Sunday, July 18, 2010

Trade Off #5: Loyalty vs Universality

Contra some arm chair philosophers, most people are not selfish, and want to help others.

Typically, inertia pushes us to help a small group of people. Usually these are those who share easily identifiable traits with us and with whom we often interact directly. However, certain rules can push us to favor larger groups, and even much larger groups, such as the set of all present and future sentient beings in all possible universes.

The advantage of helping smaller groups is that it is easier to see the benefits of one's efforts and feel like part of a community. The advantage of helping larger groups is that one will be less influenced by randomness or bias. There are a number of ways to think about and describe this trade off, such as:
  • In psychology, the amount of money people are willing to not receive in order to give $75 to someone else decreases as the perceived social distance increases between them. So, we tend to only be loyal to a fairly limited number of people. (see graph below and here for more)
  • In ethics, one theory posits that you must consider social justice principles from behind a "veil of ignorance" that obscures your own particular situation. This line of thinking is designed to shift people along the spectrum towards universalism. (see here)
  • In evolutionary psychology, kin selection explains how selfish genes can promote animals to help others if those others are highly similar genetically. But, if kin selection is generalized to altruistic tendencies towards others in general, one can easily shift from loyalty to universality. (see here)
  • In every day life, every dollar that you spend on yourself or your amigos is a dollar that you could be giving to charity to help others. Give Well estimates that you can probabilistically save a life with ~ $1000, to give some perspective. (see here for their calculations)
To me, this trade off is brutal. I either have to admit that I don't care about a random stranger living in Mongolia as much as I could, or I have to admit that I don't especially care about one of my own family members. But the idea that you can be both fully loyal and universalistic is merely a pretty lie. And these can curry no favor in the quest to index the canonical trade offs.

(Above photo credit goes entirely to flickr user extraordinaire lastbeats)