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Andy's Unpopular Opinion

17 Jun 2019, 12:46 p.m.   Team Rebo  


This post is a response to SavingNinja's Thought Experiment #6 which reads:

A different opinion is somewhat frowned upon in our clique based society, but some of the greatest minds of all time were outliers. They weren’t scared to go against the grain and stand up for what they believed in. So, for this Thought Experiment, I’d like you to reveal yourself: What opinion do you have that most of your peers do not share?

Background

I'm Andy and I co-founded Rebo with James early in 2019. I also write a personal blog over at liberate.life!

James and I are best friends and business partners, but more importantly, we completely disagree about pretty much everything! So, when we came across the thought experiment, it looked like a pretty good opportunity for the Rebo team to have a fight in public so the UK personal finance community can get to know us a little better. You can see James's response to this question here

One particular theme that James and I have spent hours arguing about for the last 4 years is the concept that human beings have a moral obligation to care for people less fortunate than themselves. James has committed to channelling the surplus wealth he acquires through business projects like Rebo to having the largest impact he can on human welfare whereas I'd like to direct all of my lifetime surplus wealth to living forever as a digital upload.

Today I will be defending my oft repeated controversial statement that

Altruism is not self-evidently morally good/necessary. Rather, people act in ways that appear to be self-sacrificial only when it benefits them (even if that benefit is just making them feel 'good').

Before I start, I'd encourage anybody who hasn't read any of my writing before to check out liberate.life! just to make sure that I'm not a completely uncaring sociopath who's trying to brainwash you to stop helping other human beings!

Why Altruism?

Let's start with a definition. I'm defining altruism as acting in such a way that seems to harm your own self interest in order to benefit somebody else's.

I've been fascinated by the concept of altruism ever since I read The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins when I was in my early twenties. In that book he puts forward an argument that we as individuals tend towards being altruistic towards other human beings because doing so increases the probability that copies of our genes present in those individuals will be transmitted to the next generation, i.e. we are seemingly altruistic in order to benefit the interests of our genes. Of course this isn't a rational process - it's just a tendency that was sculpted by natural selection.

A simple example would be that we as parents nurture our children intensively, even to the detriment of our own health. I'm sure that anybody else who has children (and has experienced what five years without a full night's sleep feels like!) would back me up on that. Obviously, feelings of altruism seem to extend beyond the reach of those individuals who carry copies of your genes too. For example, I struggle not to comfort any crying child or hold a door open for any old lady struggling with her shopping, regardless of how late I am for my meeting.

However, explaining why we humans tend to be altruistic is not the same as explaining why we should be.

First Principles

To begin with, I am very suspicious of arguments which take the form

Humans tend to do X

because humans tend to do lots of 'interesting' things. Here are some examples:

  1. Buy high and sell low (because of greed, fear and herd mentality)

  2. Lead sedentary lives and overeat energy dense foods (because of evolutionary adaptations which kept humans alive when food was more scarce and they had to do a lot of exercise to catch it)

  3. Overweight the probability of bad outcomes and underweight the probability of good outcomes (i.e. be loss averse - useful on the savanna when the bad outcome might have been dying)

I don't think I could find too many people who would argue that it's a bad idea to try to actively suppress these tendencies in oneself. I know that the cake looks nice but I can reason with myself that always eating cake when it is available is not necessarily a good long-term strategy.

I think that dispenses with the idea that the fact we have been shaped by evolution to act altruistically means that altruism is self-evidently morally good because otherwise we could apply the 'evolution made me do it' argument to all manner of weird things.

The Golden Rule

But I don't think that giving to others at your own cost, even for no immediate benefit to yourself, is necessarily a bad thing.

The Christian version of the Golden Rule states

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you

and there's a lot of sense to accepting that maxim as a moral absolute when it comes to being a happy, productive person.

In my opinion, seemingly altruistic acts make sense when they actually serve your self interest. For example, I am proactively kind to my friends because, besides the fact that it makes me feel happy, it also makes me a guy who is pleasant to have in your social circle. There is an, albeit indirect and time-delayed, high probability of reciprocation.

However, there is nothing which obliges me to care for anybody else. Yes, I'm one of the luckiest people that has ever existed. I've written about this countless times - I attribute a large portion of credit for my comfortable position in life to luck. But this is just a statement of fact. There is no reason for me to buy in to the 'you are lucky so you must help somebody who is unlucky' idea.

If this makes you recoil in horror, I have to ask that before you call me 'evil' or whatever, please formulate a coherent argument as to what's wrong with my position. It might feel 'yucky'. It might make me sound 'mean'. But I challenge you to explain to me logically why I should be altruistic.

It's fine to adhere to a morality that says that everybody must actively look after their less fortunate brothers and sisters. But if you hold such a position, you must realise that you've chosen an arbitrary morality based on evolved tendencies and gut feel. There's no rational reason that I should hold the same opinion. If you try to impose this moral code on me, I will resist.

Going back to my disagreement with James about this topic: he likes giving money away to charity because it gives him warm, fuzzy feelings. That's fine, and it makes me happy that my best mate gets to feel happy. But he must accept that it's just the thing that makes him feel self-actualised. I have no motivation to do something similar - that's just the way I am. I get 'warm and fuzzy' feelings from different things.

James is a utilitarian and I am a rational egoist. We each chose our positions because they 'felt' right to us after a lot of soul searching. To presume that either position has any sort of universal moral authority which can be applied to other people would be ridiculous.

No matter how much you disapprove of my position, there's no rational reason I should feel the same as you do.

Epilogue

I hope it's obvious that I'm defending a philosophical position here, not giving a prescription for how I think it would be preferable for everybody in the world to behave.

I'm a pragmatic libertarian. I'm not a Randroid. I always leave a tip. I feel deep sorrow when I see what life has done to some people. Oh, and I'm actually quite altruistic sometimes, particularly towards people I'm close to.

But I also like arguing a lot and this is probably my favourite position to defend because most people I've ever met disagree with it. I find that it's especially fun if I do things like (altruistically) getting up to make my opponent a drink during the debate :-)

Anyway - there it is: my unpopular opinion. I hope we can still be friends!


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