Weeks had passed. Gordon’s self loathing from his failure in the river was a crushing weight that visibly sank his shoulders. He had started consuming more and more, trying but failing to sleep more and more, just wishing for the days to pass. Drinking from a standing pool Gordon looked at himself, looked into his own eyes, the self loathing made him recoil but he forced himself to stare at the bear like creature gazing back at him. He headed back through the glade, back for the river. This time he stayed in the water longer, this time he almost caught a fish. But eventually, despite the screaming in his head to tough it out born from the hard won knowledge of the horrors of quitting, he did not persevere, he had failed again. But the next morning when he awoke surrounded by snack wrappers and bottles he thought to himself, I might not be good at being a bear, but I am better at being a bear than I was the day before. With renewed vigor he once again trekked to the river, and he did so almost every day until he became proficient at catching fish, and hardened against the cold. In the glade he caught a deer, in the forest he ate from bushes. He still slipped from the path occasionally, raiding the humans and drinking their fiery water. But he did not fill himself with loathing when he did so anymore, he knew nothing good lay down that path. Instead, Gordon focused on being a little better, a little more of a bear every day, tolerating his mistakes without justifying or excusing them. He would no longer let himself be miserable, or at least stay that way. Gordon was a bear and it was early April, mating season would be soon.
Economics is a powerful tool, but it does possess its blind spots. We assume that the choices people make are rational ones, and to a large degree this is likely true. But I fear that the modern world often lays before us an easy path, a path that our instincts compel us to follow and yet if we heed their call, we will find ourselves living an empty existence. The following is the tale of an anthropomorphized bear named Gordon that encapsulates the treachery of following the easy path. A similar situation has been observed in nature with baboon colonies near eco tourism resorts, the baboons breaking apart their social structures maladaptivly clinging to the easy nourishment found in bounty of human refuse.
Gordon awoke in his cave, hangover piecing his skull. He shuddered as he became filled with self loathing. Instinctively he reaches his paw to the bottles laying next to him to numb the aching chasm, but finds them woefully empty. Licking at an empty bottle he is forced into an uncomfortable clarity, at this point all he is empty, living each day as pointless as the last. He thinks back to his childhood as a young bear. Hunting, fishing for salmon, foraging for berries with his mother, playing with his brother. Those difficult times, those happy times.
Life had changed ever since the humans had built a campsite near him. He had discovered at first by accident what a simple thing it was, walking into an occupied campsite, watching as the humans fled before him, leaving behind their camping provisions. No chase, no frigid water, no gnawing at bushes, just food. He ate until sated reveling in the ease of acquiring the bounty before him. It was later that he would discover the fiery water they so often brought with them. That was the beginning of the end he reflected, that is what had transformed him from a noble beast into what he was now, alive, fat, miserable.
He reflected, he knew. He vowed, he vowed he would go back on the path, the path bears should follow. Rising from his cave to drink from a nearby stream he planned it all out, he would no longer take from the humans, he would once again hunt, once again fish, once again forage. As he thought this, he plucked up his massive shoulders and headed to a nearby river that he recalled from his youth. It had been a long time since he had walked this far, he could feel his limited endurance, but determined he pressed on. There were voices he heard, in the strange high pitch tone of man. He disregarded them and walked on, his legs growing ever more tired supporting his girth. “I must press on!” Gordon the bear vowed to himself.
A vow which started to decrease and decrease in volume, as it was drowned out by all of the justifications that began to flood his mind. It was okay he told himself, just once more, tomorrow would be another day. He turned around and headed for the voices.
He woke up, this time instead of childhood he thought of Guindalin.
She was a female, she was his mate, they had gotten along, but who would want what he had become? His heart surged, beating uncontrollably, he tried his best to suppress it, managing to do so only for a few scant minutes at a time. Today is his day to reform, he can’t give in, he lay there like that for an hour or two and then Gordon the bear could bear it no more.
Reaching for the bottles next to him he found there were a few left from yesterdays raid, he bit their tops off, desperately consuming them. It is okay he said, tomorrow will be a another day.
Another morning another drunken haze, what is the point of this life? To follow the easy path was spiritual suicide. Today is the day, Gordon steeled his resolve. He headed for the stream again. This time, undeterred by the voices coming from the forest. He arrived at the glade on the way to the fishing spot, it was just as beautiful just as pristine as ever, but was it always so hot, where there always so many flies and mosquitoes? Pausing he listened for deer, remembering they were once prevalent there, but his dulled senses picked up nothing. He carried onward to the river and waded in, he did it, he made it, he was going to be a real bear once again. The water robbed him of his warmth more rapidly than he remembered, the fish moved faster than he remembered, his paws responded slower than he remembered. He decided to take a break from the cold water, just a break. He heard those familiar voices in the distance.
Tomorrow is another day.
This story is old enough that I finally feel comfortable enough sharing it.
Sometimes it feels like I am cursed. I have a disease known as Ehlers Danlos III which affects connective tissue, making it weaker. It isn’t all downsides as my extremely elastic nature has likely saved me from broken bones on more than one occasion, from crashing my bike several times going over 30 miles an hour, to being hit by a bus etc. Something like that happens, usually a few things will be thrown out of joint, I pop them back into place and walk (well limp) home. So why wouldn’t everyone have this quasi super power? Well the flip side of so much flexibility, is that this condition, is to put it mildly, extremely painful with many dislocations and sublexations every day. Normal things like standing can cause me so much pain that I can become drenched in sweat. When I stand, I picture my knees as two ropes slowly tearing strand by strand under the load.
I tried everything to deal with it, and everything to hide it. I have obviously become more open with it over time especially after I needed to start walking with a cane (which I no longer need! But that is a subject for another post concerning scientism) and outgrew some of my youthful pride. I started using knee brace at one point, which failed so catastrophically in class one day that they forced my knee out of socket while I was trying to explain international trade, which didn’t go particularly well for my composure.
So I stopped using them, only to find that the problem had gotten much worse. I remember to this day I was feigning my way through a conversation while walking to the dining hall in so much pain I thought I might faint. With almost every step separating my lower leg from my upper leg only for me to strategically put my foot down to force it back so I wouldn’t topple over. I remember this because lots of people with the condition end up on heavy doses of opioids, on disability, in wheelchairs, at that moment I vowed to myself that wasn’t going to be me. I vowed I would embrace any pain that would make me better, and I did. In particular I found biking to be a great way to both strengthen my knees and improve my mood by randomly exploring Beijing and the areas around it. I put a lot of love and care into that bike, it had an internal gear hub so you can change gears even when stopped, important for me because trying to start at a high gear really damages my knees. Walking was still not easy, I certainly couldn’t run, and taking the subway was far too painful, I came to see my bike kind of like a wheelchair.
Things were getting better, and after watching Jiro Dreams of Sushi I decided to treat myself to a tour of Japan including even a reservation at the place itself.
Then I started going blind. I had very good vision, but suddenly everything became blurry beyond measure where I could barely make out text or recognize faces. At the same time I was always hungry, always thirsty, and yet I lost thirty pounds in a month, my hair was falling out. I tried to stay in denial for as long as possible, I just started figuring out how to solve one problem certainly I didn’t need to develop a new one. But I did, my immune system at 26 had decided to declare war on my pancreas, and by god it won. Googling type 1 diabetes the first paper I came across discussed the lifespan decrease, which was… significant. I had to get used to giving myself constant injections, to constantly pricking my finger, to almost losing consciousness when I made an overestimate. My girlfriend at the time broke up with me for strictly eugenic reasons. I cancelled my trip, I didn’t want to be too adventurous when I was just learning to use my body whose transmission I had suddenly found changed from an automatic to a manual. Historically I have been very prone to depression, and it certainly didn’t help matters, I started to feel like Sisyphus when it looks like the bolder is about to reach its point of stability, it instead falls.
At some point I forced myself out of it, deciding to instead do a bike sushi tour of Beijing. That winter break I rode for many hundreds of miles, and befriended the head sushi chef at the place that turned out to be my favorite of the ten or so I tried. There I did it, that bolder is just about…
And then on one fateful trip to the grocery store my bike was stolen and it rolled right back down.
I had put so much work into it, even changed out the ball bearings in the wheels. After a few days when I realized the chance of its recovery was about zero, I went to the store where I bought it, they no longer sold internal gear hub bikes though… No one did, I checked, and I checked, and I checked. After about another month of wallowing in misery, both of my conditions were deteriorating. Eventually I broke down and bought a cheap $40 bike to take me to and from work, but it couldn’t exactly take me around the city at any reasonable speed. I tried normal bikes, but every unexpected stop or slowdown tore up my knees, not exactly a great thing in a city of 22 million.
My teaching assistant at the time, a caring girl called all over Beijing looking for a place that sold bikes with internal gear hubs. She finally found one! I had purchased the hub assembly earlier from the internet so all I needed was someone who could work with them.
What preceded was what I vividly recall as one of the worst days of my life.
I took some time off to leave work early that Friday, their website said it is located in Sanlitun, just about the busiest place in Beijing, especially on a Friday. I get there and… nothing no store. I called them in my less than perfect Chinese and found out that the previous week they moved 12 km south and didn’t update any of their information yet.
Getting a taxi those days could be really hard as the price of taxis was set too low. So I stood there holding my box with the hub in it trying my best to get a taxi for over thirty minutes. All this time a motorized rickshaw driver was hassling me, I kept telling him it was too far, he kept insisting otherwise. Exhausted from pain I called them and had them give him the directions, he says he knows where it is and quotes me about 15 dollars. Da Peng was his name, chain smoking Da Peng making off color comments about women, well I wasn’t paying him for the company.
He changed the price to 25 shortly after we started going, rickshaw drivers are not prized for their honesty so I half way expected it and simply acquiesced.
He had no idea where it was. Checking my app I saw he wasn’t even going in the right direction, pointing to the actual location he in shock told me, that is too far! Sigh. I negotiated with him to at least take me to a nearby subway station… which he couldn’t manage either. In frustration I just told him to stop, having made no appreciable advance towards my destination. He wanted to add my wechat (Chinese social media platform) which I grudgingly did, he then pressured me for all the money, even though he didn’t really make any of the trip, and so once again I grudgingly acquiesced, I am not one to fight. A general policy of mine is not to fight over surplus, if someone exploits me I find it cheaper to just let them and stop dealing with them in the future. Though I admit this particular instance still kinda bugs me, I never did accept his repeated friend requests, I think some people must be truly atrocious at reading a situation, I really do.
Eventually hours after my original departure I am finally in a taxi heading to the location, it would be worth it once I had a new bike. But as fate would have it, they had no idea how to work with the internal gear hub I brought, and only would work with a $5000 dollar model, attached with a $5000 bike for… $10000. Now I really wanted a new bike, with an internal gear hub, but my old bike was $130 and it got stolen… After about an hour discussion, I realized there was no way to convince myself to spend that much. I thanked them, picked up my box and found a taxi to take me to my favorite bar (now closed) which was on the way home, a bar I had discovered on a random bike ride during that winter break. I had a drink and talked with the bartender who was at that point a good friend of mine, but realized I had forgotten my insulin and blood sugar tester at home. So I left after one drink, outside the rain was pouring. Trying to get a taxi in Beijing when it was raining was like chasing after wild rabbits, just because you see them doesn’t mean you can catch them.
I was soaked, I had been cheated, I had spent so much money and got nowhere, it was hopeless, and all the standing put me in excruciating pain. There I stood in the middle of a thunderstorm without an umbrella holding onto my box. I reflected on how unfair life was waiting for a taxi that would never come. After 30 minutes I realized it was late, no taxi would come, and I should make it to the subway before it closes, maybe on the accursed day I will at least get a seat.
I walk into the station, it is practically empty, I spot an ice cream machine, one of those automated deals where you can watch it prepare a cone for you. I hadn’t tasted ice cream since diagnosis, I missed ice cream, they had rum raisin, I hadn’t had that flavor in years. I shouldn’t, I don’t have my insulin, for all I know the stress and pain has already made me a treat for sweet toothed vampires, but you know what? Screw it, just screw everything. I bought the ice cream and walked to the platform. There wallowing in my misery I saw a couple, the man was obviously blind, he was holding a trash bag, the woman was digging through the trash for recyclables, at 10:30 at night. My self pity immediately changed from feeling like a righteous response against an unjust world to overly indulgent petulance. I looked at the still unopened ice cream in my hand and thought, when was the last time they got to taste ice cream? I walked over and awkwardly gave it to them, she took a bite and visually sank into the flavor, then gave her husband a bite and I watched as his hardened continence transformed into a mask of youthful joy that only such simple pleasures as rum raisin can provide. I thought to myself, how much happier was it for me to give them the ice cream than I would have been after angrily consuming it for a minute and then subsequently basting in blood sugar for the hour ride home. Then I thought some more, I opened up my wallet to see what was left, about 300 yuan (45 dollars), I hand it to them, at first the lady gives a meek protest but then gladly accepts the money. The last train had arrived, and hey I got a seat. I sat and thought about things, I had gone from being at my most miserable, to in a state that was almost serene. Was there any use of that money that would have made me, in the very selfish and narrow meaning of that word happier or better off? No.
The next day I decided to be more positive and once again thought about how I can be less miserable. Though my cheap bike couldn’t go fast I could try to explore the local area some more: I always went right or left at the subway line, but never straight, that is something to try, going straight. So I went straight and I passed by this little hole in the wall(literally) bike shop, just for fun I thought I would check it out. Turns out, the guy who ran it was deeply passionate about bikes, building custom bikes, and yes as unbelievable as it sounds, internal gear hubs. I commissioned two bikes from him and they are still the bikes I use today. To think what I needed had always been a scarce two miles away. So there, a happy ending. A weirdly almost scripted sounding happy ending. Well if we leave it exactly there anyway, but it is a lesson and a story that forms one of the core stories I tell myself to keep me moving forward, not that I don’t stumble still, it is natural to stumble but I always manage to pick myself up(so far).
Realize that we all suffer, realize we suffer unequally, realize life is unfair, but realize that there are those whose lives you would be horrified to switch with, that go about life, contently as they can, making the most of what they can. Don’t wallow in your own misery, even if it seems deserved, it doesn’t even help you, sometimes the best way to help yourself is to move your focus away from yourself, to others, to the world around you, to see what you can do to help. When bad things happen to me and I notice I have been focusing too much on my own narrow interests, I try to remember the story, snap myself out and open up rather than close down. I have found helping others to be the only sustainable way to improve my mood and outlook.
I still remember the line I had from my elementary school production of Shakespeare which seems apt (I still remember because hammed it up so hard while delivering the lines)
Thou seest we are not all alone unhappy:
For in this wide and global theatre
Surely there is a tale more woeful than thee
(While double checking I found that this is actually a bastardization of the original quote, but I like the bastardization better so tough)
You are walking home, in your pocket is the new iPhone XIII plus which cost you $2000, but it will be so worth it when everyone sees how cool you are. I mean the new phone is a bit big, and it is stuck in your pocket currently, but just wait until you get a pair of iPants! You are staying with a relative who lives in a rural area and on your way you come across a child drowning, you are a good swimmer and you could save them, but you can’t get your iPhone out of your pocket and you don’t have enough time to take your pants off to save the child. Would you save the child knowing it would destroy your shiny new phone? How would you feel about others facing the same situation who refuses to save the child?
For that same money you can actually save a child right now as philosopher Peter Singer is quick to point out, so in reality everyday of your life you are making this decision over and over and over. If you are morally obligated to save the child drowning, why would you not be obligated save the child you will never meet in some far flung country? You can try to create all the justifications you want, but at the end of the day, it is hard to say that a life is anything other than a life, be they right in front of you or thousands of miles away. Singer’s answer is that since it is a moral obligation to save the drowning child, you must also save the children far away if you want to live a moral life.
I agree that the moral logic of the one case must be the same as the moral logic of the other, but my answer is that in neither case are you obligated to save the child. His case is that intuitively you must save the child in front of you, and logically far away children are an extension of this intuition. If you take the logic of moral obligation to its logical conclusions there isn’t a single human existing who would not be immoral. Plugging my income into his website thelifeyoucansave (a great website BTW) I am told I should donate only about 1,200 dollars a year, though of course it is relatively easy for me to save and donate significantly more than that. So how then would the $1,200 fulfill my moral obligation? Following the logic, I am obligated instead to give as much as possible, indeed I should also try to earn as much as possible to give. Imagine we take it a step further and say I am morally culpable for the deaths that I could have prevented, in that case by choosing to be a teacher instead of working in finance I am likely responsible for more deaths than a serial killer who likely has a much lower earning potential and so the difference between the lives I am responsible for are greater, even though he actually killed someone and I probably save a few.
Most people are not even weak forms of effective altruists, but do their lives make the world a better or worse place? If the typical person living their typical life has worth and makes the world better, why would it be immoral?
I think the solution lies in this; each person is worth one person and them going about living their lives is morally neutral, unless they take some position of obligation for others, they are not obligated towards the welfare of others. However, with this logic since each person matters, how you affect other people also matters, not because of you, but because of them. We can see someone who saves millions of people and to a degree they matter more, not because they matter more, but because the people they help do. So certainly a life where you help others is morally better, and one where you hurt others is morally worse.
The difference between the two cases though is real, but it is one of moral judgment, not morality. It is perfectly normal to ignore the suffering of those we do not see, but ignoring suffering that we do see is a good indicator that we are callous and cold. As in the previous essay I argued that moral judgments primarily exist to judge others utility equation in order to assess how they will behave with regards to yourself (functionally this is how it works, obviously you are not thinking hey that guy is nice to his dog, if we had children he would likely treat them well, you think aww that guy is nice to his dog and feel a little more attracted). A person not saving a child in front of them gives you information that they are likely less compassionate and cooperative, a person not giving away all their money is perfectly normal so doesn’t tell us anything about the person. Imagine a world where every day you went to work or school you and everyone else passed by dozens of children you knew could be saved for $2000 dollars, how quickly would you and those around you become numb to it?
So it is good to do good for others, and better to do more good than less, but I think it is a mistake to make it a moral imperative as Singer does. But many things in the world are logarithmic, with quality on the Y axis and price on the X axis, simply avoiding money traps and being more conscious of how you spend money it is easy to save more and of those savings you can do some serious good. Imagine a video game with a quest that allows you to protect thousands of people from a deadly disease, in real life that is a quest most of us privileged enough to be born into affluent nations can complete.
I don’t think we should try to convince people out of guilt or obligation. Tying things to negative emotions I don’t believe is even likely to lead to the most people, giving the most the most effectively. Giving should be a positive thing if it is to be sustained. Instead I want to focus on empathy, and the benefits to the giver themselves, which will be the topic of my next post.
The repugnant conclusion is one of the clearest cases of realms where our natural moral intuition won’t work. It is very easy to picture happier people it is impossible to meaningfully picture more people.
We can’t even feel a difference between the idea of a thousand people dying and millions. Our intuition is important but it is equally important to realize our moral intuitive blind spots.
“Unbridled altruism is a huge vice of mine,’ he explained. ‘I simply have to do good. I am a sensible dwarf, however, and know that I’m unable to do everyone good. Were I to attempt to be good to everyone, to the entire world and to all the creatures living in it, it would be a drop of fresh water in the salt sea. In other words, a wasted effort. Thus, I decided to do specific good; good which would not go to waste. I’m good to myself and my immediate circle.”
Altruism is a trait that we normally find to be highly attractive in others… to an extent. Even if you don’t know who this Zoltan person is, you probably already like him, and would welcome him as a friend. We see someone take good care of the pets, helping the local community, or volunteering at a soup kitchen and we think to ourselves; this is a good person, they would likely make a good friend (well not those exact words but you get my meaning). But as the recent effective altruism movement points out, these altruistic actions are almost never the most possible good that could be done using those resources. That is, for the same effort, we could usually find other things that would help others significantly more. Usually this is in very poor countries where many people suffer with debilitating problems that are for us, cheap to solve. In fact, experiments show that donations do not scale with how much good they are purported to do, and that actually people will think of you as a less good person if they know you put a lot of thought into how you can really help the most people with a given amount of money. I would argue this is because moral judgment is focused on learning about what sort of a person an individual is and is often separated from morality.
Imagine we have the greatest altruist that ever lived, his whole life is spent maximizing the healthy life years he adds to people, working constantly and giving everything away except for enough consumption to just keep his production ability up. He reads all the studies and only donates to the charity with the highest expected value per dollar, he values everyone in the world including himself totally equally. This person might already seem a bit strange to you, but let us think of the further implications.
Imagine his mother comes down with a condition that she cannot pay to treat, she will die without the $40,000 operation, an operation her dear child could afford. But he refuses, stating that she is a person, an old person with limited years left and that the same money is very likely to be able to save at least 10 children, since each person is of the same value it would be horrible to do such a thing as to save his own mother, he gives her his sympathies but nothing else.
How do you feel about this fellow? Would you want to be good friends with them? Would you want to be their partner, knowing he would treat you just as well as he would any stranger?
My guess is no.
This person probably saves hundreds or perhaps thousands of people over the course of his life, so even if you find him too alien to matter, those perfectly normal folk he will save do. In terms of benefit to the world there is no doubt this man is a moral giant, but at the same time, we might even see him as a bad person.
Imagine a different example; let us call it, the case of evil Bill Gates. In this world, Bill Gates still devotes himself to giving away his fortune in a reasonably efficient manner, saving millions of people over the course of his life, but unlike the real world, (well hopefully) Bill Gates he is also a secret serial killer who stalks and kills 2 people every year. What kind of person is Bill Gates? Overall is the world better or worse with him in it? I think the answers are somewhat inarguably, a bad one, and a better world.
Well just picture the world with him in it, all of those people not losing children, all those people living their lives, all the sorrow prevented in their deaths, and while it might be true the murder victims lose their life and that their families suffer greatly, this is playing out on an infinitesimally smaller scale than the reverse situation. Maybe you don’t think it would be moral to kill 20 innocents to prevent the Holocaust, but hopefully you can still agree it would have been better that only 20 died from the Nazi’s efforts, especially if you are not the one making the decision.
Nevertheless, we would still call him a monster if we found out. We wouldn’t want him near our loved ones either would we? If he is caught it is also clear that he should still be punished normally because having exceptions to murder laws for those with significant philanthropic endeavors would likely lead to an even worse world.
Imagine a pedophile who never acts on his horrible urges, and manages to go through life up to that point completely denying that part of himself. Given he did not choose his attraction, but suffers for it so as not to hurt others. It is much harder for him to live a moral life than for you or me. So does that in some way make him more commendable, more moral than someone born differently? If you answered yes, do you want him to babysit your children?
Our systems of judging others morality is fairly self-serving; someone being generous with those around them tells us that they would likely make a good partner or ally. Those ignoring people around them to benefit far off strangers might make the world overall a better place if you really think about it, but they would make for a rubbish ally. We use people’s actions as a way to get to know their utility equation, what they are likely to do in the future. Is this necessarily a bad thing? I guess it kinda depends on some normative views that go past the purview of this short(ish) essay. But undoubtedly many so-called moral paradoxes stem from the failure to separate the logic of morality of different world states and the intuition of moral judgments we have towards individuals. Continue reading “Are True Altruists Monsters?”
It is often said that money is the root of all evil. Let us then try to imagine a world where it doesn’t exist. Right now, every day, you interact with millions upon millions of people that are just as unaware of you as you are of them. The simplest product you could possibly imagine was created through an unimaginably vast and complex system of trade. Just try to imagine the most simple thing that you can, then ask, what is it made of? Is it made of wood? Where is the wood from? Who chopped down the wood, who made the breakfast of the person who chopped down the wood, who made the tools used to chop it down, what are those tools made of? Where were those materials mined, who created the mining machines, who mined the materials to make the machines to make the machines to mine the materials to make the equipment to chop down the wood? How did they get their breakfast? Who grew the food to make the ingredients, where did their equipment come from? As you can hopefully tell the complexity of such a system is functionally boundless.
In the modern globalized world, trade links us all in a great and tangled web. An invisible web that goes without our notice with each of the billions of nodes going about their day, consuming that which was produced by an army of strangers, and laboring to provide benefit to others, most likely others whose names, faces, and lives will always remain separate and unknown to them. Though our interactions with friends and family are governed by more than just narrow material interest (hopefully) the fact that we don’t typically give those who consume the fruits of our labors much thought, the fact that we don’t imagine the complex web behind every pencil, behind every meal, shows that when we are participating in markets, the welfare of our fellow man is far from our top concern.
Imagine someone who gets up every morning and spends 12 hours screwing chip x1231to board area v11 hundreds of times. What induces this person to work so feverishly at such a mundane task? Is he, with each screw imaging the smiling faces of happy customers whose Bluetooth will function correctly because he did his job? Or do you find it more likely that he wakes up every morning, dreading work but undergoing it for the sole purpose of acquiring resource tokens (aka money) to improve his own position and that of those close to him? In turn, the employer is willing to part with his own money, not because he enjoys seeing that worker’s smiling face each morning but instead because without the vital screw the phone would lose more money in lost sales than it costs to hire our intrepid phone assembly line worker. Each in the chain gives to each other something that is valuable to the receiver, not because of feelings of affection, but with regards to their own self interest.
It is even true that those who consume the fruit of your labors are very unlikely to be the same people from which you claim resources from. As a teacher, I am in the lucky position of being in direct contact with those former strangers that I find myself serving (students), but why should this matter to the Australian rancher I import my steak from? I contact him and let him know “Yeah the other day I worked with Xinling who you don’t know and will never meet on supply and demand, so please send me a nice section of rib-eye, thanks!”. The school pays me because the parents pay the school with the money they earn from their varied labors for others that then pay them, a Chinese middleman then converts my RMB to AUS, trading with an Australian whom has an eye on acquiring something in China or intent to trade with another Australian who does, and then the rancher is finally paid in the currency others around him are willing to accept so that he can manage to gain a more valuable set of resources than the resources he invested into making the section of rib-eye. Delivery men and women then are given access to enough resources tokens such that they would prefer them over the additional leisure that not delivering the steak would have allowed for. A complex chain of events that culminates in my full stomach. That is the modern world, a bunch of strangers doing favors for other strangers that won’t be directly reciprocated. This is because they believe other strangers are also willing to accept the claims those strangers are giving them because those other strangers share in this vital belief.
The idea of such a system, of such a distant and cold link between you and the rest of the world, most likely strikes you as alien and perhaps a little disturbing. The fact that your way of life relies almost solely on those whose intentions towards you are selfish is something worth the occasional reflection.
But what then is the alternative? What alternate systems can we create if we cut the in innumerous lose threads that bind us? How could consumption and production be organized if we got rid of money?
Well… then things get a little complicated, how now can I induce people I don’t know to do work for me? Perhaps some people will still wish to do work, in fact, in a world of abolished money I am certain others would still seek to show their abilities, concerning themselves with the writing of books and poetry, of composing songs and sonnets, of sculpting and painting. (Art and self-expression are important things, but they aren’t the only things we want or need, in fact, the world already burgeons with more of these than any human could ever consume in a lifetime). But what about the hard and unpleasant jobs? How can you possibly get someone to devote themselves to performing a task like our assembly line worker without some way of increased betterment?
Let’s say you have a bike maker, why do we think he will make, of his own free and without incentives enough bikes? The types of bikes people want? That enough people will choose bike making? That all the important people who forged the components to make the bike will want to make enough, that all those who need to mine the materials necessary will choose this unpleasant labor for no reward and so on. You, a stranger, merely wanting something is a poor motivator to call others into action, especially when each individual faces an infinite sea of strangers filled with wants; the total of which would far exceed that which can be made even in the best of circumstances. No, the traditional pre money forms of cooperation are unfortunately limited to a smaller scale.
The production of the globalized world we have today would be well out of reach in such a world. The wide cooperation is what allows for us to have so much specialization, such that the items in our lives which in the past would have been dear, have often become so cheap as to border on the disposable. I can get someone in Australia, a country of sprawling grasslands and therefore relatively cheap grass-fed beef to wake up in the morning and work partially to ensure my full stomach because I can do them a favor in return, or well, I can trade favors that others gave me for the rancher to collect from someone else, but I have no hope of doing so without this system of tradable favors. I might be able to convince my neighbor to help me at my farm, given I help him in his farm, but this is just a more direct form of trading favors, a more limited way, a way that is not different in essence to using money, but vastly poorer.
The Power and Limitations of Love
If the rule is instead “none shall be allowed to reciprocate that which they are given” so that production and consumption are totally divorced, and that at the same time, we are each perfectly free to pursue whatever endeavor we wish, well, I want you to really and truly imagine what such a world looks like, and how far our cooperation with each other could then extend. The world we have today can exist and function only because so many choose pursuits, that in and of themselves are not their first pick of most enjoyable activity, but are still of great value to others precisely because those others are willing to provide them with sufficient compensation. In a world devoid of reciprocity and devoid of force only unconditional love could provide a motivator to undergo unpleasant tasks to help others, such a thing we could only expect to regularly occur at the level of the family.
If I said that ten thousand people died in a famine how would you feel? What if I said it was one million? Or if I said forty million? Does it make any difference in the way you look feel, will one effect you, motivate you, four thousand times as much? If you have trouble with such large distinctions, as do we all, what makes you think even in the unlikely event that you wanted to, you would be capable of making daily decisions that reflected the best interests of everyone else?
Instead of letting people give to each other based on reciprocity, you could still perhaps manage larger scale cooperation of their efforts than just those very close to them. You could also motivate them to complete specific tasks with the threat of force. This is a model that could most likely work to some limited degree but suffers from some drawbacks. First of all, it hardly sounds like the Utopian vision those who decry money would wish to conjure. Instead of allowing people to be rewarded for choosing to labor for others, you instead punish those who do not follow the labors you put before them. Also, you also could not fully escape some level of reciprocity in such a system, as how could you motivate those who do the work of monitoring and punishing?
Even if those who choose the work for others had possession of both an incorruptible spirit and angelic benevolence(a very big if), they would find it a tall task to play Santa for the entire country. Determining who wants what, and how much they want it relative to others, who should, in the end, get what, and who should be responsible for producing what, this is well beyond a cleanly solvable logistical problem(see the use of knowledge in society by Hayek for more on this point).
On Reciprocity Without Money
In the end, though, these are the three forces that can bring others to work for each other: altruism, force, and reciprocity. To have a big complex voluntary world, the system must ultimately be based on reciprocity.
You could imagine that instead of money we, went more direct and had a tradable favor system, where people wrote down the tasks they would be willing to complete, or the goods they are willing to trade and these pieces of paper could be traded to each other. So you as a farmer might trade food IOU’s (I owe you) for farming equipment, and the person selling this farming equipment, might claim some of that IOU themselves and trade the rest to others who have things he wants and want food. The central problem with such a system is that it while being a little more manageable and allowing for easier trade than having no trade, it still restricts you to trading within the group of people whom could track down the IOU’s of. What tends to happen in such a system is that people come across a good that they expect others to want and as a result are willing to trade for that good, even if they have no use for it themselves, this is essentially a commodity currency. If instead people had general “favor tokens” that they traded with each other, to show how big a favor the other person did for them, and you need to trade enough of these tokens to get someone to voluntarily agree to a trade, then congratulations, you have money.
Back to Money
Anyway, the point is you can’t leave the world of money, because without money it is too hard to make cooperation work on a complex worldwide scale. But if the nature of money is something so core to being human, reciprocity, why does anyone think that it is a bad thing?
Well, money gets a bad rap partially because people don’t understand what it really does, what it really allows. Long descriptions of favor-trading are unlikely to raise ire quite the same way as when people discuss money and markets more generally. While we might be distrustful of others if we know their motives to be selfish, I do not believe that this by itself is enough to create the level of animosity people show towards trade. If the essence of trade is always pure voluntary reciprocalness, as we have thus far discussed, it would most likely be easier to convince people of its merits. The world, however, is a more complicated place than that. The following are some of the possible problems people can have with such a system.
Sometimes Outcomes Are Not Ideal
Sometimes people will accumulate favors, not by doing favors for others, but instead by tricking people into thinking they will receive favors that they will not receive, like someone getting others involved in scams, or selling fake goods that quickly break. This is fraud and it is a reason money isn’t equal to reciprocity.
Sometimes people will accumulate favors, by simply taking them from others, either through stealth, the unofficial use of force, or even in some cases the official use of force. They can also print favor tokens lowering the value of favor tokens, counterfeiting, an indirect way of stealing. More cases that someone acquires favors without any actual reciprocity.
Sometimes people possess very little ability to do valuable favors for others, other times through luck, skill, hard-work, circumstance, or most likely some combination of all of them; people can gain with relatively little time, vast sums of favors. This can lead to vast differences in how well people can live, and given that there is less benefit to a person for additional favors the more favors that they have, we might be argue that it would be an improvement to use force to redistribute earned favors from those with many to those with few, or taking some of those earned favors to ensure that everyone is guaranteed some basic favors will be performed for them.
Sometimes people are in a dire situation and the only favors they can perform to stay alive or to help their family are things we find too degrading or too demeaning.
Sometimes a person amassed a great number of favors, giving command of these favors to children or relatives that themselves contributed little to nothing for the world.
Sometimes people agree to do favors for someone else, but the favor that they do causes harm to people outside of the agreement.
Sometimes even though a favor might be valuable, no one wants to do it because since the benefit is too widespread, those providing it would be unable to reap the rewards of their actions.
You could argue that a focus on collecting favors from others can lead people to become too obsessed with interacting in the large weak web, driven by avarice, ignoring the closer tighter connections that one may argue life is truly about. Indeed Adam Smith often considered the father of economics shared this concern to a large degree.
Indeed you could also argue that for those who amass the greatest number of such favors, that they will spend much of these favors to get others to do the things that have little to no direct benefit to themselves, but instead, to get others to labor in order to display just how many favors they command to others. This of course leading to a vast number of wasteful displays where those with the most attempt to outdo each other with their wastefulness.
As I hope the above illustrates, this model of favor-trading is indeed far from perfect for the estimation of most, and there can be many potential improvements made to it. However, I hope that I have also managed to convince you of the importance of this system in fostering large-scale cooperation. One can argue more or less about how flawed the system is, and how far force should be applied to change the outcomes of this system. (just please remember that the system of force is also far from perfect, at a minimum, please recall that those in charge of creating the rules and enforcing them are fundamentally the same as the aforementioned favor traders).