Purchase Fuzzies and Utilons Separately

Yes­ter­day:

There is this very, very old puz­zle/​ob­ser­va­tion in eco­nomics about the lawyer who spends an hour vol­un­teer­ing at the soup kitchen, in­stead of work­ing an ex­tra hour and donat­ing the money to hire some­one...

If the lawyer needs to work an hour at the soup kitchen to keep him­self mo­ti­vated and re­mind him­self why he’s do­ing what he’s do­ing, that’s fine. But he should also be donat­ing some of the hours he worked at the office, be­cause that is the power of pro­fes­sional spe­cial­iza­tion and it is how grownups re­ally get things done. One might con­sider the check as buy­ing the right to vol­un­teer at the soup kitchen, or val­i­dat­ing the time spent at the soup kitchen.

I hold open doors for lit­tle old ladies. I can’t ac­tu­ally re­mem­ber the last time this hap­pened liter­ally (though I’m sure it has, some­time in the last year or so). But within the last month, say, I was out on a walk and dis­cov­ered a sta­tion wagon parked in a drive­way with its trunk com­pletely open, giv­ing full ac­cess to the car’s in­te­rior. I looked in to see if there were pack­ages be­ing taken out, but this was not so. I looked around to see if any­one was do­ing any­thing with the car. And fi­nally I went up to the house and knocked, then rang the bell. And yes, the trunk had been ac­ci­den­tally left open.

Un­der other cir­cum­stances, this would be a sim­ple act of al­tru­ism, which might sig­nify true con­cern for an­other’s welfare, or fear of guilt for in­ac­tion, or a de­sire to sig­nal trust­wor­thi­ness to one­self or oth­ers, or find­ing al­tru­ism plea­surable. I think that these are all perfectly le­gi­t­i­mate mo­tives, by the way; I might give bonus points for the first, but I wouldn’t deduct any penalty points for the oth­ers. Just so long as peo­ple get helped.

But in my own case, since I already work in the non­profit sec­tor, the fur­ther ques­tion arises as to whether I could have bet­ter em­ployed the same sixty sec­onds in a more spe­cial­ized way, to bring greater benefit to oth­ers. That is: can I re­ally defend this as the best use of my time, given the other things I claim to be­lieve?

The ob­vi­ous defense—or per­haps, ob­vi­ous ra­tio­nal­iza­tion—is that an act of al­tru­ism like this one acts as an willpower re­storer, much more effi­ciently than, say, listen­ing to mu­sic. I also mis­trust my abil­ity to be an al­tru­ist only in the­ory; I sus­pect that if I walk past prob­lems, my al­tru­ism will start to fade. I’ve never pushed that far enough to test it; it doesn’t seem worth the risk.

But if that’s the defense, then my act can’t be defended as a good deed, can it? For these are self-di­rected benefits that I list.

Well—who said that I was defend­ing the act as a self­less good deed? It’s a self­ish good deed. If it re­stores my willpower, or if it keeps me al­tru­is­tic, then there are in­di­rect other-di­rected benefits from that (or so I be­lieve). You could, of course, re­ply that you don’t trust self­ish acts that are sup­posed to be other-benefit­ing as an “ul­te­rior mo­tive”; but then I could just as eas­ily re­spond that, by the same prin­ci­ple, you should just look di­rectly at the origi­nal good deed rather than its sup­posed ul­te­rior mo­tive.

Can I get away with that? That is, can I re­ally get away with call­ing it a “self­ish good deed”, and still de­rive willpower restora­tion there­from, rather than feel­ing guilt about it be­ing self­ish? Ap­par­ently I can. I’m sur­prised it works out that way, but it does. So long as I knock to tell them about the open trunk, and so long as the one says “Thank you!”, my brain feels like it’s done its won­der­ful good deed for the day.

Your mileage may vary, of course. The prob­lem with try­ing to work out an art of willpower restora­tion is that differ­ent things seem to work for differ­ent peo­ple. (That is: We’re prob­ing around on the level of sur­face phe­nom­ena with­out un­der­stand­ing the deeper rules that would also pre­dict the vari­a­tions.)

But if you find that you are like me in this as­pect—that self­ish good deeds still work—then I recom­mend that you pur­chase warm fuzzies and utilons sep­a­rately. Not at the same time. Try­ing to do both at the same time just means that nei­ther ends up done well. If sta­tus mat­ters to you, pur­chase sta­tus sep­a­rately too!

If I had to give ad­vice to some new-minted billion­aire en­ter­ing the realm of char­ity, my ad­vice would go some­thing like this:

  • To pur­chase warm fuzzies, find some hard-work­ing but poverty-stricken woman who’s about to drop out of state col­lege af­ter her hus­band’s hours were cut back, and per­son­ally, but anony­mously, give her a cashier’s check for $10,000. Re­peat as de­sired.

  • To pur­chase sta­tus among your friends, donate $100,000 to the cur­rent sex­iest X-Prize, or what­ever other char­ity seems to offer the most stylish­ness for the least price. Make a big deal out of it, show up for their press events, and brag about it for the next five years.

  • Then—with ab­solute cold-blooded calcu­la­tion—with­out scope in­sen­si­tivity or am­bi­guity aver­sion—with­out con­cern for sta­tus or warm fuzzies—figur­ing out some com­mon scheme for con­vert­ing out­comes to utilons, and try­ing to ex­press un­cer­tainty in per­centage prob­a­bil­itiess—find the char­ity that offers the great­est ex­pected utilons per dol­lar. Donate up to how­ever much money you wanted to give to char­ity, un­til their marginal effi­ciency drops be­low that of the next char­ity on the list.

I would fur­ther­more ad­vise the billion­aire that what they spend on utilons should be at least, say, 20 times what they spend on warm fuzzies—5% over­head on keep­ing your­self al­tru­is­tic seems rea­son­able, and I, your dis­pas­sion­ate judge, would have no trou­ble val­i­dat­ing the warm fuzzies against a mul­ti­plier that large. Save that the origi­nal, fuzzy act re­ally should be helpful rather than ac­tively harm­ful.

(Pur­chas­ing sta­tus seems to me es­sen­tially un­re­lated to al­tru­ism. If giv­ing money to the X-Prize gets you more awe from your friends than an equiv­a­lently priced speed­boat, then there’s re­ally no rea­son to buy the speed­boat. Just put the money un­der the “im­press­ing friends” column, and be aware that this is not the “al­tru­ism” column.)

But the main les­son is that all three of these things—warm fuzzies, sta­tus, and ex­pected utilons—can be bought far more effi­ciently when you buy sep­a­rately, op­ti­miz­ing for only one thing at a time. Writ­ing a check for $10,000,000 to a breast-can­cer char­ity—while far more laud­able than spend­ing the same $10,000,000 on, I don’t know, par­ties or some­thing—won’t give you the con­cen­trated eu­pho­ria of be­ing pre­sent in per­son when you turn a sin­gle hu­man’s life around, prob­a­bly not any­where close. It won’t give you as much to talk about at par­ties as donat­ing to some­thing sexy like an X-Prize—maybe a short nod from the other rich. And if you threw away all con­cern for warm fuzzies and sta­tus, there are prob­a­bly at least a thou­sand un­der­served ex­ist­ing char­i­ties that could pro­duce or­ders of mag­ni­tude more utilons with ten mil­lion dol­lars. Try­ing to op­ti­mize for all three crite­ria in one go only en­sures that none of them end up op­ti­mized very well—just vague pushes along all three di­men­sions.

Of course, if you’re not a mil­lion­aire or even a billion­aire—then you can’t be quite as effi­cient about things, can’t so eas­ily pur­chase in bulk. But I would still say—for warm fuzzies, find a rel­a­tively cheap char­ity with bright, vivid, ideally in-per­son and di­rect benefi­cia­ries. Vol­un­teer at a soup kitchen. Or just get your warm fuzzies from hold­ing open doors for lit­tle old ladies. Let that be val­i­dated by your other efforts to pur­chase utilons, but don’t con­fuse it with pur­chas­ing utilons. Sta­tus is prob­a­bly cheaper to pur­chase by buy­ing nice clothes.

And when it comes to pur­chas­ing ex­pected utilons—then, of course, shut up and mul­ti­ply.