A Bias Against Altruism

I’ve noticed a phenomenon in our culture whereby altruistic actions face much more scrutiny than selfish actions. I think we should be aware of this bias effect, especially when discussing incentivizing people to e.g. work on AI alignment instead of ML research.

When I say ‘our culture’, I mean modern WEIRD culture, especially the English-speaking world. Here’s what I notice: when I declare that I’m doing something selfishly and avowedly, I get praised. When I do something out of altruism, or do something that is coded as altruistic, my motives and true values get heavily scrutinized. The assumption is that I’m doing good in order to accrue praise and social status, which is called ‘ulterior motives.’ The thing is, people aren’t necessarily misreading my motivations: I do want praise and social status. (Doesn’t everyone?)

Given the direction of praise and status (selfish ambition is high-status, selfless do-gooding is questionable), my incentives are clear. Personally, I never, ever do anything out of altruism. (Honestly! I don’t. Okay, maybe I give change to a homeless person once in a while...) I do have a heart, so I would like to do the right thing, but I don’t, because I’d rather not get attacked all the time. I’m sick of the psycho-Kremlinology that we all get subjected to. I’m just not moral enough for that. Sorry.

I have a few theories about why this happens:

  1. Because modern WEIRD culture is actually an amalgamation of many subcultures, and individuals have leeway to select their subculture, people who are genuinely doing harm with their selfishness are not easy to attack directly. Charles Koch is hated by the political left, but he doesn’t care because he’s a conservative and only associates with other conservatives.

  2. Attacking someone who is transparently doing wrong is boring, and doesn’t lead to sustained dialogue. Therefore due to the dynamics of social media, people can’t sustain their outrage. However, a person who is a mix of good and bad traits (Elon?) invites endless controversy. That is a sustainable hate train which runs on renewable energy.

  3. This is a problem we inherited from Christianity. Christianity was weirdly obsessed with getting people to have the right motives, and didn’t care as much about right action. Doing good things, but being rewarded for them, would not get you into heaven. Only sacrifice counted. (This is, by the way, why I personally can’t stand Christianity.)

  4. Modern culture has a weird obsession with misbegotten social status. Selfishness does not aim at attaining status, and is therefore ‘based’; altruism (at least sometimes) aims at attaining status, and is therefore ‘cringe’. A Randian individualist is actually hard to criticize, because they’ve renounced doing good as a way of attaining status. Desiring status is the lowest status thing in our culture. (In my opinion, this is a great sickness that would ultimately doom our society, except that the singularity will happen first.)

I don’t know if any of these four theories are correct or insightful. I’m not too concerned about the etiology of this problem, to be honest. (I’m worried that discussing the etiology will result in a fruitless political debate in the comments of this post; maybe I should have omitted these theories.) I just want people to be aware of this phenomenon so that real positive behavior gets incentivized again.

If you want to encourage people to do good things, consider the following: actually encouraging. We hardly ever celebrate anyone anymore. Yes, there is also the issue of punishing wrongdoing: avowed selfishness strangely avoids criticism, and is in fact praised (i.e. by libertarians). So you might think the solution is to redirect criticism to the right people. But I think that, as the old saying goes, you catch more flies with honey.