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Context: OnMorality, ExperimentalEconomics

Quora Answer : Are all people inherently selfish?

Jun 9, 2014

We're complicated

We're mainly creatures of learned habit rather than ultra-rational self-aggrandizing utility calculators.

In other words, much of what we do is "automatized". We learn to do it in certain situations, either simply by copying those around us, or through explicitly being trained.

This is obviously true for skills like reading, woodworking, programming, and paying for things in shops. But it's also true for a lot of the "ettiquette" or rules of polite behaviour. For example, how far we stand away from someone when we're talking to them is a learned behaviour that varies from one culture to another. How we queue up. What counts as normal dress. How we speak to signify particular emotions. Etc.

(One of the challenges I notice living in a country and culture very different from the one I grew up in, is that to really communicate and fit in you have to learn not just words, but body language, emotional "language", how to laugh at things that are considered "funny" in that culture, etc.)

To a great extent even "moral" behaviours are matters of this kind of learned habit. If the people in the neighbourhood you grew up in automatically put their hand in their pocket when they pass a homeless person begging on the street, or when the plate for donations is passed around at church, you'll start to do likewise. Some of this will be self-conscious. You'll think about what other people think of you. But very often it will be a more basic level of copying. As a child, you emulated the behaviours of grown-ups. Your motivation wasn't fear of their disapproval, it was instinctive desire to master the codes of adulthood.

Much of your "ethical" behaviour will be unquestioned copying. It has to be, because our brains don't have the capacity to make calculations for every action. We get by on cheap heuristics rather than an expensive algorithms. When we are in church we can't be calculating exactly how many people are sitting close enough to us to see how much we put in the plate. Or second-guessing exactly how much social disapproval we'll incur by not donating enough. Or what actual cost of that disapproval will have for us.

No. Far better to glance around and see most people are putting a £10 note, and cache that behaviour as "the done thing". At which point we'll do it every Sunday without noticing, unless some exceptional circumstance jolts us out of our monotony. And we certainly won't "suffer" or feel the "loss" of that money. That's just the cost of doing the business of life.

These kinds of norms cover larger-scale notions of generosity too. In one community it will be considered the "done thing" to happily pay your taxes and support a communal Health Service, while in another, taxes will be a despised imposition and a communal Health Service will be anathema.

And, of course, it's more complicated than that. We aren't robots. Some of us will rebel against the people we live amongst. Some of us will find alternative peer-groups in books or on the internet; they'll provide us with different models of moral norms. We can change our habits through reflecting on them. Anything that makes a habit explicit (anything from an unusual situation where it offers no guidance, to an inspiring book that challenges it) may provide an opportunity to question it and deliberately change ourselves.

When it comes to thinking about the norms of our "self-interest", ALL the paraphernalia of our modern economic life are themselves things that make our habits explicit. We learn to use money. To count it. And "account" for it. We learn to use shops and to exchange exact amounts of money for exact amounts of stuff. We learn to use banks to store money up.

These things are not merely passive reflections of our "natural" way of being. The phenomena demand that we adopt specific skills and ways of thinking in order to use them. And as we do so, they become opportunities for reflection and change. They can be aspirational. We can find ourselves trying to be more like the idealized "homo economicus" in our text-books. Because that's what our text-books tell us we're "really" like. And, like the child, that wants to adopt the codes of adulthood, we want to learn to be rational self-aggrandizers to adopt the codes of reality.

So are we "innately" or "naturally" selfish?

We're the most dynamic, flexible animal that nature has ever (to our knowledge) produced. With huge brains. Capable of extraordinary levels of abstraction and symbolic thinking. We observe ourselves adapt continually to our social environments, which are themselves in a state of flux and in a process of self-organization. Engaging with these institutions requires that we reorganize how we see ourselves and our automatic habits. Something that happens on a daily basis.

And when we debate say, the necessity or value of paying taxes we are operating at a level of abstraction way beyond our stomachs and endocrine systems. There may well be selfishness there. But if there is, it's not tied to those bodily reflexes or primitive instincts. It's learned selfishness, mediated selfishness. Selfishness that we've adopted in symbiosis with, and cultureal coevolution with, the norms and institutions around us.

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