altruism

Altruism, Self-Interest, and Voting

From a previous post:

I am reading and generally enjoying Darwinian Fairytales: Selfish Genes, Errors of Heredity and Other Fables of Evolution by the late Australian philosopher, David Stove. I say generally enjoying because in Essay 6, which I just finished reading, Stove goes off the rails.

The title of Essay 6 is “Tax and the Selfish Girl, Or Does ‘Altruism’ Need Inverted Commas?”. Stove expends many words in defense of altruism as it is commonly thought of: putting others before oneself….

… Stove’s analysis of altruism is circular: He parades examples of what he considers altruistic conduct, and says that because there is such conduct there must be altruism.

I went on to quote an earlier post of mine in which I make a case against altruism, as Stove and many others understand it.

Stove’s attempt to distinguish altruism from self-interest resurfaces in Essay 8, “‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s my Brother,’ or Altruism and Shared Genes”:

And then, think how easy it is, and always has been, to convince many people of the selfish theory of human nature. It is quite pathetically easy. All it takes, as Joseph Butler pointed out nearly three centuries ago, is a certain coarseness of mind on the part of those to be convinced; though a little bad character on either part is certainly a help. You offer people two propositions: “No one can act voluntarily except in his own interests,” and “No one can act voluntarily except from some interest of his own.” The second is a trivial truth, while the first is an outlandish falsity. But what proportion of people can be relied on to notice any difference in meaning between the two? Experience shows very few. And a man will find it easier to mistake the false proposition for the evidently true one, the more willing he is to believe that everyone is as bad as himself, or to belittle the human species in general.

Therein lies the source of Stove’s confusion. Restating his propositions, he says it is false to believe that a person always acts voluntarily in his own interest, while it is (trivially) true to believe that a person always acts voluntarily from an interest of his own.

If a man’s interest of his own is to save his drowning child, because he loves the child, how is that different from acting in his own interest? There is “a part of himself” — to put it colloquially — which recoils at the though of his child’s death. Whether that part is love, empathy, or instinct is of no consequence. The man who acts to save his drowning child does so because he can’t bear to contemplate the death of his child.

In sum, there is really no difference between acting in one’s own interest or acting from an interest of one’s own.

It isn’t my aim to denigrate acts that are called altruistic. With more such acts, the world would be a better place in which to live. But the veneration of acts that are called altruistic is a backhanded way of denigrating acts that are called selfish. Among such acts is profit-seeking, which “liberals” hold in contempt as a selfish act. But it is not, as Adam Smith pointed out a long time ago:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. [An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, 1776]

The moral confusion of “liberals” (Stove wasn’t one) about matters of self-interest is revealed in their condescension toward working-class people who vote Republican. I have pointed this out in several posts (e.g., here and here). Keith Stanovich takes up the cause in “Were Trump Voters Irrational?” (Quillette, September 28, 2017):

Instrumental rationality—the optimization of the individual’s goal fulfillment–means behaving in the world so that you get what you most want…. More technically, the model of rational judgment used by decision scientists is one in which a person chooses options based on which option has the largest expected utility…. [U]tility refers to the good that accrues when people achieve their goals….

More important for discussions of voter rationality, however, is that utility does not just mean monetary value…. For instance, people gain utility from holding and expressing specific beliefs and values. Failing to realize this is the source of much misunderstanding about voting behavior….

Failure to appreciate these nuances in rational choice theory is behind the charge that the Trump voters were irrational. A common complaint about them among Democratic critics is that they were voting against their own interests. A decade ago, this was the theme of Thomas Frank’s popular book What’s the Matter with Kansas? and it has recurred frequently since. The idea is that lower income people who vote Republican (not necessarily for Trump—most of these critiques predate the 2016 election) are voting against their interests because they would receive more government benefits if they voted Democratic….

[L]eftists never seem to see how insulting this critique of Republican voters is. Their failure to see the insult illustrates precisely what they get wrong in evaluating the rationality of the Trump voters. Consider that these What’s the Matter with Kansas? critiques are written by highly educated left-wing pundits, professors, and advocates…. The stance of the educated progressive making the What’s the Matter with Kansas? argument seems to be that: “no one else should vote against their monetary interests, but it’s not irrational for me to do so, because I am enlightened.”

As I say here,

it never ceases to amaze the left that so many of “the people” turn their backs on a leftist (Democrat) candidate in favor of the (perceived) Republican rightist. Why is that? One reason, which became apparent in the recent presidential election, is that a lot of “the people” don’t believe that the left is their “voice” or that it rules on their behalf.

A lot of “the people” believe, correctly, that the left despises “the people” and is bent on dictating to them. Further, a lot of “the people” also believe, correctly, that the left’s dictatorial methods are not really designed with “the people” in mind. Rather, they are intended to favor certain groups of people — those deemed “victims” by the left — and to advance pet schemes (e.g., urban rail, “green” energy, carbon-emissions reductions, Obamacare) despite the fact that they are unnecessary, inefficient, and economically destructive.

It comes as a great shock to left that so many of “the people” see the left for what it is: doctrinaire, unfair, and dictatorial. Why, they ask, would “the people” vote against their own interest by rejecting Democrats and electing Republicans? The answer is that a lot of “the people” are smart enough to see that the left does not represent them and does not act in their interest.


Related posts:
A Leftist’s Lament
Leftist Condescension
Altruism, One More Time
The Left and “the People”

Altruism, One More Time

I am reading and generally enjoying Darwinian Fairytales: Selfish Genes, Errors of Heredity and Other Fables of Evolution by the late Australian philosopher, David Stove. I say generally enjoying because in Essay 6, which I just finished reading, Stove goes off the rails.

The title of Essay 6 is “Tax and the Selfish Girl, Or Does ‘Altruism’ Need Inverted Commas?”. Stove expends many words in defense of altruism as it is commonly thought of: putting others before oneself. He also expends some words (though not many) in defense of taxation as an altruistic act.

Stove, whose writing is refreshingly informal instead of academically stilted, is fond of calling things “ridiculous” and “absurd”. Well, Essay 6 is both of those things. Stove’s analysis of altruism is circular: He parades examples of what he considers altruistic conduct, and says that because there is such conduct there must be altruism.

His target is a position that I have taken, and still hold despite Essay 6. My first two essays about altruism are here and here. I will quote a third essay, in which I address philosopher Jason Brennan’s defense of altruism:

What about Brennan’s assertion that he is genuinely altruistic because he doesn’t merely want to avoid bad feelings, but wants to help his son for his son’s sake. That’s called empathy. But empathy is egoistic. Even strong empathy — the ability to “feel” another person’s pain or anguish — is “felt” by the empathizer. It is the empathizer’s response to the other person’s pain or anguish.

Brennan inadvertently makes that point when he invokes sociopathy:

Sociopaths don’t care about other people for their own sake–they view them merely as instruments. Sociopaths don’t feel guilt for failing to help others.

The difference between a sociopath and a “normal” person is found in caring (feeling). But caring (feeling) is something that the I does — or fails to do, if the I is a sociopath. I = ego:

the “I” or self of any person; a thinking, feeling, and conscious being, able to distinguish itself from other selves.

I am not deprecating the kind of laudable act that is called altruistic. I am simply trying to point out what should be an obvious fact: Human beings necessarily act in their own interests, though their own interests often coincide with the interests of others for emotional reasons (e.g., love, empathy), as well as practical ones (e.g., loss of income or status because of the death of a patron).

It should go without saying that the world would be a better place if it had fewer sociopaths in it. Voluntary, mutually beneficial relationships are more than merely transactional; they thrive on the mutual trust and respect that arise from social bonds, including the bonds of love and affection.

Where Stove goes off the rails is with his claim that the existence of classes of people like soldiers, priests, and doctors is evidence of altruism. (NB: Stove was an atheist, so his inclusion of priests isn’t any kind of defense of religion.)

People become soldiers, priests, and doctors for various reasons, including (among many non-altruistic things) a love of danger (soldiers), a desire to control the lives of others (soldiers, priests, and doctors), an intellectual challenge that has nothing to do with caring for others (doctors), earning a lot of money (doctors), prestige (high-ranking soldiers, priests, and doctors), and job security (priests and doctors). Where’s the altruism in any of that?

Where Stove really goes off the rails is with his claim that redistributive taxation is evidence of altruism. As if human beings live in monolithic societies (like ant colonies), where the will of one is the will of all. And as if government represents the “will of the people”, when all it represents is the will of a small number of people who have been granted the power to govern by garnering a bare minority of votes cast by a minority of the populace, by their non-elected bureaucratic agents, and by (mostly) non-elected judges.

 

Unorthodox Economics: 2. Pitfalls

This is the second entry in what I hope will become a book-length series of posts. That result, if it comes to pass, will amount to an unorthodox economics textbook. Here are the chapters that have been posted to date:

1. What Is Economics?
2. Pitfalls
3. What Is Scientific about Economics?
4. A Parable of Political Economy

A person who wants to learn about economics should be forewarned about pernicious tendencies and beliefs — often used unthinkingly and expressed subtly — that lurk in writings and speeches about economics and economic issues. This chapter treats seven such tendencies and beliefs:

  • misuse of probability
  • reductionism
  • nirvana fallacy
  • social welfare
  • romanticizing the state
  • paternalism
  • judging motives instead of results

MISUSE OF PROBABILITY

Probability is seldom invoked in non-technical economics. But when it is, beware of it. A statement about the probability of an event is either (a) a subjective evaluation (“educated” guess) about what is likely to happen or (b) a strict, mathematical statement about the observed frequency of the occurrence of a well-defined random event. I will bet you even money that the first meaning applies in at least six of the next ten times that you read or hear a statement about probability or its cognate “chance,” as in 50-percent chance of rain. And my subjective evaluation is that I have a 90-percent probability of winning the bet.

Let’s take the chance of rain (or snow or sleet, etc.). You may rely heavily on a weather forecaster’s statement about the probability that it will rain today. If the stated probability is high, you may postpone an outing of some kind, or take an umbrella when you leave the house, or wear a water-repellent coat instead of a cloth one, and so on. That’s prudent behavior on your part, even though the weather forecaster’s statement isn’t really probabilistic.

What the weather forecaster is telling you (or relaying to you from the National Weather Service) is a subjective evaluation of the “chance” that it will rain in a given geographic area, based on known conditions (e.g., wind direction, presence of a nearby front, water-vapor imagery). The “chance” may be computed mathematically, but its computation rests on judgments about the occurrence of rain-producing events, such as the speed of a front’s movement and the direction of water-vapor flow. In the end, however, you’re left with only a weather forecaster’s judgment, and it’s up to you to evaluate it and act accordingly.

What about something that involves “harder” numbers, such as the likelihood of winning a lottery (where there’s good information about the number of tickets sold) or casting the deciding vote in an election (where there’s good information about the number of votes that will be cast)? I will continue with the case of voting, which is discussed in chapter 1 as an example of the extent to which economics has spread beyond its former preoccupations with buyers, sellers, and the aggregation of their activities.

An economist named Bryan Caplan has written a lot about voting. For example, he says the following in “Why I Don’t Vote: The Honest Truth” (EconLog, September 13, 2016):

Aren’t we [economists] always advising people to choose their best option, even when their best option is bleak?  Sure, but abstention [from voting] is totally an option.  And while politicians have a clear incentive to ignore we abstainers, only remaining aloof from our polity gives me inner peace.

You could respond, “Inner peace at what price?”  It is only at this point that I invoke the miniscule probability of voter decisiveness.  If I had a 5% chance of tipping an electoral outcome, I might hold my nose, scrupulously compare the leading candidates, and vote for the Lesser Evil.  Indeed, if, like von Stauffenberg, I had a 50/50 shot of saving millions of innocent lives by putting my own in grave danger, I’d consider it.  But I refuse to traumatize myself for a one-in-a-million chance of moderately improving the quality of American governance.  And one-in-a-million is grossly optimistic.

Caplan links to a portion of his lecture notes for a course in the logic of collective action. The notes include this mathematical argument:

III. Calculating the Probability of Decisiveness, I: Mathematics

A. When does a vote matter? At least in most systems, it only matters if it “flips” the outcome of the election.

B. This can only happen if the winner wins by a single vote. In that case, each voter is “decisive”; if one person decided differently, the outcome would change.

C. In all other cases, the voter is not decisive; the outcome would not change if one person decided differently.

D. It is obvious that the probability of casting the decisive vote in a large electorate is extremely small….

H. Now suppose that everyone but yourself votes “for” with probability p – and “against” with probability (1-p).

I. Then from probability theory: caplan-on-voting-probability-of-tie

J. From this formula, we can see that the probability of a tie falls when the number of voters goes up….

K. Intuitively, the more people there are, the less likely one person makes a difference….

IV. Calculating the Probability of Decisiveness, II: Examples

A. What is neat about the above formula is that it allows us to say not just how the probability of decisiveness changes, but how much….

I. Upshot: For virtually any real-world election, the probability of casting the decisive vote is not just small; it is normally infinitesimal. The extreme observation that “You will not affect the outcome of an election by voting” is true for all practical purposes.

J. Even if you were to play around with the formula to increase your estimate a thousand-fold, your estimated answer would remain vanishingly small.

What Caplan and other economists who write in the same vein ignore is the influence of their point of view. It’s self-defeating because it appeals to extremely rationalistic people like Caplan. One aspect of their rationalism is a cold-eyed view of government, namely, that it almost always does more harm than good. That’s a position with which I agree, but it’s a reason to vote rather than abstain. If rationalists like Caplan abstain from voting in large numbers, their abstention may well cause some elections to be won by candidates who favor more government rather than less.

Moreover, Caplan’s argument against voting is really a way of rationalizing his disdain for voting. This is from “Why I Don’t Vote: The Honest Truth”:

My honest answer begins with extreme disgust.  When I look at voters, I see human beings at their hysterical, innumerate worst.  When I look at politicians, I see mendacious, callous bullies.  Yes, some hysterical, innumerate people are more hysterical and innumerate than others.  Yes, some mendacious, callous bullies are more mendacious, callous, and bully-like than others.  But even a bare hint of any of these traits appalls me.  When someone gloats, “Politifact says Trump is pants-on-fire lying 18% of the time, versus just 2% for Hillary,” I don’t want to cheer Hillary.  I want to retreat into my Bubble, where people dutifully speak the truth or stay silent.

Thus demonstrating the confirmation bias in Caplan’s mathematical “proof” of the futility of voting.

Nor is his “proof” really probabilistic. A single event — be it an election, a lottery drawing, of the toss of a fair coin — doesn’t have a probability.  What does it mean to say, for example, that there’s a probability of 0.5 (50 percent) that a tossed coin will come up heads (H), and a probability of 0.5 that it will come up tails (T)? Does such a statement have any bearing on the outcome of a single toss of a coin? No, it doesn’t. The statement is only a shorthand way of saying that in a sufficiently large number of tosses, approximately half will come up H and half will come up T. The result of each toss, however, is a random event — it has no probability. You may have an opinion (or a hunch or a guess) about the outcome of a single coin toss, but it’s only your opinion (hunch, guess). In the end, you have to bet on a discrete outcome.

An election that hasn’t taken place can’t have a probability. There will be opinion polls — a lot of them in the case of a presidential election — but choosing to vote (or not) because of opinion polls can be self-defeating. Take the recent presidential election. Almost all of the polls, including those that forecast the electoral vote as well as the popular vote, had Mrs. Clinton winning over Mr. Trump.

But despite the high “probability” of a victory by Mrs. Clinton, she lost. Why? Because the “ignorant” voters in several swing States turned out in large numbers, while too many pro-Clinton voters evidently didn’t bother to vote. It’s possible that she lost some crucial States because of the abstention of voters who believed the high “probability” that she would win.

The election of 2016 — like every other election — isn’t even close to being something as simple as the toss of a fair coin. And, despite its mathematical precision, a statement about the probability of the next toss of a fair coin is meaningless. It will come up H or it will come up T, but it will not come up 0.5 H or T.

REDUCTIONISM

This subject is more important than probability, so I will say far less about it.

Reductionism is the adoption of a theory or method which holds that a complex idea or system can be completely understood in terms of its simpler components. Most reductionists will defend their theory or method by agreeing that it is simple, if not simplistic. But they will nevertheless adhere to that theory or method because it’s “the best we have.” That claim should remind you of the hoary joke about the drunk who searched for his keys under a street light because he could see the ground there, even though he had dropped the keys half a block away.

Caplan’s adherence to the simplistic, mathematical analysis of voting is a good example of reductionism. Why? Because it omits the crucial influence of group behavior. It also omits other reasons for voting (or not). It certainly omits Caplan’s real reason, which is his “extreme disgust” for voters and the candidates from whom they must choose. Finally, it omits the psychic value of voting — its “feel good” effect.

Economists also are guilty of reductionism when they suggest that persons act rationally only when they pursue the maximization of income or wealth. I’ll say more about that when I get to paternalism.

NIRVANA FALLACY

The nirvana fallacy is the logical error of comparing actual things with unrealistic, idealized alternatives. The actual things usually are the “somethings” about which government is supposed to “do something.” The unrealistic, idealized alternatives are the outcomes sought by the proponents of a particular course of government action.

There is also a pervasive nirvana fallacy about government itself. Government — which is a mere collection of fallible, squabbling, power-lusting humans — is too often thought and spoken of as if it were a kind of omniscient, single-minded, benevolent being that can overcome the forces of nature and human nature which give rise, in the first place, to the “something” about which “something must be done.”

Specific examples of the nirvana fallacy will arise in later chapters of this book.

SOCIAL WELFARE

Wouldn’t you like to arrange the world so that everyone is better off? If you would — and I suspect that most people would — you’d have to define “better off.” Happier, healthier, and wealthier make a good starting point. Of course, you’d have to arrange it so that everyone would be happier and healthier and wealthier in the future as well as in the present. That is, for example, you couldn’t arrange greater happiness at the cost of greater wealth, or at the cost of the greater happiness or wealth of those living today or their descendants.

It’s a tall order isn’t it? In fact, it’s an impossibility. (You might even call it a state of nirvana.) In the real world of limited resources, the best that can happen is that a change of some kind (e.g., the invention of an anti-polio vaccine, hybridization to produce healthier and more abundant crops) makes it possible for many people to be better off — but at a price. There is no free lunch. Someone must bear the costs of devising and implementing beneficial changes. In market economies, those costs are borne by the people who reap the benefits because they (the beneficiaries) voluntarily pay for whatever it is that makes their lives better.

Enter government, whose agents decide such things what lines of medical research to fund, and how much to spend on each line of research. A breakthrough in a line of research might be a boon to millions of Americans. But other millions of Americans — many more millions, in fact — won’t benefit from the breakthrough, though a large fraction of them will have funded the underlying research through taxes extracted from them by force. I say by force because tax collections would decline sharply if it weren’t for the credible threat of heavy fines and imprisonment tax collections.

A voluntary exchange results when each of the parties to the exchange believes that he will be better off as a result of the exchange. An honest voluntary exchange — one in which there is no deception or material lack of information — therefore improves the well-being (welfare) of all parties. An involuntary exchange, as in the case of tax-funded medical research, cannot result make all parties better off. No government agent — or economist, pundit, or politician — can look into the minds of millions of people and say that each of them would willingly donate a certain amount of money to fund this or that government program. And yet, that is the presumption which lies behind government spending.

That presumption is the fallacious foundation of cost-benefit analysis undertaken to evaluate government programs. If the “social benefit” of a program is said to equal or exceed its cost, the program is presumably justified because the undertaking of it would cause “social welfare” to increase. But a “social benefit” — like a breakthrough in medical research — is a always a benefit to some persons, while the taxes paid to elicit the benefit are nothing but a burden to other persons, who have their own problems and priorities.

Why doesn’t the good outweigh the bad? Think of it this way: If a bully punches you in the nose, thus deriving much pleasure at your expense, who is to say that the bully’s pleasure outweighs your pain? Do you believe that there’s a third party who is entitled to say that the result of your transaction with the bully is a heightened state of social welfare? Evidently, there are a lot of voters, economists, pundits, and politician who act as if they believe it.

ROMANTICIZING THE STATE

This section is a corollary to the preceding one.

It is a logical and factual error to apply the collective “we” to Americans, except when referring generally to the citizens of the United States. Other instances of “we” (e.g., “we” won World War II, “we” elected Barack Obama) are fatuous and presumptuous. In the first instance, only a small fraction of Americans still living had a hand in the winning of World War II. In the second instance, Barack Obama was elected by amassing the votes of fewer than 25 percent of the number of Americans living in 2008 and 2012. “We the People” — that stirring phrase from the Constitution’s preamble — was never more hollow than it is today.

Further, the logical and factual error supports the unwarranted view that the growth of government somehow reflects a “national will” or consensus of Americans. Thus, appearances to the contrary (e.g., the adoption and expansion of national “social insurance” schemes, the proliferation of cabinet departments, the growth of the administrative state) a sizable fraction of Americans (perhaps a majority) did not want government to grow to its present size and degree of intrusiveness. And a sizable fraction (perhaps a majority) would still prefer that it shrink in both dimensions. In fact, The growth of government is an artifact of formal and informal arrangements that, in effect, flout the wishes of many (most?) Americans. The growth of government was not and is not the will of “we Americans,” “Americans on the whole,” “Americans in the aggregate,” or any other mythical consensus.

PATERNALISM

Paternalism arises from the same source as “social welfare”; that is, it reflects a presumption that there are some persons who are competent to decide what’s best for other persons. That may be true of parents, but it is most assuredly not true of so-called libertarian paternalists.

Consider an example that’s used to explain libertarian paternalism. Some workers choose “irrationally” — according to libertarian paternalists — when they decline to sign up for an employer’s 401(k) plan. The paternalists characterize the “do not join” option as the default option. In my experience, there is no default option: An employee must make a deliberate choice between joining a 401(k) or not joining it. And if the employee chooses not to join it, he or she must sign a form certifying that choice. That’s not a default, it’s a clear-cut and deliberate choice which reflects the employee’s best judgment, at that time, as to the best way to allocate his or her income. Nor is it an irrevocable choice; it can be revisited annually (or more often under certain circumstances).

But to help employees make the “right” choice, libertarian paternalists would find a way to herd employees into 401(k) plans (perhaps by law). In one variant of this bit of paternalism, an employee is automatically enrolled in a 401(k) and isn’t allowed to opt out for some months, by which time he or she has become used to the idea of being enrolled and declines to opt out.

The underlying notion is that people don’t always choose what’s “best” for themselves. Best according to whom? According to libertarian paternalists, of course, who tend to equate “best” with wealth maximization. They simply disregard or dismiss the truly rational preferences of those who must live with the consequences of their decisions.

Libertarian paternalism incorporates two fallacies. One is what I call the rationality fallacy (a kind of reductionism), the other is the fallacy of central planning.

As for the rationality fallacy, there is simply a lot more to maximizing satisfaction than maximizing wealth. That’s why some couples choose to have a lot of children, when doing so obviously reduces the amount of wealth that they can accumulate. That’s why some persons choose to retire early rather than stay in stressful jobs. Rationality and wealth maximization are two very different things, but a lot of laypersons and too many economists are guilty of equating them.

Nevertheless, many economists do equate rationality and wealth maximization, which leads them to propose schemes for forcing us to act more “rationally.” Such schemes, of course, are nothing more than central planning, dreamt up by self-anointed wise men who seek to impose their preferences on the rest of us. They are, in other words, schemes to maximize that which can’t be maximized: social welfare.

JUDGING MOTIVES INSTEAD OF RESULTS

If a person commits what seems to be an altruistic act, that person may seem to sacrifice something (e.g., a life, a fortune) but the “sacrifice” was that person’s choice. An altruistic act serves an end: the satisfaction of one’s personal values — nothing more, nothing less. There is nothing inherent in a supposedly altruistic act that makes it morally superior to profit-seeking, which is usually thought of as the opposite of altruism.

To illustrate my point I resort to the following bits of caricature:

1. Suppose Mother Teresa’s acts of “sacrifice” were born of rebellion against parents who wanted her to take over their business empire. That is, suppose Mother Teresa derived great satisfaction in defying her parents, and it is that which drove her to impoverish herself and suffer many hardships. The more she “suffered” the more her parents suffered and the happier she became.

2. Suppose Bill Gates really wanted to become a male version of Mother Teresa but his grandmother, on her deathbed, said “Billy, I want you to make the world safe from the Apple computer.” So, Billy went out and did that, for his grandmother’s sake, even though he really wanted to be the male Mother Teresa. Then he wound up being immensely wealthy, much to his regret. But Billy obviously put his affection for or fear of his grandmother above his desire to become a male version of Mother Teresa. He satisfied his personal values. And in doing so, he make life better for millions of people, many millions more than were served by Mother Teresa’s efforts. It’s just that Billy’s efforts weren’t heart-rending, and were seemingly motivated by profit-seeking.

Now, tell me, who is the altruist, my fictional Mother Teresa or my fictional Bill Gates? You might now say Bill Gates. I would say neither; each acted in accordance with her and his personal values. One might call the real Mother Teresa altruistic because her actions seem altruistic, in the common meaning of the word. But one can’t say (for sure) why she took those actions. Suppose that the real Mother Teresa acted as she did not only because she wanted to help the poor but also because she sought spiritual satisfaction or salvation. Would that negate her acts? No, her acts would still be her acts, regardless of their motivation. The same goes for the real Bill Gates.

Results matter more than motivations. (“The road to hell,” and all that.) It is arguable that profit-seekers like the real Bill Gates — and the real John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, and their ilk — brought more happiness to humankind than did Mother Teresa and others of her ilk.

That insight is at least 240 years old. Adam Smith put it this way in The Wealth of Nations (1776):

By pursuing his own interest [a person] frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.

A person who makes a profit makes it by doing something of value for others.

Getting Real About Empathy – Part 5 of 5: Addendum

A guest post by L. P. Here are links to part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4. To read about the aftermath of this invitation, see this post.

As I’ve been cordially invited to participate in an upcoming interview that might be published on YouTube, I’m presenting my talking points here for all who’re interested:

There are ethical, moral considerations that the empathy movement needs to take into account. This, in effect, establishes a limit on their mission. Each and every person has a natural, fundamental right (wherever they are on the empathy spectrum) to be who they are, live their lives how they want to, and grow in whatever direction they desire – as long as they don’t harm, or encroach upon, others. Hence, unempathetic people who haven’t done any wrong or who don’t pose a threat to society (people with Asperger’s or Autism for example) have every right to be who they are without others trying to mold them into someone they are not.

This is something I think empathetic people need to understand, respect, and accept (instead of insisting that they are the only valid, ideal version of how a human should be – this position, no matter who it comes from, is egoistic and selfish), and I don’t think empathetic people would like having an opposite movement try to make them be who they are not either. In fact, one of the basic lessons psychologists learn in education and training is that one cannot control others.

What this means is, if those in the empathy movement are helping individuals who want to increase their empathy then this is fine. However, to foist one’s own way of being and one’s own values on someone else (who’s living life innocently and doesn’t want to change) is wrong and counterproductive. When people are different and their values conflict, “good fences makes good neighbors” as the saying goes.

A positive direction for empathetic people to take, to be truly 100% empathetic, is to empathize with the unempathetic (a way of thinking that has Buddhist roots). This is similar to how a “tolerant” person isn’t tolerant (in a pure sense) unless he or she also tolerates the intolerant. Empathetic people need to understand how their movement oppresses people who are different from them. The empathy movement, in fact, mirrors the way extroverts (a majority in society) pressure introverts (a minority that they often find repugnant) to be more like them. Another positive direction is to cultivate “detached compassion” whereby one learns to prioritize others’ need to learn through life experience over one’s own urge to help. To give one’s urge to help precedence over others’ need to learn for themselves is selfish because one is now taking valuable life experiences away from others.

It’s a problem when people like who they are and take pride in themselves to a degree that they miss out on the positive attributes and contributions of their opposites. Diversity on all traits (including empathy), not homogeneity, ensures humanity’s well-being and survival. Mother nature is wise. For example, extroverts often miss the fact that if a pandemic swept the world killing billions that it is the hermit who has the best chances of survival – thus being able to continue humanity’s lineage. Empathetic people, likewise, don’t seem to realize that they need unempathetic people to serve certain roles and make certain contributions in order for society to function well.

If the interview is featured on YouTube, I will share it along with additional thoughts the conversation inspires here.

Getting Real About Empathy – Part 4 of 5: Final Thoughts

A guest post by L. P. Here are links to part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 5.

Leftists have tunnel vision when it comes to the assessment of traits that they favor; an empathetic person is “good,” a person considered unempathetic (and who favors impartial justice) is “bad.” Except for sexual orientation, the left focuses its diversity agenda on physical diversity (e.g., race, gender). Much diversity that stems from internal disposition is disregarded (e.g., diversity of political thought, certain personality traits). Researchers like Sáez et al. (who’re, ironically, going against their own espoused value of being fair-minded) are willing to advocate tweaking humanity in a eugenic bid to create a utopia. And they’re willing to do so without balanced consideration of its dangers.

As mentioned in part 3, the empathy spectrum has genetic roots; it’s not just a byproduct of dysfunctional parenting or traumatic childhoods, as is often suggested. Hence, variations on this trait are functional, like other products of nature as demonstrated in the examples related to occupational roles and contributions in part 2. Another example, not mentioned in part 2, is the need for judges to base their decisions on facts and law, not feelings. Where would the rule of law – true justice – be without such judges? Empathy-based rulings offer a compelling explanation for why known rapists and killers are given second and third chances. (Readers may assess prisoner recidivism rates here.) Regardless of any existing alternative explanations for this phenomena, bias derived from empathy is obviously undesirable in the justice system.

Being abnormal, or just different, gives an individual a unique perspective. It’s easy for me to view issues concerning empathy differently because I am differently empathetic, or even unempathetic (considering how affective empathy is prized in popular culture). On Baron-Cohen’s 7-point scale, from 0 to 6, I’d rate myself at least a 5 on cognitive empathy because I’ve proven to have the necessary cognitive empathy to excel at competitive card games that involve reading people and accurately assessing their situations and intentions. However, I’d score 0 on affective empathy because, throughout my life, I have not felt another individual’s feelings (and am content with this). Affective empathy is the type of empathy that women, as a group, are known for. Hence, I’m an outlier among women.

What’s most frustrating about the current pro-empathy bandwagon is that it’s made telling my side of the story difficult. People often say, “We need to get more women into leadership positions so that we’ll have more empathy up there,” and expect a positive reaction from me. I don’t disagree with the statement if we’re talking about randomly plucking women from the general population and foisting them into leadership positions. (Random selection would, of course, be undesirable.) It is comical, by the way, when the same people who insist that men and women, as groups, are identical also say, “But women are more empathetic than men.”

Individuals who initiate these awkward encounters don’t seem to think that it is acceptable for the less empathetic to reveal the truth about themselves. Pro-empathy people think less empathetic people are “monsters.” However, as discussed in part 2 of this series, Baron-Cohen, Kevin Dutton in The Wisdom of Psychopaths, and other researchers establish that empathetic people, particularly psychopaths who have both affective and cognitive empathy, can be “monsters” too.

In fact, Kevin Dutton’s point about psychopaths generally being able to blend in and take on the appearance of the average person makes it obvious that they must have substantial emotional intelligence (linked to cognitive empathy) and experience of others’ feelings in order to mirror others so well. To be fair, however, even “monsters” like psychopaths (who don’t easily experience fear) have the potential to function in pro-social occupational roles that aren’t well-suited for the average person. Consider, for example, the final minutes of this interview (which I’ve cued to this very moment) between psychiatrist Park Dietz and Richard Kuklinski, “The Iceman,” where the psychiatrist names a number of occupational roles (e.g., race car driver, test pilot, fighter pilot, bomb disposal technician, law enforcement officer) suitable for individuals who have a weaker-than-average fear response.

Another point to consider however, as mentioned in part 1, is that those who try to empathize with others by imagining how they would experience another’s situation aren’t truly empathetic. They’re just projecting their own feelings onto others. This brings to mind Jonathan Haidt’s study on morality and political orientation. On the “Identification with All of Humanity Scale,” liberals most strongly endorsed the dimension regarding identification with “everyone around the world.” (See page 25 of “Understanding Libertarian Morality: The psychological roots of an individualist ideology.”) How can anyone empathize with billions of persons about whom one knows nothing, and a great number of whom are anything but liberal?

Haidt’s finding is a terrific example of problems with self-evaluation and self-reported data – liberals overestimating themselves in this case. I’m not judgmental about not understanding everyone in the world. There are plenty of people I don’t understand either. However, I don’t think people who overestimate their ability to understand people should be in a position that allows them to tamper with, or try to “improve,” the lives of people they don’t understand.

To elaborate on my post on dysfunctional helpers, I can speculate on how my empathetic colleagues, who’re focused on becoming humanity’s helpers, spent so many years studying psychology but did not emerge with an understanding of the variety of people. Comparatively speaking, it’s easy for highly empathetic people to take their viscerally-based understanding of people for granted. In contrast, not having the luxury of assuming that I completely understand people drives me to engage in meticulous observation and study.

On the topic of group differences in empathy, let’s not forget there are within-group differences as well (as my point about being the odd woman out illustrates). It may be true that those on the left, on average, are more empathetic and compassionate than those on the right. But there is certainly variation within a political faction. In fact, it is quite possible for empathetic, compassionate people to support free markets and small government, as Dan Mitchell argues. It’s also possible for unempathetic people (who think they’re empathetic) to support a welfare state. All empathetic people don’t agree with each other. Neither do unempathetic people. There are many other factors that influence people’s opinions as well (e.g., intelligence, imagination, the capacity to see the big picture).

That said, whether you empathize with people or not, there are various courses of action to choose from. One flaw with Sáez et al.‘s study is that they designed “a simple economic game in which they divided money between themselves and an anonymous recipient.” This limits the solution to inequality (to “give money or not”) rather than simulating the range of solutions available in the real world (such as ones that maximize opportunity for people to climb out of poverty in a way that preserves their dignity and sense of agency). It’s also unfortunate that these researchers are driving at support for one solution (i.e., give more money) as the definitive measure of sensitivity to inequality and, by proxy, empathy.

Much more often than not, scientists and opinion leaders don’t provide a public accounting of the trade-offs associated with altering people’s empathy levels. Instead of being skeptical and asking questions, most people accept this version of science, along with the mission to “improve” humanity. It’s a sad state of affairs that empathy and compassion have been politicized, as this further reduces people’s propensity to think objectively about this subject. With a greater appreciation of the complexity of empathy, dangerous utopianism based on engineering people to be more empathetic would be rejected.

I conclude by quoting C. Daniel Batson who acknowledges the prevailing bias when it comes to evaluating altruism as a virtue. This is from his paper, “Empathy-Induced Altruistic Motivation,” written for the Inaugural Herzliya Symposium on Prosocial Motives, Emotions, and Behavior:

[W]hereas there are clear social sanctions against unbridled self-interest, there are not clear sanctions against altruism. As a result, altruism can at times pose a greater threat to the common good than does egoism.

Getting Real About Empathy – Part 3 of 5: Moral Implications and Consequences

A guest post by L. P. Here are links to part 1part 2, part 4, and part 5.

It is often assumed that if people were more empathetic and compassionate, we’d see fewer conflicts and wars. Continuing from my previous post, I make the case that it’s inaccurate to view high empathy and the lack thereof in black-and-white terms. As it happens, empathy and compassion can lead to conflict because of whom one empathizes with and feels compassion for. The stronger the empathy and compassion, the more one tends to act in the interest of those one empathizes with. Consider Claus Lamm’s and Jasminka Majdandžić’s findings in “The role of shared neural activations, mirror neurons, and morality in empathy – A critical comment“:

In the public but at times also in the academic discourse, it appears to be taken for granted that empathy can act as a remedy or a stronghold against anti-social phenomena which seem to affect our society to an increasing extent – such as the selfish greed in the financial industry supposedly contributing to the global financial crisis, or the many armed conflicts we are witnessing these days, ranging from Syria over the Ukraine to Gaza. For instance, US-president Barack Obama has repeatedly spoken of an empathy deficit in our modern society, and stated that an “empathy crisis” may be at the root of the economic and political crises we are experiencing (2006, June 19). Such views have certainly been influenced by the folk intuition that empathy motivates prosocial behavior, such as helping others in need. Indeed, this intuition has received widespread support from social psychology (see Batson, 1991), as well as more recently from the field of social neuroscience. For instance, Hein et al. (2010) demonstrated that individual differences in altruistic behavior (taking over painful shocks from another person) were predicted by activation of empathy-related neural responses in left anterior insula (see also Hein et al., 2011, Masten et al., 2011 and Mathur et al., 2010). At first glance, such a link between empathy and altruism might imply that increasing empathy in our society will reduce egoism and selfishness and the social conflicts associated with them (Rifkin, 2010).

However, such propositions overlook the fact that empathy is sensitive to deeply-rooted parochialism and ingroup bias (see Chiao and Mathur, 2010). This implies that it will motivate altruistic action in a way that prefers to help or cooperate with persons and groups that we perceive as closer or more similar to us…

Finally, we need to consider that people may be able to empathize with others (in the sense of being able to feel what they are feeling, or “feeling as”) and still harm them. The “tools of empathy” or knowledge about them at times may even be deliberately exploited to inflict harm in others, for instance in persons with psychopathic personality traits. Only recently, a series of social neuroscience studies has added to our knowledge of the psychopathic mind and how he or she is able to engage in such a-moral or a-social behavior. Interestingly, these studies suggest that psychopaths seem to show a lower propensity for empathy (in the sense of affect sharing), yet are able to feel what others are feeling when explicitly instructed to do so – though the exact way in which this instructing should be devised is still somewhat controversial, with different studies yielding somewhat different results ( Decety et al., 2013a, Decety et al., 2013b and Keysers and Gazzola, 2014b for review; Lockwood et al., 2013a, Lockwood et al., 2014, Meffert et al., 2013 and Pfabigan et al., 2014). Anecdotal evidence also suggests that the capacity to fully (and possibly empathically) sense the effects of one’s actions, but to deliberately modify one’s behavioral response to it can be exploited to do harm rather than to increase the welfare of others…

Unfortunately, we do not have to go all the way to psychopathy to illustrate how empathy can be exploited for one’s own and not for the greater good. For instance, we probably all know competitive situations, such as in sports, in which team tactics exploit our knowledge of how our opponents will feel and act in response to certain actions (such as the “psychological warfare” that might be applied during penalties shots in football), or conflicts with friends or loved ones in which our enhanced ability to empathize with them may provide us with all the more effective tools to hurt their feelings.

To describe the results of a recent study conducted by Anneke E. K. Buffone and Michael J. Poulin (see “Empathy, Target Distress, and Neurohormone Genes Interact to Predict Aggression for Others–Even Without Provocation“), Tom Jacobs writes in “This is the Dark Side of Empathy“:

[P]articipants were, to a surprising degree, willing to inflict pain on a second person to help a distressed individual they felt empathy for. This occurred in spite of the fact that (a) both were total strangers, and (b) the second person had done absolutely nothing wrong.

The results should put a damper on what the researchers call “recent enthusiasm for interventions that involve administering caregiving-related neurohormones or empathy training.”

It seems that Sáez et al., who’re excited about prolonging the effects of dopamine in people’s brains, haven’t considered the conclusions of this study. In another report of this study, “Can love make us mean? Researchers explore the relationship between empathy and aggression,” Poulin elaborates on the neurochemical process through which empathy and compassion for another triggers aggression:

“Both oxytocin and vasopressin seem to serve a function leading to increased ‘approach behaviors,'” says Poulin, associate professor of psychology. “People are motivated by social approach or getting closer to others.”

But Poulin adds that people approach one another for many reasons, including aggression, so it stands to reason that if compassion is linked to the action of these hormones and these hormones are linked to social approach behaviors that they might help account for the link between compassion and aggression.

The researchers conducted a two-part study consisting of a survey and an experiment. “The results of both the survey and the experiment indicate that the feelings we have when other people are in need, what we broadly call empathic concern or compassion, can predict aggression on behalf of those in need,” says Poulin. “In situations where we care about someone very much, as humans, we were motivated to benefit them, but if there is someone else in the way, we may do things to harm that third party.”

And that reaction is not because the third party has done anything wrong.

Such findings should appeal to common sense. However, for those born on the “wrong” side of the empathy spectrum (yes, there’s a genetic contribution according to Baron-Cohen and other researchers), today’s pro-empathy bandwagon resembles the start of a witch-hunt. People, by and large, don’t evaluate the value of empathy or lack thereof in an objective manner. This bias transcends political ideology but appears especially pronounced among those on the left whose self-definition places central importance on empathy and compassion and influences the tenor of academic research, as in this article.

Even worse, for a group that gives lip service to tolerance, inclusion, and acceptance of diversity, this widespread clamoring for people to be more empathetic goes against those aforementioned espoused values because less empathetic individuals are also part of life’s natural diversity. The question “Should serious people be more fun-loving to make society a happier place?” has an obvious counterpart: “Or should fun-loving people be more serious so that more work gets accomplished?”  The same kinds of questions should be asked with regard to empathy.

In Part 4, I’ll wrap up this discussion with other critical questions and final remarks.

Recap: Empathy, far from alleviating conflict, can cause or exacerbate it. Further, the drive to elevate empathy above other traits is intolerant, short-sighted, and unscientific.

 

Getting Real About Empathy – Part 2 of 5: Critical Roles and Contributions of the Less Empathetic

A guest post by L. P. Here are links to part 1part 3, part 4, and part 5.

Various affective and cognitive empathy levels can be adaptive or maladapative depending on the context. Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen demonstrates this in his model of empathy which assigns a value to each type of empathy on a scale of 0 (least) to 6 (most) with a “positive” or “negative” tag. However, these values signify positions on a continuous spectrum (serving to facilitate communication regarding individuals’ position on the spectrum), so individuals can fall between these discrete values. Based on Carole Jahme’s review of Baron-Cohen’s Zero Degrees of Empathy*:

Narcissists, borderline and psychopathic personalities are introduced as people lacking “affective empathy” – the ability to feel others’ feelings. Baron-Cohen’s new paradigm classifies these personality types as “zero-negative”: a zero amount of affective empathy being a negative condition, because the ability to self-regulate the way they treat others is significantly compromised.

By contrast, Baron-Cohen defines people with Asperger’s syndrome or classic autism, which is his own field, as “zero-positive”. Like the zero-negatives these people lack affective empathy, but in addition they score zero on “cognitive empathy” – thinking others’ thoughts.

Because some zero-positive individuals have, through their unusual ability to systemise, pushed human culture forwards with their discoveries (Einstein was late to talk – a sign of classic autism – yet he was an extreme systemiser who discovered E = mc2), Baron-Cohen categorises them “zero empathy positive”.

Although the examples above pertain to individuals who have a disorder or disability, the balance between affective and cognitive empathy varies among people without dysfunctions as well. See “The balance between feeling and knowing: affective and cognitive empathy are reflected in the brain’s intrinsic functional dynamics,” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Vol. 7, No. 6 (2012).

Returning to theexample of doctors, with which I ended part 1, zero affective empathy can be a positive condition as doctors and surgeons are able to perform their jobs best without affective empathy’s self-regulation. Hence, those who do well in these occupations tend either to have low affective empathy or to engage in regulatory tactics that shut off affective empathy as needed (e.g., talking themselves out of experiencing the emotional contagion). As there have been calls to rectify various medical professionals’ poor bedside manner, it’s important to note that even those who’re supportive of increasing doctors’ and surgeons’ capacity for empathy have called for restraint in this endeavor. In “Is the Quest to Build a Kinder, Gentler Surgeon Misguided?,” Wen Shen writes:

WE WANT IT ALL: brilliant technical surgeons with outstanding interpersonal skills. In trying to shape our trainees to be all things to everyone, however, we run the risk of creating a workforce caught somewhere in the middle, not doing anything well.

In “Why Doctors Should Be More Empathetic–But Not Too Much More,” Omar Sultan Haque and Adam Waytz add:

The job of any physician is therefore part empathic and part problem solving. This constitutes an inherent trade-off in medicine because the human brain does not have infinite computational resources or time to perform both tasks equally well. One must be caring while also figuring out a proper diagnosis, prognosis and treatment, often under conditions of uncertainty.

Just as only using one’s cognitive problem-solving skills would not necessarily lead to the best outcomes for patients, only employing one’s empathic and emotional skills doesn’t lead to the best outcomes, either. Empathy is not an inherent good in medical care, but a relative one. As with deliberative reflection and abstraction, empathy is also useful only in certain degrees and in certain contexts, but can be unproductive or destructive in others.

It is the interaction of context and empathy, rather than the inherent empathy surpluses or deficits by themselves, that determines whether the composition of context and empathy is positive or negative. This means that even a surplus of both affective and cognitive empathy, which Baron-Cohen would assign the value of 6, has the potential for negative outcomes. For example, one popular but wrong assumption is that psychopaths are unempathetic. This is inaccurate because, in order to be able to manipulate, one needs to understand other people very well. In fact, the consensus in psychopathology research is that psychopaths have strong cognitive empathy. Further, it’s not uncommon for them to have affective empathy as well. However, they are able to turn it on and off at will (see footnote). Carole Jahme mentions another negative manifestation:

A second book about altruism is due to be published later this year: Pathological Altruism, edited by Barbara Oakley et al. It’s a collection of essays focusing on the downside of empathy-fuelled altruism, and Baron-Cohen has contributed a chapter on the extreme female brain. This personality type is a candidate for maladaptive altruism because the more empathic one is the more the needs of others are prioritised over the needs of self.

What’s being described is a “6-negative” or “six empathy negative” which manifests itself in the type of dysfunctional helping described in this post. The fact that empathy can have negative as well as positive consequence should spur a number of interesting questions. For example: Which individual do you view more favorably, a zero-positive or a six-negative? How about a zero-negative and a six-negative? A zero-positive and a six-positive?

Returning to the aims of Sáez et al., it appears likely that increasing people’s sensitivity to social inequality and eliciting support for dividing resources equally has undesirable side effects. Disturbingly, however, I have yet to see such pro-empathy articles explore and discuss the potential downsides of inducing more empathy and compassionate action.  Again, these include increasing dysfunctional helping behavior in some individuals as well as negatively impacting the work of gifted zero-positive individuals, medical professionals, and others. Unfortunately, when balanced discussion is missing, I’ve found that people generally jump onto the pro-empathy bandwagon without thinking about the potential costs.

What else can go wrong if people’s empathy is amplified? In Part 3, I illustrate how empathy and compassion don’t necessarily translate into sound morals and, further, how empathy can spur unjustified aggressive acts.

Recap: Empathy isn’t all-or-nothing; there are degrees of it, both positive and negative. Further, it has both positive and negative effects. And it is just one personality trait among many personality traits that help to determine a person’s contributions to society.

***

*While Simon Baron-Cohen is a recognized expert on autism, other prevalent cognitive and affective empathy patterns have been found for those with Borderline Personality Disorder, Autism, Asperger’s, and psychopathy. Specifically, others assert that individuals with Borderline Personality Disorder have affective empathy but not cognitive empathy. Rather than being low on both, those with Autism or Asperger’s have also been found to have affective empathy.

Meanwhile, psychopaths can either have cognitive empathy but not affective empathy or have both but are able to consciously regulate their own affective empathy. According to the LiveScience article, “Coldhearted Psychopaths Feel Empathy Too,” which summarizes a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study by neuroscientist Christian Keysers:

[W]hen the psychopaths were instructed to try to empathize while watching the videos, their brains showed the same level of activity in these brain areas as normal individuals.

“They seem to have a switch they can turn on and off that turns their empathy on and off depending on the situation,” Keysers told LiveScience.

The findings suggest psychopaths are, in fact, capable of empathy, if they consciously control it. This ability may explain why a psychopath can be charming in one instant, and brutal the next, the researchers say.

For more information on the information presented in this footnote, see the following articles:

Dissecting empathy: high levels of psychopathic and autistic traits are characterized by difficulties in different social information processing domains,” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience Vol. 7, Article 1 (2013).

Response to Smith’s Letter to the Editor ‘Emotional Empathy in Autism Spectrum Conditions: Weak, Intact, or Heightened?‘” J Autism Dev Disord Vol. 39, No. 12 (2009)

The balance between feeling and knowing: affective and cognitive empathy are reflected in the brain’s intrinsic functional dynamics,” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Vol. 7, No. 6 (2012)

Two systems for empathy: a double dissociation between emotional and cognitive empathy in inferior frontal gyrus versus ventromedial prefrontal lesions,” Brain Vol. 132, No. 3 (2009)

Who cares? Revisiting empathy in Asperger syndrome,” J Autism Dev Disord Vol. 37, No. 4 (2007)

Getting Real About Empathy – Part 1 of 5: Introduction to Concepts

A guest post by L. P. Here are links to part 2part 3, part 4, and part 5.

According to recent news, researchers at UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco found that prolonging dopamine’s effect in the brain makes people more sensitive to inequality and more willing to divide resources equally. Judging from their comments, it’s clear that they view empathy-induced egalitarianism as a virtue. The original study by Ignacio Sáez, Lusha Zhu, Eric Set, Andrew Kayser, and Ming Hsu, “Dopamine Modulates Egalitarian Behavior in Humans,” in Current Biology Vol. 25, Issue 7 (2015) can be found here.

In this post, I offer a nuanced view of empathy and compassion as well as a critique of the aforementioned researchers’ assumptions and mission. As an introduction to the concept of empathy, here is how Frans De Waal described empathy in Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other AnimalsEmpathy is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon, and many forms of empathy exist between the extremes of mere agitation at the distress of another and full understanding of their predicament. De Waal’s conception of empathy and related discussion appears in “The empathetic brain and its dysfunction in psychiatric populations: implications for intervention across different conditions,” BioPsychoSocial Medicine Vol. 1, No. 22 (2007).

First, let’s define empathy before breaking it into its component parts. Simply put, empathy is the ability to understand another’s state of mind (e.g., thoughts and emotions). It’s important to note, however, that empathy requires the one attempting to empathize with another not to confuse the self and the other. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t put yourself in another person’s shoes in order to empathize. Instead, you must understand the other person well enough to know how the other person experiences wearing his or her shoes. It’s been found, however, that even while people think they understand others, they are generally egocentric and unable to suppress their self-perspective. This “self-bias,” described at length in “Social Neuroscience of Empathy” by Jean Decety and Sara Hodges, is an important point I will revisit in my critique of assumptions Sáez et al. are making.

A regulatory and monitoring mechanism that modulates inner states enables people to distinguish between themselves and their own feelings from others. This ability, referred to as “cognitive appraisal,” involves keeping track of the origins (self or other) of experienced feelings. This mechanism is described more in depth in “The empathetic brain and its dysfunction in psychiatric populations: implications for intervention across different clinical conditions,” BioPsychoSocial Medicine Vol. 1, No. 22 (2007) and “On the Nature, Modeling, and Neural Bases of Social Ties” by Frans van Winden, Mirre Stallen, and Richard Ridderinkhof.

Understanding (via affective or cognitive empathy) only leads individuals to take prosocial action if they also have access to a component that neuroscientists and psychologists call “compassionate empathy” (also referred to as “empathetic concern” or “prosocial motivation”). The neural pathways and brain regions involved are described at length in “The neural components of empathy: Predicting daily prosocial behavior” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Advance Access (2012) and “The Neural Bases for Empathy,” The Neuroscientist Vol. 17, No. 1 (2011).

In recent years, cognitive and affective empathy have enjoyed much attention as different degrees of each have been found to correlate with various personalities. Cognitive empathy (also referred to as “cognitive perspective-taking”), is the ability to recognize and identify (unemotionally) another’s emotions or state of mind by perceiving and evaluating observable hints about another’s state of mind (e.g., facial expression, tone of voice, body language). Affective empathy (also known as “emotional empathy” and “affective resonance”) involves knowing another’s state of mind through experiencing emotional contagion (i.e., feeling what the other feels), and this type of empathy has the capacity to regulate individuals’ actions.

People who have cognitive empathy but not affective empathy can still successfully fake emotional resonance in order to mirror others. However, one of the practical benefits of having access to affective empathy along with cognitive empathy is that the additional visceral experience of others’ emotions enables people to mirror others more accurately than when cognitive empathy functions alone. Finally, people’s ability to consciously regulate (i.e., turn off and on) their affective empathy varies.

To illustrate these concepts, let’s consider a typical situation some doctors deal with. Ideally, a doctor can recognize that the patient is anxious (via cognitive empathy) but would not feel the patient’s anxiety (via affective empathy) when it’s time to deliver an injection. The emotional contagion would become an impediment to giving the shot. In other words, empathy can be and often is counterproductive. That said, although it’s common for one type of empathy to spark another so that they work in tandem, affective and cognitive empathy can function independently as well. Finally, people can be high, moderate, or low on any or all types of empathy.

In part 2, “Critical Roles and Contributions of the Less Empathetic” and part 3, “Moral Implications and Consequences,” I will expand on the range of problems and benefits that result from having individuals of various degrees of empathy as members of society.

Recap: Empathy, which has cognitive and affective components, is too often thought of as purely good. But empathy can be dysfunctional in some contexts. And empathy can be exploited for evil purposes.

 

Povertocracy: How Helpers Sustain the Poverty Industry

This is a guest post by L. P., whose psychological insights are a welcome addition to this blog.

As this is my first post, I’ll preface this discussion by describing how I came to recognize the dark side of helping behavior. Being the bookish person that I am, I didn’t think to look up and take notice of the ideological difference between me and the majority of my peers during the course of study. Upon graduating with an advanced degree it was, at that point, too late for me to go back and choose another field in which I would not be a “black sheep.”

Looking back, I realize that the ideological difference, and the different societal roles that we envisioned for ourselves, arose from our different motives for choosing to study psychology, and from our temperaments as they relate to motives. The left-leaning psychologists I’ve come to know chose psychology because they wanted to help individuals or improve humanity as a whole. I chose psychology because I only wanted to understand people but didn’t have the foggiest idea what I wanted to ultimately do this knowledge, if anything at all.

Temperament was likely at the root of why my peers regard helping behavior with starry-eyed Pollyanna simplicity as well. In contrast, I’d envision how good can come out of doing nothing and how negative consequences result from intervention, thus justifying my unwillingness to get off my duff to lend a hand. Who would’ve thought that laziness can open up your mind in ways do-goodery does not?

I can’t quantify the negative impact that institutionalized assistance has had on people it purports to help. But the prevailing focus on the positive effects of do-goodery ensures that its negative effects are overlooked.

Before addressing the psychological process through which inappropriate help disempowers people, let’s consider what Graham Hancock says about the negative impact of government-sponsored interna­tional development aid as well as the immunity from criticism that helping behavior enjoys:

It would seem, then, that official development assistance is neither necessa­ry nor suffi­cient for ‘development’: the poor thrive without it in some coun­tries; in others, where it is plentifully available, they suffer the most abject mise­ries. Such suffering, furthermore, as I have argued throughout this book, often occurs not in spite of aid but because of it. To continue with the charade seems to me to be absurd. Garnered and justi­fied in the name of the destitute and the vulnerable, aid’s main function in the past half century has been to create and then entrench a powerful new class of rich and privileged people. In that notorious club of parasites and hangers-on made up of the United Nations, the World Bank and the bilateral agencies, it is aid – and nothing else – that has provided hundreds of thou­sands of ‘jobs for the boys’ and that has permitted record-breaking standards to be set in self-serving behaviour, arrogance, paternalism, moral cowardice and mendacity. [Lords of Poverty: The Freewheeling Lifestyles, Power, Pres­ti­ge and Corruption of the Multibillion Dollar Aid Business (Lon­don: Mandarin, 1991), pp. 192-193]

The “official aid industry” is realized outside the control of the taxpayer. External control, but internal control as well, is virtually non-existent, according to Hancock, because it is concerned with disaster relief, food relief, medical help, in short: with helping. It is not appropriate in the presence of all that misery to question or criticize the helpers who, in professional and paid positions, go to foreign countries in order to assuage the needs of others. The chari­table impulse at the root of much aid-giving is at its most potent during disasters and emergencies. It is, however, a dou­ble-edged sword. On the one hand it raises lots of money. On the other it stifles questi­ons about the uses to which this mo­ney is put – and makes those who ask such questions look rather chur­lish. Critici­zing humanita­rianism and generosity is like criticizing the institution of mother­hood; it is just not ‘the done thing.’” [Ibid., p. 5]

Further, Godfried Engbersen observes that

poverty generates work, not only for researchers, but also for the professionals participating in those poverty-programs. In the Netherlands, we see a significant growth in the number of employment and education projects, but the effects of this new poverty industry in improving the lot of welfare recipients and long-term unemployed are this far very limited. [“Moderne armoede: feit en fictie,” So­ci­ologi­sche Gids 38:1 (1991), pp. 7-23]

To understand how help can perpetuate conditions it purports to alleviate, the question, “Why do individuals, groups or organizations apply themselves to helping other people, groups or countries?” must be considered in greater depth. Theo N.M. Schuyt mentions a few darker motives: helpers’ own fear and helplessness (e.g, fear of those they are helping), self-interest, and the need for social control. Schuyt discusses these motives at length in “The Magnetism of Power in Helping Relationships. Professional Attitude and Asymmetry,” Social Work and Society International Online Journal Vol. 2, No. 1 (2004).

To fully appreciate how help can hinder people, we must examine the subtle but influential negative assumptions that underlie the act of helping others and the messages received by those who are helped. Research articles by Francesca D’Errico, Giovanna Leone, and Isabella Poggi about teachers who overhelp their students  are informative in this regard. Although they must be purchased to view in their entirety, the previews support my view as to how helping reinforces negative self-evaluations of those in need; go here and  here (click “Look Inside”).

Whether one is giving or receiving help, a judgment about what one party has and the other lacks (e.g., resources, ability, etc.) precedes the interaction. Once this judgment is accepted, both parties’ understanding of the power asymmetry in the helping relationship is established:

We do not only evaluate others, but also ourselves, thus making up our self-image, a set of evaluative (and non-evaluative) beliefs about ourselves… But from self image the degree of autonomy of a person depends: if one has a positive evaluation of his own capacities and efficacy, he will pursue his goals in an autonomous and self-confident way. At school, for example, negative evaluations may have a serious impact on a pupil’s self-image, sense of efficacy, and learning: they tend to dis-able him, to make him less active, and possibly induce him to refrain from action. [Isabella Poggi and Francesca D’Errico, “Social Signals and the action – cognition loop. The case of over-help and evaluation,” Proceedings of IEEE International Conference on Affective Computing and Intelligent Interaction (New York: IEEE, 2009)]

One must wonder how dysfunctional motives, such as the ones listed above, warp helpers’ perception of themselves and the intended recipients of their help. Within the microcosm of the classroom, it is clear that negative self-evaluations on the part of students result when the teacher overhelps. According to Poggi and D’Errico,

Overhelping teachers induce more negative evaluations, more often concerning general capacities, and frequently expressed indirectly. This seems to show that the overhelp offered blocks a child’s striving for autonomy since it generates a negative evaluation, in particular the belief of an inability of the receiver. [Ibid.]

In conclusion, the manner in which overhelp negatively impacts social relationships and cognition has long been regarded as the reason why the poor stay poor. (See Schuyt, op. cit.)  In the effort to convince everyday do-gooders who support this type of aid because of their own dysfunctional emotional states, however, it will be necessary to frame the information in a more palatable way. In this regard, D’Errico et al. offer a few key questions and guidelines for distinguishing between help that promotes empowerment and autonomy from help that encourages dependency.

1. Is the problem to be solved possible manageable by the helped one?
2. May a humiliating intention (vs. a caring one) be inferred from the helping behavior?
3. Do the consequences of the helping behavior increase (vs. decrease) the power asymmetry needed for the help to occur?

Over-help occurs when the answer to at least one of these questions is positive. If answer to n.2 is negative, then over-help is in good face[sic], and we may speak of benevolent over-help; if positive, we may label it as malevolent over-help. [Francesca D’Errico, Giovanna Leone, and Isabella Poggi, “Types of Help in the Teacher’s Multimodal Behavior,” Human Behavior Understanding, Lecture Notes in Computer Science, Volume 6219 (2010), pp 125-139]

I see this as a starting point. What else can we do to dismantle the status of altruism and helping behavior as sacred cows? How else can we reframe the discussion in such a way that would encourage others to regard these issues with more objectivity? Any thoughts?

Related reading: Leone, G.. eds. (2009) Le ambivalenze dell’aiuto. Teorie e pratiche del dare e del ricevere. Unicopli, Milano

Not-So-Random Thoughts (XII)

Links to the other posts in this occasional series may be found at “Favorite Posts,” just below the list of topics.

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Intolerance as Illiberalism” by Kim R. Holmes (The Public Discourse, June 18, 2014) is yet another reminder, of innumerable reminders, that modern “liberalism” is a most intolerant creed. See my ironically titled “Tolerance on the Left” and its many links.

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Speaking of intolerance, it’s hard to top a strident atheist like Richard Dawkins. See John Gray’s “The Closed Mind of Richard Dawkins” (The New Republic, October 2, 2014). Among the several posts in which I challenge the facile atheism of Dawkins and his ilk are “Further Thoughts about Metaphysical Cosmology” and “Scientism, Evolution, and the Meaning of Life.”

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Some atheists — Dawkins among them — find a justification for their non-belief in evolution. On that topic, Gertrude Himmelfarb writes:

The fallacy in the ethics of evolution is the equation of the “struggle for existence” with the “survival of the fittest,” and the assumption that “the fittest” is identical with “the best.” But that struggle may favor the worst rather than the best. [“Evolution and Ethics, Revisited,” The New Atlantis, Spring 2014]

As I say in “Some Thoughts about Evolution,”

Survival and reproduction depend on many traits. A particular trait, considered in isolation, may seem to be helpful to the survival and reproduction of a group. But that trait may not be among the particular collection of traits that is most conducive to the group’s survival and reproduction. If that is the case, the trait will become less prevalent. Alternatively, if the trait is an essential member of the collection that is conducive to survival and reproduction, it will survive. But its survival depends on the other traits. The fact that X is a “good trait” does not, in itself, ensure the proliferation of X. And X will become less prevalent if other traits become more important to survival and reproduction.

The same goes for “bad” traits. Evolution is no guarantor of ethical goodness.

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It shouldn’t be necessary to remind anyone that men and women are different. But it is. Lewis Wolpert gives it another try in “Yes, It’s Official, Men Are from Mars and Women from Venus, and Here’s the Science to Prove It” (The Telegraph, September 14, 2014). One of my posts on the subject is “The Harmful Myth of Inherent Equality.” I’m talking about general tendencies, of course, not iron-clad rules about “men’s roles” and “women’s roles.” Aside from procreation, I can’t readily name “roles” that fall exclusively to men or women out of biological necessity. There’s no biological reason, for example, that an especially strong and agile woman can’t be a combat soldier. But it is folly to lower the bar just so that more women can qualify as combat soldiers. The same goes for intellectual occupations. Women shouldn’t be discouraged from pursuing graduate degrees and professional careers in math, engineering, and the hard sciences, but the qualifications for entry and advancement in those fields shouldn’t be watered down just for the sake of increasing the representation of women.

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Edward Feser, writing in “Nudge Nudge, Wink Wink” at his eponymous blog (October 24, 2014), notes

[Michael] Levin’s claim … that liberal policies cannot, given our cultural circumstances, be neutral concerning homosexuality.  They will inevitably “send a message” of approval rather than mere neutrality or indifference.

Feser then quotes Levin:

[L]egislation “legalizing homosexuality” cannot be neutral because passing it would have an inexpungeable speech-act dimension.  Society cannot grant unaccustomed rights and privileges to homosexuals while remaining neutral about the value of homosexuality.

Levin, who wrote that 30 years ago, gets a 10 out 10 for prescience. Just read “Abortion, ‘Gay Rights’, and Liberty” for a taste of the illiberalism that accompanies “liberal” causes like same-sex “marriage.”

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“Liberalism” has evolved into hard-leftism. It’s main adherents are now an elite upper crust and their clients among the hoi polloi. Steve Sailer writes incisively about the socioeconomic divide in “A New Caste Society” (Taki’s Magazine, October 8, 2014). “‘Wading’ into Race, Culture, and IQ” offers a collection of links to related posts and articles.

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One of the upper crust’s recent initiatives is so-called libertarian paternalism. Steven Teles skewers it thoroughly in “Nudge or Shove?” (The American Interest, December 10, 2014), a review of Cass Sunstein’s Why Nudge? The Politics of Libertarian Paternalism. I have written numerous times about Sunstein and (faux) libertarian paternalism. The most recent entry, “The Sunstein Effect Is Alive and  Well in the White House,” ends with links to two dozen related posts. (See also Don Boudreaux, “Where Nudging Leads,” Cafe Hayek, January 24, 2015.)

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Maria Konnikova gives some space to Jonathan Haidt in “Is Social Psychology Biased against Republicans?” (The New Yorker, October 30, 2014). It’s no secret that most academic disciplines other than math and the hard sciences are biased against Republicans, conservatives, libertarians, free markets, and liberty. I have something to say about it in “The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament,” and in several of the posts listed here.

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Keith E. Stanovich makes some good points about the limitations of intelligence in “Rational and Irrational Thought: The Thinking that IQ Tests Miss” (Scientific American, January 1, 2015). Stanovich writes:

The idea that IQ tests do not measure all the key human faculties is not new; critics of intelligence tests have been making that point for years. Robert J. Sternberg of Cornell University and Howard Gardner of Harvard talk about practical intelligence, creative intelligence, interpersonal intelligence, bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, and the like. Yet appending the word “intelligence” to all these other mental, physical and social entities promotes the very assumption the critics want to attack. If you inflate the concept of intelligence, you will inflate its close associates as well. And after 100 years of testing, it is a simple historical fact that the closest associate of the term “intelligence” is “the IQ test part of intelligence.”

I make a similar point in “Intelligence as a Dirty Word,” though I don’t denigrate IQ, which is a rather reliable predictor of performance in a broad range of endeavors.

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Brian Caplan, whose pseudo-libertarianism rankles, tries to defend the concept of altruism in “The Evidence of Altruism” (EconLog, December 30, 2014). Caplan aids his case by using the loaded “selfishness” where he means “self-interest.” He also ignores empathy, which is a key ingredient of the Golden Rule. As for my view of altruism (as a concept), see “Egoism and Altruism.”

Egoism and Altruism

From Wikipedia:

Psychological egoism is the view that humans are always motivated by self-interest, even in what seem to be acts of altruism. It claims that, when people choose to help others, they do so ultimately because of the personal benefits that they themselves expect to obtain, directly or indirectly, from doing so. This is a descriptive rather than normative view, since it only makes claims about how things are, not how they ought to be. It is, however, related to several other normative forms of egoism, such as ethical egoism and rational egoism.

I addressed psychological egoism and altruism several years ago in “Redefining Altruism” and “Enough of Altruism.” In the extended version of the second post, I wrote:

There is no “egoism” or “altruism,” there’s simply behavior that reflects an individual’s values, and which seeks to serve those values….

What we call “altruism” and “egoism” are simply manifestations of an integrated, internal decision process that thinks not in terms of “altruism” or “egoism” but in terms of serving one’s values.

My purpose was to deny the existence of egoism and altruism as “forces” that exist independently of human thought. I was especially set on showing that the motivation for an act which is considered altruistic can only be understood in terms of its effect on the the actor. That is, the actor necessarily advances his own values, even if he seems to make a sacrifice of some kind.

I admit that my position can be taken as a defense of psychological egoism. So, although “psychological egoism” stands for a simplistic explanation of complex behavior, it’s a better explanation than altruism.

Here is Jason Brennan, writing at Bleeding Heart Libertarians:

Peter Singer made famous a thought experiment like this:

You are walking down the street when you see a small toddler drowning in a shallow pool. You can save the toddler easily, but only if you jump in right now. Doing so will destroy your hard-earned smart phone, costing you $500.

Most people judge that we must save the child here; it would be wrong not to do so.

Now, what does ethical egoism say about this case? …

Ethical egoism isn’t quite the same thing as psychological egoism. Returning to Wikipedia:

Ethical egoism is the normative ethical position that moral agents ought to do what is in their own [sic] self-interest. It differs from psychological egoism, which claims that people can only act in their self-interest.

Nevertheless, what follows from Brennan can be read as an attack on the idea of psychological egoism and a defense of the idea of altruism:

Many people … are deeply confused about what counts as egoistic action….

Consider the following argument: Saving the kid is egoistic, because I care about kids….  Therefore, if I voluntarily save the kid, I save him out of self-interest.

But,

If I care about the drowning toddler and thus save him, I am acting to promote his welfare, not my own. It’s true that I am interested in his interests, or that his interests are an interest of mine, but that’s just a funky way of saying that I am altruistic. To be altruistic is to hold other people’s welfare as an end in itself….

If my sons died, I’d be sad. But the reason I feel joy when things go well for them and sad when things go badly is that I love them for their own sake–I view them as ends in themselves apart from my own welfare. Consider: Suppose my younger son is hurt. A genie appears and gives me two options. 1. He fixes my son’s injury. 2. He casts a spell instantly killing my son, erasing him from everyone’s memory, erasing all traces of him, and thus allowing us to go on as if he never existed at all. If I were just trying to avoid the bad feelings, I’d be indifferent between these two options. But I’m not–I’d pick option 1 over option 2, hands down. This means that I’m concerned not merely to avoid bad feelings, but to help for his sake. Again, it means I’m genuinely altruistic.

This reminds me of Rawls’s “veil of ignorance,” wherein the reader is invited to imagine an impossible counterfactual. In Brennan’s case, the impossible counterfactual is the non-existence of his son. The fact of his son’s existence colors Brennan’s evaluation of the the options posed by the genie. Brennan has feelings about his son, feelings that he (laudably) values over the alternative of having no such feelings.

What about Brennan’s assertion that he is genuinely altruistic because he doesn’t merely want to avoid bad feelings, but wants to help his son for his son’s sake. That’s called empathy. But empathy is egoistic. Even strong empathy — the ability to “feel” another person’s pain or anguish — is “felt” by the empathizer. It is the empathizer’s response to the other person’s pain or anguish.

Brennan inadvertently makes that point when he invokes sociopathy:

Sociopaths don’t care about other people for their own sake–they view them merely as instruments. Sociopaths don’t feel guilt for failing to help others.

The difference between a sociopath and a “normal” person is found in caring (feeling). But caring (feeling) is something that the I does — or fail to do, if the I is a sociopath. I = ego:

the “I” or self of any person; a thinking, feeling, and conscious being, able to distinguish itself from other selves.

I am not deprecating the kind of laudable act that is called altruistic. I am simply trying to point out what should be an obvious fact: Human beings necessarily act in their own interests, though their own interests often coincide  with the interests of others for emotional reasons (e.g., love, empathy), as well as practical ones (e.g., loss of income or status because of the death of a patron).

It should go without saying that the world would be a better place if it had fewer sociopaths in it. Voluntary, mutually beneficial relationships are more than merely transactional; they thrive on the mutual trust and respect that arise from social bonds, including the bonds of love and affection.

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Related posts:
Sophomoric Libertarianism
On Liberty
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
Tocqueville’s Prescience
Society and the State
Our Enemy, the State
The Golden Rule and the State
Government vs. Community
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
The Meaning of Liberty
Evolution and the Golden Rule
Empathy Is Overrated
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
Facets of Liberty
Why I Am Not an Extreme Libertarian
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
The Criminality and Psychopathy of Statism

The Unreality of Objectivism

Charles Murray, in a review of two biographies of Ayn Rand, says that

Objectivism takes as its metaphysical foundation the existence of reality that is unchanged by anything that an observer might think about it—”A is A,” as Aristotle put it, and as Rand often repeated in her own work. Objectivism’s epistemology is based on the capacity of the human mind to perceive reality through reason, and the adamant assertion that reason is the only way to perceive reality.

Objectivism is just a refined form of bunkum, which can be shown by examining its four Randian tenets (in italics, followed by my commentary):

1. Reality exists as an objective absolute — facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.

It is true, and tautologous, to say that reality exists; that is, the real has “verifiable existence.” But there are many conceptions of reality, some of them based on identical observations of the physical world. (Read about physical cosmology and quantum mechanics, for example.) There may be an objective reality, but it is trivial to say so. The reality that we perceive depends on (a) the limitations of our perception (e.g., the degree to which telescopes have been improved), and (b) the prejudices that we bring to what we are able to perceive. (Yes, everyone has prejudices.) And it always will be thus, no matter how many facts we are able to ascertain; the universe is a bottomless mystery.

In my experience, Objectivists flaunt their dedication to reality in order to assert their prejudices as if they were facts. One of those prejudices is that “natural rights” exist independently of human thought or action. But the concept of “natural rights” is an abstraction, not a concrete, verifiable reality. Abstractions are “real” only in a world of Platonic ideals. And, then, they are “real” only to those who posit them. Objectivism is therefore akin to Platonism (Platonic mysticism), in which ideas exist independently of matter; that is, they simply “are.”

It would be fair to say that Objectivism is a kind of unreality.

2. Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses) is man’s only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.

Reason operates on perceptions and prejudices. To the extent that there are “real” facts, we filter and interpret them according to our prejudices. When it comes to that, Objectivists are no less prejudiced than anyone else (see above).

Reason is an admirable and useful thing, but it does not ensure valid “knowledge,” right action, or survival. Some non-cognitive precepts — such as the “Golden Rule,” “praise the Lord and pass the ammunition,” and “talk softly but carry a big stick” — are indispensable guides to action which help to ensure the collective (joint) survival of those who observe them. Survival, in the real world (as opposed to the ideal world of Objectivism) depends very much on prejudice (see Theodore Dalrymple’s In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas).

3. Man — every man — is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.

This dictum is an attack on the straw-man concept of altruism, which has no basis in reality, as I explain here and here. All of us are individualists, at bottom, in that we seek our own happiness. It just happens that some of us correlate our happiness with the happiness of (selected) others. Rand’s third tenet is both a tautology and a (lame) justification for behavior that violates social norms. Objectivists (like anarcho-capitalists) seem unable to understand that the liberty which enables them to spout their nonsense is owed, in great measure, to the existence of social norms, and that those norms arise (in large part) from observance of the “Golden Rule.”

4. The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The government acts only as a policeman that protects man’s rights; it uses physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use, such as criminals or foreign invaders. In a system of full capitalism, there should be (but, historically, has not yet been) a complete separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.

Here, Rand shifts gears from preaching the bed-rock prejudices and tautologies of Objectivism (tenets 1, 2, and 3) to the “ought” of Objectivism. It is hard to distinguish Rand’s fourth tenet from the tenets of libertarianism, which makes me wonder why some Objectivists scorn libertarianism (e.g., go here and scroll down). It is not as if Objectivism is reality-based, as opposed to libertarianism. In fact, consequentialist libertarianism (anathema to anarchists and Objectivists, alike) has the advantage when it comes to defending laissez-faire capitalism. The facts of history and economics are on the side of laissez-faire capitalism because it yields better results than statism (see this and this, for example).

I will not bother, here, to dismantle the jejune rejection of preemptive self-defense: the so-called non-aggression principle, which I have addressed in this post (and in several of the links therein). Nor is the notion of complete separation of state and church worth more than a link this post (and the links therein) and this one.

In sum, Objectivism reminds me very much of a late-night, dorm-room bull session: equal parts of inconsequential posturing and uninformed “philosophizing.” Sophomoric, in a word.

Related post: This Is Objectivism?

The Kennedy Legacy

Luci Baines Johnson:

Senator Kennedy was our family’s cherished friend and the defender of the flame for social justice our parents believed in – decent health care, education, and civil rights for every American. He could have had a life of self service; he chose a life of public service.

Jeff Jacoby:

Born into riches and influence, he could have lived a life of ease, indulging his appetites and paying scant attention to those less fortunate. He chose a different life, and became a towering advocate for the deprived, the disabled, and the dispossessed. I didn’t always like his answers, but I honor him for caring so greatly about the questions.

Don Boudreaux:

While Kennedy didn’t choose a life of ease, he did something much worse: he chose a life of power. That choice satisfied an appetite that is far grosser, baser, and more anti-social than are any of the more private appetites that many rich people often choose to satisfy.

Americans would have been much better off had Ted Kennedy spent his wealth exclusively, say, on the pursuit of sexual experiences and the building of palatial private homes in which to cavort, or to take drugs, or to engage in whatever private dissipations his wealth afforded him.

Instead, Mr. Kennedy spent much of his wealth and time pursuing power over others (and of the garish ‘glory’ that accompanies such power). He did waste his life satisfying unsavory appetites; unfortunately, the appetites he satisfied were satisfied not only at his expense, but at the expense of the rest of us. Mr. Kennedy’s constant feeding of his appetite for power wasted away other people’s prosperity and liberties.

I am squarely with Boudreaux.

As for Kennedy’s “public service” and “caring,” which might be called altruistic, I say this:

There is no essential difference between altruism . . . and the pursuit of self-interest. . . . In fact, the common belief that there is a difference between altruism and the pursuit of self-interest is one cause of (excuse for) purportedly compassionate but actually destructive government intervention in human affairs.*

Americans — poor and rich alike — have paid, and paid dearly, for the assuagement of Edward Kennedy’s ego.

That notwithstanding, Kennedy will be remembered, for the most part, as a “compassionate” politician. But his “compassion” was purchased with our liberty and prosperity.

Related reading: “Red Ted” (at Classical Values), “The Dark Side of Ted Kennedy’s Legacy” (at Carpe Diem), and “Kennedy’s Big Government Paternalism” (at Real Clear Politics).

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* I do not mean to disparage acts that have beneficial consequences, merely the assumptions that (a) behavior labeled “altruistic” is unselfish and (b) motivation is more important than result. For more on the second point, see this post.