Have you ever thought about how we treat people who are sick? We have an entire economic system (trillions of dollars in the US) set up around treating people who are sick. When we have family members who are ill we often take time off work, help make sure their pillows are comfortable, and make them hot tea or soup. We will put ourselves at risk of catching whatever illness they have, or if it is not contagious, we will sacrifice large parts of our lives to be there in support. I’m not suggesting that caring for the ill is a bad thing, but it is curious that humans would develop a drive to help those who are sick at great personal risk and cost to oneself.
In The Elephant in the Brain authors Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson suggest that helping those who are sick is actually less about helping the sick person, and more about making sure we will have someone to help us if we are in a similar situation in the future. There is a quid pro quo taking place where we make a sacrifice so that others will sacrifice for us if we get sick.
The authors write, “in part, it’s a simple quid pro quo: I’ll help you this time if you’ll help me when the tables are turned. But providing support is also an advertisment to third parties: See how I help my friends where they’re down? If you’re my friend, I’ll do the same for you. In this way, the conspicuous care shown in our medical behaviors is similar to the conspicuous care shown in charity; by helping people in need, we demonstrate our value as an ally.”
We all want people to see us as nice, generous, caring individuals. To make sure people see us that way, we seize upon opportunities to demonstrate those qualities in the real world, even if there is a cost to us. The authors would argue that it is precisely when there is a cost to us that we are most likely to be charitable or to help those who are ill, at least if there is a sufficient audience. It often feels like we are just doing something nice for another person out of the goodness of our heart, but often there is another layer at play that is more self-interested than we would want others to see. We hide that part of ourselves and make an effort to not see that part of ourselves in who we are, or in the people we care about. That part of ourselves is the elephant in the brain which is dictating a lot of our interactions with the world, even though we won’t acknowledge it.
One of Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s closing thoughts in their chapter about charity in The Elephant in the Brain reads, “The forms of charity that are most effective at helping others aren’t the most effective at helping donors signal their good traits. And when push comes to shove, donors will often choose to help themselves.”
We human beings are not that great at being altruistic. We are social creatures, and we know that what we do is always being judged by our social tribe in a complex context. It is not just about what we do, but who we are, what kind of people we want to associate with, how we choose to use our time and resources, and what we try to do in the world. Charity, and any altruistic behavior we engage in, fits into this larger narrative about the person we are or try to be.
We cannot separate our charitable behavior from our individual self-interest or from the larger context of our live. As a result, charity is something that we use as a signaling mechanism. It is often about helping others, but it is just as often about telling people something about ourselves. This is where Simler and Hanson’s quote comes from.
We can use our charity to primarily do good in the world, or we can get the benefits of doing good while primarily showing people how generous we are. We can use our money and extra time to do something meaningful for others that also benefits us with social rewards and accolades, however, the personal benefit from charitable behaviors can be so great that it can take over and become the driving force behind our decisions.
This certainly doesn’t happen for everyone and doesn’t apply in every situation, but for a bulk of our charitable behaviors it is a factor at play. It is important to recognize so that we understand what is pushing us to make our donations, and to reshape those pressures so that we use our charitability in the best way to really make the world a better place. We should also acknowledge it so that we can encourage others to do something generous and to help others receive a positive social reward, but only if their charity is also the most effective that it can be.
In The Elephant in the Brain authors Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson consider human ethics in a framework laid out by Peter Singer. Singer suggested that if we saw someone dying right in front of us, we would have a moral obligation (in instances that did not put us in moral danger ourselves) to try to assist them, even if it came at an expense to ourselves. A common example is that you are wearing brand new very expensive clothing and see someone dying in a situation where you could save them without risk to yourself, but in a way that would certainly ruin your brand new clothes. The loss of our expensive new clothes is almost certainly not a reason to put off helping the person dying in front of us.
The question becomes, are we obligated to help people who are not dying in front of us at the expense of the cost of the brand new clothes that we would sacrifice if the person were dying in front of us? Are we obligated to save a life thousands of miles away in a different country and culture for the price of some goods that we might frivolously buy for ourselves?
Simler and Hanson lay out this argument in their book and write, “What Singer has highlighted with this argument is nothing more than simple, everyday human hypocrisy – the gap between our stated ideals (wanting to help those who need it most) and our actual behavior (spending money on ourselves). By doing this, he’s hoping to change his readers’ minds about what’s considered ethical behavior. In other words, he’s trying to moralize.”
In their book, the authors use the argument of singer and the fact that many of us do not sacrifice the money we would otherwise spend on meaningless things to save the lives of children across the globe as evidence for the elephant in the brain. We say things and signal things that we don’t follow through on, and we are strategically ignorant of the fact that we ignore these aspects of who we are. The authors don’t attempt to criticize us for this behavior, but instead make an effort to point it out and acknowledge that it is a huge driver of human behavior.
“Our goal, in contrast,” Write Simler and Hanson, “is simply to investigate what makes human beings tick. But we still find it useful to document this kind of hypocrisy, if only to call attention to the elephant. In particular, what we’ll see in this chapter is that even when we’re trying to be charitable, we betray some of our uglier, less altruistic motives.” Very often we do not escape our own self-interest completely, even when we are doing charitable things for other people. Our ethics and moral philosophies can be trampled by our self-interest, and with our big brains we are able to justify our selfish behaviors.
I recently changed jobs, and a piece of advice that I revisited from Ryan Holiday in his book The Ego is the Enemy has come back to me at a perfect time. Holiday writes, “When someone gets his first job or joins a new organization, he’s often given this advice: Make other people look good and you will do well.”
Our tendency as successful young graduates, something Holiday addresses directly, is to want to prove ourselves. To prove that we were worthy of being hired over all the other candidates. To show that we are awesome and can handle the spotlight and the opportunity given to us. Our urge is to take on the biggest project, the most important client, and to do something truly impressive to show that we are great. The problem for us young people, is that we really don’t have much experience and what we learned in the classroom may not be directly applicable or up to date by the time we get into the swing of a job.
Holiday suggests that instead of being so focused on proving ourselves and trying to make a big impact by doing something visible and possibly beyond our ability, we should instead look to serve those who have already been in successful in their roles at our new organization. He writes, “It’s not about making someone look good. It’s about providing the support so that others can be good. … Clear the path for the people above you and you will eventually create a path for yourself.” The benefit to this strategy, according to Holiday, is that it puts you in a place and mindset where you are more focused on learning and growth than on individual achievement.
When you try to prove yourself early on, you risk doing too much, insulting others who can assist you on your journey, and failing to learn from the mistakes of others. When we make egotistical power grabs others will notice. If we allow our ambition to run faster than our skills and experience, we risk putting ourselves in places where we need assistance and need the buy in from those around us, and if we do this early in our career before we have developed relationships and proven that we are deserving of help and assistance, we may find ourselves isolated. Helping others shows us where opportunities and trends lie, and it also builds allies for the future when we hit our own rough patches. Working to assist others early on doesn’t mean that we won’t have opportunities to do great and meaningful work, but rather that the work and effort we put in will align with the goals and objectives of others, helping the organization as a whole be more productive and effective, ultimately creating bigger wins and more success for us and others. We can still step up to take on big projects, but by making it about someone else and helping someone else succeed as opposed to making ourselves look worthy and impressive, we are likely to have more support and to have more guidance to make our success more likely.
Michael Bungay Stanier gives his readers some advice for making the changes in their lives in his book The Coaching Habit. His first piece of advice is to become self-aware of what you want to change, and the second piece of advice is to understand exactly why you want to make that change. When thinking about a change that you want to make, it is helpful to think through the benefits and to turn the change into something positive that you are doing for other people. Simply making a change because it will benefit yourself may not bring you the mental impetus to move forward with the challenges of actually changing your behavior.
Bungay Stanier describes one of his takeaways from Leo Babauta’s book Zen Habits, “He talks about making a vow that’s connected to serving others …think less about what your habit can do for you, and more about how this new habit will help a person or people you care about.”
This is a powerful strategy for making important changes in our life and becoming the person that we want to be. Making a change just for ourselves is hard, because we can tell ourselves lots of lies that justify and excuse our behaviors. However, if our reason for change is connected to helping someone else, improving our life to further improve another person’s life, or is rooted in improving the world experience of another person, then we have another layer of motivation for break our old habit.
I believe this strategy is powerful because it gets us thinking about the kind of person we want to be and the behaviors of people who are like the person we want to be. If we tell ourselves we are trying to live more healthy lives to set better examples for our family and to be able to participate with our kids in athletic activities or live longer with our family, then we can start to think about the traits that a healthy person may adopt. We tell ourselves we want to be healthy and that healthy people don’t eat donuts at work every day. The sametemptation exists, but now we envision ourselves fitting in with the healthy group that does not eat donuts, and we compound that with our accountability to our family to be healthy for them.
The Most Good You Can Do is a book written by Peter Singer about a philosophy known as effective altruism. Those who follow the philosophy are characterized by making large donations and directing greater than 10% of their income to charities and organizations that make meaningful changes in the lives of those who are the most disadvantaged. Effective altruists are focused on making sure that the good they do by making financial donations is maximized. In this pursuit, they look for new ways to save their money for donations, and for charities that direct almost 100% of the donations they receive toward their cause as opposed to administration, fundraising, or lobbying.
Singer argues that more Americans should move toward the lifestyle of effective altruism even though it would mean we would have more people moving away from the standard focus of capitalism which is buying more goods with the money we have for our own happiness. Throughout his book he shares the stories of effective altruists who make large scale donations despite having modest or average incomes. He shows that a life focused on helping others builds a sense of purpose that is greater than the joy we receive by owning things. He advocates that Americans should better budget their money and make more stringent decisions about what they choose to purchase if they want to live happier and more fulfilling lives.
“An in-depth study of thirty-two families in Los Angeles found that three-quarters of them could not park their cars in their garages because the garages were too full of stuff. The volume of possessions was so great that managing them elevated levels of stress hormones in mothers. Despite the fact that the growth in size of the typical American home means that americans today have three times the amount of space, per person, that they had in 1950, they still pay a total of $22 billion a year to rent extra storage space.”
Singer uses this example to show that our spending and purchasing is getting in the way of our true happiness. By having so much stuff we are building more stress in our lives, and repurposing space to better accommodate all of our possessions. Rather than enjoying our space and having leisure time, many Americans are crammed into cluttered spaces and must spend a large amount of time organizing, cleaning, and managing their stuff.
“Perhaps we imagine that money is important to our well-being because we need money to buy consumer goods, and buying things has become an obsession that beckons us away from what really advances our well-being.” Singer writes this passage to explain that our purchasing power and habits have not helped us have richer lives, even though our lifestyles may be richer. What he would advocate for, I believe, is a better use of our financial resources, stricter uses of our money, and a refocused interest in helping others.
In his book The Most Good You Can Do Peter Singer gives examples of people living various lifestyles as effective altruist. He explains that deciding to live off less money and making significant monetary donations helps people find a more aligned life than those who live a life of continuous consumer spending. Many of the individuals he references say that they expected making sacrifices and living as effective altruists to be challenging, but ultimately found the lifestyle strangely liberating. Singer explains why consumer spending does not lead to happiness by sharing the example of one effective altruist who can see that he is not missing much by not using his money to purchase items. “Ian Ross is familiar with psychological research about the “hedonic treadmill” of consumer spending, which shows that when we consume more, we enjoy it for a short time but then adapt to that level and need to consume still more to maintain our level of enjoyment.”
Singer shows that effective altruists who learn to live off a small portion of their income avoid the cycle of continually buying goods to boost their happiness. For them, their happiness comes from knowing that they are doing the most they possibly can to improve the lives of those who may be suffering the most. They do not direct their resources toward new items which are marketed toward them that they do not need. In order to boost the good they can do their budgets have to be carefully monitored and thought out which allows them to buy what they need and use the rest resourcefully. They are in control of their spending instead of letting their spending and desire to have the most up to date items control them.
Rather than moving through life adjusting their expectations to have more and more goods, bigger houses, and more expensive cars, effective altruists focus on continually using their resources in ways that will allow them to help others. They may expect to move up a corporate ladder and earn more, but as they earn more it will not be directed toward more debt and more payments. Effective altruists maintain a basic lifestyle, and use their additional resources to help others.
Peter Singer’s book, The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically examines a new movement toward ethical responsibility on a global scale. What Singer explores in his book is the way in which effective altruists measure their impact in the world and go about trying to make positive changes. In his view, an effective altruist is measured in their generosity by rationally examining their resources and the resources of others so that they can make decisions that would best benefit those who are in the most profound poverty. This system for an effective altruist not only allows them to assist others, but it also allows them to live without waste in their own lives.
Singer highlights part of the identity of effective altruists when he writes, “Effective altruists, as we have seen, need not be utilitarians, but they share a number of moral judgements with utilitarians. In particular, they agree with utilitarians that, other things being equal, we ought to do the most good we can.” What he is explaining is that effective altruists have a rational approach to life, but they are not only interested in concrete concepts such as the usefulness of individuals, programs, and objects in society. They may be measured in their approach to aiding others, but they will embrace a program if it reduces suffering for others rather than embracing a program because it proves to generate progress for society.
This quote makes me wonder about why we want to do the most good we can do, and why a rational individual would set out to make that their life goal. Singer offers evolutionary explanations as to why altruistic behavior became part of the human experience, but when we begin looking at rational behavior, we must look past our evolutionary past. Emotionally we want to donate and assist others to feel positive about ourselves. We want to be able to say that we made an impact in other peoples lives, and that we assisted those who were not as fortunate as we are. We receive a boost of dopamine when we make our donation or think about the ways in which we have helped others, but a rational individual can come up with thousands of excuses to overcome our dopamine induced desire to help. We can rationalize donations and see that when we donate we are actually helping society progress by saving lives or reducing the suffering of others so they can become more active. However, this type of rationalization becomes utilitarian and to me seems as though it would push us toward making local donations and contributions to help those in our community. What Singer describes that sets effective altruists apart is their desire to assist those living in the most poverty stricken situations on a global scale. Effective altruists are focused on stretching their dollars as far as possible to assist people, which often means helping those who live in extremely poor countries, often on the opposite side of the planet. If we live a life focused on doing the most good for others, then our life begins to be shaped by generosity and action in a positive direction. Our sacrifices adopt a story that is greater than our own personal happiness, and that larger meaning helps us feel valuable and encourages us to continue when we grumble and face personal obstacles. Doing the most good we can satisfies an evolutionary dopamine fueled desire to help others, but it can also give our lives a purpose that is missing in an often self-centered capitalistic society.
Continuing with the idea of reciprocity Richard Wiseman in his book 59 Seconds, Think a Little Change a Lot, reviews two studies, one by Dennis Regan and another study M.E. Schneider, which deal with finding the best balance between helping others, and receiving positive results from the favors you provide. In regards to favors Wiseman writes the following (emphasis mine):
“Favors have their strongest effect when they occur between people who don’t know each other very well, and when they are small but thoughtful. When people go to a great deal of effort to help someone else, the recipient can often feel an uncomfortable pressure to reciprocate. In a sense by giving too much at the beginning, one person places the other in a difficult position because the law of reciprocity states that the recipient has to give even more in return. Motivation is also important, as recipients can often experience a drop in self-esteem if they think they are bing helped because they are believed not to have the ability to be successful by themselves, or if they attribute the favor to an ulterior motive.”
I am drawn to this quote because it shows that we can not go about greatly influencing the behaviors of others simply by performing favors for them. The science indicates that we can make a lasting impression for someone by performing small acts of kindness, making the other person want to reciprocate positive actions back to us. The research also seems to reveal that people are uncomfortable with large favors, because it puts them in an awkward and unexpected position. Finding a balance where you perform small favors can help you boost your relationships be creating stronger bonds and friendships with people willing to assist you when you need a hand.
Wiseman’s section on reciprocity also shows that people can sense the motives behind favors. A congressional approach to friendship and relationships (a you scratch my back I scratch your back, or in congress you vote for my bill, I’ll vote for your bill) is not a strong way to build friends and influence others. Providing favors because you are expecting others to then do something positive for you is going to leave you without friends as others will see your underlying motive. Ultimately this will leave you with no reciprocated goodness, and no friends.
Another idea that I was drawn to from Wiseman’s thoughts on reciprocity is the idea of empowering others and performing genuine favors. When others sense that you are doing favors for them because you don’t believe they can handle the situation on their own, you damage their self confidence and insult them. I think of a young teenager who does not have the opportunity to make his or her own decisions because their parent is constantly acting for them. The teenager may just want to have the chance to display their own competence, but the actions of their parent are leaving them without an opportunity to apply themselves. By acting in ways that we think are favors for others, but actually limit their participation and self implementation we may doing more harm than good. I believe Wiseman would argue that this contributes to the idea of simple favors having a greater impact than large favors.
After talking about the importance of self awareness and ceasing to judge others, Joe Dallesandro in his letter to James Harmon for his book, Take My Advice, writes about the importance of trying to help other people every day. Dallesandro writes, “Ask yourself, Did I just think about myself today or did I think about others, or how I could be helpful to another person?”
Dallesandro is talking about self awareness and the daily focus and attention we have on ourselves. Our society is so individualistic that we all believe that we are special and deserve something special every day. Unfortunately with this focus on ourselves we begin to forget about the importance of community and cooperation, leaving those around us on a secondary level relative to our own happiness.
In his letter, Dallesandro continues on to talk about how much we strive to be perfect, to be happy, and to be entertained, but we don’t often try to bring these things to other people. By focusing in on other people we can create new opportunities for ourselves by building stronger relationships with those around us. The stronger our sense of community the more peace we can find as we begin to find new people who we can rely on, and who can rely on us.