Learning Economics as a Way to Curb Resentment

I think one of the most important reasons to learn economics is that if it is done properly, it can help you extend your empathy. Also knowledge of economics, specifically that other’s gain is not your loss, consistently helps me curb my natural feelings of resentment.
I was standing in line to pay for my insulin, usually the lines are short because I could just pay at endocrinology, but policy change due to new ownership (PLA) everyone now had to stand in line together. I had debated bringing my cane as for me standing in line is… unpleasant and now faced with a snaking line I regretted being cane-less. About half way through, after putting in 15 or so minutes of grinding my teeth, suddenly there was a flurry of movement. A new line had opened up, but I had missed my chance. Surveying the victors of this sudden disequilibrium event, I noticed that a lot of the people now well ahead of me in line used to be behind me. My first instinct was to be upset at the perceived unfairness, but then I snapped myself out it, and realized that, those people who now have to wait less don’t make me have to wait more and in fact, the line in front of me had also appreciably shortened in the melee, besides how would a fairer way even work? The new line was actually beneficial for everyone, it would be silly to be mad about it. With this realization I felt better, thanking economic insights that make it easier to carry less resentment I slowly worked my way through the line, really regretting the absence of my cane.
After another 15 minutes of waiting in line, my legs nearing their threshold of endurance, it was my turn in line and… a Chinese man from far away came charging at me in the cashier booth, I am, I should mention the only foreigner that was at the hospital. My Chinese is far from perfect, very far in fact, but in this instance it proved ample enough to understand what he was saying. He was Chinese, he had been waiting in line, his legs hurt, and they were going to serve a foreigner before him? It was an uncomfortable situation for all involved, while at first the lady at the register tried her best to just ignore him, his mounting anger, his shrill piercing screaming were too much, she took his documents and started to process him. Anger was my first response, I had waited in line just like everyone else after all, my legs didn’t feel great either, and his characterization of me wasn’t overly kind. But soon the anger turned to pity: what must it be like to be such a man, so filled with resentment, lashing out, not even thinking of the discomfort of all of his fellow citizens whom he had just cut in line in front of. Even though he got his way, I couldn’t help imagine just how painful such an existence must be.
And once again I thanked economics.

What is a Moral Requirement?

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.

Are True Altruists Monsters?

“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.”

Zoltan Chivay

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.

But why?

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.

Wait what?

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?”