Self Interest and the Nature/Nurture Debate

A common label for many human motivations is “self-interest”, defined in many ways but essentially means to be motivated by the long term promotion of personal needs and desires. We are clever enough as humans to be able to explain everything in terms of this broad category, as even the most selfless or duty-based actions can be linked through a chain of “whys” without much trouble to some future benefit or other. The empirical validity of these chains of whys is completely unestablished, of course, but the problem in disproving self interest is that you don’t simply have to disprove one possible causal chain linking seemingly selfless behavior to self-centered motives, but instead you have to disprove every possible causal chain that might exist. As there are always more possibilities than we can count, many have jumped to the conclusion that this self-interested motive is secretly at the root of everything we do.

I have a few problems with this, but I expect that they are different than the typical objections. The standard objection is that this denies morality and makes us all seem like total jerks. This is obviously true, but it is not, in my eyes, the most glaring problem with these sort of “everything we do is self-interest” arguments.

1) self interest is poorly defined. So in one moment, it can mean someone killing his or her neighbors and taking their wealth, while in another it can mean doing charity work, because it makes you feel good, which is “selfish.” When it is applied both ways like this, it is saying something along the lines of “there’s no internal difference between a thief and a person who does charity work,” which is a good point to make if you are a lawyer defending thieves or an average person who feels a little guilty about not giving to charity. Regardless of the internal differences in motive between burglars and Peace Corps volunteers, using two definitions like this is a logical trick called the bait and switch, and it’s totally cheating.

2) If self-interest is defined more consistently, along the lines of “something that might benefit you in the long term,” it is universally applicable to ALL human actions, including suicide (which might be done according to this sort of circular logic due to the slight probability that you get caught in the act or fail to successfully kill yourself, and then receive pity from family and friends. In your subconscious estimation, therefore, this small probability of failed suicide times the social kindness you would receive as a result of your actions offers a large enough expected utility to outweigh the high probability of death).

All of this is bullshit of course, as these sorts of arguments can be applied in absolutely any situation, and therefore fail Karl Popper’s “falsifiability” test concerning empirical science.

3) But perhaps most importantly, self-interest is an explanation for human motivation that is completely internal. In the nature/nurture debate, it is agreed that both the environment and our internal genetics have influence over our behavior. But in the definition of humans acting “only out of self interest,” all external explanations for motives are excluded. We treat the individual’s behavior like it is subject to both internal and external influences, but we treat the individual’s motives as if they are completely individualistic and personalized.

But this doesn’t exactly make sense. People can be driven by self-interest- in other words, by their internal desires for certain things- or they can be driven by “external-interest”- or the perceived desires of others for certain things. We can no more be perfectly self-interested than we can be perfectly independent or original. It’s not as if- before internalizing some motivation that originated externally- that we necessarily are convinced that it benefits us. We can be seduced by other means. Our minds are not so bulletproof that they cannot be convinced to act towards some end goal other than personal pleasure or achievement. Such an assumption- that all human action is driven by self-interested motives- assumes a certain degree of unconquerable mental toughness that is unrealistic. We can be hypnotized in a literal sense, but much of our behavior can be described as half-hypnotic- as acting in the interests of others, or the perceived interests of others, out of a compulsive desire to please or obey. We can become “infected” by some sort of popular will or public desire, which drives us to act in a way that completely contradicts our past experience/ future expectations regarding personal pleasure or pain.

And this leads to a sort of chicken-egg scenario surrounding our motives. Are we trying to please others in order to get money or power? Or are we trying to get money or power in order to please others? These should not be treated as “equally self-interested” motives, because they ultimately push in different directions. If pleasing others is the end goal, martyrdom or honor suicide make sense- not on the odds that such martyrdom will fail, but because at those moments external desires are more powerful than internal ones. At these moments, what you feel to be the will of your community matter more to you than your own more personal wishes. And equating this social/ moral instinct with the instinct for pleasure or self-preservation seems to be an incredibly imprecise approximation. Including morality in our models is not some sort of naive idealism; it is simply more accurate.



Social Justice and the King’s Hat

Movements for social justice have come under such aggressive attack lately that the phrase “social justice” alone has become a sort of catch phrase referring to something negative or extreme. It has become a word sort of like libertarian or communist- associated immediately with a group of people who are far from moderate in their viewpoints.

But social justice is not an especially radical thing to believe in at all, and the fact that it has become associated with liberal fringe is somewhat bizarre. Having a society that is as just and fair as possible seems like quite a reasonable goal. Why have we suddenly turned on the phrase “social justice” and associated it with naive idealism and obnoxious political strategies? I think part of the reason is that social justice is set up as an eternal, rather than a winnable war.

It is fun to root for an underdog. But it is not fun to root for an underdog who isn’t even trying to win, because they associate winning with something evil. Such an underdog is not actually playing the game, but mocking it. And in the game of “moving society to a more just state” some of it’s most vocal advocates seem to be caught in this trap. They are keen on saving society, but also just as keen on society being eternally damned. They are keen on healing society, but just as keen on society being eternally sick. And this conflict of incentives really seems to undermine their mission.

What social justice needs is the idea that success can actually be achieved. It needs to change it’s rhetoric away from rescue and revenge to reconciliation and restitution. It needs to move from new conquests to new communities and from revolution to reconstruction. One hundred years from now, what sort of political scene will we have in this country? Will the left still be talking of non-Caucasian racial groups and women like they are the underdogs? Does the left plan on speaking in this way indefinitely? Sometimes it certainly seems so. And ironically, such a style of language that permanently labels such groups as persecuted or weak is implicitly very insulting towards those whom it is intended to help.

I believe in social justice, and I’m extremely disturbed by the bigoted opinions that are still so easily found. But the way to combat this sort of simple, ugly hatred is not through creating a archetype of eternal persecution surrounding these groups that is intended to last indefinitely, in spite of our best efforts to repair it. We instead should analyze these social problems in thorough manner and then enact the legislation needed to establish a more fair system. If conditions are unjust- say in terms of race or gender relations- we should restore justice in whatever legal ways we can. And if no such legal remedies are possible, we should simply ensure that current laws are being enforced and then just try our best to actually get along. Let us be revolutionary where we need to be revolutionary, and civil where we need to be civil. But let us not engage in a pretend revolution that has no beginning or end, no goals or objectives, only a simple model for criticism and complaint that can be applied to literally any situation. As Chesterton said:

You can only knock off the King’s head once. But you can knock off the King’s hat any number of times. Destruction is finite, obstruction is infinite: so long as rebellion takes the form of mere disorder (instead of an attempt to enforce a new order) there is no logical end to it; it can feed on itself and renew itself forever.

If we believe in social justice, let’s actually make it a reality.




William James’ Sneaky God Proof

I was reading this William James speech entitled “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,”  and came across a random God Proof that totally stumped me. Here is a summary of his argument:

1) Imagine a world without any living creatures, where everything is mechanical. Does it make sense for certain situations in this world to be more “moral” than others? [correct answer= no]

2) Now imagine a world with one living creature, eg yourself. Does it make sense for certain situations to be more moral than others? [correct answer= sure, preparing food for winter might be more moral than sitting around being lazy, at least from your perspective come January]

3) So now we’ve established a link between morals and the desires of living beings. Let’s continue by imagining two people in the world who have competing desires, and hence competing moral ideals they are striving towards achieving. What determines who is right and who is wrong? [correct answer= it sure seems pretty arbitrary, doesn’t it?]

4) But then again, if you imagined that one of the two people was more smart/ just/ good, you’d pretty much assume that the moral ideals of the smart/ just/ good person would typically be preferable to the moral ideals of the other person, wouldn’t you? [correct answer= yes]

5) Now we need to go back to what morality actually is. So if morality is just some universal force, like gravity or magnetic fields, we run into a problem- we established earlier that a world without any living creatures does not have any morality in it. Therefore, with morality as some non-living universal force, a hypothetical place that has this force called morality but no living creatures would actually NOT have morality. This makes zero sense! (Therefore morality always represents the desires and ideals of living beings, and isn’t some universal set of dead principles.)

6) As morality represents the desires/ ideals of living being, and living beings who are more smart/ just/ good tend to have better desires/ ideals, it makes the most sense to attribute our universal morality to the desires/ ideals of the most smart/ just/ good living being out there, who we’ll call, I dunno, Gad? Gid? How about God.

7) Therefore, if you believe in some sort of right and wrong that is universal, rather than arbitrary, you also believe in God. I’m William James, by the way, and I happen to be very clever.

This is, indeed, the most clever “God Proof” I’ve come across, and I’m going to think about it some more and try to figure out if I’m just missing something obvious. But does anyone have any strong rebuttals to this thing?


NOTE: I happened to believe in God’s existence (not necessarily a Judeo-Christian/ Aristotelian all powerful, all knowing Being, but certainly in some sort of benevolent, personified force), and I know this biases me to be more accepting of these sorts of proofs. Wanted to admit that publicly, so you know where I’m coming from.


three kinds of statistics that often aren’t helpful


1. Group A more likely to do X than Group B: 

MY BRAIN: my mind interprets this as “A group is always doing this, while B group never does this.” I falsely assume that men are always dying on the job, women are always getting paid less, educated people all voted for Hillary (while the less educated voted for Trump), etc. But these sorts of natural mental jumps from 51% to 100% and from “more likely” to “this only happens to this group and not this other group” lead to quick stereotypes that are grossly inaccurate/ incomplete.

MATH: All these sorts of statistics actually mean is “there is a statistically significant difference between these two groups according to one study/ poll.” This does not give me a lot of information. Group A could be 5% more likely to do X, or 100,000% more likely to do X. That’s a pretty big range.

CONCLUSIONS: when statistics say something like this, I will either look up the details of the study to better understand what is actually going on or avoid repeating it to others.

This also applies to things like “the majority of people believe X” but to a lesser extent. That statistic still makes you assume “basically everyone believes that” even when it’s just a 51% majority- which any poker player will tell you is “basically a coin flip.” But this is not potentially as enormously misleading as “Group A is more likely than Group B to do X.” Because with the majority you at least narrow it down between 51% and 100%, while with Group A > Group B, you only know that it is between 0.0001% more likely (approximately) and INFINITELY more likely. 

2. This Organization- blah blah blah- Some Big Amount of $$: 

MY BRAIN: Wow, I could buy a lot with that money! Therefore, that government/ corporation/ institution is corrupt/ rich/ incompetent/ wasteful.

MATH: Organizations function differently than people, and when we instinctively compare “what we would personally do with X amount of $$s” with “what an institution does with such $$” we are comparing apples to oranges- or apples to “baskets of apples.” Replacing the federal government/ Exxon Mobil with you personally buying THOUSANDS UPON THOUSANDS of luxury Caribbean Cruises and Russian space vacations is not really a possibility here.

CONCLUSIONS: Numbers referencing large populations that we instinctively analyze from an individual/ small tribe perspective are often misleading  UNLESS they are presented with a host of other relevant statistics. Knowing that the US Federal Government received about $3.3 trillion in revenue in 2016 starts to become much more useful when examined in tandem with other American statistics regarding federal expenditures, total population, labor force participationpersonal income, etc.

This obviously applies to other numbers besides money that are presented alone without context for the purpose of producing shock or outrage. Statistics regarding violent crime, poverty, and unemployment are common examples.

3. Our economic growth rate/ mortality rate/ crime rate is “out of control” or “expanding rapidly” or “unbelievably high.”

Context free, non-mathematical terms such as these are useful when describing a swarm of approaching bees to fellow tribe members or a horde of the undead in a poorly written fantasy novel. However, their lack of specificity is not useful or informative when describing any measurable event in the 21st Century, and therefore should be avoided by people who don’t want to sound stupid.

That’s all I have to say about that.

Capitalism and respecting your elders

People tend to get more conservative as they get older, at least according to this and this and this. Perhaps this is simply because with age comes caution. Perhaps it is that the world is becoming more and more wicked before it is burned. But I think part of this is simply financial.

Conservative policies tend to benefit the wealthy, and older people make more money and have (a lot) more money than younger people. This makes sense. They’ve had more years to develop experience, work, save up money, etc. They also have a higher likelihood of gaining wealth in a less “meritocratic” way, like inheriting it- with retirees expecting to pass an average of $177,000 on to progeny. And this third way older people achieve their wealth is what I’d like to talk about.

Most things in capitalism can be said to be “produced” or “created,” and therefore “earned.” One of the few exceptions to this is land. While the money you spend to buy land is earned, the unimproved value of the land itself is not something that the previous owner “created,” nor the owner before that. It simply was claimed.

Now imagine a primitive economy, where two parents and their thirteen children live on a farm. They own the land because it was given to them by one of their parents. The children begin working the farm from a young age, because this is their duty to their parents, to tell them thank you for protecting them and providing for them and helping them make it to the hard working age of nine or so (if I lived back in these times, I’d be much less reluctant to have children). Anyways, some of the children continue working. Others leave. Most of them die, because it is, after all, a primitive economy. At the end of the day there is one daughter taking care of her aging parents. And she inherits the farm when her parents pass on and continues the cycle with her thirteen children.

The point of all this is not that she earned the land because she worked for it (even though she did, along with many of her dead/ now moved on siblings). Or that she earned the land because she created it (she certainly didn’t do that). She earned the land because she respected her parents, and her parents deemed her a worthy heir. And this how at least part of capitalism works. It isn’t simply about “producing value” or “creating marketable goods” or “developing skills”- it’s also about, well, respecting your elders. So much of wealth is not goods or services, but land. There is about 21.2 trillion dollars worth of private land in the United States; which divided by the 318.9 million population gets us to about $96,800 worth of real estate for every man, woman, and child in America. But most of that land is not for sale, and belongs to the oldest among us. The Silent Generation (20 million people) and the Baby Boomers (65 million people)- roughly 27% of the population- control about  83% of the wealth in this country; and they control that wealth, not only because they worked for it, but also simply because they waited in line. And perhaps this is how it has always been.

This alternative perspective on the accumulation of wealth- as something that is sometimes achieved, not through creating value for society as a whole- but through respecting the values and the older generation and winning their favor- is helpful for understanding why certain inequalities don’t seem to ever mend themselves. African Americans- 13.3% of the US population- control only about 2% of the real estate- less than the top five land owners in the United States. Racism is obviously a contributor here, but also the simple economic problem that the freed slaves had no parents to inherit land/ wealth from (and no “forty acres and a mule“). There is very little a guest (employee) can offer his/her host (property owner) in terms of work that will be sufficient enough for the host to be willing to switch roles. Some things are not up for sale or up for grabs. Some things are only available when our elders pass them on to us.


37% vs 13%: why Brexit probably won’t be followed by a Trump victory

Whatever the pundits say, Trump seems to have more of the “excitement” factor going for him. People compare the US presidential election to Brexit and there are many similarities. Brexit people seemed excited and religious in their devotion, while Bremain supporters seemed either worried about change or terrified of their fellow citizens. These vibes are similar to the vibes I get from Trump supporters and Hillary supporters. Hillary supporters, like Bremain supporters, say “Look- we shouldn’t randomly mess with the status quo, it’s dangerous. Let’s be smart, let’s be reasonable.” Trump supporters, like Brexit supporters, say “Vote for this! It’ll change everything and make everything better!!” And that second message is just so much more appealing.

But although it is, of course, possible for Trump to win, I am still predicting a Hillary landslide, larger even than Obama’s victory over Romney in 2012. And my reason for this prediction is simple- demographics.  Britain is 87% white. The United States is 63% non-Hispanic whites. That means 37% of potential American voters- almost three times as many as Britain’s 13%- are minorities. And when you run a campaign that focuses on stronger borders, national pride, and “trying to make things great again, like the way they were before you showed up/ got legal rights,” you are going to estrange some of those people.

In 2012, Romney only won 27% of the Hispanic vote. Trump is currently polling at 22% among that demographic (higher than I, at least, was expecting). Romney received 59% of the white vote, and would have needed 62% of the white vote to have been elected president. Trump will most likely need even more, given that he has distanced himself from minorities through his rhetoric even more than the typical GOP candidate. The most white votes in history were won by Reagan’s landslide re-election in 1984 with 66% of the white vote. With the current demographic makeup of this country, Trump would need to get something very close to that number in order to be elected. And because I find that to be extremely unlikely (but not impossible), I’m predicting a strong victory for Hillary in 2016.


less radical Marxism, more reasonable proposals needed from the basic income community

I’ve been reading quite a bit about the movement for a universal basic income, and I think all in all it is a positive trend. Something needs to be done if we do not wish to live in a world 500 years from now where the majority of people still spend 40 hours a week doing work they don’t particularly value while thousands of homeless beg in the streets. But I think, at least of late, the greatest advocates for basic income have become the movement’s greatest liabilities. And here’s why:

  1. The “all or nothing” rhetoric of the movement’s main spokespersons. There is this concept that a basic income is not truly “basic” unless it gives everyone a living wage. This undermines the movement as a whole and turns it into a revolutionary fringe movement that has no hope of getting anywhere politically, rather than a reasonable set of economic policy objectives.
  2. The “win-win-win-win-win!!” nature of the rhetoric, which often claims that it will spur economic growth, eliminate poverty, and end all human suffering as we know it. This just makes us all look really, really stupid.
  3. The claim that we can get something for nothing, because of some magical economic equation which none of us completely understand. We can never get something for nothing, we can simply organize things in a more efficient and humane way.
  4. The tendency to join the Bernie movement in scapegoating Wall Street and the “1%” for all of our problems. What if someone said every problem with life in high school was caused by one out of every hundred students, and if we simply humiliated them and redistributed their property, everything about high school would suddenly become perfect? Wouldn’t this seem insane? Yet this is the current rhetoric of the far left.
  5. The tendency to talk of robots replacing jobs in such an extreme and paranoid way that it makes the movement seem inspired by the Terminator movies rather than by the practical application of economic principles.

The voices for basic income, in summary, seem to be the greatest barriers to its implementation. Basic income is a good idea. It is an idea I support. But I believe the basic income movement, rather than making dramatic demands in an attempt to end all poverty and tedious work in one, sweeping policy proposal, should instead aim for a small “negative income tax” or “national dividend,” perhaps starting with something as seemingly insignificant as $500 or $1000 a year. This would create a much smaller shock to the economy and be easier for the nation to accept. And once it has been accepted, and the principle has been proved valid, increasing the amount of the dividend would become politically much easier to achieve. Alaska has had this sort of a universal basic income for 38 years, and most recently paid out a lump sum of just over $2000 in 2015. Although Alaska is pretty evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, support for the “Alaska Permanent Fund” is almost universal, with the last political campaign to reduce it being crushed by an 84% popular vote. Once basic income gets its foot in the door, it will be hard to ignore or overturn.

This fact is another reason starting small with universal basic income is a better idea. No one actually knows for certain how it would affect the US economy to implement something like this. I believe it would be mostly positive, with a few negative drawbacks, but until actual implementation takes place I- and no one else for that matter- can be certain how it would actually affect things on a macroeconomic level. As any welfare system in a democracy is easy to start, but politically suicidal to dismantle, it would be wise for us to start with a small basic income and see how it affects things, rather than diving in head first. And if it reduces poverty and stimulates growth- as I believe it would- we can increase that level slightly until it seems that the negative effects of it taking people out of the labor force outweigh the positive effects of it taking dollars from the graveyard of national savings and transferring them to the more lively areas of consumption and investment.

The argument that a basic income should always be able to cover all human needs is fundamentally unreasonable. A basic income of this sort empowers all current employees and capitalists to retire. If all people stop working, the economy grinds to a halt, driving up prices. This increase in prices reduces the relative value of the basic income, which then must be increased to keep it at a living wage. This hyperinflation can theoretically continue indefinitely (but it would not, of course, because people would starve to death first).

We may be close to robots automating 50% of the work needed to maintain the comforts of modern life. 90% automation may even be imaginable at some future point. But 100% automation is still an extremely distant fantasy, if it is possible at all, which I doubt. At least a few people on the production side of things need to keep clocking in and clocking out to keep the system human enough that it caters effectively to the human consumer. I don’t see that changing any time soon.

But a basic income that potentially might cover all our needs (as long as some people keep voluntarily working for prestige, luxuries, etc), and always is equal to at least, say, 5% of the GDP is much more practical goal. We cannot guarantee a survival wage without guaranteeing labor, which includes communist things like gulags and a police directed workforce, things I find to be quite a bit more distasteful than the typical capitalist threats of homelessness and poverty. But we can guarantee that some of the surplus of the economy goes to all indiscriminately, to reset the playing field and give everyone an equal chance. This, less inspiring, “partial basic income” is, I believe, the most reasonable thing we can shoot for, and is also a very worthy goal. The sooner basic income advocates can tone down their “pie in the sky” rhetoric and start focusing on more realistic, sustainable objectives, the sooner we can create a better version of capitalism.