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.
Fred Kiel lays out his ideas and definitions of morality in his book Return on Character, his business book where he lays out the idea that in order to be truly successful in todays world companies must find leaders with strong moral character. Much of his book focuses on relationships and the types of benefits that a leader and leadership team with strong moral character can bring to the relationships of everyone working within an organization, and the benefits that brings to a company as a whole. As part of this idea, Kiel dives into morality, and what it means to develop morality within a corporation or company today.
One of Kiel’s interpretations on morality relates to the way we see other people and interact with them, “Each of us constantly makes decisions about how to interact with other people, and each of those decisions has the potential to either harm or enhance the other person’s well-being.” This is a simple idea about how we can interpret and see the world and Kiel explains that what we are more moral when our actions help the well-being of others, and we are immoral when our behaviors detract from the well-being of others. This is a good starting point for describing the importance of character in relationships and business, because on an individual level it is easy to asses whether or not we are acting with the motivation of helping ourselves at the expense of others, or if we are acting in a way that is meant to help everyone as much as ourselves.
I recently listened to a podcast from the Transistor Podcast from PRX in which they discussed Theory of Mind which states that we are constantly interpreting what others are thinking and feeling, and we are able to recognize that others outside of ourselves have their own emotions and thoughts about any given situation. I think that Kiel would argue that it is important for us to work on our Theory of Mind to build our ability to recognize the thoughts and feelings of others so that we can have better interactions with those around us. The idea laid out by both the Transistor podcast and by Fred Kiel aligns with Colin Wright’s ideas presented in his book Considerations. In Considerations Wright posits the idea that we move through the world without being present in the moment as much as we should be, and he writes that we do not take the time to truly be considerate of other people, our good fortune, and of the world around us which shapes our interactions with people and our environment. By being aware of our Theory of Mind and working to be more considerate of those around us, we can improve our character. With our improved character and better relationships and interactions we can begin to be a more rewarding person to be around, and in a business sense, our character generates a return that can be felt and measured within a company.
Fred Kiel’s book Return on Character focuses on the importance of strong moral character traits in the leaders of today. Kiel’s book is about business, but many of the ideas he expresses go well beyond business and can manifest in our every day life. The central idea to Kiel’s book is that those who are truly successful in life are individuals with high moral character. He continues with a business focus to say that those companies who are the most successful and provide the most value to their customers, employees, communities, and societies are lead by truly virtuous leaders with strong moral characters.
In looking at character and what it means to have a strong character Kiel quotes E. O. Wilson from his book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge:
“True character rises from a deeper well than religion. It is the internalization of the moral principles of a society, augmented by those tenets personally chosen by the individual, strong enough to endure through trials of solitude and diversity. The principles are fitted together into what we call … the integrated self, wherein personal decisions feel good and true. Character is in turn the enduring source of virtue. It stands by itself and excites admiration in others. It is not obedience to authority, and while it is often consistent with and reinforced by religious belief, it is not piety.”
Kiel explains this quote by examining the way that an individual with high character is able to recognize the behaviors expected and accepted as morally correct in a society. The quote also shows that the individual has a choice to accept these behaviors, and then choose how to incorporate those behaviors into their life. Kiel shows that those with the strongest moral character are able to do this in a way that will best amplify those positive traits beyond what is simply expected.
I like this quote because it shows the dynamic nature of morals and character, and it reflects on the ways in which we can use self awareness and reflection to boost our character. Through our power of reason we are able to recognize the behaviors and characteristics we find to be helpful or harmful to ourselves, those around us, or those in society who are affected by our decisions. Through reason, we are able to consider our actions and reactions, and develop a practice that allows us to move toward developing a better character.
Peter Singer’s book, The Most Good You Can Do, is all about what he has termed effective altruism. He writes about individuals who seek ways in which they can have the greatest possible positive impact in the world because they feel compelled to help others. These effective altruists, as he has named them, are secular individuals driven by compassion and a true understanding of themselves and the assistance they have received to live a comfortable life. The self awareness required to become an effective altruist helps individuals see the challenges that others face on a global scale, and drives effective altruists to aid those who are the least fortunate on our globe.
Singer describes effective altruists as being individuals who donate large amounts of money to charities that they have researched as being the most influential and impactful in the lives of those the charity is established to assist. Singer explains that a common thread is the idea of living quite modestly to focus the most of ones resources towards the most effective charity possible. Many effective altruists will seek high paying positions and salaries because they understand that by earning more, they will be able to funnel more resources back towards those who are in the most need. Combining these traits, Singer explains effective altruism with the following definition, “a philosophy and social movement which applies evidence and reason to working out the most effective ways to improve the world.”
The effective altruists that Singer explains are not limiting their impact to local causes and efforts and they are not donating to charities just because they have a good campaign video. A system has been established around effective altruists to guide them in the best direction to do the most good possible with their money. The charities that they often support are well researched and spend most, if not all, of the money and resources they receive on the programs they implement. Often times the charities are in poorer countries where one dollar can go further, and where simple measures can be taken to actually save a life. One of the charities that Singer mentions in his book is a charity that provides bed nets to people in Africa. Since a single bed net can protect from mosquitos and malaria, a small donation can save the lives of multiple people and help keep farmers and families healthy. It is hard to find a comparable charity in the United States or elsewhere where a donation of roughly $100 can help save an actual life.
For me the main glue that holds effective altruists together is the idea of moral secularism that requires individuals to be self aware enough to see that they have a responsibility to assist those less fortunate than themselves. I believe that any effective altruist would be able to explain that they relied on the luck of being born into a good family or the luck of having people to support them on their journey to arrive at a place where they have some wealth and can live modestly. They are called to action because moral decisions are socially derived, and by changing their perspective they can chose not to compete with others to acquire the most goods, but rather to do the most good.