Re: poly: Warm-Glow, not Altruism

From: Nick Bostrom <>
Date: Thu May 21 1998 - 22:14:11 PDT

Robin wrote:

> one could test for Nick's concern
> by making it clear to subjects that any value the subjects didn't gain
> was going to be "burned" and not available to anyone. Heck, maybe someone
> already did test for this.

Even so, it would be problematic to test for such "true" altruism.
What if the subjects thought that if they behaved very
altruistically, then the economists would pubilsh a very interesting
paper leading more such studies to be undertaken (involving more
buring of resources). Is that to be regarded as a good or a bad
outcome? Who knows what the subjects believe about the likely
long-run outcome of their choices in this case?

I have to say, though, that I suspect that most people might
actually be "stupid" enough that they think they behave truely
altruistically when they transfer a little money from the
experimenters to the subjects. I think that their behaviour
might change if this was clearly pointed out to them. What little
"altrusim" they show in the economists' experiment (as opposed to
warm-glow or cases where they have got to know the people they are
donating to) would tend to disappear completely if it was carefully
explained to them that they weren't really making the world better
off, just transferring a little money away from research. [research

I want to go even further: I claim that there is a huge inefficiency
in the way that people spend their money altruistically. They don't
give their donation to the organizations which they would, on a
little reflection, think are likely to do the most good in the world.
Instead they give money to sport clubs for handicapped children
etc.! Sport! When they could give it to, say medical research,
trickle-up charities, or health care& schools in Africa, or to the
WTA [:-)] or whatever.

I think part of the explanation is that one does not like to
criticize other people when they do an altruistic act such as giving
to disabled's sport organizations. (It would be bad mannered, it
would hurt their feelings, and would probably cause them to dislike
you.) There is no ruthless feedback system and no punishment for
giving to the wrong charities, and I think the world suffers because
of that.

What to do?

Maybe better training in moral thinking and some change in our
cultures' attitudes towards charity?

Nicholas Bostrom
Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method
London School of Economics
Received on Fri May 22 04:21:54 1998

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