Arnold Kling  

This Looks Important

Medicare and Overfishing... Parents' Costs versus Children...

Tyler Cowen finds research suggesting that the more highly you think of your morals, the less altruistic you are.

I could think of so many things to say about this, and how it explains who gives to charity and who doesn't, etc., etc., but I'll leave it to you.

Comments and Sharing

TRACKBACKS (1 to date)
TrackBack URL:
The author at Remaking Modern Society in a related article titled The Science of the Good Samaritan writes:
    Why did the priest and the Levite ignore the robbery victim lying in the ditch? It's possible they did so because they really thought they were good, moral people. Some new research into altruistic behavior shows that people who believe they are good, mor [Tracked on April 27, 2009 10:58 AM]
COMMENTS (18 to date)
Bob Murphy writes:

Sure I'll bite: The Christian doctrine of fallen and depraved man produces more altruistic people than the secular humanist spin.

(I thought I'd write something uncontroversial. And I am not going to argue this anymore on this forum, even though I am bracing for Spanish Inquisition references...)

Blakeney writes:

But Bob, NOBODY expects the Spanish Inquisition references :-)

Seriously though, I the point is not so much about which moral system you subscribe to, as it is about how well you think (or claim) you're adhering to it. It makes sense to me that humility and charity would be positively correlated, independently from a person's professed beliefs.

Blakeney writes:

Edit: I THINK the point...

AB writes:

What about people who think they are the victim all the time? They don't seem to think highly of themselves, and they often don't give to charity either.

KevinH writes:

AB: I think that those who think they are the victim actually think more highly of themselves than they do of others. A feeling of I am better than everyone else, so why am I always getting downed on. Or the world is against me so I wouldn't give anything back.

manuelg writes:

I couldn't get the link to the paper to work. I am pretty sure the paper talked about is this:

Sachdeva, S., Iliev, R., & Medin, D. (2009). Sinning Saints and Saintly Sinners: The Paradox of Moral Self-Regulation Psychological Science, 20 (4), 523-528 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02326.x

There is a nice write up at

jan writes:

People who believe they have high morals, also believe the government should help the poor through government programs and thus taxation. They have no need to personal help out poor people when the government will get money from other people.

People who believe they have lower morals, that is they are sinners, also believe they should personally help out the poor.

hacs writes:

Sorry, but that study is measuring degrees of remorse and calling low degrees of that feeling of altruism. Real altruism has no correlation with remorse (a priori) simply because a real altruistic person considers the well being of the others as a good (economic sense), and that is not satiated by some few actions, but limitations are not a reason to self punishment (he/she can make more at a later time). The constraint is always his/her budget (considering time as a good too) as in any real good.

Moreover, the descriptions are self evaluations not real evaluations, so, they reveal what those people think about themselves, and that is strongly affected by their self confidence and their degree of selfishness. That is, as bigger their self confidence and selfishness, better will be their self evaluations and lesser will be their remorse with relation to people do not helped by them when they could have made that.

So, the result is obvious (considering randomized samples), more selfish people are less affected by the problems of the others, and their self evaluations will express only their degree of self confidence, and the less selfish are more affected...

There is one more thing. If selfishness is considered a value, altruistic actions will be undervalued and altruistic people coerced to do less than they would like to make (and could make), causing remorse (now a real reason for that) and unsatisfactoriness with relation to their own actions.

The rest is only a political and ideological interpretation.

Yancey Ward writes:

You really do have to applaud Cowen's title for his blog entry.

Dr. T writes:

Another poorly designed and incorrectly interpreted socio-economic study: hardly a surprise, the world is full of them.

I think highly of my morals. That has nothing to do with my charitable giving (which correlates with my financial status). Altruism, however, is not just charity. Altruism means making sacrifices that benefit others: tossing some extra cash into the Salvation Army pot is not altruism. My moral system places a low value on altruism (though I don't go as far as Ayn Rand). I may help a stranger, but not at high cost to myself. I won't give someone the shirt off my back and thereby get badly sunburned.

If this study really wanted to look at altruism, it should have evaluated true sacrifices and not just giving money. Since altruistic acts are rare, the study should have set up a "help is needed" scenario to see which subjects respond altruistically. It would then have to interview all subjects to find out why they decided to help or to not help. After all that, they probably would find almost no correlation between self-perceived morality and altruism.

Robin Hanson writes:

I blogged this two weeks ago.

The Cupboard Is Bare writes:

Experience has taught me to steer clear of people who behave as if they are morally superior to everyone else. They have this attitude that people who are unlike them are undeserving of their attention, and when they do provide assistance, it is simply an excuse to put another feather in their cap.

They also seem to resent it when people they consider to be inferior (which would be just about everyone) experience success. After all, if you're not a superior person, then you shouldn't be able to achieve a significant milestone, because then that would suggest that you were a superior person, which you're not (their thinking gets caught in a loop).

I once had what I thought was a friend, but in retrospect, I realize now that they simply needed me around so that they could talk about how morally superior they were. Then one day I achieved a major success. From that point forward it was nothing but sour grapes on their part, and within a few weeks, the friendship(?) ended bitterly.

George writes:

D. Rubin:

Are you just trying to figure out where the threshold of rudeness beyond which they delete comments is?

[N.B. He found the threshold. The offensive comments have been removed.--Econlib Ed.]

Joe writes:

Maybe people who give to charity are paying for their lack of morals? A self Imposed fine.

The Cupboard Is Bare writes:

I've been giving it some thought. There can be a big difference between a person who thinks he/she is morally superior and a person who is truly a moral person. I think that the latter would give as much to the poor as anyone else.

El Presidente writes:

Let me get this straight. You have to think you're bad to choose to be good? That's a tangled mess of guilt and repression that brings into question the propriety of the label "altruism". You can give to others because it is right without needing the impetus of shame or some other stimulus to bring you down to their level. Thinking you need to be brought down to their level in the first place assumes that they are low and that you are not already there. You don't have to meet at the bottom. You can meet in the middle or at the top just as easily. People who believe that another person's need is their own damn fault might need a reason to say that they are not so different before they can think of the person in need as their equal and worthy of their empathy. Those who approach people as equals to begin with don't need the guilt in order to give. They don't ask whether somebody deserves their help. They ask whether they can give it, whether the other person needs it (or will benefit from it), and whether they will honor it. Their giving depends on the first two questions. The wellbeing of the other person depends largely on the third. You can achieve equality in your own mind by choosing to love yourself and applying that same attitude toward others. Self-esteem is not the enemy of benevolence.

To accept Tyler's formulation and Arnold's intuition we would have to say that if we were perfect, and knew it, we would not give anything to anyone because the motivation would be gone. If I was perfect and thought somebody else was too, I see no reason why I shouldn't want to give them anything. I hope we don't exchange wedding rings to purchase each other or because we pity each other. I hope it's because we hold ourselves and each other in high esteem and we feel moved to express our love for one another. The ability to extend that sort of sentiment to a stranger is remarkable, not unbelievable.

Some of us may not embrace the sentiment, but the philosophy espoused in the Declaration of Independence was, "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed". If their Creator made them equal, how is it possible that anybody else has made them less so? Who do we suppose we are? If you give because you think you're rotten, you may be right and you've missed the point of giving. If you think people need your help because they're rotten, you may be right and you've still missed the point of giving. Giving is a symbiotic act or else it isn't giving. It might be purchasing indulgences, inflating one's ego, or codependence, but it isn't giving. How odd is it that we can treat growth in output as a Giffen good but we cannot say the same of charity? Is it any wonder why we use government to fill the void?

hacs writes:

Chapter II: Of Individualism In Democratic Countries

I have shown how it is that in ages of equality every man seeks for his opinions within himself: I am now about to show how it is that, in the same ages, all his feelings are turned towards himself alone. Individualism *a is a novel expression, to which a novel idea has given birth. Our fathers were only acquainted with egotism. Egotism is a passionate and exaggerated love of self, which leads a man to connect everything with his own person, and to prefer himself to everything in the world. Individualism is a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellow-creatures; and to draw apart with his family and his friends; so that, after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself. Egotism originates in blind instinct: individualism proceeds from erroneous judgment more than from depraved feelings; it originates as much in the deficiencies of the mind as in the perversity of the heart. Egotism blights the germ of all virtue; individualism, at first, only saps the virtues of public life; but, in the long run, it attacks and destroys all others, and is at length absorbed in downright egotism. Egotism is a vice as old as the world, which does not belong to one form of society more than to another: individualism is of democratic origin, and it threatens to spread in the same ratio as the equality of conditions.
Amongst democratic nations new families are constantly springing up, others are constantly falling away, and all that remain change their condition; the woof of time is every instant broken, and the track of generations effaced. Those who went before are soon forgotten; of those who will come after no one has any idea: the interest of man is confined to those in close propinquity to himself. As each class approximates to other classes, and intermingles with them, its members become indifferent and as strangers to one another. Aristocracy had made a chain of all the members of the community, from the peasant to the king: democracy breaks that chain, and severs every link of it. As social conditions become more equal, the number of persons increases who, although they are neither rich enough nor powerful enough to exercise any great influence over their fellow-creatures, have nevertheless acquired or retained sufficient education and fortune to satisfy their own wants. They owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands. Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants, and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone, and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.


Chapter IV: That The Americans Combat The Effects Of Individualism By Free Institutions

Despotism, which is of a very timorous nature, is never more secure of continuance than when it can keep men asunder; and all is influence is commonly exerted for that purpose. No vice of the human heart is so acceptable to it as egotism: a despot easily forgives his subjects for not loving him, provided they do not love each other. He does not ask them to assist him in governing the State; it is enough that they do not aspire to govern it themselves. He stigmatizes as turbulent and unruly spirits those who would combine their exertions to promote the prosperity of the community, and, perverting the natural meaning of words, he applauds as good citizens those who have no sympathy for any but themselves. Thus the vices which despotism engenders are precisely those which equality fosters. These two things mutually and perniciously complete and assist each other. Equality places men side by side, unconnected by any common tie; despotism raises barriers to keep them asunder; the former predisposes them not to consider their fellow-creatures, the latter makes general indifference a sort of public virtue.

Despotism then, which is at all times dangerous, is more particularly to be feared in democratic ages. It is easy to see that in those same ages men stand most in need of freedom. When the members of a community are forced to attend to public affairs, they are necessarily drawn from the circle of their own interests, and snatched at times from self-observation. As soon as a man begins to treat of public affairs in public, he begins to perceive that he is not so independent of his fellow-men as he had at first imagined, and that, in order to obtain their support, he must often lend them his co-operation.
The Americans have combated by free institutions the tendency of equality to keep men asunder, and they have subdued it. The legislators of America did not suppose that a general representation of the whole nation would suffice to ward off a disorder at once so natural to the frame of democratic society, and so fatal: they also thought that it would be well to infuse political life into each portion of the territory, in order to multiply to an infinite extent opportunities of acting in concert for all the members of the community, and to make them constantly feel their mutual dependence on each other. The plan was a wise one. The general affairs of a country only engage the attention of leading politicians, who assemble from time to time in the same places; and as they often lose sight of each other afterwards, no lasting ties are established between them. But if the object be to have the local affairs of a district conducted by the men who reside there, the same persons are always in contact, and they are, in a manner, forced to be acquainted, and to adapt themselves to one another.
It would be unjust to suppose that the patriotism and the zeal which every American displays for the welfare of his fellow-citizens are wholly insincere. Although private interest directs the greater part of human actions in the United States as well as elsewhere, it does not regulate them all. I must say that I have often seen Americans make great and real sacrifices to the public welfare; and I have remarked a hundred instances in which they hardly ever failed to lend faithful support to each other. The free institutions which the inhabitants of the United States possess, and the political rights of which they make so much use, remind every citizen, and in a thousand ways, that he lives in society. They every instant impress upon his mind the notion that it is the duty, as well as the interest of men, to make themselves useful to their fellow-creatures; and as he sees no particular ground of animosity to them, since he is never either their master or their slave, his heart readily leans to the side of kindness. Men attend to the interests of the public, first by necessity, afterwards by choice: what was intentional becomes an instinct; and by dint of working for the good of one's fellow citizens, the habit and the taste for serving them is at length acquired.

[Source: Democracy in America, vol. 2, 1840, by Alexis de Tocqueville. Henry Reeve, tr. Online at Project Gutenberg.--Econlib Ed.]

Bill Drissel writes:

Real virtue is hard ... one must do the right things and - hardest of all - avoid the wrong.

Synthetic virtue is easy ... just say or advocate the right things ... go to work for an "altruistic" employer ...

For synthetic saints there's all the difference between being an accountant for

* a money grubbing corporation that makes things people need and

* the "Green Whatever" organization that produces nothing of worth.

Ex: We had a highly placed official who said all the "right" things that feminists approve of (synthetic virtue) but treated the flesh-and-blood actual live women around him shamefully.

Bill Drissel

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top