Bryan Caplan  

Dear Prudence

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Would a society made up of totally selfish human beings be worse than the society we have today? Could it even function? In last week's Inaugural James M. Buchanan Lecture, Deirdre McCloskey seemed to think that the obvious answers were No on both counts. A society that practiced no virtue other than Prudence would be a disaster.

I'm not so sure.

Here's the key point: Suppose you were totally selfish. What are you currently doing that isn't already in your narrow self-interest? Not stealing? You'd be risking years in jail for stuff that you could safely buy with a little work. Not lying? Hmm, ever hear of the Boy Who Cried Wolf? Not giving to charity? How much do you give as it is? Refuse to help a friend in need? Before you say "It's not my problem," you'd be well-advised to google the phrase Tit-for-Tat.

Frankly, your current behavior is probably very close to what Prudence alone recommends. Your subjective motivation may not be selfish, but you roughly "act as if" you were. And if we think in terms of the selfish gene rather than the selfish individual, apparent counter-examples like parenting fall naturally into place.

Now suppose we repeat this exercise for everyone alive: Holding constant other people's behavior, how would you change your behavior if you were totally selfish? If each person answers "I wouldn't," then the status quo and Absolute Prudence are compatible.

Of course, this is an over-simplification. There would be some differences. But it's hard to say whether the reign of Prudence would make the world a better or worse place to live. Yes, charity to strangers would probably vanish, but selfless charity is already a pittance. (And Robin Hanson points out that even the selfish rich might give to charity to signal their wealth!) Drivers would be less courteous, and strangers ruder to one another.

But on the other hand, a world of pure Prudence has obvious advantages. Imagine a world where NO ONE was willing to die for a cause - country, religion, ethnicity, whatever. To make soldiers risk death, they'd have to start awfully poor and be richly rewarded. That sounds like a recipe for world peace to me. Similarly, imagine a world where NO ONE would try to hurt another person out of envy or spite. A great many conflicts would vanish, for, as Inigo Montoya says in the Princess Bride, "There's not a lot of money in revenge."

Bottom line: A world of pure Prudence would be rough around the edges. But there's no reason to think it wouldn't work, and a lot of reason to think that it would be both safer and saner that the world we see today. "All you need is Love"? It would be prettier, but it's never going to happen. "All you need is Prudence," is the more realistic slogan for a better world, because it encourages people to do what they're inclined to do anyway.


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TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/494
The author at The Burden of Proof in a related article titled Caplan on Egoism writes:
The author at Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of ... in a related article titled What Happens When Everyone Is Selfish? writes:
    ...I think [Bryan] goes too far on some counts and not far enough on others. My fundamental belief about human behavior is that man is inherently greedy and selfish. I have a difficult time imagining this hypothetical world much differently from the ... [Tracked on April 13, 2006 8:38 AM]
COMMENTS (23 to date)
Robb Lutton writes:

I disagree. Look at what is happening in litagation for example. In the recent past (and still more so in Europe) there was a common understanding that you did not sue your neighbor at the drop of a hat.

Why not? For the same reason you tried to keep your dog from crapping in your neighbor's front yard. Because there was a certain moral pressure to be bigger than to make a big issue out every problem. Isnt' this what we tell our kids when they fight?

I remember living in Pittsburgh many years ago and reading in the paper about a local lawyer that had discovered a gold mine. He was suing everyone in sight for every petty greivance. Most people and businesses thought that it was reprehensible...

Nowadays this is common business practice and a giant amount of money is dissapated and quality of life lost due to the fear of litagation.

In your world of selfishness, everything would be like this but much worse. Forget about asking directions or getting change or help with anything. Forget about faithfulness from your spouse or your kids visiting when you are old.

You ought to take a good look around you. If you are anything like the rest of us, much that is good in your life comes from the kindness of strangers.

Matthew Cromer writes:

Before one can be genuinely selfish it helps to know thyself. And that's a virtue in exceedingly rare form.

Matt McIntosh writes:

"Drivers would be less courteous, and strangers ruder to one another."

I'm not sure that even that's true. If you assume we all like it when other people are courteous to us, then the same tit-for-tat logic applies.

My only quibble with this post is that I think it's better to say that the other virtues are all built upon prudence. Remember, the least costly way to appear good is to actually be good.

Brian writes:

Dr. Caplan, a couple of us from your micro class have been having an online debate on this issue on my blog. You can read it here. Scroll down through the comments section to read the progression of the debate.

MY TAKE: More than Prudence is needed to have a functioning society. Today's legal and economic environment is based on a strong system of Justice that channels our self-interested behavior in productive ways (see this paper by Frederic Sautet). I've traveled enough to see many countries where this is not true. I believe if we were to operate on Prudence alone, eventually our system would collapse. I think this is in-line with Buchannan's and Hayek's view of the role of morality in society.

I'd also argue that our system of Justice and concepts of liberty evolved in a large part from beleif in the transcendent and would not exist without the virtues of Faith, Hope and Love. (See Tyler Cowen's comment in this post by Alex Tabarrok. Dr. Cowen's is comment is the first one after the post.)

Nigel Howard writes:

The problem is that "selfishness" is such a slippery concept. Is it selfish to follow your own preferences? If so, then arguably everyone is always selfish, by definition. But what if I've a preference for helping others or giving my money to charity? Caplan seems to think, following Hanson, that that too can be "selfish", as it can be a way of "signalling wealth". But if I were truly selfish, why would I want others to think I'm rich?

The point is that the concepts of selfishness & unselfishness, when looked at generally, are quite incoherent. Consider two saints playing the following game of prisoner's dilemma: they've enough food to guarantee survival for only one, so each prefers that he himself starve while the other eats. The cooperative solution: they share what food there is. If both die of starvation (the non-cooperative solution) are they being selfish or unselfish? Most of us have met variations of this game in our personal relationships.

Drama theory (check out the Dilemmas Galore forum) offers a game-theoretic explanation of how and why our interactions with each other generate the preferences we have. Under this analysis, the distinction between selfish & unselfish motivations becomes irrelevant. What matters is the distinction between escalatory & conciliatory motivations, fuelled by negative & positive emotions.

Ramon writes:
The problem is that "selfishness" is such a slippery concept. Is it selfish to follow your own preferences? If so, then arguably everyone is always selfish, by definition. But what if I've a preference for helping others or giving my money to charity?
Caplan seems to think, following Hanson, that that too can be "selfish", as it can be a way of "signalling wealth". But if I were truly selfish, why would I want others to think I'm rich?


You are right, Economists build models where some primitive preferences are assumed to be exogenously given. Other "secondary preferences" can be the result of strategic considerations (tit-for-tat, altruism, etc). The problem of which preferences are truly exogenous remains. We cannot just assume preferences for anything.

Brian mentioned The Selfish Gene. I think we can base assumptions about exogenously given preferences on genetics. Under the selfish gene metaphor, we humans (or any other living thing) are robots with no goal in life other than propagate our genes as widely and as far into the future as possible.

Signaling wealth and worring about others knowing how rich you are is, for biologist, just the standard peakcock tail display showing how good you are to attract mates and establishing your status.

I'm surprised you missed the obvious counterexample: nobody making rational economic decisions would ever have children. Children are amazingly expensive, especially for the wealthy (who are likely to spend for fancy schools), and are unlikely to provide a tangible benefit coming anywhere near the dollars and time invested.

Yet we continue to reproduce despite the cost, because of the immense and unquantified intangible benefits.

Chris writes:

I remember living in Pittsburgh many years ago and reading in the paper about a local lawyer that had discovered a gold mine. He was suing everyone in sight for every petty greivance. Most people and businesses thought that it was reprehensible...
Doesn't the public reaction mitigate the resonses of future people through their selfish desire to not be viewed in this light?

Nowadays this is common business practice and a giant amount of money is dissapated and quality of life lost due to the fear of litagation.
Isn't it selfish to want to sue and selfish to want to not be sued? By your arguments it sounds like we are closer to this completely selfish world than you seem to think.

Nigel Howard writes:

Ramon says:

I think we can base assumptions about exogenously given preferences on genetics. Under the selfish gene metaphor, we humans (or any other living thing) are robots with no goal in life other than propagate our genes as widely and as far into the future as possible. Signaling wealth and worring about others knowing how rich you are is, for biologist, just the standard peakcock tail display showing how good you are to attract mates and establishing your status.

I'm afraid this doesn't quite work, though it gives a good start. People don't inherit fixed preferences, given by their genes, such that all their other preferences are simply secondary, strategic ways of satisfying those given ones. They obviously start off with preferences you can model like that -- eg, a baby's preference for being suckled. But as they interact with others, their preferences develop, just like everything else about them. Some develop into patriotic Americans, others into torture-addicted Incas, etc. You need a model such as drama theory gives, whereby starting with certain preferences, interaction with others on the basis of given preferences leads to the development of new preferences -- as well as new perceptions of opportunities. See http://www.dilemmasgalore.com

Lord writes:

This argument, taken to its logical conclusion, is that we already live in such a world, and this applies to Americans as well as Somalians, to businessmen as well as criminals, to policitians as well as tyrants. In the end, it is without meaning.

John Thacker writes:

"Similarly, imagine a world where NO ONE would try to hurt another person out of envy or spite."

But why is a desire to achieve revenge or satisfy envy or spite a priori different from a desire to live longer, have money, whatever?

I think the argument suffers from the standard definitional problems. Just like how one can reduce the problem to a nullity by saying, "ah, it's selfish to give to charity, etc. because you value the pleasure you get out of doing so."

anon writes:
a world of pure Prudence has obvious advantages. Imagine a world where NO ONE was willing to die for a cause - country, religion, ethnicity, whatever.

Just because people are willing to die for a cause does not mean they are not self interested. They are just receiving payment in non-monetary form, what Smith called "approbation". With an expanded definition of rationality people are ALWAYS self interested... its a tautology. So I am tempted to say that the world Deidre talks about is the one we're already living in.

Michael Thomas writes:

I really like your choice and use of Beatles imagery, especially in choice of title.

I feel that unraveling could be an issue if you change the assuptions of other people's behavior. Holding other people constant I agree with you. There are just too many questions I have about people's behavior to think that prudence alone can explain how people act. Therefore I expect systematic change to have a large change in the system.

Johan Richter writes:

It is generally thougt that corruption and the resulting lack of trust is a major reason that some countries remain in poverty.

One could argue that we in the rich world is justs in another nash equilibrium and talk about Tit-for-Tat but I don not believe it. I think there is a very real non-selfish component in our behavior when we follow laws and such.

Robert Speirs writes:

This is a bit of a semantic quagmire. But if you say that "prudence" is not always a good thing, aren't you contending that imprudence sometimes is? Sounds like a contradiction in terms, if prudence is defined as doing that which brings about a positive state of affairs, or avoids a negative one. Even if you say that one should take a risk every now and then, and define that as imprudence, aren't you saying that doing so is the only prudent thing to do? Perhaps one would get farther trying to define "happiness".

Kyle writes:

Hmm...

I think we have a bit of a problem here, but its a rather common academic problem. Are we talking well-thought out ethical egoism, or are we talking short-sighted, rather stupid egoism. As a committed ethical egoist myself, I think that you notably understate the case for well-considered ethical egoism. However, if we are talking egoism as would be practiced by the lowest common denominator, I think that you, Bryan, the experts-are-better man, might hold on to a fair bit more skepticism.

Ramon writes:
Imagine a world where NO ONE was willing to die for a cause - country, religion, ethnicity, whatever. To make soldiers risk death, they'd have to start awfully poor and be richly rewarded. That sounds like a recipe for world peace to me.

This is not necessarily so. In dynamic games of imperfect information, a sequentially rational equilibrium in which soldiers fight until the end (dying or surviving)is not only possible but may even be cheap.

If, for instance, in the year 2000 someone takes a scholarship from the army and becomes available in case of war. The probability of having to go to way may be small enought so that the student ask for the schoolarship. Once war breaks out and the student is called, the loss of welfare due to a small probability (among other things) of dying may be below the loss of welfare from going to jail for deserting. So the student goes to war.

Once the student is in the battlefield, the obvious action is to fight as if you cared about The Cause just to increase the chances of survival. Add some other suporting institutions, some supervisors and a patriotic narrative and you are done.

You don't need to make them rich.

JohnJ writes:

Good article. I actually agree with a lot of the points you make, and I think this is why our Founding Fathers tried to create a society where the individual's right to pursuit of happiness was checked only by a law that would punish any attempt to take away another person's right to the same. I'd hate to live under a government that cared about me, because it'd always be trying to tell me what to do. Just stop other people from oppressing me, and I'll agree not to oppress anyone else, and we can all live in peace, pursuing our own happiness. Long live capitalism!

Deirdre McCloskey writes:

George Stigler had a spoof "Conference Guide" from which you could select pre-digested comments. One of the most devasating was, "I do understand Mr. Smith's point. Until recently I was thinking along the same lines." I'd want to bring out that for Bryan's Dear Prudence, commenting on my Buchanan Lecture (available I believe on line at the Public Choice Center of George Mason U). I know the arguments---consult The Applied Theory of Price, or my early work on English open fields. But consider that I've reconsidered. Hmm.

One knock-down argument has already been made by Shivering Timbers: children. I often reflect that if we knew how much child cost---mine have not spoken to me for ten years, for example---and could really, truly feel the cost on our pulses, so to speak, the race would die out in one generation. Something else is involved. Love, for instance. Identity, which I call Faith. Courage.

But beyond that one knock down case are deals in business, depending on a species of love, or working hard at your job, depending on a species of faith. I urge you all to rush to your amazon.com site and order your very own copy of The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Capitalism, shipping in June, cheap ($32.50 for a 600-page hardback), which gives hundreds of examples.

And beyond the evidence, consider the point I ended with in the lecture: if we members of the clerisy go on and on saying with a knowing smirk that "Frankly, your current behavior is probably pretty close to what Prudence alone recommends," we will continue to erode the ethical reflection that makes a free society possible. I know it's fun, I know it's cute: I've felt the fun and cuteness. But if it's not serious about the evidence, dead serious, respectful of the quantitative magnitudes, it's bad for our ethical health. And anyway, since when is the selfish gene or a fun and boyish analysis of Prudence Only an ethical argument? Since when do we decide what to do by consulting the optimal spreading of seed or the largest bank balance on death? We're humans, not grass.

eric writes:

Prudence, or "efficiency", tells you the how. But without the why, for a self-aware subsystem (eg, person), this is a very fragile directive, not robust to adversity. Gene replication is hardly sufficient, because it just begs the question: why do all this work for these genes? Who is in charge here? The key difference between humans and slime molds is cultural evolution which adds much more than what the genome does, and this only works in a sytem that has the will to live, and this exist not as a stated objective, but the kind of crazed objective that makes a berkerker, or motivated salesman, so singleminded and successful. So prudence ignores chutzpah, courage, and playfulness, the essence of childish motivations that make us prosper.

Ramon writes:
Since when do we decide what to do by consulting the optimal spreading of seed or the largest bank balance on death? We're humans, not grass.

Actually, humans never think in terms of optimizing the spreading of seeds, but we act as if we were. The difference between man and grass is probable the level of sofistication and complexity but our deep motivations are the same. I am not sure that we are very different from grass.

JohnJ writes:

Ramon, Since you can't tell a difference, I advise you to vote as the grass do in future elections (i.e. not at all). Yes, it's true that prudence is just a way of looking at it, but as an argument against those who would seek to make our decisions for us "in our own best interest", it's something to think about. Let me decide what's in my own best interest.

It seems to me that there are many "prudent" equilibria, and which one we would slide into is not obvious. To put it differently, I believe there are things we do today which are "prudent" now, but wouldn't be unless mostly everyone else was prudent, too. Sure, there are mechanisms you libertarians have thought out, Tabarrok's dominant assurance contracts and all that, and they seem genuinely valuable. I think they could help.

But before you can enter into any such complex social contracts you have to agree on some more basic things, like not killing each other arbitrarily etc. and it ain't necessarily so that these things are "prudent" unless everyone else does them, too. A world of "prudent" people could probably risk going into a downward spiral of distrust and violence.

While there is rarely hard cash in revenge, there can be gain in it. Honour killings make sense in the cultures that have them, because it restores something that is of value there ("honour"). Given incomplete information, it seems to me that it's perfectly possible for a war to be "prudent" for both sides, and a lynching mob to be "prudent" for all the participants. Doesn't that happen even today?

As long as we make wishes, I wish for the opposite world, where everyone were willing to be imprudent and make sacrifices to further their higher beliefs and values, if they had any. Sell all they have and give the money to the poor, so to say. Then, the people who didn't would be revealed for what they were, both to themselves, the nicer people and the other not-nice people. I'd expect we'd see some interesting change at that point.

And a pony, I wish for a pony.

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