A Final Thought on Charity

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.

An Ethical Dilemma

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.

Do What Is In Us

Lord of the Rings can be read as a reaction against the industrial age, a reaction against military might, and a reaction against colonial conquests. The most clean, well functioning, and happiest places in the book are places of nature, where hobbits live peacefully with plenty in the shire, and where elves live with wisdom and respect for trees, forests, rivers, and valleys. Tolkien seems to express the idea that we should live a bucolic life that is more connected with nature, tending to it to receive the gifts that nature gives us as opposed to laying down our black mastery of the planet and bending it to our will as we do with roads, railroads, dams, and the machinery of war.

 

In the story, Gandalf says, in a reaction to Sauron trying to rule everything, “Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”

 

Succor is defined, according to the dictionary in my Kindle, as “assistance and support in times of hardship and distress.” Gandalf says that we should live our lives in a way that sets the world up to be more successful and bountiful in the future. We should strive to remove bits of evil from the world, to constantly make small improvements or do our little part to make the world a better place. We should not do this just for ourselves and for our happiness, but so that future generations can inhabit a world that can still provide for their needs.

 

This message is important for me. We can set out to be the best, to always have more, to accumulate as much fame and notoriety as possible, and to rule the world with golden towers and green acres everywhere we go. Or, we can accept that the world is not ours, we can strive toward mastery of a few things without spreading ourselves too thin, and we can focus on our corner of the world and what is in our power right now to make the world a better place. This may look like picking up trash along our local street, it may look like calling our grandma, or it may look like smiling at that person smoking outside the Walmart and saying hi rather than giving them a contemptuous look and treating them like trash. We can strive to be great and to make lots of money and influence the world, but what really matters is if we take small steps daily in the ways we can to make the world better for the future, even if that means we inconvenience ourselves a little to do the good work.

A Creative Skill

When I sat down to read Ryan Holiday’s book Ego is the Enemy, I expected to hear about the importance of compassion and humility and to read anecdotes about why we should try to avoid self-aggrandizement, but I didn’t expect to get a quick lesson in creativity. Holiday includes a short section in which he describes leaders taking a moment of solitude, away from the societies, groups, and lives that they lead to and connects the creativity these temporary retreats generate back to our egos. What we get when we set off into a quite place away from society, Holiday suggests, is a chance to calm the ego and step away from the need for praise.

 

Holiday writes the following about what happens when we get away from society and our daily lives, “By removing the ego – even temporarily – we can access what’s left standing in relief. By widening our perspective, more comes into view.”

 

The ego, he says, narrows our views and focus. It zooms our attention in on ourselves, ignores the outside world, cuts out the things we are not very familiar with, shortens our the timescales we think through, and ultimately makes us less creative. When everything is about us, we operate with only one true perspective shaping our lives. We will constantly ask the world what has the greatest return for me in this very moment and what will get me the most attention right now?

 

Holiday continues, “Creativity is a matter of receptiveness and recognition. This cannot happen if you’re convinced the world revolves around you.” One of the things I wrote about earlier is the way that living for our ego makes us see the world through a modified lens where everything is about us. We don’t see reality clearly and instead create a story all about what we have, what we can gain, what we think others are stealing from us, and what we might lose or miss out on if we don’t spend every moment maximizing for ourselves. This creates a trap where we fail to see the flaws in our plans and fail to see trends that don’t align with what we want to see. Being humble on the other hand and accepting that we need help seeing beyond ourselves, will open our perspective and allow other people to give us information that will expand our perspective. Thinking creatively is difficult when you think you already have all the answers and already see things as creatively as possible. The ego doesn’t see a need to expand its already awesome point of view and likely actively hides perspectives that are critical of what we do and produce. If, on the other hand, we can push the ego aside and move forward in a way that is not all about us, we can see new opportunities, new connections, and new possibilities that we previously would have missed.

Benefitting from Doing Good for Others

A quote from Marcus Aurelius that I keep returning to is “When thou hast done a good act and another has received it, why dost thou still look for a third thing besides these, as fools do, either to have the reputation of having done a good act or to obtain a return?” The quote reminds me that I should focus on doing good work and not on being rewarded or praised for doing good work. Simply knowing that I am helping others and making a positive impact in the world should be enough to justify the effort put into a good deed. At the same time, however, I do want to be recognized for my hard work and ability. I am ultimately unable to escape the human side of me which evolved in small tribes over hundreds of thousands of years desires recognition and enhanced social status as a result of my good actions.

What is important to remember is that the recognition I seek and the praise I desire has nothing at all to do with the good actions that I may undertake. I am not able to control who sees me doing a good deed, and I am not able to control their mental state and the extent to which they will thank me or praise me for what I have done. The only control I have in this context is control over my decision to do a good deed or not. With this in mind, another quote from Marcus Aurelius shapes the way I think about the positive things I do, or sometimes avoid, and why I do them (or not!). In Meditations he writes, “Have I done something for the general interest? Well, then, I have had my reward. Let this always be present to they mind, and never stop [doing such good].”

Aurelius is not talking about altruism in the quote above but simply talking about the reality of doing things that help the general population and not just our individual selves. As a practical day-to-day example I often think about unloading the dishwasher at work. It is not part of my job duties to empty or organize the dishwasher, but I know that if I take an extra minute or two, then everyone will benefit from having dishes put away and having more space in the dishwasher for dirty dishes. It may be extra effort and something I think everyone should do (not just myself or the office manager), but everyone benefits from my couple of minutes of extra effort, including me. The reward and benefit that I get from emptying the dishwasher is the same as everyone else, regardless of whether I am thanked or not. A lack of help and participation in doing a public good does not diminish the benefit that society or even oneself receives, even if there is no direct reward from a third party.

Aurelius’s idea is what forms the core of public service and volunteering and his idea is what we need so that we can improve society today. When we focus on doing something good for the general interest, we are rewarded by helping others and improving some aspect of the world for everyone. It is incredibly tempting to only take action that benefits us directly as individuals, but looking beyond our self-interest and doing something that is in the general interest can have a much longer and much broader impact. This cannot be done if we don’t become aware of our actions and motivations, and if we don’t get past the idea that we must be rewarded and recognized when doing positive and beneficial things.

Trying to Change Others

Author Colin Wright has an interesting perspective of the efforts we make to try to change other people in his book, Some Thoughts About Relationships. For Wright, trying to change the person in our relationships is a very selfish act, limiting the growth of the other person and of ourselves, and preventing both of us from expanding who we are. He writes, “Finding someone you intend to change means you’ve decided that who they are, what they want, and how they live is inferior to who you are, what you want, and how you live.” By trying to change another person you are forcing them into a mold that you have preselected. You are not working with them to soften your own rough edges, and you are not allowing each other to grow according to independent desires, interests, and shared commitments and connections .

 

This selfish type of relationship is never going to be based on reality as you force another person to be an incomplete version of what you think a successful partner looks like. The other person won’t be able to fully express themselves, and you will only know a false version of them. There are parts of ourselves that we know well, parts of ourselves we don’t know well, parts of others we know well, and parts of others that we don’t know well. Assuming that you can change another person into what you want assumes that you fully understand yourself and the other person, something undoubtedly impossible.

 

Wright continues, “approaching relationships this way means you’re partnering with someone who you consider to be a block of raw material that you can chisel into whatever shape you prefer. You want to whittle away who they are so that they become the person you want them to be, or whom you feel you should want them to be. This typically results in negative complexes and disappointment on both ends.”

 

When you set out to change the other person in a relationship you are setting out to force them to be an incomplete version of themselves. Because we can never fully understand even ourselves, we can never predict and prescribe who another person should be. Development as an individual, both within and outside relationships, is filled with value judgements about relationships, about other people, about ourselves, and who we think we want to be and be with. Allowing both ourselves and the other person in our relationship to be complete human beings allows for growth, both personal and as a pair, and working together to understand this growth is the only way you can help develop another person.

Greatness and Ego

Vera Countess von Lehndorff wrote a letter to James Harmon for his book, Take My Advice, and in her letter she discusses goals, ambitions, talents, and our journey.  She encourages us to have courageous goals, but she also brings in a bit of self awareness with out goal setting. “You want to be the greatest? You want to just feed your ego? That’s not so great.”  This quote is her response to lofty goals and visions of success.

 

When I read over this quote I think about the goals that I have had throughout life, and how many of them are less about me, and are in one way or another more about fulfilling other people’s expectations and looking impressive.  These types of goals promise us a land where we will feel high and mighty because we will gain the respect and admiration of others as a result of our greatness. However, these goals may not always be aligned with our true purpose or talents, and pursuing them relentlessly could cost us our peace of mind, happiness, and relationships.

 

For me, building habits of self awareness and learning how to look inwards to examine my goals has helped me understand where my goals originated. When I began to examine my goals I found I pursued some because society had determined that they were lofty and valuable.  When I return to von Lehndorff’s quote I can see the ways in which pushing towards goals that simply feed an ego are more damaging than positive for the individual and the world.  Losing sight of other people to pursue a goal that will build your ego will direct you to a place where people may be impressed by your title or your material possessions, but you may risk jeopardizing true friendships along the way.  If you set out on a goal that only serves your ego, you also risk missing the chance to provide something meaningful and unique to the world. I am currently reading The Go-Giver by Bob Berg, and Berg would agree with this point of view.  He would argue that you can provide value and find success by chasing goals that only serve yourself, but that in order to reach a level of stratospheric success you must focus more on the value you provide to others.  This means that you must forget about your own ego and find goals that serve others as much as yourself.

 

Ultimately, I believe the problem with chasing a goal fueled by ego is the likelihood that you will burn out.  You run the chance of pushing yourself into situations that serve your ego rather than your purpose, and you miss out on actively working towards  goals that excite you and fuel a passion. In the end, aiming for greatness takes you away from happiness because your ego is built by your accomplishments and outside recognition.  If you abandon ego and learn to operate without requiring the praise and admiration of others, you can find a level of greatness where you understand that you are great independently of outside recognition and ego serving applause.