The full video interview between Marian L. Tupy and Michael McCullough can be found here. The transcript is below.
Marian Tupy: When pandemics hit in the past, we put sick individuals in quarantine, but when the current pandemic hit, we shut down the entire society, including the entire economy. I suspect that the prolonged shutdown was a mistake— due to its astronomical economic, psychological, and non-COVID related deaths, but I could be wrong. To set me straight, I am happy to welcome to The Covid Tonic Michael McCullough, a professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego and the author of a new book, The Kindness of Strangers: How a Selfish Ape Invented a New Moral Code. Michael, welcome!
Michael McCullough: Thanks for having me, Marian.
MT: My absolute pleasure. We will turn to your book in a moment, but let’s start with a theory that I heard about the shutdown. It goes something like this: humans, especially people who’ve been living in Western societies, have been moving away from death, whereas our ancestors were surrounded by death all the time— people dying left and right, there was violence, there was malnutrition, there was [widespread] disease. We don’t really encounter death until our parents or our grandparents die, so everything in our society is intended to postpone individual death, and the shutdown is the attempt to postpone death on a very large scale. That’s, at any rate, a theory that I recently heard. Do you buy it?
MM: I do buy it, actually. I think one of the things that has interested me as I’ve sort of tried to understand a little bit of the evolution of our concern for strangers over the past few millennia, is that— I’m borrowing from an insight from the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl— suffering is a bit like a gas in a container. It spreads out evenly and sort of affects the soul in the same ways no matter how much of it there is. So, pain has a way of taking up our entire consciousness when we’re experiencing it. I think our tolerance for other people’s suffering and death is kind of similar. We can only experience so much sympathy or compassion, so the question is how much of it can we spread per individual person suffering?
I think when we face extremely high death rates, or when we undergo a war that has millions of casualties— and we are outraged by that— or we are sympathetic towards the people suffering, it seems to me through history that we’ve become less and less tolerant of death and violence, in part because of this idea that the amount of suffering we experience or the amount of compassion we experience is sort of equal no matter how many people are in the background doing that.
So, when there were millions of people, we were in a given epidemic, a given war, or another instance of mass suffering, we were compassionate about it and desired to do something about it because of the same psychological preferences and emotions we have now, but with so much of it we had to take a fatalistic attitude. There’s no way you’re going to save eighteen million people from the Spanish Flu, or you’re going to save a hundred thousand people from being more casualties, but as the number of war casualties shrinks in modern warfare, or as we get a better and better handle on how to handle epidemics rationally and with an eye toward results, we’re still concerned about the amount of death, even if it’s only a tenth or five percent or two percent of what it would have been 100 years ago.
So, yeah, I think we’ve become less and less tolerant of outrageous suffering, and as there’s less and less of it, we continue to direct the same amount of attention to it that we would have directed to an instance of mass suffering a hundred or a thousand years ago.
MT: Let me just pursue this point a little bit. You think that we were always concerned about human suffering, it’s just that now we can do more about it. You don’t think that humans went through some sort of a genetic or ethical evolution that would make us more frightened of death. I do realize, of course, that your book is about an ethical evolution of the species towards greater compassion, but I just want to focus on the toleration of death [in recent decades]. Has there been any change, or is it really the same amount of energy that we apply towards the prevention of death?
MM: What we have in our power now that we didn’t have in ages past is the actual capacity to intervene. 500 years ago in classical Europe, our options for actually intervening— certainly for intervening effectively— were very limited The things we knew how to do, to conduct population-wide surveillance, to figure out why people are dying, how many people are dying, where they’re dying— we just didn’t have that technology.
Because of our worldviews, which were largely at that time heavily driven by Christian belief and conviction where suffering and death were accepted and, in some ways, even sanctified as a way of better understanding God’s mercy, and because we didn’t have effective ways to intervene, and we had worldviews that said there are some ways you can get a redemptive meaning from other people’s suffering, I think we did have a kind of tolerance for it [death] that we simply don’t now, [now] that we’ve moved away from a fatalistic attitude towards death.
Also, we know we have some tools in our toolkit for doing something about it, so our beliefs about death have changed for sure and our abilities to control or reduce it have vastly improved. I do think we’re less tolerant, for sure.
MT: That’s fascinating. So, in the past, people would have perhaps even welcomed death because it brought them closer to God; they were finally in eternity in heaven. As society has secularized and more and more people doubt the existence of the afterlife, whether you make the best of it [life] and remain on Earth as long as you possibly can, that’s really the key, right? Can you describe how humanity has perhaps tackled pandemics in the past, let’s say, in Europe? You touched upon that subject already.
MM: Sure. Pandemics have always been a part of human life. We have immune systems as proof that we’ve always been preyed upon by these tiny creatures that want to get into our bodies and turn our cellular machinery into factories for making more of them. We’ve always confronted them, and as societies got very large— as we moved into large dense cities and, certainly, as we moved into the extremely dense cities of Europe a thousand to five hundred years ago— epidemics became concerns for thousands of people to tens of thousands of people at a time and transmission could be very high.
As I alluded to a couple minutes ago, we accepted epidemics as a normal part of life. We had some intuitions about transmission: the idea that you want to separate yourself from people who are infected— that’s something we’ve known for a long time. Beginning, I would say, [in] the late 15th and early 16th century, thinking people— scholars, the humanists of the time— really began to ask themselves in a new way how we should think about the vast reservoirs of humanity that are showing up at the city gates— poor, cold, without productive work— in light of the fact that they are this vector for pandemics. We know that lots of unhealthy people with disease are super-spreaders, and not only that, but their inability to make a living for themselves creates all these second order problems: social unrest, town squares that you don’t enjoy going to that bum you out because of all the poverty and disease, the increases in crime, and the increases in vice as people try to find some way to make a living for themselves.
In the beginnings of the 16th century, what you see in Europe is actually really interesting. Starting in the city of Bruges, you see the first systematic plans for intervening systematically society-wide in order to improve the economic outlook of, essentially, strangers that you don’t know but that are in the city suffering and also creating all these second order problems. That’s actually the first time where we see secular plans managed by the secular authorities within the city getting their day in court, as it were.
Within about twenty-five years to thirty-five years of that period, you see this idea of comprehensive planning— involving [the] assessment of individuals’ needs; trying to find ways to provide work training, whether that’s through apprenticeships or more education; and separating the idle poor from those individuals who really desire to be productive. You see this idea spreading to the point where it’s in thirty or fifty cities throughout Europe within about half a century. This was an idea that was really new; prior to that, concern for the poor was largely driven by a kind of fatalism, the idea that the poor will always be with us. Charity was largely managed— to its great credit— by the church, which really did make huge efforts to care for the poor.
Nevertheless, the way the worldview changed was that we would be more effective and more efficient if we put all of these efforts in a framework where we can compare apples with apples, avoid duplication of effort, and work to do something comprehensive and more effective rather than putting band-aids on problems and essentially creating poverty traps where we spend resources, but not enough that anybody can really get out of poverty.
MT: So, some sort of an ethical change did arise from the increased wealth in northwestern Europe around this time.
MM: Yeah, I think those increases in wealth came slowly through the beginnings of international trade, and we don’t really see those increases in wealth— I believe, on my reading of history— making a huge dent until we get a little bit later in the 16th century with the innovation of poor rates.
This is something that started in England, where the government of the time decided to start taxing people on the basis of property and wealth in order to create a small fund to provide benefits to the poor, largely in the forms of work training, money to buy food, limited expenses for housing, and so forth. These amounted to about one percent of gross domestic income in England at the time. Similar innovations took place in the Netherlands a little later and their actual allocations were a little higher. These [poor rates] increased to about two percent of GDP in both England and the Dutch Republic and were kept at that level until they weren’t and some economic realities in both the Netherlands, the Dutch Republic, and England changed, so those rates were cut as we moved into the 19th century.
There’s no doubt that this is on the back of increasing wealth, increasing GDP. This is often called the ‘Age of Prevention’— at least that’s what I’ve come to call it— and some other economists like that term as well.
MT: I want to talk about the Age of Prevention in a moment because, obviously, I want to get a better sense of the main arguments in your book, but before we get there, just a couple more questions on the current pandemic.
Since you are the specialist on compassion, I wanted to ask you if you were surprised by how quickly the argument for keeping of the shutdown switched from, ‘let’s shut down the economy for a couple of weeks so that we can get the health care system ready, so that the healthcare system isn’t overwhelmed’— that’s the original argument— and then quickly it switched to an argument that basically [says], we need to keep the economy shut until COVID goes away or until the vaccine comes. Were you surprised by that switch, and do you have any theory why that has occurred?
MM: I was really surprised by that. That was certainly, my understanding, to prevent us from outstripping the medical system so that we would have enough beds and enough resources to take care of the people who were really sick. You’re right— there was a mission creep with that idea, not only in the US but through Europe and Asia as well, that a broader effort and a more sustained effort at quarantine would lead to lower society-wide impacts.
I actually don’t know where the rhetoric around that shift actually took place at the level of governmental decision-making. My own theory about it is simply a theory of momentum. Once you have a plan like this in place, and you have the intuition that it is reducing medical burden— once you’ve already got a plan like that in motion, you can work to reduce transmission in a more preventative way. I really don’t know how these decisions are made, I assume they’re largely on the basis of values and intuitions, but I’d like to think that some of those decisions are sensitive to data. It does look like, in most epidemiological models, we could get very close to outstripping our medical resources again in November or December. This is the kind of thing that might end up— over the course of months— prevent the same problem that initially it was designed to prevent, in addition to whatever salutary effects it might have society-wide right now in reducing transmission and morbidity short of hospitalization.
MT: It seems to me that at the heart of the differing attitudes to the shutdown, there may be a different toleration for risk amongst different components of the population. Is there any research on the difference in toleration of risk between, say, conservatives and libertarians on the one side and progressives on the other? Do we have any evidence?
MM: That’s a really interesting thing to think about. We have a ton of evidence about the psychological differences between what you would call not little ‘L’ liberals, but big ‘L’ liberals— people that we would have associated in times past with the Democratic party, who now seem more inclined to call themselves Liberals, and conversely, conservatives, once upon a time embraced the concept of being Republicans a little bit more.
Anyways, conservative, Liberal, Republican, Democrat— there are huge differences, and one does have to do with appetite for risk. Liberals— this is not just one study, this is a lot of studies— tend to be worriers; they tend to be more fearful about contingencies that they don’t understand, and they do think about risks more going forward. This is not a huge effect, but it’s a robust difference. They tend to be a little less self-assured, so they think about the future, and they do tend to worry and obsess a little bit more than conservatives do.
Now, there’s a kind of worry that conservatives have captured the market on, worries we would put under a label of something like xenophobia or concerns about people that are different from them, in a way that Liberals typically do not worry about things like immigration or the countries that might be transporting infection into the country— that’s something they tend to worry about. So, our worries are sort of different. Depending on who you are, Liberals tend to worry about the unknown, and conservatives tend to worry more about the unknown others.
Both of these you can see playing out in Liberal versus conservative responses to the pandemic, where you see, I think, among Liberals and more Liberal states, more enthusiasm about shutting down the economy in order to prevent morbidity and death. They don’t talk so much about controlling immigration or controlling travel into the US; that’s a set of worries that you see more in conservative rhetoric. So, we worry about different things.
MT: That’s very interesting. That would imply that the conservative mentality would be one where you stop immigration and travel to the United States, but you say, well, that’s as far as we go, now everybody else just get on with your lives. Whereas progressives and Liberals, it seems to me, would say let’s keep the borders, travel and immigration open, but we are shutting down internally. Neither of them make complete sense, but I sort of understand what you’re saying.
Moving on finally onto your book– any rational observer must agree that we live in a significantly, substantially more compassionate society than, say, 2,000 years ago, but not enough time has passed for humanity to change at the genetic level to account for that change in compassion.
If not genes, then there must be something else which has turned what you call the ‘selfish ape’ into caring about strangers. What was it? I guess this would be a good place to outline the main argument of your book, and I know that you start at the Axial Age and take it all the way to modernity. The floor is yours.
MM: Yeah, thanks! You’re quite right: natural selection, acting on the genes that make our bodies and our minds, moves quite slowly, and we certainly wouldn’t expect massive genetic, population-wide, species-wide systematic genetic changes over something like ten or 12,000 years. We have to look elsewhere to explain why it is that today the world’s developed nations spend twenty percent of GDP or more on social expenditures, why we take an abiding interest in the welfare of developing countries, and so forth.
The argument that I try to make in The Kindness of Strangers is that we can explain this through the conspiracy of several different kinds of developments over the past ten millennia or so. The things I think that conspired together are developments in ethics, or developments in our worldviews about the causes of suffering and the effects of suffering— death, disease, and poverty. So, our ideas and our ideals have changed— our basic concepts for understanding the world— and we’ve had a variety of ethical innovations in how we think about what’s good, what’s bad, what kind of world we want to have, what the value of other people is, and how we should think about the value of other people’s lives and well-being. We have ideas and ideals, and those have worked together with innovations in trade, innovations in science, and innovations in technology. If you put those pieces together— ideas and ideals, along with cash, technology, and scientific insights— what I see happening is an increasing ability to intervene to try to improve people’s welfare and convictions for why we should do it and convictions about the best ways to do it.
You’re right— the way I try to cut up the cultural evolution of these ideas in my book is through, as historians often do, trying to set milestones through history where we see hinges where there are major transitions in how we think and how we act.
You’re right— it goes from the Axial Age, this period where we see the genesis and flourishing of the world religions that we still practice today; they give us the Golden Rule; they give us some of our earliest ideas about how to build societies to take an interest in others’ welfare— the ideas we still live with today. In Greece, you see the first veterans administration; you see the first systematic efforts to employ the poor; you see the first daily social security checks, if you like. In Axial Age Israel you see the beginnings of similar innovations, but certainly distinct: you see the idea of soup kitchens; dowries for orphans; the first hospitals; the first schools. In fact, as Jewish tradition developed, you really couldn’t establish a new city that didn’t have a hospital and didn’t have a school in it. These are the first innovations, if you like, for how we would build Institutions.
Fast forward to classical Europe, Europe of the second millennium— I call this the Age of Prevention— where in about the 16th century, as we talked about, people start to recognize the second order effects of poverty on the well-being of cities. We’ve talked about the building of comprehensive— ideally comprehensive— top-down systems for monitoring poverty and suffering, diagnosing it, trying to find out the individual causes, and then using the right carrots and sticks to motivate the able-bodied to take up activities that would restore them to independence and, essentially, to create incentives that would make it increasingly painful not to take up activities that would make you self-sufficient.
Then, I think we’ve gone through two Poverty Enlightenments. The way that is often talked about here is that we became aware at two different points: the end of the 19th century transitioning over to the beginnings of the 20th century, where we begin to realize our understanding of what makes people poor changes. We can trace these ideas to the writings of Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant, and Rousseau, who each in their own way made contributions to a notion of distributive justice.
What Smith added was the idea that the poor are just like everybody else: everyone has a genius for something, everybody wants to be better off. He had some fairly radical ideas about whether the poor create their own problems or not. He tended to view them as actually, in some ways, more industrious and cleverer than ‘people of fashion,’ as he called them, who had plenty of money and inheritances and fancy clothes to wear. He brings what we now think of as the classical economic worldview— that people follow their incentives. We want to design these societies right so that when people follow their incentives, they’re better off.
This idea conspires with the ideas of Rousseau and Kant, particularly Kant, that everyone has equal and infinite worth, which is a tough pill to swallow if you follow it to its conclusion; infinite worth implies we’re willing to spend a lot of money to improve people’s well-being. Nevertheless, what emerges from this is a sense that even the poor have a kind of dignity and fundamentally a desire to make a living for themselves, but what we lack for them is a safety net that keeps people from falling too far below an acceptable standard of living. Poverty traps essentially occur if we don’t provide enough backup for people when times really become hard.
MT: Is that the first one or the second one [Poverty Enlightenment]?
MM: That’s the first Poverty Enlightenment. In between the first and the second, we see the equivalent to the first Poverty Enlightenment taking place at the international level, where you begin, for the first time, to see nations taking an interest in the welfare of other nations. This is largely driven by international trade, where countries begin to realize that we have this evolving international trade network. We become increasingly interdependent on each other as nations for our own welfare, so, it doesn’t make a lot of sense— in a way that it used to, at one time— to watch other nations burn and sink.
International relations were viewed largely as a zero-sum game: Spain’s losses are England’s gains; England’s losses are France’s gains, and so forth. International trade transforms that to where Spain’s losses become England’s losses because I’m trading things I value less than your money for your money, and you’re giving your money which you value less for my goods.
The gains of trade create an international situation where we come to value the welfare of other countries, and we want to intervene where we can particularly in humanitarian crises. This overlaps a lot with what I’m calling the first Poverty Enlightenment. This is when you begin to see voluntary international associations evolve and flourish. This is the era of the Red Cross. This is the era of Save the Children. This is the era of the professionalization of nursing, ultimately leading to this efflorescence of voluntary humanitarian organizations, a lot of which are still with us today.
This echoes through the First and Second World Wars, where we see voluntary associations and also the beginnings of multilateral organizations that are trying to intervene particularly in wartorn countries to reduce the suffering of collateral casualties; women and children; and non-combatants, who inevitably are the war victims as much as the soldiers are. This evolves into concern about the welfare of soldiers themselves, and ultimately, it is a recognition that even the vanquished countries end up with suffering people in them. Even Germany post-World War II was filled with suffering Germans. The Allied powers came to recognize ultimately— along with voluntary organizations like Care or Save the Children and many others, in fact— that those people, because of humanitarian convictions, have a right to care as well.
MT: That would be the second Poverty Enlightenment.
MM: I’m calling that the ‘humanitarian Big Bang,’ and this concept is due to Michael Barnett, who is at George Washington University, actually. He calls this era, and he writes about it in a really lovely way, the humanitarian Big Bang, where international relations become not merely relations regulated by war and trade, but we begin to think about how we can corporately work to address suffering everywhere.
MT: So, one way to summarize the steps that you are making in the compassion revolution would be: first, you have the Axial Age where the Golden Rule becomes the norm in places where civilization flourishes; then, you move into the Age of Prevention, where cities like Bruges start putting into place some forms of very basic taking care for people who are really hard up; you move into the first Poverty Enlightenment, which is almost like the most basic social safety net; and then, you get into the second Poverty Enlightenment, which is a more generous aid to the poor, a greater social welfare net that would be the hallmark of, let’s say, post-Second World War Europe and so forth. Would that be the correct summary of the book itself?
MM: Yeah. By the way, this notion of two Poverty Enlightenments is due to the welfare economist Martin Ravallion, who’s at Georgetown. I’ve been influenced by a lot of people in Washington D.C. as I put this book together, as it turns out. He talks about a first Poverty Enlightenment, Michael Barnett giving me this humanitarian Big Bang, and then the second Poverty Enlightenment, which is post-World War II, where we began to apply the same sorts of convictions and ideas that we were bringing to concerns about the well-being of people within our own countries and countries in humanitarian crises. We’re now going to start to bring that thinking post-World War II to the developing world, where we see poverty not concentrated. We’re not focused on the poor within our own borders, or the humanitarian suffering of people outside our borders, but now we’re thinking about how to address poverty, and what we used to call the Third World but now we call the developing world, so that ultimately we can create self-sufficiency in those countries as well?
MT: Very good. That is the outline of the book, and these are primarily changes in ideas, but there were other aspects of the change in compassion, such as, you described, science, trade, and so forth. Let’s go through them very quickly: what, in addition to ideas, has changed to make humanity more compassionate?
MM: We should start with trade because I think, in a lot of ways, it is kind of a prime mover; you can’t help people if you don’t have the resources to help them. The fact that we’ve become so prosperous in the developed world due to trade and due to technological innovations that allow us to get more bang for our buck means we have the cash on hand to think about other people’s well-being.
Where in 16th and 17th century England and in the Dutch Republic, we’re talking about 1% to 2% of gross domestic income that we’re devoting to care for the poor, now most of the developed nations are spending 20% to 25% of gross domestic income on domestic concerns. Likewise, we’re spending hundreds of billions of dollars a year on development in the developing world. You can’t do that if you don’t have the cash on hand, so I attribute this really to the gains of trade over the course of several centuries. It’s because we’re wealthy that we’re able to be compassionate.
Technology has given us the ability to know about other people’s suffering and to do something about it. Back in the 18th century, and I guess going back to the beginning of horseback travel, news traveled on land at about two miles per hour and on ships it traveled at a much slower rate. So, if you were to discover something about other people’s suffering elsewhere, it was going to get to you at the rate of two miles per hour. Now, we learn about people suffering at the speed of electrons, essentially; we can find out about earthquakes in Haiti, tsunamis in the south Pacific, or earthquakes, wars, civil wars, and unrest within a matter of minutes after it takes place. We can act more quickly due to technology.
MT: How important is seeing the suffering with your own eyes to you being more compassionate?
MM: I think it is really important that we see through our own eyeballs people suffering if we’re going to be engaged in our evolved systems for care, if we’re going to respond to suffering on the basis of that evolved cognitive hardware we’ve got.
In the modern world, where we’re learning about mass suffering in other places, you can learn about it through television, you can learn about it through the newspaper. Those medias don’t work so well at moving the soul, moving the human spirit; but when we use technology to bring individual people’s suffering to us through a screen— this ability to identify individual suffering, sick children, bereaved mothers, bereaved wives and husbands— this does engage some of our evolved cognitive hardware that motivates us to care. What aid agencies have learned over the years is that if you create television that identifies individual children, individual suffering children, individual grieving mothers, you can move people’s heartstrings in a way that you can’t do with hard cold statistics.
During the Television Age, particularly after the war in Vietnam, we got better and better at trying to move people’s heartstrings with individual people’s narratives and presenting them with the promise that by helping that individual person, we could raise their welfare, we could make them better off, we could get them out of their problem. We confront innumeracy when we face suffering in cold hard statistics. We don’t feel that much different when we see that the death rate due to a particular tragedy is ten people per million; we don’t feel that any differently than we feel a death rate of 200 per million or a thousand per million. They don’t move us any differently. It’s that face-to-face contact that ends up moving our heartstrings in the biggest direction.
MT: One follow-up question on this: does our compassion decline in intensity with distance? The way I think about it is that, obviously, I’m willing to do much more for my sibling than I’m willing to do for my cousin, even less for a friend, then even less for a fellow citizen, until ultimately somebody on the other side of the world will get only a fraction of the compassion I’m going to spend on my immediate family. Can you talk a little bit about that?
MM: Yeah, sure. We can think about ourselves in the middle of a set of concentric circles, and what several psychologists have suggested is that we engage in a process of social discounting in the same way that economists talk about temporal discounting; the goods we have available to us right now have more value than the same good we can only get into the future. So, we discount the value of nice things we might have in the future relative to their present value. Behavioral economists’ suggestion is that we do a similar kind of discounting with regard to human beings. The nearest and dearest to us have a greater value or weight, where we’re willing to spend more of our resources, our time, or our energy to the benefit of their welfare than we are to individuals that are neighbors, people in our communities, people in our country, people in other countries, or even enemies.
We seem to have a psychology that does discount their value, and what tracks that is the amount we’re willing to pay to ease their suffering. I have two kids— I would give almost anything to alleviate their serious suffering. I can’t say that I would do the same for someone that’s more remote from me.
I think the mind has evolved to engage in this discounting process because natural selection would have evolved us for having these preferences. The genes in me are better off in terms of their ability to spread into the population if I’m focused on helping those who can help me in return or carry some of my genes around as a result of being related to them; so, I do think this is a feature of human nature.
MT: I see. If compassion depended solely on the genes, then it would have been— on your reading— probably been more restricted. It would certainly not reach the levels that we have today; for that, we needed an ethical evolution. Would that be a good summary of your thinking?
MM: That’s exactly right.
MT: Now, let me play the devil’s advocate in the two last questions that I have for you. In your book, you describe a progression toward ever greater compassion. You start in the Axial Age, then you have the Age of Prevention, then you have the two Poverty Enlightenments, and then the humanitarian [Big] Bang, and the question is: is there such a thing as too much compassion? Just as people say two drinks a week are probably good for you, but two drinks a night are probably bad for you, what would you say to those who argue that compassion should probably have stopped in the Enlightenment or after the first Poverty Enlightenment? Your work seemed to imply a linear progression towards something good, so let’s start with a question: can there be too much compassion?
MM: Yeah, absolutely. If you think of compassion as something largely driven by emotions, if we want to equate it with something like sympathy, then I think the research is really clear that it’s a pretty untrustworthy guide to building societies that are responsive and optimal for helping to meet the needs of the poor and suffering.
As the psychologist Paul Bloom has pointed out, sympathy is parochial and it’s innumerate. We feel much more sympathy and a desire to intervene on the behalf of a single identifiable individual, the classic case being a child who’s fallen into a well or a single sick child in a hospital. We’re willing to spend much more per capita to help that individual than we are to use the same amount of resources with a target, like a donation to a children’s hospital. With the same amount of goods, we will invest much more in a single child because of the way our heartstrings are moved by compassion than we would to an impersonal, anonymous kind of institution that would do actually more good per unit of contribution.
It’s also parochial: we tend to prefer helping people we have an affinity for— the near and dear, our friends, people who have our same religion or our same political views.
Compassion is, I think, an untrustworthy guide, which is why I think reason, science, and technology— particularly science— are so important going forward to make good decisions. You’re right, we could have too much compassion. Spend poorly, invest our energies and time poorly— I think the research suggests in the mind’s natural state, that is what we can expect to happen, which is why we need reason and the guidance of science to make decisions, with regard to other people’s welfare, that are going to be good decisions, that are going to be effective decisions.
MT: So, your compassion and your appreciation of compassion is not boundless. For example, you would accept that there can be such things as unintended consequences or moral hazards, and we need to guard against that.
MM: Oh, absolutely! In the final chapter of my book, I talked about some of the concepts that have made us smarter as we think about poverty, suffering, disease, war deaths, and some of those are economic concepts— the idea of the poverty trap, the idea of the Gini coefficient, the idea of diminishing returns. I really wish I’d introduced the concept of moral hazard— that’s one I didn’t mention in the book— because it’s a great tool for thought.
Basically, moral hazard— for folks who might be less familiar with it— is the idea that costs and benefits of taking risks can be asymmetric if you don’t incentivize people properly. If my kid knows that I’ll pay for the car if he wrecks it, whereas he gets to enjoy the benefits of it if he doesn’t wreck it, it creates a moral hazard; he can drive more carelessly knowing that dad and mom will pay for any damage. That’s essentially a moral hazard. The same thing applies in the world of social expenditures or expenditures in the developing world. We have to worry about whether people will take those resources and use them wisely or use them to bad ends with us footing the bill. I really think this is something development economists have worried about a lot, and it’s well worth thinking about. As I’ve read the literature— I’m certainly not a development economist, I’m just a guy that tries to read and understand— they’ve taken this into account.
One of the ways you can try to understand and then potentially mitigate effects is simply to look at the data and to determine whether, on average, interventions, particularly in developing countries but also domestically, pay their way in terms of growth or in terms of bringing people to a state of well-being where they can work and then pay for the benefits they received by getting better jobs, working more, and then paying higher taxes back into the system. You can ask yourself, there may be moral hazard, but let’s see if the moral hazard is ignorable enough that the net benefits through the population that are affected by it essentially pay for themselves or better.
MT: It’s partly an empirical question, as you say. The reason why I raised this subject is because people who put a lot of emphasis on compassion— I’m sure that both of us are compassionate people— but people reading your book and being even more compassionate might see it as a license, for example, for international redistribution of wealth and massive financial transfers between rich and poor countries. Certainly, a lot of people have talked about it before, but even somebody like John Rawls in his last book before he died was against it, saying that that could incentivize bad behavior on the part of the government.
My favorite example of this would be Zimbabwe, a country which I know well, which has basically destroyed its entire economy and now is dependent on international handouts under the same government. The same government has been in place for forty years, so you don’t want to reward those governments for bad behavior, and that brings me to the last question that I want to ask and possibly the most controversial: what is the place for pain in life?
We have obviously evolved the sensation for pain for a purpose. We don’t go around sticking our hands into fire all the time because pain tells us you you cannot do that, and I wonder about the place of pain in terms of stimulating progress, where the pain is actually necessary for the stimulation of society to go forward, and whether compassion can dampen the occurrence of pain at both the individual, but especially the social, levels. At an individual level, I think that we all jump in and try to help people out of charity, compassion or because they’re members of family, but is pain at a social level, such as what happened in Zimbabwe twenty years ago, necessary for social progress? Can we learn without it?
MM: I followed the Zimbabwe tragedy as well, and it was truly one of the most appalling international stories in history in the way that they really did wreck their economy through some extremely bad decisions. I think pain is how we learn, surely, and we determine where pain is at the level of systems by figuring out what works and what doesn’t work. Obviously, we’re not feeling physical pain when we see this or that policy’s effects, so we try to find a currency that we can all work with to understand pain, and the best currency we have is actual currency.
We look at the costs and benefits of particular policies and try to steer courses ultimately that cost the least or that provide the greatest benefits. I can’t feel the cost of someone who’s got a chronic illness or someone who is a child that is missing a meal a day or two meals a day because they can’t be in school right now— I can’t personally feel that pain. What I believe we try to do largely is convert those different kinds of pain into dollar costs, and when we’re being our best selves, using reason and science, we simply try to come up with the best estimates that we can derive for the cost and benefits associated with doing nothing and the cost of benefits associated with doing a particular kind of suffering. Ultimately, I think— this is again an appeal to reason, to the exercise of reason within the realm of policy welfare economics and development economics— what are the least worst courses, the most affordable courses, we can make to maximize net welfare?
Probably the most salient example we can think of right now is the COVID shutdown; we’re certainly bearing some economic costs associated with lost commerce and lost consumption. That’s a real cost; that’s real pain that people are experiencing. Then, there is the pain of hospitalization, the pain of morbidity, the pain of death, and the suffering associated with the people who are losing those loved ones.
The question is, for a rational society, how do we steer policy in a way that leads to the greatest economic pay? It doesn’t have to be economic, but that’s a way of comparing apples and apples. How do we create policies around something like a shutdown of the country or social distancing? What policy should we have that creates the greatest financial upside, and both of them have costs, both of them bring benefits?
MT: I was worried that we would be too far apart in our take on the social welfare state, but if I understand you correctly, you are not advocating simply piling one social program onto another indefinitely. In fact, what you are arguing is that we have to evaluate the existing social welfare system continuously, and, hopefully in a spirit of bipartisan interest in doing good, see what works and what doesn’t, and hopefully even learn from the rest of the world and see what they are doing right that we are doing wrong— something that I’m totally in favor of. Is that a good summary of where you come down on things?
MM: I believe we need to have the stomach for getting rid of things that aren’t working. There are certainly some interventions we’ll make— we know there are from the best empirical data— and there are some things we’re doing in the world to try to make the world a better place that don’t work. They make people on average worse off, or they break even with opportunity costs that go along with them that prevent us from having taken another course of action. I’m a big fan of data and allowing these conversations to be governed by data and reason. Fortunately, we do have people who stay up at night in front of their computers and their datasets trying to figure out what is the best course of action, what programs should we scrap, which programs should we develop further and strengthen.
In a world where we have the stomach for making tough choices, we have the political stomach for doing away with entitlements that don’t work— which will anger constituents— and building programs that seem like they will work at the risk of angering other constituents. It’s going to be through good faith debates in the presence of uncertainty, in the presence of not being able to perfectly predict the future, that we can have good faith arguments and make good faith attempts to build the kinds of societies we want, where the largest number of people can flourish.
MT: Well, Michael, that’s a wonderful way to end our discussion. I’m truly glad that I got to read your book; I appreciate it and I learned a lot from it. We will publish this interview probably next week Friday, and we’ll include a link to your book. I highly recommend it to all of our viewers. Thank you very much for coming on the program.
MM: Thank you so much, Marian, and I really enjoyed talking with you.