Toward Honest Ideals

In Generous Lust, I quoted:

In women, mating goals boosted public— but not private— helping. … In men, it did induce more helpfulness in contexts in which they could display heroism or dominance. … Overall, romantic motives seem to produce highly strategic and sex-specific self-presentations best understood within a costly signaling framework.

In Far Thoughts Fit Ideals, I said:

We tend more to say we will act in accord with our verbally expressed and proudly embraced abstract ideals, e.g., individualism, collectivism, universalism, environmentalism, when we are put into the mental mode that was designed more for talking relative to doing – the far mode.  In contrast, when we are in our usual near mode … we tend to ignore those abstract ideals, … practically achieving our usual ends.

I asked:

In what sense, if any, are folks who act these ways mistaken about what they want?

I'll say we tend to be mistaken about how much our wants depend on contextual details.  As I said in Generous Lust:

The disturbing thing is that these folks were probably unaware that their generosity was caused in large part by romantic feelings.  They probably thought they just wanted to help, not that they wanted to help especially when it might impress potential mates.

We tend to talk as if we "really" want to follow our ideals but are sometimes thwarted by "distractions" or "weakness of will."  But we probably favor our ideals more when:

  • We are talk vs. do.
  • When we do cheap vs. expensive acts.
  • When our ideals prefer the same acts as our usual goals.
  • When our talk is less likely to be checked against future acts.
  • When we talk well, and so are more likely to be heard and understood.
  • When others can more easily see and recall what we say or do.
  • When others can credibly tell more others what we say or do.
  • When others more want to tell more others what we say or do.
  • When others can more immediately reward us if they like us.
  • When the watching others matter more, or are more numerous.
  • When our ideals happen to be more attractive to those others.
  • When we are primed to think about attractive potential mates or allies.
  • When our age and attractiveness makes mating and allying more likely.
  • When we are in far mental mode, designed to impress vs. do.
  • When we good at abstract thinking, and so more often in far mode.
  • When experience has not forced more awareness of our hypocrisy.

This rich pattern looks less like random "distractions" and more like a detailed and consistent plan to trade positive image benefits against other action costs.  The fact that such plans are not perfect and often go awry hardly negates this basic point.

If a company said it held to certain ideals, e.g., environmentalism or fairness in hiring, but its actions were similarly detailed in only following such ideals when image benefits outweighed other profit effects, it would be reasonable and parsimonious to call this a cynical public relations strategy aimed primarily at maximizing profits.  Similarly, imagine a politician or government who expressed high ideals in public speeches but followed a detailed plan that only acted on such ideals when image benefits outweighed other political costs, e.g., winning votes, preserving power, placating special interests, etc.  We would reasonably call this a cynical political strategy.

Yes, the official spokespeople for a firm or government might find a state of mind where they, at least at the right moments, actually believe that their organization mostly just follows its ideals, thwarted only by a few distractions.  It could even be that no one person is ever conscious of their full plan to balance image against other costs.  But relative to our usual reasons for attributing goals and plans to organizations, these are minor considerations; we can usefully predict their behavior, and classify them as blameworthy or praiseworthy, in any case.

I'm tempted to say that honesty demands we should similarly call a spade a spade, and admit that we humans are not so much "distracted" from achieving our ideals, as that we are designed in great detail to only care about our ideals to the extent that they help others to like us enough to pay for idealism's costs.  But won't admitting this make others like us less?  And if we only really like the ideal of honesty because it helps others like us, shouldn't we prefer hypocrisy?

I'm still pondering this, but one approach I like is to seek variations on common ideals which one can more easily admit serve ordinary non-ideal ends.  For example, I might consistently believe and say that honestly is my supreme ideal, and that I hope others will be impressed by my holding somewhat to this ideal, but that I probably won't always be honest when such impressing gives low benefits.  As another example, I might say that while I don't follow a utilitarian ideal, acting to max a sum of individual utility, I do seek respect for filling the role of an economist who consistently suggests efficient deals, and that the utilitarian cause would be better achieved if we consistently made such deals.

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