The interesting case of altruism studies – No serious utilitarian out there?

Experimenters studying altruistic contributions regularly interpret it as clear sign of egoism when participants opt for money as opposed to things like saving the life of mice or increasing the payoff of fellow participants. From a utilitarian perspective this seems odd: I might well take the money, simply to donate it later to where I get the most bang for it. Depending on taste and convictions that means giving it to Oxfam rather than saving mice. And, euhh, Oxfam seems quite preferable to paying for the sole effect of transferring experimenter money to my co-rich co-participants of the common-good studies performed at university labs.

In Homo Moralis: Personal Characteristics, Institutions, and Moral Decision-Making, Thomas Deckers & al. study the effect of personal characteristics and of the market on moral decisions. Essentially: Experiment where subjects face the decision of receiving 10€ and killing, versus receiving no money and saving the life of an animal. As simple as intriguing an idea.

The finding of males, low-IQers, and single-children being significantly more likely to go for the money than for the life of the mouse is interesting, independently of whether it may surprise or not.

But here what I find really interesting about this and many similar studies on the topic of altruistic contributions for public goods (and here animal welfare):

If someone accepts, for example, the 10€ for the mouse to be killed, is this an undeniable sign of egoism? It is in the author’s view:  “our choice paradigm involves a morally demanding decision since killing an animal for money implies the intentional harming of a third party for purely selfish reasons.” And even if I spare any links here, it is the automatically presumed view you find expressed in many, probably hundreds, of public goods studies, with a typical setup following this pattern: An experimenter with some cash at hand offers individual participants the possibility to either taking some amount x for themselves, or to instead make the experimenter distribute an amount larger than x to fellow participants. For convenience, participants are often simply students of western universities – and the studies are of course publicly funded.

If there was at least a small fraction of persons that are only slightly but relevantly utilitarian – that is, they place a high enough weight on the well-being of strangers and are well off enough such that they end up giving away some relevant amount of money for causes other than their personal pleasure – the dichotomous interpretation of all these authors,

Keeping money = egoistic.
Contributing for others (or saving mouse) = altruistic.

would not be pertinent. I’d want to tweak and extend it with a third interpretation,

Keeping money = (i) egoistic, or (ii) altruistic & smart.
Contributing for others (or saving mouse) = altruistic but likely narrow-minded (or simply parochial).

Explanation: The sheer poverty and need in the world means that by donating the few € extra that you can reap when behaving antisocially towards your fellow participants in the experiments – or when letting the mouse be killed – to the good cause of your choice after the experiment, you can most likely yield a much larger net benefit than by behaving in the way proclaimed ‘altruistic’ by the experimental scholars of altruism. In the mouse-case, this may strongly depend on your values. But the possibility of a higher payoff with a post-experiment donation seems almost indisputable when considering the case of the typical common-good experiments among students: In this case, the only effect of your contribution to the ‘common good’ is to fund a transfer of taxpayer money – it is taxpayers who finance the studies and thus the cash paid to the participants – to fellow students, i.e. the future economic elite of society…

Maybe it just goes without saying that 99.99% of all participants would exclusively act on a motive of personal enrichment when opting for the own profit in the experiment. I find it slightly more difficult to imagine that 99.99% of all participants would find it genuinely and deeply ‘good’ to help fellow-participants reap the maximum amount from the experimenter for whom – or for whose sponsor – the distributed money also has cost. I haven’t read the vast literature exhaustively, but in the various studies I’ve seen, and in the lectures on the topic I have enjoyed, the absence of discussion of this topic strikes me. If pragmatically not crucial for the general, approximate validity of the experimental results, I do find the issue underlines how far away people – here probably study authors and experiment participants – are from utilitarian thinking in their daily lives.

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