Modern economics is founded on the assumption that human behaviour is driven by rational self-interest. How then can it explain real acts of generosity and selflessness? Matt Ridley considers a new economic model of the emotions which shows that altruistic behaviour is a superior form of enlightened, long term self-interestby Matt Ridley / December 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
A curious thing has happened in re- cent years. Economists who founded their whole discipline on the question “What’s in it for the individual?” have begun to back away from rugged individualism. Much of recent innovation in economics has been based on the discovery that people are motivated by something other than immediate material self-interest. Just as biology shook off its woolly collectivism and donned the hair shirt of gene-based individualism, economics has begun to go the other way: to try to explain why people do things that are against their apparent interests.
The most successful of those attempts is that by Robert Frank. His is a theory of why we have emotions, founded on a combination of the new cynical biology and the less orthodox economics. It may seem odd that a man who has written a textbook on microeconomics should steal in where psychologists have floundered, and explain the function of emotion. But, as he argues, human motives are the stuff of economics, whether rational and material or not.
Robert Trivers, who brought gene centred cynicism to much of biology, wrote: “Models that attempt to explain altruistic behaviour in terms of natural selection are models designed to take the altruism out of altruism.” This is an old idea, as familiar to the Glasgow philosophers of the 18th century as to modern economists such as Amartya Sen: if you are nice to people because it makes you feel better, then your compassion is selfish, not selfless. Likewise, in the world of biology, an ant slaves away celibate on behalf of its sisters not out of the goodness of its little heart (an organ it does not possess in a form that we would recognise), but out of the selfishness of its genes. A vampire bat feeds its neighbours for ultimately selfish reasons. Even baboons that repay social favours are being prudent rather than kind. What passes for virtue is a form of expediency. (Christians should pause before they feel superior: they appear to teach that you should practice selflessness to get to heaven – a pretty big bribe to appeal to their selfishness.)
The key to understanding Robert Frank’s theory of the emotions is to keep in mind this distinction between immediate self-interest and ultimate reward. Frank began his seminal book, Passions within Reason, with a description of a bloody massacre by some Hatfields of some McCoys. The…