Chocolate and Gold Coins

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

How Altruistic Are You?

In my previous post Your Vote Does Count, I showed that voting is a worthwhile activity if you are altruistic: you care about the welfare of others. Why would you care? This gets back to a previous post of mine: The Problem With Game Theory and the follow-up Excessive Morality, in which I argued that people do care about harming others, if you are ethical and you believe those others are ethical. If we are ethical, we feel guilt and self-loathing if we are the cause of harm in others, as it should be. This instinct helped us in times of war to band together and fight the barbarians. The truly selfish people never left their genes to future generations.

But how strong is the altruistic instinct? How much do you value helping others vs. helping yourself?

Suppose X is a good sum of money (maybe $10,000 or 1 lakh of rupees). Suppose M is a multiple: M might be 10, or 2, or 1.1, but always greater than 1. Suppose Bill Gates gives you an interesting choice: you can either donate M*X to the charity of your choice anonymously, or you can receive X for yourself and (M-1)*X will be wasted (perhaps donated to the Robert Mugabe fan club or to NAMBLA). Would you be selfish and take the X and waste (M-1)*X or would you be altruistic and donate the entire M*X to charity anonymously.

No one will know what your choice is. If people knew about it, you will definitely feel the pressure to do the right thing, but this is a private matter. Be honest with yourself: do you really care that much about others?

For me, I know for sure that I could not live with myself if I took X instead of donating 10*X to charity. Seeing 9*X going to the Robert Mugabe fan club would just kill me. Even for M=2, I think I would prefer the charity, but I cannot say for sure how greedy I would be at that point to be honest. For M=1.2, I’m feeling pretty greedy. I might think that I will wisely invest the money for the greater good someday. Of course, the greater good will be distributed primarily to myself and my family. But it’s good to be a little selfish. No one will take care of numero uno better than numero uno. So I will guess the indifference value of M for me is about 2.

What would your indifference value of M be? Be honest and please comment.


  • really think all comments are going to be honest??

    Personally, I will more or less fall in your category. If M is 10 or 5, it's a no brainer, I'll donate for sure. If M is 1.2, i'm going to save it, and look for something else.....
    But you forget to mention that the value of X is also sometimes a critical deciding factor. If X is too large, it is easy to be tempted and succumb to greed. So, there is a limit (or bracket, so to speak) on X.

    Also, adding something for "your vote does count", it is very easy for voters to be misled on candidates, even when aware of a reasonable number of facts. But, it is important to exercise that franchise you have. Then atleast the consequences are of your choice, and you cannot complain that you didn't have a say in the process.

    By Blogger Sunil, at 12:28 PM  

  • Hi Patrix and Sunil
    Patrix: Very true. I think we could say that the money is going to some political party you don't like or admire. It would bother you to see the money going there. But, if you're selfish, may it doensn't bother you all that much.

    Sunil: Well, if no honest answers, at least some sincere sounding self serving answers will do. :)

    The X factor is really important which is why I said it was about $10,000 in U.S. or 100,000 rupees in India (assuming a rough ppp between those two). It is enough money that you might not want to see it go to charity. Obviously, anyone would not mind seeing a dollar or 10 dollars going to charity, but 10 grand, that hurts.

    If X gets to be millions of dollars, do we always get greedy? That's a tough one. But in anycase, elections will not produce per capita benefits of that sort. In fact X would probably be about $100 to $500 at most.

    I agree that voting gives the citizen the right to say that his "voice was heard" but I would say that it really is important for voters to put at least a little bit of effort into educating themselves about the candidates and the issues. In other words, it isn't just about voting, it is important to vote for the good guy - although it isn't usually very easy to tell which one that is.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 1:02 PM  

  • Hi Vikram
    I would say M=3 would be an honest answer. If X is low enough, for many people M=1 since they would voluntarily donate to charity. So we can assume X is fairly large, greater than 20% of your annual income.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 2:39 AM  

  • General Comment:
    My assumption is that the majority of the readers of this blog have an M close to infinity and just don't want to admit it. It this true?

    No response means "yes".

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 2:42 AM  

  • >>"My assumption is that the majority of the readers of this blog have an M close to infinity and just don't want to admit it. It this true?

    No response means "yes"."

    Well, now I have to answer! ;-)

    I'd say I'll keep the cash as long as X < Rs.100000 and M < 2. I wouldn't mind so much if Mugabe was getting less than I was.

    By Blogger Kunal, at 3:32 AM  

  • Make that "if X < RS.100000 or M < 2".

    By Blogger Kunal, at 3:34 AM  

  • Hi Kunal
    I would have thought you would say X > Rs 1 lakh? For small sums of money, charity is easy, but it is hard when you are talking about serious sums of money.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 3:40 AM  

  • I dont know.. your initial proposal was,
    " you can either donate M*X to the charity of your choice anonymously, or you can receive X for yourself and (M-1)*X will be wasted"

    This is crucial. If the other part is going to be wasted then I might be tempted to choose to enrich myself but if it is made clear that the (M-1)*X will be donated to Mugabe, then I guess my threshold is very very close to 1.

    It can not be even as small as 2, because I dont think I can ever be comfortable with the thought that I have given even (2-1=1)*X amount to Mugabe to indulge in his core competences.

    The answer might vary, of course, depending on my immediate situation.. for example if I need a large amount of money to fulfill a pressing need, like an operation for my loved ones, then I might choose to take the money, however high the payoff to Sweet Ole' Robbie might be.

    Basically, If I am atleast comfortably well off, I will go by my conscience and deny him, but if I am hard up, I might be tempted to be selfish.

    By Blogger Unknown, at 4:17 AM  

  • Hi Indiegenie
    I wish I had thought of this but what if the (M-1)*X goes to pay off the national debt of your country. It won't make much difference but it isn't tecnically wasted. It may be wasted if it leads to more wasteful government spending. But do you really feel motivated to direct the money away from this cause to a good cause?

    It is interesting that many people have commented that, in effect, it bothers them more that the money might go to a bad person than they are relinquishing the right to direct the money to a good cause. But in a way, that makes sense. Money that is misdirected towards evil is much more damaging than the potential good that you could possibly find by directing it towards a good cause. Since most good causes are already well funded, we reach the point of diminishing marginal returns on charity pretty quickly. But the marginal return on evil is enormous because few (thankfully) fund it.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 4:58 AM  

  • Hi,

    Though it wont make much difference but it wont atleast go to Mugabe's coffers. But yeah, with increasing blurring of lines between politics and crime, you do have a point.

    And though, I would still not allow the money to go to criminal elements, the awareness of the sheer futility of it all does wear one out.

    In fact,if instead of saying that the money will go to pay off the national debt, a noble objective, you say that it will go to the govt. funds, a euphemism of the politicians' wallets, then I might be tempted to grab some free money.

    By Blogger Unknown, at 7:35 AM  

  • If the money is not going to Mugabe...

    M less than but close to 2 seems pretty good to me. It doesn't feel ok to waste too much money if it can instead be put to nobler use.

    But, if I were in dire need of money (medical expenses, etc.) I might go for a bigger M.

    By Blogger Srikanth, at 9:06 AM  

  • Yeah, sorry, I thnk I confused myself a bit...

    I meant I would elect to keep the money either if the amount was very large (> 100000, for example) for almost any M or if M was less than 2, for almost any X.

    But if, as you say the (M-1)X would go to the national treasury, I would keep the cash even for a very small X or a very large M.

    I think the intersting question is, you either keep X or the charity gets M*X with no other donations. That would be a better indicator of altruism.

    By Blogger Kunal, at 10:19 AM  

  • Hi Indiagenie, Srikanth, and Kunal
    It looks like M=2 is popular. Is that because I suggested it?

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 2:28 PM  

  • There is no such thing as 'altruism'(period)! It is completely and totally a 'null concept' whenever you are speaking about human beings.

    For example, your statement... For me, I know for sure that I could not live with myself if I took X instead of donating 10*X to charity.

    You clearly state. "you could not live with yourself"...

    That is the exact opposite of altruism- you are specifically stating that you assign 'personal values' to diffent ideas and actions and that 'a donation to charity' is somewhere above the "personal value" you would assign to your life and 1/10 of that sum in your pocket...

    There is no altruism here! You are absolutely receiving every bit of value you can expect from this transaction... by affirming your personal beliefs and your sense of self-respect.

    "Beware of altruism. It is based on self-deception, the root of all evil."- Robert A. Heinlein

    "If tempted by anything that feels 'altruistic', examine your motives and root out that self-deception. Then, if you still want to do it, wallow in it!- R.A.H.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:27 PM  

  • Hi RAH
    You're getting into an unneccesary debate about the meaning of words. The meaning I assign to "altruism" is clear from the context. It is clearly not a fiction that people would care where the money goes even if it doesn't go to them. Whether you choose to call that altruism or something else is immaterial.

    Btw, if your value of M is infinity, then I highly recommend that you stop voting. It isn't worth your time and effort.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 9:48 AM  

  • An important consideration in this scenario, for me, would be - DID I EARN THE MONEY? If I was just being given this offer out of the blue, I would have to go with donating MX to the charity of my choice.

    If I earned the money (performed some work for it), I would want to take home X. Under these conditions, M < 5, for an X corresponding to my services would suit me just fine.

    PS: China has just signed an economic agreement with Zim. (M-1)X is certainly going to be peanuts compared to this or the $25mill from Iran.

    By Blogger Iyer the Great, at 7:56 AM  

  • Hi Rahul (iyer the great)
    That is interesting that you make a strong distinction about money you earn versus a gift from someone else. You don't value gifts (of cash) as much as your own earning. I guess that is understandable.

    In the context of the voting problem, you have to put some effort into voting, so it is like labor. The choice is between hoarding your labor for yourself (and family) or using it to make an informed voting decision that might (with very small probability) make a big difference for a lot of people.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 2:50 PM  

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