A few hours ago I heard a talk by Frans De Waal, author of the great classic “Chimpanzee Politics,” on his new book, “The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society” (excerpt here). Before and during his talk, De Waal showed a deep understanding of animal empathy and sociality, but he never once mentioned any of the lessons for humans his subtitle promised. I inquired in the Q&A, saying: if humans show about as much empathy to each other as related species do, what more lessons can we learn from nature?
Striking study. It has a ring of Koestler to it re: the destructiveness of group allegiance.
I could see how social ostracism can lead to suboptimal results (herd behavior) regardless of any motivation issues (prize) simply because the individuals' own judgments are suppressed in favor of a common judgment. And that goes against the whole Polanyi / Hayek idea of the distribution of information in society, especially the concept that the sum of distributed local knowledge is greater than the collected centralized knowledge and its plans.
It appears that in this study the groups that could not punish did much better than the groups that could, and in the absolute they did better than the individuals too ( though not relative to the equilibrium). That is a powerful argument for the wisdom of the crowds and against forced collective organization.
In addition: I fail to see why the feeling of empathy should have much to do with the makeup or organization of a society to begin with. Empathy is a personal feeling, usually linked to personal proximity, and display of emotion. We empathize with our friends for instance, even when they are objectively in the wrong in some societal situation. So empathy can not serve as basis for a general rule in society - people inevitably empathize with different target individuals or groups.
Be the mechanism for this mirror neurons or something else, empathy is personal and usually local in time and space. In large and complex societies it is hard to see how empathy alone could conceivably generate a form of complex organization even if the target issue didn't exist. True, empathy fuels charity work, but that is a very small subset of social organization. I also don't see at all why top down coordination mandated by collectively decided global empathetic goals should yield higher utility outcomes than piecemeal individual (market) coordination. In fact this is precisely a problem for charities as well - they are often not efficient.
Empathy as driver of economic exchange is a deeply flawed concept and the polar opposite of Adam Smith, for a lot of reasons that have been studied extensively since.
Economists have well developed tools for concluding that a number is too high or too low, without ever needing to say what exactly the value of the number is. For example, we expect there to be too much pollution when polluters don't have to pay for the harm they impose on distant others. We can know this without knowing just how much pollution there is. My point was that you'd need some sort of argument like that to conclude that we show too little empathy for each other in the US.
I'm happy to grant that empathy is ancient, and common today, and most economists admit this as well. Incentives remain relevant, however, even when empathy exists.
Robin: "I pressed: humans have some empathy, even in the US, so how can we tell what the right amount is?"
Herein lies the problem. I had the impression that you wanted me, like a real economist, to come up with a number (like 24.5% more empathy is needed), that you wanted to know with great specificity how much more empathy is desirable and where exactly we would need it.
My main point is that instead of thinking that concern for others is some late addition to our history that arrived with culture and religion, as some people believe, we need to start thinking of it as part of human nature. The idea that we are only in it for ourselves, and that appeals to the common good go against our "right of the strongest" biology are my main concern. Empathy is very much part of our make-up, and I gladly leave it to economists to decide what to do with this knowledge, but for the moment many resist since accepting this as fact implies a different framework than the one we are used to, which revolves entirely around incentives.
Remember the Monty Python banker I showed, who only understood incentives ....
Here it is:http://www.youtube.com/watc...
Looking around, it seems cooperation is a good deal overall given modern methods for diffusing conflict (both within groups and between them). Probably cooperation is good on the margin too?
"... relative to what simple uncoordinated self-interest would predict, human beings are far more eager to fight each other." In Dawkins's book "The Selfish Gene" did Dawkins fail to emphasize two important points: (1) human behavior influenced by genes evolved in an environment with no or exceedingly slow technological progress and (2) in human psychology the dominance hierarchies and the zero-sum games usually outweigh the individual freedoms and the win-win games?Are libertarians and technological optimists fundamentally wrong about the future? Is Ray Kurzweil correct that superhuman intelligence shall arrive by 2029 CE or soon thereafter? Is Kurzweil fundamentally wrong in assuming that superhuman intelligence will be a net blessing for people? Will it be fun to be like mice, rats, or hamsters in a solar system of superior intelligences? Is superhuman intelligence unstoppable because of three basic factors: (1) optimists bring forth technological progress, (2) human greed drives technological progress, and (3) human political division makes a moratorium on technological progress totally unworkable? Are people like Ray Kurzweil and his followers optimistically and happily preparing a crushing, irreversible downfall of the entire human species?
I see a problem a bit further back: in the temptation to draw normative conclusions about human life from studies of the behavior of apes. Such normative conclusions follow only by means of all sorts of suppressed normative premises, such as the definition of the 'best outcome.' What one can safely say is that we ought not to have social institutions that require that human beings be other than they are. So, on the basis of the evidence here and on what de Waal presented, I would say we shouldn't have a system that requires human beings to be entirely altruistic, nor entirely competitive. But there are many social, political, and economic arrangements that are compatible with all these data.
In light of your last sentence teegee, how would you describe your 'paleo'-ism, i.e. immigration restrictionist stance.
Are these results explained if people care about relative wealth more than absolute wealth?
Frans De Waal.
Too busy spelling names correctly.Please slow down!
A 'signal' so self should be when one repeatedly is stating the obvious.(dubious)
Nazi Germans were good at 'cooperation'.The result was terrible.Therfore: 'Cooperation' is dubious.
This far out 'syllogism' should render some thought, should'nt it?
'OB' seems to me to violate at times -among others- the predicament of the basics of our existence:The rift between the factual and the normative.
Would be interesting to know how Robin H. would comment on von Foersters famous dictum:
"Only about the undecidable we can decide", which is THE normative dictum!
Which is only implicitly covered here.
Actually it can be decided, within the frame implied:It is the conditions!
De Waal takes a NORMATIVE position, which he maybe does not make explicit, or does not provide the 'ultimate facts'.(Maybe he is on the normative side of matters?)
Neither does Robin H.
The point of convergence (to me) is the point (better: grey-zone) of undecidability between facts and norms.
Yesterday I watched a documentary about someone educating and wildering out Kamtchatka bears.
Far more convincing!
People operating in the grey zone and actually making a difference!
And PROVING something!
Except for the fact that power, dominance, and social hierarchy are at the center of most of the literature on political science, history, and anthropology, and philosophy for the past few decades (however absent they may be from social psychology textbooks).
But whatever. The point is that an unconvincing argument for something is no proof against it. Why dismiss and disparage empathy based on someone else's bad argument for it?
What's the definition of bias again?
I thought perhaps the most important feature of de Waal's work was how it showed how deeply innate it is for Capuchin (sp?) monkeys to feel aggrieved if a peer recieves a greater reward or prize for little or no effort. The reason there is so much pirating, and free downloading... so many people paying little or no heed to the 'no such thing as a free lunch' i.e. someone somewhere is having to pay problem is that they've colluded with inherent unfairness, sublimating their displeasure, because they've been seduced into the notion that to cry foul would be to undermine a system that they will (probably already have) benefit from greatly... soon. Consquently, they assume everybody is inherently unfair, if they can download their work for free, excellent! Got one over the bastard!
While this is a good post, I think we already know how to have large collective competitions without lots of collateral damage:
Corporations are huge collective agents, far more powerful than individual humans are, Yet in their battles, relatively few humans actually get hurt. This is basically down to the virtualisation of warfare.
Re: "Be thankful coordination is hard, so rival groups often fail to coordinate internally."
If coordination was easy, everyone would do it - and then there would be no battles, because we would all be on the same side as one another.
That is a good post, making De Waals blind spots all the more striking.
As someone commented about Jean-Paul Sartre, all that "existence" and "essence" and "good faith" stuff, and all that deep understanding of Hegel and Heidegger and whoever, always led to the conclusion that one should support the Party line of the moment, whatever it was. Similarly, modern academic research always proves that Obama is good, Bush is bad. Which is why I am not an existentialist, or a donor to any of my almae matres.
My take away from this is. Empathy promotes co-operation, now in wealthy modern societies for many of us this demands payments from our incomes rather than actually going and saving katrina victims.
Now to prevent such things like Katrina and universal health care in the USA will require payment from everyone. Of course this payment is very real for obvious reasons... otherwise I won't be asked to make it. Also it will be marginal nobody is being forced to "sacrifice" necessities or even comfort etc.This cooperation will increase the general welfare.
Thus stuff like hurricane preparedness and obamacare is not only feel good, but is actually beneficial... who would have thought... (you have your causal relationship reversed, it isn't beneficial because it feels good, it feels good because it is beneficial. Because it is beneficial ,“Love is all you need.”)And we have Empathy and Cooperation to thank for it!
But I get the idea that Robin doesn't like the "demand payment" part... but he doesn't have a leg to stand on empathy and cooperation is beneficial. So maybe there is something "wrong" with empathy after all and I will just conveniently ignore all the evidence that doesn't correspond with my like/dislike. Now it is a non-brainer that some types of cooperation can be harmfull, we even have a word for it conspiracy. There is also another cool word it is called Rationalization.