Helping Others: It’s In Our Genes!

By Shlomo  Maital   


  Oren Harman is a professor of the philosophy and history of science at the Hebrew University.  He is only 39, but has written wonderful books understandable for ordinary readers like myself. His latest book is The Price of Altruism.  It is about  George Price, an American science journalist.

    Price happened upon a mathematical equation developed by a British biologist named William Hamilton,   that shows how altruism – helping others without gain to oneself —  can thrive even when animals (including humans) are totally selfish.   You help others because by the laws of evolution, it helps YOU survive.  Price, a talented mathematician, simplified Hamilton’s equation.  And then, he did something extraordinary – he practiced what he preached.   He began a   career of helping others in London, giving away all his income, his possessions, everything.  In the end, tragically, he  killed himself with a pair of nail scissors  in January 1975.

   There is a deep conflict within economics about altruism.  There are two polar approaches, that of Gary Becker and that of Amartya Sen.  Nobel Laureate   Becker provides theory and evidence for his “rotten kid” theorem, which shows that highly selfish children may behave outwardly selflessly toward family members, because inwardly they expect a high return on their investment.  In contrast, Nobel Laureate Sen challenges the behavioral foundations of economics built on extreme, narrow self-interest and a distorted interpretation of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.  He speaks of “obligation”,  a type of altruism generating advantage for someone whose wellbeing does not and cannot directly impact the agent’s own wellbeing.  It is obligation, not rotten kids, that drives behavior, Sen claims.  [Only Economics can simultaneously award Nobel Prizes to scholars who present conflicting theories].  

   What did Adam Smith himself write?  Here is a passage from his 1759 book, Theory of Moral Sentiments:  “The plaintive voice of misery, when heard at a distance, will not allow us to be indifferent about the person from whom it comes. As soon as it strikes our ear, it interests us in his fortune, and, if continued, forces us almost involuntarily to fly to his assistance.”  

    Was Smith naïve?  Are we purely selfish creatures?  Or do we fundamentally care about others?   What economists assume about human nature makes a huge difference to the policies they promote.

    Reader – what is your view?