Defining altruism as impossible

by Rob Horning

10 October 2006


Tim Harford’s column in Finanical Times this past weekend adopts the familiar economists’ argument that altruism is a convenient fiction, and that all behavior at some level is self-interested. “It is not that economists are incapable of imagining - or even modelling - altruism. They can, but they usually don’t. And there is a good reason for that: people aren’t selfless.” I don’t disagree necessarily: Yes people who do good get something out of it—the satisfaction of doing actions that others and themselves wil find meritorious. But I’m not sure what the point of such a case is, other than to make the argument that it’s no good to even make the effort to be anything other than selfish and to encourage people to spend less time rationalizing their selfishness or checking it. Is that what’s at stake? Is Harford wanting to espouse the Hayekian idea that altruism undermines price signals and makes it impossible for others to properly value what an economy requires? But generosity on the scale he’s discussing doesn’t really threaten spontaneous order. Is he perhaps at heart one of those Ayn Randians who think charity is actually detrimental, a patronizing impingement on the dignity of those you seek to aid? (“Those children with cerebral palsy don’t want your pity. Let them learn through hardship how to cure themselves.”) What’s wrong with wanting to impress people with how giving you can be? It may be a sneaky way of being ostentatious, but isn’t it better than buying a Lamborghini? (“Well, actually, the Lamborghini plant employs…”) The whole thing seems like a cheap way to be contrarian without making an especially clear point.

But I was most perplexed by this piece of econothink:

Even the way we choose to dole out cash betrays our true motives. Someone with ₤50 to give away and a world full of worthy causes should choose the worthiest and write the cheque. We don’t. Instead, we give ₤2 to the street collector for Save the Children, pledge ₤15 to Comic Relief, another ₤15 to Aids research, and so on. But ₤15 is not going to find a cure for Aids. Either it is the best cause and deserves the entire ₤50, or it is not and some other cause does. The scattergun approach simply proves that we’re more interested in feeling good than doing good.

I don’t follow this at all: why would wanting to support multiple causes call your sincerity in question? Is “authentic” charity really an all or nothing proposition? This is what comes, perhaps, when you are locked in to evaluating utility at the margins, or fixated on the logic that leads one to decide voting is pointless since the chances are astronomical that your vote will be decisive. There the logic is the same; one votes to make oneself feel better and to pretend to be a good citizen. But it’s not a pretence; these sorts of “useless” gestures establish important parameters for one’s behavior and elevates a principle of doing a virtuous activity for its own sake, not because one has rationally calculated the action that will be maximally efficacious. Donating money to several causes may demonstrate indecisiveness but it doesn’t imply self-satisfaction necessarily. Charitable impulses are necessarily haphazard, because they represent a flight from “rational” selfishness—the pleasure we take in them is in part how irrational they make us feel, disposing of Bataille’s “accursed share.” The altruistic move is the one that can never be modeled or predicted; thus it’s a way to reassert our human spontaneity in the face of institutions that increasingly anticipate, often to our delight, our every next move.

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