Pro-Human Extremist

Extremism in the defense of humanity is no vice

Three cheers for the “warm glow”!

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In the last post, I described how the existence of a welfare state in a democracy can be explained based on a simple economic model of human altruism, in which voters have a utility function that includes other people’s utility. By voting for a social safety net, we increase the utility of a lot of disadvantaged people at a relatively low cost to ourselves, because laws ensure that a bunch of other taxpayers also contribute their share. As long as the total increase in everyone else’s utility has enough value to us to offset the decrease in our consumption resulting from the taxes we pay, then we should be in favor of it.

Economists who write about this sort of thing call the social safety net a public good, like roads and a national defense. An ideal public good is something that anyone can enjoy without taking away from other people’s enjoyment of it. We are all more secure when our country is well-defended, and my enjoyment of that security takes nothing away from yours. If you value other people’s utility, then a social safety net gives you the enjoyment of knowing that the most disadvantaged people in your country are taken care of, and that increase in their utility increases your own utility. Your enjoyment of that fact takes nothing away from any other altruists’ enjoyment of that fact, which makes it a public good.

The same economists have also argued that government welfare programs are a more efficient way to help out the disadvantaged than private charitable giving is. Also, altruistically minded people should prefer to contribute to that effort through paying taxes, so they can be confident that all of the other affluent people in their county are also contributing their share. By contrast, a charitable gift is a one-off contribution by a single person, with no assurance that anyone else will follow suit.

Yet people still make private contributions to a great many different charities and cultural organizations. In the US, private giving amounts to about 5% of the country’s GNP—hundreds of billions of dollars every year. Economically it makes no sense, yet people still do it.

One explanation for this behavior is that people not only value the utility of others altruistically, but also derive some benefit from the act of giving itself—a warm glow from the thought of having voluntarily done their part to help others. James Andreoni (1989, 1990) constructed economic models based on this idea, which he called impure altruism. Pure altruism would be motivated solely by an interest in other people’s well-being. The altruism becomes impure to the extent that someone derives some pleasure from the act of giving that is over and above the rational value to them of other people’s utility.

Some people seem to get a kick out of pointing out how actions that appear to be altruistic are actually selfishly motivated. Taken to an extreme, this amounts to psychological egoism—the view that all human actions are ultimately self-motivated or egoistic, even when they appear to be altruistic. In this article in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Joshua May notes that philosophers have widely rejected psychological egoism, and discusses various arguments against the idea. But that doesn’t keep amateur philosophers from smugly trumpeting the idea.

Has Andreoni put his finger on a bona fide example of an egoistic motivation for altruistic actions? Maybe, but not necessarily. What his models include in addition to the rational altruistic motivation is merely a preference for the act of individual giving. That could stem from the pleasure of giving itself, but there are other possible explanations. For example, people who give may not accurately evaluate the level of support that a worthy cause gets from government transfers, so they may be convinced that sufficient unmet needs exist to motivate individual altruism on their part.

But let’s say for the sake of argument that some normal human altruistic actions are motivated in part by a warm glow that comes from the act of helping others, over and above the actual benefit to the people being helped. Strictly speaking, that is indeed an egoistic motivation since it is driven by the pleasurable experience of doing good. But is it morally equivalent to typical egoistic motivations like hunger and thirst? The giver does seek a pleasurable experience, but the pleasure in the experience comes from helping another person in need. The motivation may be egoistic, but the behavior it produces is loving and caring.

If you were designing a social animal and you wanted to maximize its cooperative behavior, wouldn’t you program in precisely the sort of emotional response to the act of helping that Andreoni was getting at when he referred to a warm glow? To build an ideal human society, wouldn’t you want to stock it with people who experience as much warm glow pleasure as possible? And if we could discover social structures that bring out more of the warm glow in normal humans, wouldn’t we want to institute them in our own communities?

As long as the warm glow comes from sincere efforts to help other people, who would begrudge the helpers whatever pleasure they may get out of it? After all, that pleasure is encouraging them to behave exactly how we want people to behave. Do they have to do it dispassionately and in answer to high moral principles before we can admire them for their spirit of devotion? Not as far as I’m concerned—their warm glow gives me the warm fuzzies, and I want them to enjoy it to the fullest. Go glow!

© Joel Benington, 2011.


Written by Joel Benington

June 20, 2011 at 6:22 pm

Posted in altruism, economics

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