something like this before, as did Katja Grace even earlier. Seems I’ve written more than I can keep track of.

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  • Anonymous

    Observers often don’t credit parents for being altruistic toward their kids.
    In fairness, many observers sincerely don’t see being conceived/born as a benefit.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      Some hospital patients don’t see nursing care as helping them either. But in fact on average parents help kids more than nurses help patients.

      • Anonymous

        Yes, on average parents do much for their own kids. But they also caused the costs/needs by having the kids. The decision to have a kid is often not seen as altruistic. Many see it either as neutral or as a harm (to the children themselves, and/or to the rest of the world). Whether they are right or not is a different question.

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

        Many see it either as neutral or as a harm (to the children themselves, and/or to the rest of the world).

        I’ve never seen this. Having children is always a heavily rationalized act, to my knowledge.

        Is your claim based on personal experience, or have you seen some data?

      • Anonymous

        Obviously, there are explicit antinatalists like Benatar. Laypeople often talk about overpopulation, whether it is a realistic concern or not. The non-identity rejection is also often used (not being born is not a harm comparable to death, since there is no personal identity of a child before it is conceived/born) in debates. It seems to be a common intuition that not having children is neutral.

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

        It seems to be a common intuition that not having children is neutral.

        Only among those who don’t beget them (or before they have begotten them).

        Parents believe their children owe them their lives: that’s why they owe their parents respect.

      • Berecz_Fereng

        Every born life is a vulnerability that is exposed to death. It is also a life that is exposed to existential conundrums: questions to which there are currently no fulfilling answers.

        Mainstream antinatalists might also talk about suffering, rather than death. This is true. A lot of people probably won’t even come to terms with the existential, either due to impoverished conditions or a delusional cultural upbringing.

        My guess is that only a small percentage of parents really have the financial means of ensuring their kids a shot at a good future with minimized risk. Laypeople might consider suffering and loss to be a part of life that teaches maturity, and something to be proud of, especially because anyone who is bound to succeed (who is not otherwise being bred to succeed, i.e. not inheriting wealth or substantial privilege) would have had to been exposed to these truths nonetheless. But I do think it makes sense to also consider investing the time to improve existential conditions, overall, rather than just creating offspring. I’m not sure on what ethical grounds a parent can be considered a genetic owner. It isn’t like the kid *asked* to be born. How does a kid consent to these things; at what age? or milestone? should they gain rights as an individual? Parent-child relationships with financial dependence and complex emotional ties can be abusive or difficult in ways that are more subtle than what is typically thought of as abuse.

      • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

        “My guess is that only a small percentage of parents really have the
        financial means of ensuring their kids a shot at a good future”
        You sound like you have a very restrictive definition of “good”. Robin Hanson’s view is that even the very poor like being alive, and would regard their coming into life as a good thing.

    • Owen Cotton-Barratt

      But credit from observers doesn’t appear to change much in the case of adoption.

      (Maybe I’m wrong here; no direct experience.)

  • Dagon

    Regardless of whether people perform more A than M, they’re going to make A more visible than M. I prefer M (for similar cost/benefit cases) over A, and I care how others see me. So I have to mix it up: some M to improve my private returns, some A to show others. Works in reverse too: I am indifferent between M and A in my fellow humans, but it’s hard for people to show me that difference between M and S, so I encourage A.

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  • Elijah William Eby

    I often think about gains from trade vs. gains from charity. As far as the other person is concerned, they should be indifferent to whether it is gains from trade or gains from charity that is helping them. But if Wal-Mart provides poor people with $1 billion through gains from trade, and Starbucks donates $30 million to veterans through charity, which one translates into better public relation?

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

    Gains through trade aren’t the only way to reach Mixed goals. Participation in social movements expressing one’s own interests as well as of numerous folks can be (at least hypothetically) another.

    The problem with gains from trade under contemporary international economic conditions is that it isn’t so clear we’re dealing with win-win. International trade has caused, internationally, the unemployment of hundreds of millions of workers. Look at the conditions in Mexico and Central America for the actual effects of trade.

    • http://don.geddis.org/ Don Geddis

      International trade has caused, internationally, the unemployment of hundreds of millions of workers.

      That is highly implausible, and counter to known economic theory. At the very least, you shouldn’t throw it out there as though it is a well-accepted and proven fact. It isn’t.

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

        Many things are uttered here that aren’t well-proven, even by RH. Obviously, you can’t tolerate the implications and would prefer not to hear of them, particularly if they are stated emphatically.

        It isn’t conjectural that NAFTA ravaged Mexican agriculture.

        It’s more significant (here) not to misstate “known economic principles.” Do tell me what principle prevents trade from devastating third world countries! (Every undeveloped country has used tariffs, regardless of the opinions of some hidebound economists.)

      • charlie

        Exactly–just look at China, which has now been suffering the ravages of international trade for close to 3 decades.

      • http://don.geddis.org/ Don Geddis

        Do tell me what principle prevents trade from devastating third world countries!

        Comparative advantage, David Ricardo, 1817. “Widely regarded as one of the most powerful yet counter-intuitive insights in economics.”

      • IMASBA

        I have to agree with the others here: at the local level jobs may disappear but they usually reappear somewhere else. Poor countries initially lost jobs but are now gaining jobs at the expense of richer nations, because of globalization. Of course economists presented this scenario way too simply and “forgot” to mention that the gains are uneven (and problematic if not managed) and the whole process takes decades.

    • oldoddjobs

      “Look at the conditions in Mexico and Central America for the actual effects of trade.”

      That’s some nice empirical work there!

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    I think the inventing vs nursing thing is much more about interacting with needy people than “fun”.

    • charlie

      Yes and, also, think about what the word “nursing” literally means. Is it really that mysterious why the job-title connotes altruism?

  • joeteicher

    You predict neglect of type M acts relative to type A acts but everywhere I look I see a much higher quantity and magnitude of M acts than A acts. Type A acts are often highlighted by the media, but perhaps that is because they are so rare that it becomes newsworthy. Doesn’t what people spend on their kids dwarf charitable giving?

  • http://www.abstractminutiae.com Samuel Hammond

    Quick, someone name Robin for the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

  • Lord

    Wanting to be seen as altruistic is selfish and only having to actually act that way redeems it to being mixed, so the question is whether there are any truly altruistic acts. Anonymous donations probably come closest.

    While I have seen those observations, I usually attribute them to people having too much time on their hands, and consider them neither altruistic or selfish but simply part of our evolutionary adaptation and natural variability.

    • IMASBA

      That is a pointless philosophical discussion. Sure you can create a standard for altruism that is impossible for any possible mind to reach, but you might as well say the glass is half full and say that people who enjoy** the feeling of helping others are altruistic (having such people around you sure makes for a more pleasant life).

      ** naturally that must have evolved for a reason at some point but does that really matter (especially if the person is not even aware of the precise evolutionary origin of the feeling)?

  • ThaomasH

    I think the “wanting to be seen as” problem is behind the relative lack of interest of those most concerned by environmental problems.