Somebody’s trying to tell me something

While my department listserv is a debating the merits of the graduate student union (loss of liberty vs. well the other side hasn’t really articulated their POV yet except to say that unions must be good), the following two articles, in succession, show up in my news reader

New Scientist – “Sense of justice discovered in the brain”

A brain region that curbs our natural self interest has been identified. The studies could explain how we control fairness in our society, researchers say… [U]sing a tool called the “ultimatum game”, researchers have identified the part of the brain responsible for punishing unfairness…

“Self interest is one important motive in every human,” says Fehr, “but there are also fairness concerns in most people.”

“In other words, this is the part of the brain dealing with morality,” says Herb Gintis, an economist at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, US. “[It] is involved in comparing the costs and benefits of the material in terms of its fairness. It represses the basic instincts.”

and Tim Hartford – “The Undercover Economist: The great giveaway”

Selfishness is one of those issues where economists seem to see the world differently. It is not that economists are incapable of imagining – or even modelling – altruism. They can, but they usually don’t. And there is a good reason for that: people aren’t selfless… In fact, the closer you look at charitable giving, the less charitable it appears to be. A recent experiment by John List, an economist at the University of Chicago, and a team of colleagues, showed that donations are less than charitable after all. Using controlled trials to compare different methods of door-to-door fundraising, Professor List’s team discovered that it was much more effective to raise funds by selling lottery tickets than by asking for money. This hardly suggests a world populated by altruists seeking to do the maximum good with their charitable cash… Robert Frank, from Cornell, wryly observes that those organising fundraising drives for the vast US charity United Way tend to be disproportionately estate agents, insurance brokers, car dealers and other people with something to sell.

All I know is that *someone* is trying to tell me that justice matters (or maybe it doesn’t).

I’d have no idea who to go for a good argument for justice. I find myself moved by arguments for liberty while arguments for justice often come off as whining. For all I know, this is only because those making the arguments for liberty are just better at making arguments than those that argue for justice.

Who is the Hayek or Friedman for justice?

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2 Responses to “Somebody’s trying to tell me something”


  1. 1 SWong October 11, 2006 at 11:58 pm

    I read a similar argument by an author discussing Zen Buddhism. She claimed that the vast majority of people are inwardly motivated: even outwardly charitable acts are usually inspired by feelings of pleasure (from giving) or guilt (over having). She claimed that a characteristic of spiritual enlightenment (I’m paraphrasing here) was that one would become outwardly motivated, acting charitably out of a genuine sense of compassion rather than within a reward/punishment structure.

    You might make the claim that genuine altruism is demonstrated when the act comes at great cost and/or risk to the actor.

    I’d be interested in the results of similar studies conducted in other countries and cultures.

  2. 2 Will October 12, 2006 at 1:01 am

    I claim humans are *physically* incapable of what you describe as spiritual enlightenment. This is due to the fact that we (our minds for example) are stuck in our own skulls. Every act of charity, even of those most spiritual enlightened, is the result of deliberations of one brain with only its experiences, hopes and desires to reflect on.

    I guess I’m saying “selfless act” is a contradiction of terms. All actions are self oriented or at least self initiated.

    Notice that even in the brain study the effect was one brain mechanism turning off the selfish mechanism. So anatomically the selfish mechanism is always there.


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