Pro-Human Extremist

Extremism in the defense of humanity is no vice

Archive for May 2011

The economics of altruism

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Economists get a bad rap for assuming in their models that people are only interested in themselves. The much-maligned Homo economicus uses all information at their disposal to make decisions that maximize their own well-being, or what economists call utility. But actually, some economists have described how altruism can fit neatly into the equations that are used to describe utility.

Utility functions and indifference maps describe what combinations of two goods a person has a higher or lower preference for. The goods could be anything we would spend money on or make an effort to get—for example, pizza and beer. Let’s say you have a six-pack of beer and a slice of pizza. If you’d rather have five beers and two slices of pizza, then that combination would have a higher utility for you, and you ought to be willing to trade one of your beers for a second slice of pizza.


The three lines on this indifference map are called indifference curves. Each one describes combinations of the two goods that produce equal utility for a given person, so that person should be indifferent as to which particular combination along that curve they get. The combinations on curve I2 produce higher utility than the combinations on curve I1, and the combinations on curve I3 produce even higher utility.

If we say Good Y is beer and Good X is pizza, then the example I gave above would make sense if five beers and two slices of pizza were on indifference curve I2 and six beers and one slice of pizza were on indifference curve I1, so by trading a beer for a slice of pizza, you could go from a situation of lower personal utility to one of higher utility.

In this example, the two goods are material things (pizza and beer), but they could also be something immaterial—like free time, for example. When we accept a wage for doing a job, we are trading some of our time and effort for a certain amount of money. If the wage is high enough for us to take the job, that trade-off must produce a combination of time and money with higher utility than the combination of more free time and less money that we had before we took the job.

The economists who study altruism have applied these principles to examples in which one of the two goods is another person’s utility. The most basic form of that sort of utility function is:

       Ui (Uj,xi)

This expresses that my utility (Ui) is a function of a trade-off between the utility of some other person (Uj) and the totality of my own consumption (xi). In other words, if I do indeed care about another person’s well-being, then I should be willing to give up something (money, time, etc.) to make their life better. And an indifference map where their utility and my consumption are the X and Y axes should be able to describe what combinations I prefer of a certain amount of my own consumption and a certain level of their utility. As a rational economic actor (Homo economicus), I should only be willing to trade some amount of my own consumption to increase that other person’s utility, if the new combination of my own consumption and their utility moves my situation from an indifference curve of lower personal utility to one of higher personal utility.

This means that basic economics can account for altruistic behaviors, simply by assuming that other people’s utility factors into our own utility functions. We can be Homo economicus and still care about what happens to the other people in our lives. Helping other people increases our own utility, but it’s still an altruistic act as long as our sincere motivation is to help another person. Cool, no? In the next post, I’ll consider some examples of this.

© Joel Benington, 2011.

The above image is used under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 license.

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Written by Joel Benington

May 26, 2011 at 6:18 pm

Posted in altruism, economics, numbers

Against ethics

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No, I’m not a libertine, but I’m way more comfortable with morality than with ethics. What do I mean by that? Using the Oxford English Dictionary, we have:

morality: principles of right and wrong behaviour

ethics: the branch of knowledge that deals with moral principles

As I see it, morality is intuitive and emotional—it’s a matter of felt preferences about how we should treat others. Groups of people feel their way to moral principles that they can agree on, that fit well enough with human nature and with the inner workings of the group. They teach these principles to their children, maybe with some justification but mostly as received wisdom.

Ethics, on the other hand, is knowledge about moral principles. It’s an attempt to think about what in my opinion should remain an intuitive process. Ethics is philosophers trying to rationalize the moral principles they grew up with, or some variation that they arrived at themselves because it feels right for them. Or worse—they don’t merely rationalize an existing moral scheme; carried away by the logic of their reasoning, they hit upon an ethical system they think we should embrace even though it doesn’t feel right intuitively. That sort of system seldom does justice to the splendid irrationality at the heart of human nature.

An example: how should we treat intelligent, non-human animals? In chapter 8 of The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt describes his own reactions to reading Peter Singer’s arguments concerning animal rights:

Singer’s clear and compelling arguments convinced me on the spot, and since that day I have been morally opposed to all forms of factory farming. Morally opposed but not behaviorally opposed. I love the taste of meat, and the only thing that changed in the first six months after reading Singer is that I thought about my hypocrisy each time I ordered a hamburger.

But then [while watching a videotape shot in a slaughterhouse, as part of a research project on disgust with Paul Rozin], I watched in horror as cows, moving down a dripping disassembly line, were bludgeoned, hooked, and sliced up. Afterwards, Rozin and I went to lunch to talk about the project. We both ordered vegetarian meals. For days afterwards, the sight of red meat made me queasy. My visceral feelings now matched the beliefs Singer had given me…For about three weeks. Gradually, as the disgust faded, fish and chicken reentered my diet. Then red meat did, too, although even now, eighteen years later, I still eat less red meat and choose non-factory-farmed meats when they are available.

That experience taught me an important lesson. I think of myself as a fairly rational person. I found Singer’s arguments persuasive. but, to paraphrase Medea’s lament (from chapter 1): I saw the right way and approved it, but followed the wrong, until an emotion came along to provide some force.

If we’re being reasonable about it, Singer’s arguments do make a certain amount of sense. Everything we know about non-human animals tells us that they are aware and they do feel. The same things that cause us pain must also be pretty unpleasant for our domesticated animals, even if they don’t experience self-reflective consciousness like humans do. Humans are animals, and most of the reasoning that justifies our respect for other human beings applies also to many other animals. As Singer argues, we can’t use differences in intelligence to justify being unconcerned about any other animals, while still respecting the rights of humans with severe mental disabilities.

But like Haidt, most of us just don’t feel as much responsibility to other animals as we do to humans. We may not like it that domesticated animals are kept in small enclosures until they are eventually slaughtered for meat, but we don’t in practice react to that with anything remotely like the outrage we would feel if humans  were treated the same way. We’re reasonable, but we don’t listen to our reason. Why is that?

I think it’s a matter of loyalty.  Humans feel the strongest loyalty to other humans, but we do feel some loyalty to other animals too. Most of us feel more loyalty to the warm and furry than to the scaly and slimy. Dogs and cats mean more to us than jackals and cougars, because we live with them, or our friends do, and because we have had friendly interactions with them.

For some people there’s a steep drop-off in loyalty going from humans to other animals, while for others it’s a more gradual decrease. The loyalties of people who feel more strongly about animal welfare embrace more animals to a greater degree. Compassion for the suffering of non-human animals seems so obviously right to them, that other people’s lack of concern must be terribly frustrating. But it’s not that other people are cold and uncaring—the difference is simply in how far their circle of loyalties extends.

But either way, the pattern of a person’s loyalties seldom matches up with the biology or cognitive abilities of different groups of animals. Our loyalties are more intuitive than reasonable. How much do you care about the welfare of crows and ravens? They’re really smart, you know—much smarter than those cute little chickadees.

Basing compassion on intuitively felt loyalties isn’t all good. It’s what lets people do terrible things sometimes to humans of other cultures and ethnicities, other religious and political convictions—even while they are good and decent to the humans who fall within their circle of loyalties. But it is how our species works through moral dilemmas. Trying to impose a structure of reason on something that is fundamentally irrational is not the answer.

If we want people to behave better, we should try instead to extend everyone’s circle of loyalties as widely as possible. At the moment, there are still far too many sub-divisions of loyalties within our own species. From those divisions come war, terrorism, crime, discrimination, and other vices. I light-heartedly call myself a pro-human extremist because I am convinced that we can help build a better world by embracing our common humanity, making that our primary loyalty rather than our nation or our religion. When we have succeeded, we may then be able to follow St. Francis’ example and broaden our love to embrace all living things.

© Joel Benington, 2011.

Written by Joel Benington

May 20, 2011 at 3:48 pm

Posted in humanity

What is altruism?

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For biologists, it’s anything an animal does that increases other animals’ fitness while decreasing its own. Classic examples include bees stinging intruders to defend their hive, and small mammals like chipmunks and meerkats making alarm calls when they see predators nearby. There are well-established biological explanations for how these behaviors can have evolved by natural selection.

But for most people including myself (even though I’m a biologist), the more interesting version of altruism is the psychological one:

selfless concern for the well-being of others  (Oxford English Dictionary)

unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others  (Merriam-Webster)

C. Daniel Batson, a psychologist who has spent decades studying altruistic behavior in humans, gives a slightly more technical definition in this draft of a lecture from 2008:

a motivational state with the ultimate goal of increasing another’s welfare

In contrast to the biological version of altruism, the psychological is about emotions rather than actions. You are feeling altruistic whenever you sincerely care what happens to someone else. If you are sincerely motivated to make someone else’s life better, then you’re likely to do something about it should the occasion arise, but psychologically speaking the altruism is in the state of caring rather than in whatever actions that caring may lead to.

The psychological definition of altruism also says nothing about what effect the state of caring about another person’s well-being has on the person doing the caring. For biologists, a behavior isn’t altruistic if it also benefits the animal doing the behaving. But for psychologists, a motivational state can be truly altruistic even if it’s good for the person who is altruistically motivated. So if altruistic caring makes you feel good, or even if it causes your life to be better in the long run, it’s still altruistic as long as your true motivation is to benefit someone else. You are altruistic as long as your ultimate goal is to benefit others, and any benefits to yourself are pleasant but unintended consequences.

A lot of psychologists and philosophers have rejected the idea that altruism really exists in humans, preferring instead the dogma of universal egoism. They have argued that seemingly altruistic responses like wanting to help a person in need are actually caused by self-oriented motivations like avoiding the unpleasant feeling of seeing another person suffer, or anticipating the pleasure of being thanked by the person who was helped out.

In the paper linked to above, Batson describes the sort of research that has tested whether the ultimate motivations underlying seemingly altruistic responses in humans are indeed other-oriented or self-oriented. The findings of that research consistently support the altruistic explanation over any plausible explanation based on self-oriented motivations.

So if it seems to you that human beings do indeed care about the welfare of others, it looks like you’re right.

© Joel Benington, 2011.

Written by Joel Benington

May 18, 2011 at 7:45 pm

Posted in altruism

The secret of happiness (yes, now you know)

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If you want lasting fulfillment, devote yourself to the other people in your life. Caring for and serving others brings joy and peace of mind greater than anything we get from indulging ourselves. A life dedicated merely to self-gratification, however successful it appears to be, is ultimately hollow and unrewarding.

Why is this? Because that is how we are made—that is our nature. The human species has evolved by natural selection so that each of us has a sincere capacity for altruism. It’s not always uppermost in our minds, and we don’t always act on it, but at bottom we do care about other people and want them to be well. Helping others is what gives our lives meaning. And without an opportunity to do so, we come to  feel that our lives are pointless, and we become dissatisfied. All of that is a product not merely of social conditioning but of our biological nature. It is written in the human heart through the action of natural selection.

There’s a surprise, no? A biologist is saying that natural selection has produced (human) animals that care deeply for other members of their species and work to help them? But isn’t natural selection supposed to be all about only the strong surviving, nature red in tooth and claw, every man for himself? How could it produce altruism?

Actually, the evolution of altruism in humans and other animals is an old story in the field of biology, and recent research is establishing it more and more clearly. But it’s largely an untold story as regards the general public. Most people think that natural selection inevitably produces a winner-takes-all selfishness, as indeed it does in many species. But under the right conditions, the truly most fit animal is one that cares for other individuals as well as itself.

A simple and familiar case is parental care for offspring. All mammals and many other animals do this. A disposition to care for young is selected for because individuals that have it reproduce more effectively, because their offspring actually survive to adulthood. Thus, the genes that encourage parental care are passed on to the next generation and spread throughout the gene pool.

This is a straightforward example of what is called “kin selection”, and it has been well-established in the biological literature for decades now. When kin selection is at work, biological evolution produces animals that take care of others because they want to. The emotions of care and concern for the young are built into the hearts and minds not only of humans but also of other mammals, because without those emotions the young would not survive and so the species would be much less successful.

Caring for young’uns is just one of many forms of altruism that are built into human nature. Humans are altruistic in so many ways because we have evolved as social animals. For millions of years, humans and our primate ancestors have lived and worked together in groups. Monkeys and apes share food, help care for each other’s young, groom each other to clean parasites out of their fur, and warn each other when they see potentially dangerous predators. Being individuals, thought, they also fight over food, mates, or even just the best places to sleep. They form friendships and alliances, and monkeys that are related or have formed a close personal bond will help each other out in fights against other less friendly members of their social group.

Sound familiar? We humans do of course engage in the same sort of social behaviors, both good and bad. But we have taken cooperation to a much higher level than is seen in any other primates. In fact, while other social animals like dolphins and elephants cooperate too, no other mammal cooperates nearly as much as we do. We work together in many more different ways, in larger groups, over greater distances. We’re constantly making up new ways to work together. Few people had used the internet twenty years ago, or social networking sites just five years ago. And we benefit from other people’s cooperative efforts just about every moment of our lives. We eat food that other people have grown, packaged, transported, and offered to us for sale in stores. We live in houses and drive cars that other people have built.

Our evolutionary history as social animals has left indelible marks on human nature. We are each of us born with that nature, and we can never escape from it. Human nature shapes all of our experiences. It causes us to think and feel in ways that help us to work together better, and to care for each other. It makes us emotionally as well as physically dependent on others. It makes us yearn not only to be loved ourselves, but to love others, and in loving them to serve and care for them. Without that, we cannot be whole.

© Joel Benington, 2011.

Written by Joel Benington

May 9, 2011 at 5:46 pm

Posted in altruism