Locked donation boxes and moral variation

Aug 8 JDN 2459435

I haven’t been able to find the quote, but I think it was Kahneman who once remarked: “Putting locks on donation boxes shows that you have the correct view of human nature.”

I consider this a deep insight. Allow me to explain.

Some people think that human beings are basically good. Rousseau is commonly associated with this view, a notion that, left to our own devices, human beings would naturally gravitate toward an anarchic but peaceful society.

The question for people who think this needs to be: Why haven’t we? If your answer is “government holds us back”, you still need to explain why we have government. Government was not imposed upon us from On High in time immemorial. We were fairly anarchic (though not especially peaceful) in hunter-gatherer tribes for nearly 200,000 years before we established governments. How did that happen?

And if your answer to that is “a small number of tyrannical psychopaths forced government on everyone else”, you may not be wrong about that—but it already breaks your original theory, because we’ve just shown that human society cannot maintain a peaceful anarchy indefinitely.

Other people think that human beings are basically evil. Hobbes is most commonly associated with this view, that humans are innately greedy, violent, and selfish, and only by the overwhelming force of a government can civilization be maintained.

This view more accurately predicts the level of violence and death that generally accompanies anarchy, and can at least explain why we’d want to establish government—but it still has trouble explaining how we would establish government. It’s not as if we’re ruled by a single ubermensch with superpowers, or an army of robots created by a mad scientist in a secret undergroud laboratory. Running a government involves cooperation on an absolutely massive scale—thousands or even millions of unrelated, largely anonymous individuals—and this cooperation is not maintained entirely by force: Yes, there is some force involved, but most of what a government does most of the time is mediated by norms and customs, and if a government did ever try to organize itself entirely by force—not paying any of the workers, not relying on any notion of patriotism or civic duty—it would immediately and catastrophically collapse.

What is the right answer? Humans aren’t basically good or basically evil. Humans are basically varied.

I would even go so far as to say that most human beings are basically good. They follow a moral code, they care about other people, they work hard to support others, they try not to break the rules. Nobody is perfect, and we all make various mistakes. We disagree about what is right and wrong, and sometimes we even engage in actions that we ourselves would recognize as morally wrong. But most people, most of the time, try to do the right thing.

But some people are better than others. There are great humanitarians, and then there are ordinary folks. There are people who are kind and compassionate, and people who are selfish jerks.

And at the very opposite extreme from the great humanitarians is the roughly 1% of people who are outright psychopaths. About 5-10% of people have significant psychopathic traits, but about 1% are really full-blown psychopaths.

I believe it is fair to say that psychopaths are in fact basically evil. They are incapable of empathy or compassion. Morality is meaningless to them—they literally cannot distinguish moral rules from other rules. Other people’s suffering—even their very lives—means nothing to them except insofar as it is instrumentally useful. To a psychopath, other people are nothing more than tools, resources to be exploited—or obstacles to be removed.

Some philosophers have argued that this means that psychopaths are incapable of moral responsibility. I think this is wrong. I think it relies on a naive, pre-scientific notion of what “moral responsibility” is supposed to mean—one that was inevitably going to be destroyed once we had a greater understanding of the brain. Do psychopaths understand the consequences of their actions? Yes. Do rewards motivate psychopaths to behave better? Yes. Does the threat of punishment motivate them? Not really, but it was never that effective on anyone else, either. What kind of “moral responsibility” are we still missing? And how would our optimal action change if we decided that they do or don’t have moral responsibility? Would you still imprison them for crimes either way? Maybe it doesn’t matter whether or not it’s really a blegg.

Psychopaths are a small portion of our population, but are responsible for a large proportion of violent crimes. They are also overrepresented in top government positions as well as police officers, and it’s pretty safe to say that nearly every murderous dictator was a psychopath of one shade or another.

The vast majority of people are not psychopaths, and most people don’t even have any significant psychopathic traits. Yet psychopaths have an enormously disproportionate impact on society—nearly all of it harmful. If psychopaths did not exist, Rousseau might be right after all; we wouldn’t need government. If most people were psychopaths, Hobbes would be right; we’d long for the stability and security of government, but we could never actually cooperate enough to create it.

This brings me back to the matter of locked donation boxes.

Having a donation box is only worthwhile if most people are basically good: Asking people to give money freely in order to achieve some good only makes any sense if people are capable of altruism, empathy, cooperation. And it can’t be just a few, because you’d never raise enough money to be useful that way. It doesn’t have to be everyone, or maybe even a majority; but it has to be a large fraction. 90% is more than enough.

But locking things is only worthwhile if some people are basically evil: For a lock to make sense, there must be at least a few people who would be willing to break in and steal the money, even if it was earmarked for a very worthy cause. It doesn’t take a huge fraction of people, but it must be more than a negligible one. 1% to 10% is just about the right sort of range.

Hence, locked donation boxes are a phenomenon that would only exist in a world where most people are basically good—but some people are basically evil.

And this is in fact the world in which we live. It is a world where the Holocaust could happen but then be followed by the founding of the United Nations, a world where nuclear weapons would be invented and used to devastate cities, but then be followed by an era of nearly unprecedented peace. It is a world where governments are necessary to reign in violence, but also a world where governments can function (reasonably well) even in countries with hundreds of millions of people. It is a world with crushing poverty and people who work tirelessly to end it. It is a world where Exxon and BP despoil the planet for riches while WWF and Greenpeace fight back. It is a world where religions unite millions of people under a banner of peace and justice, and then go on crusadees to murder thousands of other people who united under a different banner of peace and justice. It is a world of richness, complexity, uncertainty, conflict—variance.

It is not clear how much of this moral variance is innate versus acquired. If we somehow rewound the film of history and started it again with a few minor changes, it is not clear how many of us would end up the same and how many would be far better or far worse than we are. Maybe psychopaths were born the way they are, or maybe they were made that way by culture or trauma or lead poisoning. Maybe with the right upbringing or brain damage, we, too, could be axe murderers. Yet the fact remains—there are axe murderers, but we, and most people, are not like them.

So, are people good, or evil? Was Rousseau right, or Hobbes? Yes. Both. Neither. There is no one human nature; there are many human natures. We are capable of great good and great evil.

When we plan how to run a society, we must make it work the best we can with that in mind: We can assume that most people will be good most of the time—but we know that some people won’t, and we’d better be prepared for them as well.

Set out your donation boxes with confidence. But make sure they are locked.

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