Wednesday, November 30, 2005
Calculatedly subconscious generosity
Part I: Conditions under which altruism is inevitable
A rationally self-interested person will, if he understands enough psychology and has enough stuff (and satisfies some plausible assumptions) choose to be altruistic. Check it:
Consider a hypothetical person, Dude With Stuff. Dude will give away some of his stuff, or some of his time (not that there’s much difference), because he’ll recognize that it is optimal for his own happiness. Dude recognizes the positive but diminishing marginal returns to “consumption” (which I’ll define here as enjoyment on his own of his stuff), just as Dude recognizes the positive but diminishing returns to altruism. Some of the return to altruism comes in the form of reciprocation – friendship, political back-scratching, etc. Some comes in the form of recognition by third parties. Hopefully, some of the return to altruism is the selfless joy of giving, without thought of future material gain.
A rational Dude will engage in altruism whenever the value of an additional unit of altruism is above that of an additional unit of consumption. Dude can only continue to be totally selfish for as long as the value of additional consumption is above the value of the first unit of altruism. If consumption gets arbitrarily small (which is conceivable although not unavoidable) and if altruism is everywhere positive (which seems likely for the average person but is again not unavoidable), then there exists a threshold of wealth beyond which altruism is better for Dude than additional consumption.
Part II: Maximizing the psychological effectiveness of altruism
So far I have left out something which for many people may to be a big factor in altruistic behavior: they dislike the calculation. Therefore, one might rationally decide to foster some subconscious behavior pattern in oneself such that the likelihood of choosing high-yield benefiters to one’s altruism is high, and the cost of consciously making that calculation is small. Even if the subconscious algorithm were subject to error, that error might be more than compensated for by the benefit to one’s sense of well-being by not having to witness one’s own pecuniary scheming.
I believe this sublimation occurs in everyone, to some degree. Sure, gift-giving is often consciously rational, but a lot of it is unconsciously rational.
Consider an example: When someone on the street stops you to ask the time, you might think to yourself, “What costs and benefits do I incur from revealing the information this person has asked? I am slowed; that’s a cost. Maybe I feel like a better person if I answer truthfully than if I ignore; that’s a benefit. And there’s a chance word could get around that I’m a jerk; avoiding that is a benefit. On net, I guess the slowing down is outweighed by those two benefits, so I’ll respond.”
But you don’t do that, right? You probably don’t even make a conscious decision to answer – you just do it. Somehow, the cost-benefit analysis you’ve avoided has been sublimated.
That may seem like a trivial example, but more “substantial” decisions operate in the same way: A mother deciding whether to feed her son’s friend; a drug user deciding whether to share with his neighbor; a woman deciding whether to give her boyfriend a ride to work; etc. Sometimes altruistic decisions are conscious, but many, perhaps most of them, are not ... and maybe that's optimal. We make faster decisions, the decisions are on net pretty good, and we feel better about ourselves in making them.