It is an unavoidable reality that we are more motivated by what is in our immediate self-interest than we would like to admit. This idea is at the heart of Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson’s book The Elephant in the Brain and can be seen everywhere if you open your eyes to recognize it. I’m currently doing a dive into reading about homelessness, and I’m working through Elliot Liebow’s book Tell Them Who I am. Liebow writes about American society’s belief that people will become dependent on aid if it is offered unconditionally. In a passage from his book where he reflects on the barriers that homeless women face in obtaining services and aid, and how those barriers can often become abuse, Liebow writes:
“One important source of abuse lies much deeper, in a widespread theory about human behavior that gets expressed in various forms: as public policy, as a theoretical statement about rehabilitation, or simply as common sense. Whatever the form, it boils down to something like this: We mustn’t make things too easy for them (mental patients in state hospitals, welfare clients, homeless people, the dependent poor generally). That just encourages their dependency”
What is incredible with the sentiment in the paragraph above is how well it seems to justify what is in the immediate self-interest of the people with the resources to help those in need. It excuses inaction, it justifies the withholding of aid, and it places people with material resources on a moral high ground over those who need help. Helping others, the idea posits, actually hurts them. If I give up some of my hard earned money to help another person, I don’t just lose money, that person loses motivation and loses part of their humanity as they become dependent on the state. They ultimately drag us all down if I give them unconditional financial aid. What is in my best interest (not sharing my money) just also happens to be the economic, moral, and personal best thing to do for another person in less fortunate circumstances.
This idea assumes that people have only one singular motivation for ever working, making money to have nice things. It ignores ideas of feeling respected and valued by others. It ignores the human desire to be engaged in meaningful pursuits. And it denies our needs as humans for love, recognition, and basic necessities before we can pull ourselves up by our boot straps.
Johann Hari’s book Chasing the Scream is an excellent example of how wrong this mindset is and of the horrors that people can face when the rest of society thinks this way and won’t offer them sufficient help to reach a better place in life. Regarding drug addicts and addiction, Hari quotes the ideas of a Portugese official, “addiction is an expression of despair, and the best way to deal with despair is to offer a better life, where the addict doesn’t feel the need to anesthetize herself anymore. Giving rewards, rather than making threats, is the path out. Congratulate them. Give them options. Help them build a life.”
Helping someone build a life requires a financial investment in the other person, a time and attention investment, and also requires that we recognize that we have a responsibility to others, and that we might even be part of the problem by not engaging with those in need. It is in our selfish interest to blame others for the plight of society or the failures of other people. From that standpoint punishment and outcasting is justified, but as Hari, Liebow, and the Portugese official suggest, real relationships and getting beyond fears of dependency are necessary if we are truly to help people reach better places and get beyond the evils we want to see eliminated from the world. We can’t go out of our way to find all the ways in which things that are in our self-interest are good for the rest of the world. We have to acknowledge the damages that our self-interests can cause, and find ways to be responsible to the whole, and help other people build their lives in meaningful ways.