Self-preservation is the fundamental instinct and the driving force for living organisms. Yet humans are a social species, and we cooperate in groups. Altruistic behavior and self-sacrifice pretend to defy the self-preservation instinct. But they don’t. The Foundation Of Ethics Is Reciprocity Not “Pure Altruism,” and this is vital to understanding humanity.
I was motivated to write this article because someone posted the meme, “Be Good To People For No Reason,” and I responded by trying to explain that there is no such thing as unmotivated good behavior. Prosocial actions wrap around to benefit the individual. I say “trying to explain,” because a half dozen people on the thread treated me as if I were the proverbial skunk at the garden party. They insisted (in varying degrees) that unless good deeds are unmotivated by self-interest, they aren’t really good deeds at all.
This misconception is a part of the enduring sacred cow of unconditional love.
What’s wrong with “unconditional love?”
Unconditional love sounds good on paper. Who wouldn’t want to be able to count on someone who never wavered or stopped giving them love and support, no matter what? The closest analog would be the bond between a mother and her child. And it does get damn close–it’s common to hear mothers defending their children even when they commit heinous crimes like mass shootings. Extreme altruism toward close kin is explained in evolutionary terms by shared genetics. But almost every other social relationship is fully transactional, and how could it be otherwise?
Richard Dawkins’ classic of evolutionary psychology, The Selfish Gene is essential to understanding human behavior. The most important concept from the book is reciprocal altruism, or just reciprocity, as the foundation of ethics. The book is an eloquent, fact-based challenge to the idea of unmotivated good behavior. And this tends to fly in the face of religious and sentimental feelings. It shouldn’t. Because there’s no conflict between self-interest and good deeds. They come from the same impulse. A lot of people struggle with this paradox.
Belief in unmotivated deeds is similar to ‘creationism’
The cosmological argument for the existence of God uses the “uncaused cause” as its central premise. But the cosmological argument is really a form of argument from ignorance. We don’t know what caused the universe to spring into existence or what came before it. Some people use the crutch of a God “outside of space and time” as a stand-in answer to cover for our failure to find the real answer. As many others including Dawkins have pointed out, using God as “first cause” of the universe simply moves the problem back a step, to our lack of understanding of how a God capable of “causing” a universe came to be. It’s a problem of infinite regress.
We face the same unsolved problem when we promote unmotivated good behavior. It’s a kind of compensation for the fact that it’s scary to think that everyone’s out for themselves. It’s unpleasant to believe that we live in a world based entirely on ruthless competition. Fortunately, it’s only half true.
The premise of The Selfish Gene is that natural selection cultivated a balance between competition and cooperation. Metabolic organisms are forced to compete with one another for scarce resources. The gist of Dawkins’ argument is that organisms which evolved systems of cooperation and mutual aid outcompeted those which did not. Fitness for large-scale competition is improved by cooperation among social groups. That’s a revolutionary idea, because it integrates two perceived opposites. Cooperation and competition operate in tandem. Acts of goodness become simultaneously acts of self-interest.
The foundation of ethics is reciprocity
We should therefore abandon socially entrenched ideas about individual “goodness” and unconditional love. In terms of sheer persistence, such beliefs are every bit as stubborn as the belief in God. And that’s not a coincidence. Both are examples of anti-system, or open-loop thinking. I’ve linked to a short video demonstrating the difference between open-loop and closed-loop systems. These principles of system design can help elucidate the causes and cures of our social ills.
Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” proposes that we should design a society we’d be happy to inhabit, even if we’re ignorant of our class or ethnicity or gender in that society. The key to that thought experiment is design. Which means considering causes and incentives inherent in the structure of that society. In other words, if you want a desired result of “goodness,” you have to close the loop and use feedback to adjust the rules of the system.
The statement “Be Good To People For No Reason” violates causality, because it fails to consider reciprocity. If you understand cause and effect, then you understand that there is no possibility of an uncaused event. We know that people do good deeds. But those deeds do not occur in a vaccum, or represent “manna from heaven.” They are the fully motivated actions of living organisms, based either on reciprocity, or expectation of future reciprocity. We should want to understand this equation, so we can create future conditions where reciprocity is more likely to recur.
What makes this so important? The sentimental concept of “doing good for no reason” hasn’t accomplished good, nor has it solved the problem of evil. If anything, it’s perpetuated evil. Because if we don’t understand why someone does good deeds, we’ll never understand why they make the opposite choice, and we’ll struggle to hold anyone accountable for their actions. Accountability is the bare minimum standard for a reciprocal ethical system. That doesn’t mean just a system of punishment for bad deeds. It also means structuring rewards for good deeds for maximum social benefit.
The role of social networks in motivating goodness
Hardly anyone would argue with either of the following two statements:
- Good deeds should be rewarded
- Bad deeds should be punished
Yet they still expect people to do good without reasons or conditions. It defies explanation. We’re conflicted about this as a society. We recognize the need for rewards and punishments, yet we somehow also expect people to do good–unbidden–and to have an internal moral compass that’s absolute, and independent of social feedback. I find this perspective disturbing. Because it ignores the primary role of incentives to determine behavioral outcomes.
It’s not just the individual, nor just the society. The third consideration, is the structure of the network in which you live. This concerns who you’re connected to, and the strength of those connections. Every individual acts fractionally on everyone else in the network. The strength of the action depends on how far away the other person is in the network. The network in turn, acts on every individual within it.
This is why it’s pointless to talk generically about “goodness” or “love” or “honesty” or “compassion,” or any other quality that refers only to a single individual’s character traits. Those are, once again, open-loop considerations. What about when that person deviates from their character?
Instead, think in terms of a person’s track record of action, and about every behavior, for its impact on the network. What happens when a person does a kindness? Or what happens when someone in the network commits a wrong? Every act and behavior has ripple effects within the network that can lead to either strengthening or weakening of connections, or expulsion from the network. The network in turn, can modify that individual’s future behavior.
How networks curtail bad actors
For example, take a person who doles out small acts of kindness repeatedly to those close to her in the network. Some will return the favor and create a positive loop of reinforcement of kindness. That’s a good network to be in. But then there might also be a person in the network who takes advantage of kindness and does nothing in return, or even causes harm through hostile actions.
An antisocial person can view a kind person as a threat, because the kind person is building social capital and strengthening connections. That’s why parasitic people often deliberately undermine the kind ones with gossip and backbiting. To survive, people in that network will eventually have to recognize what’s going on, and break connections to the parasitic person. Failure to do so over time will result in loss of capacity for continued virtue and reciprocity.
Looking at the aftermath, imagine that the parasitic person has been expelled from one position in the network. They will keep trying to find other positions, or other networks to attach themselves where people aren’t as wise to their behavior. In order to find a new place in society, they will have to at the very least spoof kindness, at least for a while. And then it becomes a constant game of trying to extract as many resources as possible from that new position in the network, without being recognized as parasitic.
Every person and relationship has to be evaluated in these terms of inputs and outputs, and whether they are helping keep the network in balance. It sounds cold and clinical, but this is what your brain is doing all the time, as you decide whether or not you “like” someone, or you “trust” someone, or whether you need to cut ties with someone. You get a good or bad feeling about them, and that means your brain is doing thousands of score-keeping calculations subconsciously, and feeding you the result in the form of an actionable good or bad feeling.
This process never ends. And it’s why expecting unmotivated good behavior is so damaging, and incompatible with reality.
The fatally flawed incentives of capitalism
Beyond small interpersonal groups, our social incentives are badly broken. We live in a new Gilded Age of inequality, where extreme wealth is not coupled with extreme accountability, but rather with extreme exemption from laws and social norms. Wealthy capitalists, on the other hand reliably respond to the existence of poverty, with victim-blaming.
For the wealthy, it’s easy to shroud their self-interest in ostentatious displays of philanthropy. Billionaires mold and evade laws to avoid paying taxes. And they further reduce their tax bills by giving vast sums to charity. But when you examine billionaire philanthropy, you’ll recognize it as a further entrenchment of their power.
Religion is similar. In 2016 in the United States alone, religion was more than a $1 trillion per year enterprise, bigger than Amazon, Google, Apple and seven other large tech companies–combined. Yet this huge enterprise is exempt from both taxation and government oversight.
The primary rationale for religious tax exemption is separation of church and state, which I support. But a secondary justification is that religious organizations provide social benefits that would otherwise require government funding. In practice, religions use most of their tax exempt funds for self-promotion and empire-building. For example, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon Church) is worth $100 billion.
Voluntary vs. “compulsory” charity
Proponents of religious charity and private philanthropy make the claim that these efforts are ethically superior because they are voluntary, in contrast with “forced taxation.” This highlights the disconnect between open-loop (voluntary) approaches, and closed-loop (compulsory) systems. Open-loop systems of charity are also broadly unaccountable for producing improved outcomes. No one is auditing churches to determine if their tax-exempt money is actually doing anything for society.
Taxation by governments to provide social goods may appear involuntary. This is a foundational belief among right-libertarians who sneer at the idea of a social contract. I’ve written about my own past rejection of anti-government beliefs. The beauty of a system of democratic self-government, is that taxation is with the consent of the governed. If a population wants to provide a safety net, it can vote to tax itself to fund social goods like health care and public education and housing. Progressive taxation can require those with higher incomes and greater wealth to provide a greater share of their resources to funding these priorities.
This takes “goodness” out of the hands of individuals and diffuses it to the entire society. It establishes a system less reliant on individual good behavior. By giving up a portion of financial “freedom to” keep all of one’s money, people can decide en masse, to grant themselves “freedom from” extreme destitution. This is how “kindness” and “goodness” are inextricably bound up with public policy. Whether you vote for prosocial or antisocial economic policy is a far stronger indicator of your ethics, than any amount of charitable giving.
Doing good feels good, and increases social capital
To sum up, humans do good because we get something in return–the basic premise of reciprocal altruism. There’s no end to seeming exceptions involving self-sacrifice, like the proverbial soldier jumping on a grenade to save their unit. But if you dig deeply enough into the exceptions, you’ll find some connection to self-preservation on the larger scale of group and nation. At the moment of self-immolation, the hero believes that their sacrifice accomplishes a greater good. They die with a sense of purpose and self-worth, bought at the price of their lives.
Others strike a middle ground, such as donating a kidney that will reduce their own quality of life, to save a family member. In turn, their relationship with that family member is strengthened, and they gain the satisfaction of continued mutual affection with that person, instead of having to bury and mourn them.
Most of us will never face such consequential decisions. But our smaller acts of goodness still provide a reliable return on investment. And that’s why we do them. They increase our sense of belonging, our social capital, and bring more kindness in return. It’s a virtuous cycle, and benefitting from that cycle is nothing to be ashamed of.