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”

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

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).


* 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.