A Question of Altruism

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My latest question has come from reading the book Freakonomics. It’s all about how people respond to incentives and can be made to do just about anything given the right incentive. It’s based on the idea that people will try to get things they want with the lowest cost. There’s a chapter on altruism and much of the book deals with the fact that people do things for their own benefit. Acts like giving money to charity are seen not to be 100% selfless, because things like the warm glow and how others see you play a part.

Dictator

I liked the experiments of the Dictator where one person is given an amount of money and has the option of giving another person some, all or none of that money. If people were only about self-interest they would keep all of it, but most people gave about 25% of their money. Not necessarily out of interest for the other person, but so they will look good in front of the examiner or to have that warm fuzzy feeling for doing a good thing.

In a variation of this experiment, both people were given the same amount of money but only one person could choose if they would give some of their money away or take some of the money from the other person. In this case people often took money from the other person, so there goes any selflessness.

But when both people had to work (by doing some task) for the same amount of money and one person had the option to give or take the money, it was more likely that not as much was taken as in the previously mentioned experiment. This suggests we value it when people earn their money. 

Selfless or self-interested?

A real life example of when self-interest seems to rule over selflessness is when people don’t intervene when they witness abuse. There have been TV shows that show people walk right past a person being beaten up (staged by actors) or just stand round and watch instead of either physically intervening, saying something or calling the police.

Of course there are heaps of examples of people acting out of self-interest: cheating, stealing, murder, etc. And there are good acts that appear selfless, but I wonder how much of it is actually out of self-interest. Social pressure plays a big role in getting people to do the right thing as people try to avoid being looked down on. The advertising for giving money to charity often mentions the fact that anything over $2 is tax deductible, which provides an added incentive to give besides the warm glow of giving. A person can do a good act simply because they feel good when they live up to their own morals and can feel high and mighty about themselves. In this way selflessness leads to pride, which is definitely in the interests of self.

I wonder if it is possible when no-one is looking for people to take the selfless option. If there was a guarantee that no-one would ever find out that you stole a million dollars that was sitting on a table, would you resist? There would be no social pressure coming into the decision making, there would be no-one in the way of you taking it and no punishment. Who could resist? In a way you’d be stupid not to do it. Given those circumstances I can’t guarantee that I wouldn’t take it and I’m the ISTJ duty fulfiller and reformer so my moral standards tend to be as high as they come.

That’s why I’m not sure if people truly are altruistic. But with more thought I do think it is possible not to take it. But I’m not sure it would be for selfless reasons. If I wasn’t to take it, it would be because of my morals, because I believe it is wrong to take it. Regardless of anyone else I still have to live with me and I want to live up to my morals so that means I can’t take it. But this is all self-interest reasoning; it’s all for me and what I want and for my peace of mind. So I wonder if that’s the best we can hope for: altruism in the sense that people do the right thing because they want to do the right thing and therefore do what they want, i.e. altruism with self-interest but self-interest that benefits others. 

Law of incentives

I wonder if there is anything that could go against everything someone wants and yet they still do it for the sake of others. If you believe in the law of incentives: no, because at some point no matter how small, you do things because you want to. Even if you don’t want to do it, you see a good reason to and that makes you do it or else you wouldn’t do it. 

I have no conclusion. These are just my rambling thoughts on something I’ve been questioning. Intriguing!

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