Against The Unidimensional Kindness Of Altruism
No man is an Island, intire of it selfe; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee
John Donne — Meditation XVII
I didn’t know ‘no man is an island’ and ‘for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee’ came from the same passage. But what really stood out for me in this quote was ‘any mans death diminishes me’. I found its logical humanitarianism oddly and uniquely compelling. Odes to kindness are often rousing, stirring, or beautiful, compelling in an artistic, spiritual, and philosophical manner, but sensible rationality and self-evident logic aren’t their strong point. Unlike this one. Perhaps it is the earthy grounded phrasing of the passage, after all we are (only in a literally literary sense?) keenly aware of the pragmatism of keeping one’s feet firmly grounded vs the unrealistic idealism of having one’s head in the clouds, filled with airy-fairy castles in the sky. Why is it so rare though?
More generally, our refusal to build a case for rational altruism confuses me. I don’t mean the rational approach of effective altruism, I mean a case for altruism itself that is coldly rational. Effective altruists are kind compassionate souls who want to help other people, and would like to do this in a very rational way. Rational altruists on the other hand may be cold, selfish, self-serving souls who still want to help other people not out of the goodness of their hearts but by the clear logic of such an action. Helping people is a deeply rewarding activity. It’s also a deeply rational activity. There are many people who don’t get a serotonin hit when they see a kid smile, what is the big deal? Why have we written them off as heartless and excluded them from the altruism club? The question ‘why should I contribute?’ is never entertained. Either you just do it because you are a good person, or please go away and stop reducing my heaven-points by association. There is certainly an answer to this question. So why are we so averse to building a case for this?
- No case exists: This is patently false. One of the things that surprised, and in a sense angered, me the most while reading source material for libertarian, capitalist, and neoclassical economic schools of thought, was how whole-heartedly favorable they are to the ideas of social distribution, viewing it as self-evidently necessary while entirely consistent with their models. I don’t know if it’s a naive reading of pure idealistic versions of these philosophies, or a naive expectation that these philosophies will not be inevitably commandeered by unethical powermongers, or purposeful construction of false contradictions by opposing political philosophies like socialism, but somewhere down the line it became gospel that capitalism was selfish and believed in perfect competition so wouldn’t harbor such things as redistribution for social welfare. The history lesson is for another day, the point is that a cold hard case for rational altruism exists, one that requires no kindness or confusingly named bleeding heart (as opposed to a blood-less heart, which is.. dead? update: apparently the heart is crying blood, not bleeding abnormally from wounds or normally through arteries) whatsoever. Redistribution isn’t a tax or a levy on the wealthy, it’s insurance and investment that is quantitatively more profitable for them over the long run. How is this fact so well-understood theoretically yet almost nonexistent in public discourse?
- The case compromises the overall mission: The goal is to get everybody to be altruistic. How do we maximize this goal? My approach suggests that by building and publicizing multiple cases for altruism, we increase the size of the net and capture more participants. What me worry why you give to charity, as long as you give? We gain cold rationalists who were not giving to charity before because it didn’t give them that warm fuzzy feeling so they saw no utility in it. We also gain higher contributions from current donors whose warm and fuzzy case is bolstered by the conviction that this is actually good for them as well, like a tax rebate. This is all well and good, as long as the new gains offset what is lost. Why would we lose anything? Nassim Nicholas Taleb talks about how anything worth doing has one good reason, and if you see multiple reasons it’s a good sign a weak case is trying to collect irrelevant mass, like an Indian student’s exam performance being evaluated by how many times he went up to get additional sheets. Kindness was one solid good reason for altruism. Does it weaken that reason by looking for more? What does this pill do Doc? It cures your cancer. I see, anything else? The kindness argument might have been all I needed. Now you’ve made me think about it a little more, why am I doing this specifically? I also lose many virtue signalers. Currently, the case is simple. Kindness = Giving. Therefore, having given = kind. I want to be kind, or I want to be seen as kind, I give, mission accomplished, easy peasy. Everybody wins. With a cold rational case, I can give, and people might think I once read a book about Hayek and am just another heartless capitalist trying to destroy socialism.
- The case compromises institutional gatekeepers: The single largest charitable organization in the world isn’t the Gates Foundation or the WHO or Greenpeace, it’s the Church. Organized religion owns kindness. It is guarding all the gates it is holding all the keys. It has ceded its battle for truth to science. It might even cede its battle for meaning to secular art and philosophy. But it owns morality and man as a cooperative animal. It keeps us from tearing each other apart on the Serengeti. It helped us work together and build communities. It made us love each other. Before God, we lived in primitive tribes steeped in permanent internecine warfare, never cooperating beyond small inter-related groups. Briefly, Gott war tot in the late 19th-early 20th century, and we had the two most devastating visages of godless competitive destruction ever. Adam Smith took a chunk out of religion’s claim on cooperation, building a system of mass depersonalized cooperation that depended not on the benevolence of the baker and butcher but their regard to self-interest. Lynn Margulis took another chunk by providing a beautiful symbiotic cooperative counterweight to Herbert Spencer’s competitive dog-eat-dog view of our biological nature. Still, both symbiosis and the baker expect something in return. TANSTAAFL. Religion still owned the one thing that unlocked our ability to help the needy without getting anything in return, kindness. Secular kindness was a joke. A virtue-signal. In religion, if you weren’t kind you went to hell went directly to hell did not pass Go did not collect 200. That ensured a monopoly on actual kind behavior, further proof that it owned kindness. Now if some godless libertarians came along and helped the needy while proudly claiming they were doing it out of self-interest, it took a large chunk out of both kindness as well as religion.
- The case is a misleading pawn: If I had come across a rational case for altruism as an answer to the question ‘Helping people doesn’t give me the warm fuzzies, why should I?’, a good answer that wasn’t ‘because it’s the right thing to do’, then it would be a different situation. Unfortunately I came across a rational case for altruism as a defense against the common criticisms leveled by socialism on capitalism and libertarianism. This automatically compromises the case because now it’s a pawn in a greater game. The game is between rival ideologies, and pawns don’t do too well in great games. Cars are a great way to get around. So are bikes. I prefer bikes, they’re cooler, they seem to piss everybody off, and I can buy leather stuff without feeling stupid. Company A and B are fighting to become the sole monopoly of my country, owning 100% rights of manufacture. B makes bikes. A makes cars. B tells me to vote for them because A doesn’t make bikes. A comes and tells me they indeed do have a line on which they can make bikes, it’s just that it hasn’t been switched on. Now if the question was, should bikes exist, the answer is yes. But the question has changed, it is now ‘Should A be the monopoly?’. They can indeed make bikes, but they might just choose not to, and it’s annoying that I’m forced to choose between A vs B when what I really want to choose is between car vs bike. End of tortured metaphor. This might be true, but the argument is undermined by the fact that this isn’t car vs bike, it’s more like amphibious car vs boat. All A’s cars can be made better by some minor mods to make them amphibious. B makes boats. People on land choose A. People on islands choose B. Most people who need boats need cars too. Now I choose A, assuming that it’s a no-brainer for them to make amphibious cars. Practically, it’s not a no-brainer because inertia is powerful, and people don’t make long-term decisions too well, but theoretically it is far superior, and doesn’t change the fact that the idea of an amphibious car should be well publicized and well understood without fearing that it artificially makes A look better than B. Does everybody fiercely against redistribution fully understand how it is actually net positive on their wealth over a long term, as opposed to lack of redistribution? I sincerely doubt they do, I certainly didn’t understand it.
- The case over-literalizes our behavior: I like deep movies rich with metaphors more than obvious movies where everything is clear to me right at the start. I like movies where I discover new layers when watching for the second time. Kindness isn’t irrational. It’s just pre-rational. We claim it’s giving us the warm fuzzies but our bodies aren’t designed to feel warm and fuzzy irrationally. We feel good because over geological time periods, this behavior was good for the species and therefore it paid to reward it. If we reduce kindness to a calculation of group selection or kin selection or altruistic behavior for personal prestige etc etc, we instinctively feel we’ve somehow diminished it, that it’s lost something in its new form as a pure transaction. I don’t automatically believe that transactions and trade-offs are diminished philosophies, but I do believe that literal representations of complex metaphorical concepts are indeed diminished philosophies. For some reason I feel better about an act of kindness than I do about the same act of kindness where my motivations are totally clear to me. This isn’t a very convincing argument, I don’t love the idea of willful blindness or blissful ignorance, but it’s one that might mathematically show indeed that average utility goes down when rationalizing kindness.
Mostly, I am confused by the refusal to budge from the position of ‘it’s the right thing to do’ and ‘give if you’re a good person’ because there are too many people today who aren’t won over by these appeals to inner humanity. These arguments are wasted on them, and it’s a real shame because better arguments exist, ones that are entirely consistent with their world views. It really annoys me to see ‘pro-market capitalists’ arguing triumphantly about ‘bleeding heart brainless liberals’ who want to redistribute wealth to the poor and shatter the economy, only to be refuted by ‘you have no heart’, playing right into their hands and reducing the entire debate to heart vs head. The real argument against them is ‘you clearly don’t understand markets, or capitalism, or redistribution, or the economy’. Altruism needs some serious rebranding.