Possible Insight

Society According to Kevin: Introduction

with 12 comments

I was recently having a conversation with a mutual friend of Rafe’s and mine.  Like the two of us, he’s quite smart, well educated, and socially aware.  I respect his thinking a lot. However, during the course of this conversation, it became clear to me that he holds what I think of as an overly moralistic view of human behavior.

From my perspective, it seemed like he thinks that people’s behavior is governed primarily by an internal moral compass rather than incentives. So if you want to change their behavior, you should redirect their moral compass rather than adjust their incentives. People who don’t adjust their behavior are defecting from society and should be sanctioned.

I encounter this view quite often in my social circle and this instance inspired me to write a series of posts to explain how I think things actually work.  You’re free to disagree with me, of course. In fact, I expect most people to disagree with me. But I’ve thought rather hard about this issue and I’ll put my model up against the moralistic view when it comes to predicting a population’s average behavior or choosing an effective policy prescription.

The concrete example from our conversation is instructive.  This friend lives in a large city and attempts to commute by public transit whenever possible.  He said he does this because he thinks it’s the right thing to do for the world we live in. I asked him what he would do if one of his neighbors were always driving a large SUV to run errands. His answer was to convince this neighbor of the error of his ways. If the neighbor failed to heed this advice, he would be doing something “wrong”. The implication I took away was that if enough people chose this “wrong” behavior, we should make a law to enforce the “right” behavior (though perhaps social shunning might be sufficient).

As you can probably guess from my series of posts on the Ascetic Meme (here, here, and here), I think this approach is misguided. If you read those posts, you can undoubtedly guess my policy prescription. Figure out how much “harm” consuming a gallon of gas does to society and set that as the gas tax. If there’s non-gasoline-consumption harm from the SUV, tax SUV’s themseoves. Then if this neighbor still decides to drive the SUV, the amount of benefit he gets outweighs the cost to society and he should be driving the SUV. Better yet, I don’t personally have to go around trying to convince a lot of people to change their minds. My friend objected that people with high disposable incomes wouldn’t respond to  such a tax so it would be both ineffective and “unfair”.

As you can imagine, there’s quite a lot of data on people’s response to fuel prices.  For the economically inclines, here is a good survey. The estimates for  long run response to a 10% increase in fuel cost range from a 2.3% to a 8% decrease in demand in the US. Now, my friend might argue that these results only apply at the aggregate level and may not affect wealthy people making the “right” choice not to own an SUV. It turns out that economists have tackled this problem as well using what are called discrete choice models. This paper shows how raising gas taxes will shift wealthy households from owning an SUV and a car to two cars and how a tax on SUVs will reduce SUV ownership across the board.

But let’s not get stuck down in the weeds. His larger point was that society doesn’t hold itself together because people do what’s in their self interest. Rather, the fundamental societal glue consists of most people making the right moral choices. I suggest that anyone who believes this run out and buy Tim Harford’s The Logic of Life for an engaging introduction to just how well people respond to incentives in a wide variety of contexts. For some reason, the moralistic view seems to seduces many intellectuals. I’m going to attempt to dispel this confusion. The first step is diving into my model of society’s foundations, which will be the first substantive post in this series. As a nice side effect, I think working through this topic this will bear fruit in Rafe’s and my ongoing discussion of “autonomy” as it applies to emergence.


Written by Kevin

January 2, 2009 at 8:22 pm

12 Responses

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  1. My take on this begins with the two different paths to empathetic behavior in humans. I believe that Kevin looks at the world and sees action as stemming principally from what I called “constructed empathy” whereas our mutual friend sees action as stemming principally from “innate empathy”.

    I believe they are both right. As I argued, we each have the capacity for both types of empathy to a degree, and each individual will use a different mix in their daily lives. Some live on one end of the extreme or the other, with most people in the middle somewhere.

    As individual actions aggregate, collective behavior can reflect, and rely more heavily on, one or the other type of empathy. This explains communities where social norms, mores and taboos are all that are needed, as well as communities where without explicit rules (with punishment) and positive incentives, nothing works.

    I know Kevin will argue that the first community relies on incentives (mostly negative ones) they just are implicit and every individual is making a utilitarian calculation (albeit subconsciously for most) and aren’t really acting out of moral instinct. But our friend could just as convincingly argue that the second community only works if there’s moral intuition since no amount of rules or incentives can overcome a collection of narrowly self-interested individuals with Machiavellian intentions. People are too “clever” and the group would descend into chaos, as happens from time to time in witch hunts.

    We can’t ignore that fact that individual human minds are shaped and modified quite effectively by social norms, even to the point of instilling unshakable moral intuition. Whether that moral intuition is primary or whether incentives (and punishment) are primary depends on the individual, and by extension on the particular community.


    January 3, 2009 at 12:20 am

  2. Jumping the gun a little bit, aren’t you Rafe? We know each other pretty well, but surely your prior should be reasonably high that I will offer something in a series of substantive posts that you haven’t anticipated 🙂

    I was actually planning to deconstruct this concept of moral intuition quite a bit more than you think. Also, this isn’t a matter of “convincing”. I’ve said I will put my model against the alternative in a test.


    January 3, 2009 at 12:56 am

  3. and let the SUV driver figure out how much harm your friend’s use of public transportation does and then tax him.


    January 3, 2009 at 2:41 pm

  4. @Jay. Unfortunately, in order to have public transportation, both my friend and the SUV driver would already have been taxed. I would endorse the SUV driver recovering his pro rata share of those taxes from all the public transit riders.

    Most recent public rail projects fail any kind of remotely reasonable cost benefit analysis. Buses usually dominate rail severalfold. The key is to always ask whether fares will be at least equal to operating costs under somewhat realistic assumptions. That gets rid of most projects. Then you have to see whether the excess will pay back the capital costs in less than 50 years. That gets rid of almost everything else. Heck, even if you give them a reasonable “carbon offset credit”, they still don’t make sense.


    January 3, 2009 at 9:23 pm

  5. Incentives rule. Empathy is internally incentivized for evolutionary purposes.


    January 3, 2009 at 10:15 pm

  6. @Daniel. Yep, my next post is going to be about how selection pressure provided humans “incentive shortcuts” in the form of various hardwired behaviors.


    January 3, 2009 at 11:45 pm

  7. Looking forward to the empirical tests. Of course I will need to approve the setup before accepting the argument as valid 🙂


    January 4, 2009 at 8:33 pm

  8. I was actually planning on offering something along the lines of truth market assertions. Or offering to take the other side of bets by moral compassists if my model makes different predictions.


    January 4, 2009 at 9:18 pm

  9. Humans DO have an internal compass–the compass that was provided to us through evolution. A large body of research has shown that cooperative behaviors can evolve under the right circumstances, at least some of which were certainly present during human evolution. So it’s not at all unreasonable to suggest that humans have some instinct to behave well towards each other, though the details of this instinct (in particular how it interacts with our competitive instincts) are unclear.


    January 7, 2009 at 10:27 pm

  10. @Ben. Yes, as I replied to Daniel, that is my thesis. This compass is just not very good in a modern civilization. Which I will be exploring in my next post… when I get the chance to finish it.


    January 7, 2009 at 10:47 pm

  11. […] the comments on my Introduction to this series, it appears I have discovered a controversial topic. Good. My first objective will […]

  12. […] the comments on my Introduction to this series, it appears I have discovered a controversial topic. Good. My first objective will […]

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