Michael McCullough on the Kindness of Strangers
Feb 1 2021

Kindness-of-Strangers-194x300.jpg Author and psychologist Michael McCullough of the University of California, San Diego talks about his book The Kindness of Strangers with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. McCullough traces the history of human empathy and tries to explain why we care about the welfare of people we don't even know.

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Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Feb 1 2021 at 8:59am


To your first question about the mechanism for favoring certain genes, I think the below Becker paper which you reference in the Skin in the Game episode with Taleb provides some insight into that mechanism, if not Taleb’s insight itself.

That is, even randomly assigned characteristics in the primordial soup would be filtered via natural selection. After the fact, those characteristics that cooperate to promote their own genes, even of distant relatives, would propagate and grow. This leads to the appearance of a ‘rational’ selection of these characteristics.

To me it smacks of the Hayekian notion of embedded knowledge but it is genetic not cultural. We don’t need to know what specific gene causes this behavior, and, if I had to guess, I would say we never could know. The point remains, those characteristics that survive have value, if only because they have allowed us to survive.

krishnan chittur
Feb 1 2021 at 5:01pm

I assumed (incorrectly, when I saw the title) what “kindness of strangers” was going to be in this episode (good that it was for sure). My first thought was about a movie/documentary about organ donation – where in the middle of a tragedy, families make the decision to allow the organs of their loved ones to be taken and used to help strangers (whoever needs it most). Helping strangers is indeed universal (so it seems) – something about seeing someone and a stranger stepping up to help – even if to ask if they can help. I really enjoyed the reference to the Copenhagen consensus – and how certain interventions, charity have enormous returns on “investment” – Lomborg has been an almost lone sane voice reminding us that there are indeed enormous opportunities to help people with a fraction of the resources that we are told to attempt to solve some BIG problem.

Brennan Reilly
Feb 3 2021 at 3:03pm

Near the end of the conversation, Russ and the guest discuss charity and the effective altruism movement. I am on the board of a charity and my views have evolved over the years to be much closer to that described by Russ (when he talks about visiting the sick or being a friend to someone in need even though it is difficult). Much of our best work isn’t subject to measurement and isn’t about solving problems. The idea is captured perfectly in an interview my daughter did for a news article about an outreach program in South Bend:

What Mercy Works hopes to invite the students to do is to understand that it’s not just about being a service provider and a service recipient,” he said. “It asks the question, how do we belong to one another? And how does our faith, through service, allow us to understand the meaning of solidarity and what it means to be brothers and sisters with one another?”

He said one student had been mentoring students for about three months when she came to him with a question. He said she was unsure, almost stuck in her service; she felt useless and did not know how to continue serving, because she believed it was not effective enough. Santa Maria said he encouraged her to just listen and not try so hard to solve problems, because listening fosters the community that Mercy Works tries to attain.

“I think in a school that often promotes solving issues, one of the first steps we are to do is actually listen,” he said. “Mercy Works is not about solving. It’s about walking with. It’s about solidarity. It’s about kinship. It’s about recognizing our relationships with people in our community. The purpose of Mercy Works is to create a culture of encounter where solidarity can happen.”

You can read the whole thing here (https://ndsmcobserver.com/2019/10/mercy-works-program-promotes-solidarity-with-south-bend/).

Feb 4 2021 at 1:27pm

The Neanderthals had bigger brains than Homo Sapiens yet were less social. It has been put forth that Homo Sapiens won out because of the exchange of ideas led to more advanced developments which enabled them to be victorious. I would propose that “the kindness of strangers,” evolutionarily, was one of many attributes that led to a very successful species.

Feb 6 2021 at 11:52am

We are always looking for a rational reason to be selfless, but instead should ask “Is there a rational reason to be selfish?”.

The answer is “no”. The purely rational person would understand that their own interests have no greater value that those of anyone else. The purely rational approach is to act in an objective and impartial way, with no bias, even to one’s own interest.

Of course, this purely rational person does not exist. When we act in our own interest, we are not driven by rationality but instead by desire and emotion.

Just as the answer to “Why do we care about ourselves?” is irrational, so should the answer to “Why do we care about others?” be. Only an emotional motivation for selflessness can compete with the emotional motivation for selfishness.

John Alcorn
Feb 6 2021 at 6:34pm

Thank you for the latest EconTalk conversation. It’s one of the best I’ve listened to over the years. The sweep and substance are impressive. The comparison of evolutionary psychology and culture is refreshing. Michael McCullough and Russ Roberts have heartfelt common concerns; each knows a good deal about the other’s academic field (psychology and economics), and wants to know more; they intersect at Adam Smith; and both must have aced the Newstok/Roberts Conversation Course in another life!

Scattered comments:

1) Re:

“we’ve tried on a couple of occasions to study the Golden Rule and it’s hard, to study in the laboratory.”

A stunning reminder that experimental psychology is light years from the natural sciences.

2) Re:

“I want to help hold out the possibility that some of the time we take actions in the world […] simply because we want to try to be faithful to some ideal that’s important to us. […] integrity is important. We ought to take it more seriously as a scientific concept, I think.”

A stunning reminder that psychology and economics somehow got stuck in implausibly narrow models of motivations. Praise to Prof. McCullough for placing realism before parsimony.

3) Re:

“as parents […] our most potent effects on our childrens’ outcomes are going to be by trying to engineer their social environments as best we can. You know, so that they end up with good influences. To some extent […] that’s probably what’s producing the difference between […] villains and law-abiding […] citizens.”

Will Prof. McCullough bite the bullet and acknowledge that sorting by Belmont parents increases the likelihood that Fishtown children will end up with bad influences?

4) Re:

“You want kids in schools–who are operating on that end of the continuum, who are not just responding to the immediate rewards and punishments from teachers.”

Prof. McCullough is swimming against a riptide. Habituation to the Skinner Box in grade school casts a long shadow into selective colleges, where many (or most?) talented students insistently yearn to be graded and ranked.

5) Re:

“place the regulation of behavior on a sort of continuum that goes from highly externalized–where you’re just being governed by the immediate reward and punishment contingencies in your environment over to […] the behavior being regulated by internalized moral principles.”

My non-expert intuition is that a continuum misses key dimensions of motivation. For example, moral rules (principles) say do what would be best if everyone would do the same (everyday Kantianism) or do what would have the best social outcome given what others are likely to do (everyday utilitarianism). By contrast, social norms say do what others expect you to do. And social emulation says do what others do. Principles, social norms, and emulation (sideward glances) are structurally different motivations, not a continuum.

Regina Levy
Feb 25 2021 at 12:03am

The effective altruism movement is largely a reaction to what seems to be a deeply ingrained tendency we have to care about identifiable victims even when we can help many more “faceless” victims with the same resources. However, Russ suggested, rightly, in my view, that in some ways, it is easier to help in an impersonal way, by writing a check; and that there is something both more difficult and more meaningful about helping in a personal way, for instance, visiting sick people in a hospital. How much meaning and connection should matter in deciding whom to help and how is a good question.

As for the question of why we help strangers, the simple answer may just be that helping is the right thing to do, and people have the ability to do what is right because it is right. Now, morality by itself may not be a strong motivator, and few people would help strangers regularly just for that reason, in the absence of other motives. However, morality is not *without* motivational force. We *can* do something even at a cost to ourselves simply because it is the right thing to do, and sometimes — not typically and perhaps, not often, but sometimes — that suffices. In fact, this may be how we know we have free will.

John Alcorn
Feb 27 2021 at 12:43pm

Regina Levy,

What you say about free will is fresh and insightful.

Comments are closed.


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TimePodcast Episode Highlights

Intro. [Recording date: January 7, 2021.]

Russ Roberts: Today is January 7th, 2021 and my guest is author and psychologist, Michael McCullough of the University of California San Diego. His latest book, and the subject of today's conversation is The Kindness of Strangers: How a Selfish Ape Invented a New Moral Code. Michael, welcome to EconTalk.

Michael McCullough: Thanks for having me, Russ. I've really been looking forward to this for a while. So, thanks for having me.


Russ Roberts: So, the fundamental question of this book is: Why do we help strangers? Why do we care about the poor when they're not related to us? And, your book starts with an exploration of the evolutionary possibilities for that phenomenon. The fact that your subtitle says How a Selfish Ape Invented a New Moral Code suggests that that approach is not going to be entirely successful. But, why don't you start by talking about the evidence that there might be a genetic basis for our--an evolutionary natural selection basis--for our compassion.

Michael McCullough: Sure. Well, one of the things that bothered even Darwin was how it is that we came to take an interest in other organisms--period. It seemed to him from the outset a loser in the eyes of natural selection for you to pay costs in order to benefit other creatures.

So, this remained a puzzle. Not a mystery so much as something that people threw up their hands and said, 'Well, we'll never figure this out.' But a puzzle to be solved.

And, it ultimately got solved--definitively--in the 1960s. Although the hints were there through evolutionary biology through most of the 20th century.

But, it came down to a couple of theorists to show how a gene that creates a benefit in another and that produces a benefit for an individual at a cost to the benefactor could actually become more frequent, become more common in the gene pool due to the action of natural selection.

And, one way, obviously, you can do that is by taking in an interest in the welfare of your relatives who happen to have the odds of sharing that gene in their bodies as well. So, when that gene causes you to raise their welfare, you're plausibly increasing their genetic welfare as well.

Another way we do it is through friendship or through reciprocity. If I provide a benefit--if I sell high and buy low, then we can get, essentially get the gains of trade. I help you today at a relatively cheap cost to me, you get a big benefit; and the next time then the shoe is on the other foot, you provide a benefit to me that's sort of cheap to you to provide but really beneficial to me--and natural selection will favor a psychology that promotes that kind of reciprocity over time.

Russ Roberts: The interesting part about those genetic explanations--and I think--I don't see this discussed very much, and you may not have anything you want to say about it. But, it's easy to say a gene that favors your relatives over strangers.

But, you have to really provide a mechanism for how that could be genetically driven. In other words, it's pretty clear that, in the animal kingdom for sure and I'm sure in the human species as well, a mother can recognize its child, in all kinds of complicated ways, in ways that we can as humans--I forget the name of it, but the movie about penguins. The animated film about penguins. Mom knows that--it all saved us--but the mom knows which one is hers; and vice versa the child can find its mom. The offspring can find its mom.

But, it seems to me that the idea that, 'Oh, a gene that only looks at close relatives.' Well, that might be hard for a gene to actually achieve. You can always tell a just-so story. 'Well, but if a gene could do it, it'd be good.' Yeah, I agree. Or a gene that said 'Help lots of people,' which doesn't work so well. That's not so good. A gene be generous, give away lots of stuff. Again, whether a gene could do that or not.

But, I think the tricky part of this is to say a gene that urges you to feel good about helping other people when they're close relatives isn't so straightforward. Do you see my point?

Michael McCullough: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: I never see this discussed. It's always just, like, there's a lot of hand-waving like 'Oh, yeah.'

Michael McCullough: Sure.

Russ Roberts: And, it turns out genes are really complicated. Like, there isn't a gene even for things like height, or things that we think of as pure genetics. There's multiple genes as interactions. So, this idea that we'd have this subtle gene that would say, 'Oh, he's a third cousin. I won't deal with that one.' I don't know. It just seems like a bit of a--a little too simple.

Michael McCullough: Sure. And I get where you're coming from. I mean there's a--you bring up a couple of really interesting issues. I mean, and they're really rich issues.

One is the question of whether there are genes for things. I mean, we can all agree, I think, that genes exert causal effects on how our bodies and minds turn out. You know--that doesn't necessarily, you know, entail the conclusion that it's a gene for that. But, we do end up, I think, inevitably playing kind of needing to play a trick on ourselves. And, if we're going to talk about natural selection, we almost inevitably end up talking in this language of, you know, agency because genes are being selected for effects that promote the inclusive fitness of their bearers.

So, you could do that. You could kind of trot out a linguistically perfect explanation that doesn't involve this concept of agency. But it's hard. It's a mouthful.

So, we end up kind of doing this, you know, hand-waving, 'Well, this is a gene for that,' because we believe it evolved, because of those effects.

So that's one really--I mean I think that's a really rich point you make.

But you also make this point about how is a gene going to know? And, you know, back to a genetic language that it's supposed to be helping relatives.

And I actually the evidence that organisms end up being kind of picky about who they provide benefits to--I think the evidence is good for that. Actually, even in humans. I think there's plenty of psychological and physiological reasons to think we do have the capacity to be picky and we evolved the capacity to be picky.


Russ Roberts: Yeah. It's very possible.

I just feel like there's a certain academic bent of that evolutionary psychology literature. It's like, 'Let's see how far we can push this.'

There just seems to me to be a simpler explanation, which really that I think the way I understand your book, which is: we're basically self-interested. There is some non-self-interest certainly for our relatives and friends, and excuse me, our close relatives--it's biologically driven.

But, a lot of what drives us to be generous with our resources to strangers is cultural. It's something that we have passed on to our children, accepted from our parents, those around us, our friends. I think without that, it's hard to explain a lot of the details in the real world. But, what are your thoughts?

Michael McCullough: Oh, I completely agree with you.

I think that the answer to why we're kind to strangers, why we take an interest in their well-being, is largely because of a kind of cultural ratchet that's been working over many, many millennia actually.

But, that is interacting--these twists and turns of history are interacting with an evolved psychology that performs cognitive jobs for us.

I mean, you can think of the sort of the--I mean, ultimately I think a satisfying answer to any question about human behavior is going to have to invoke genetics, obviously. Well, maybe that's not so obvious to everyone. Invoke culture, obviously.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. We're not robots, instinctually driven, in every aspect of our life.

Michael McCullough: Right. Right.

So, the cultural influences are enormous. But you do need a mind that's receptive to culture. You do need a mind that's receptive to conversation. That's--because not all minds in the world can do that. Human minds can do it, but, you know, there are people who might disagree with me a little bit. But, you're not going to find a dog mind that's well tuned for cultural learning--

Russ Roberts: transmission, yeah. Agreed.


Russ Roberts: So, let's move to what I think is the tricky part of this, which, I'm not sure is in the book--which is, I think the economist's way of writing about this is we're--which is totally sterile by the way. So, I'm not going to defend it exactly the way I'm going to say it.

But, the economist's view is, 'Well, we do things because they make us feel good.' And I think that rather banal and hard-to-argue-with argument hides a lot of what is actually going on.

So, let's take the Golden Rule, which you spend a lot of time on--do unto others as you would have done to yourself. It's also the silver rule which you didn't mention, but it's the flip side, 'Don't do to other people what you wouldn't want done to you.'

Ans rhese ethical mottoes, why do we follow them in your view?

You talk about them as if it's they're very important. They became very important during the Western Civilization and in Eastern Civilization and elsewhere. Other religious precepts came into people's minds. Why do you think they're important?

Michael McCullough: Well, I think the reason they became important, I think, is a really interesting story.

And then we can talk about why they are sort of still important, why they have causal power now.

I mean, the reason they became important is because in the last few centuries, before the Common Era, a variety of world religions popping up in the Indus River Valley, the Yellow River Valley in China, ancient Israel, classical Greece--all discovered, assembled--a new kind of religion and spirituality that was more cosmopolitan, less tribal, more universalizing, more devoted to putting our moral preferences into law, codifying our ethical intuitions or hard-won ethical experiences.

And, in the midst of that, all of these traditions discovered, arrived at the idea that the way to be right with God was--or to achieve enlightenment or satisfaction, you know, spiritual well-being was through concern for everybody.

And, Karen Armstrong, the writer--she writes a lot about religion--her way of describing this kind of ethical discovery is that somehow--for spiritual fulfillment and all of these traditions--somehow you have to stretch your compassion so that it can embrace the entire world.

So, this was deeply yoked to spirituality; to sort of the formalizing of ethical thought in a way that people hoped would be generalizable at least over the--it's not over the entire universe of human beings. At least the people in your civilization or your society.

So, that's how it came about originally. I mean, all of these details are lost to time obviously. But these are special, these are exceptional changes in how people thought about compassion, and it was really yoked to spirituality in a deep way.


Russ Roberts: So, the question I want to probe for a little bit--which is tricky--is to think about how self-interested and how altruistic that is.

Because, you can easily say, and this is, again, the way economists think. I think it's wrong. But, the way economists would describe it is, 'Okay, well nothing's really changed here. This is just self-interest rewritten. Because, I want to go to heaven or I want to be right with God.' The way you phrased, which I like. So, I do these things. I don't like them in and of themselves, but overall it's worth it, because I want to get this other benefit. It's an investment.

It's no different than putting away a few seeds for the winter to grow food next summer.

And, I think that's wrong, but I want you to react to that. Because that's not--I would not call that compassionate. I would call that selfish, actually. And, I think it misses something, which I'll get to. But I want to hear you first talk about it. What's your reaction to that?

Michael McCullough: I think a lot of the justification for the acceptance--at least honoring it in the breach--this endorsement of the Golden Rule does have a really self-interested basis in history.

The idea that this is--can I say, 'This is what's going to get you into heaven,' or, 'This is what God expects,' or 'This is--We discovered the secret about the fulfilled life.' And it involves care for other people. I think that really is, deeply, embedded in how people took up the Golden Rule. I mean, I think that's how people largely arrived at making it sensible--was in some way they saw it as a key to doing better, being better, being better off, even in these spiritual terms.

But, I do think, ultimately, it got some of its teeth from a--similarly, I think it is a self-interested motivation, but it's an interestingly different self-interested motivation, which is the desire to be consistent with one's principles. And that's a different kind of thing--

Russ Roberts: It's very different--

Michael McCullough: You know, you can be interested in one's own well-being, in principle. One could be deeply interested in a stranger's well-being.

But, you could help other people or have a conviction to help other people that's not driven by self-interest per se, and it's not driven by other interests, but instead it's driven by an interest in being consistent or faithful to a set of principles.

And I think that's a really under-appreciated moral motivation. It might be quite rare. It might be something that's hard to study in the laboratory. In fact, we've tried on a couple of occasions to study the Golden Rule and it's hard, to study in the laboratory.

But, I think I want to help hold out the possibility that some of the time we take actions in the world, you know, not because it feels good or because, you know, we think there are going to be all these extrinsic rewards or because we deeply care about others--although I think probably sometimes we do. But, instead simply because we want to try to be faithful to some ideal that's important to us.


Russ Roberts: Yeah. I think--the way I would describe it is we have a sense of self, an identity of who we are--that we want to live up to. And when we violate that, it feels bad.

But, I think this issue of the intrinsic value or the principles of it, I think it's a little trickier because we don't always start that way. And I think--as a--I'm somebody, I came to religion later in my life; and I don't like going to the hospital. I find it scary--like many people, I think. And when I first got, became a religious Jew, I learned that one of the obligations is to visit the sick. And, I thought, 'Well, I don't like that obligation.' 'Maybe I'll skip that.'

But I decided I couldn't; and I have visited many people in the hospital who I didn't want to go visit. But, that experience changed over time.

Now, you could argue, 'Oh, yeah, well, you started to enjoy it because you thought God wanted you to.' Or, 'you were supposed to get right with God.' But, something else happened, which is, for me, and I think this is somewhat universal among these kind of phenomena--I actually start to enjoy it.

Now, I can't really--I'm not the right judge of why I enjoy it. I've got a self-narrative. I've got my sense of self, we just talked about. And I'm just telling the story. It makes you feel kind of silly. It's like, 'Oh, this is what he's been bragging about: he likes seeing people in the hospital,' which is all part of this as well, right: the way I see other people seeing me, which is another part of my self-identity.

Michael McCullough: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: But, my point is that I think I gave an example of someone coming to religion later--children, coming back to our nature/nurture discussion, it comes so naturally to them to share their candy. And I think the acculturation of parenting, religion, values, ethics, humanism, whatever you want to use in your family, you try to teach your children often--not just to do it, but to enjoy doing it. Ultimately, which it doesn't start that way.

Michael McCullough: Well, that's right. I mean, there's an interesting--the trajectory of moral development and the internalization of principles is super-interesting. Young children don't have the capacity to internalize principles at a really deep level, but as we age we can--let's say by the time we're sort of to middle childhood--we can begin to understand justifications for why. We can give accounts for why certain things are good and bad.

Much earlier than that, you can teach children that certain things are good and certain things are bad, and they'll get rewards, praise, blame. Praise if they do them, blame if they don't. Disapproval if they don't. But, the internalization of principles comes later.

And, I think one of the things that lots and lots of people have talked about, the power of norms as regulators, sort of autonomous regulators of human beings is really important. Often what happens--we think--is that norms have a kind of self-government to them. Or they enable a kind of self-government.

What we can do is represent ideals and evaluate whether we're getting better at approaching those ideals or whether we're steering away from them. And, this allows us to regulate our behavior in ways that I don't think any other animal can do.

So, part of that is you have an ideal. It doesn't feel great, but you either by bearing down and pushing through and trying to be faithful to that, we get tougher. There's a toughening process, so it becomes easier. It's just like lifting weights or something like that. But, as well, things become habits and we can put them on autopilot.

So, the interesting thing about norms or a desire to be faithful to a principle is you do things out of effort, out of a hope that someday it will become easier or simply you'll just think it's the right thing to do, but they do become easier. And, then at some point you ask people, like 'Well, why do visit people in the hospital?' And, you're just like, 'I don't know. That's what I do on Saturday afternoons. That's my thing now.' Some people might go do drama or play bridge. Why? 'It's fun. It's the thing I do on Saturday afternoons.'


Russ Roberts: The problem with that, of course, is that I could go out and go to a crowded area and do some pick-pocketing, which would be both natural--to take money from strangers--and rewarding. We have lots of stuff I can enjoy after I've taken the money. And yet, you don't think that's a good idea if I asked you. My parents would be horrified. My children would be ashamed.

For me the question is why is it that in the--and you write about this in many different angles--as religion has receded as the source of the motivation for some of this ethical behavior replaced by Kantian ethics, which, I suspect most people don't spend a lot of time thinking about the categorical imperative. We don't need to go into it, but nobody literally says, 'I wasn't sure what to do. I picked up Immanuel Kant and I saw I shouldn't pickpocket.'

So, the challenge, then, is in the absence of this--religion doesn't leave behind a genetic footprint to continue to inspire people after they don't believe in it anymore. People who don't believe in religion, which is a relatively large group of people, many of them are still ethical, just like there are religious people who aren't ethical. But, many irreligious, a-religious, atheistic, agnostic folks don't think it's a good idea to be a pickpocket. Why? That's the challenge. Like, aren't they suckers? We say, 'Well, they get admiration.' Why don't we look down on them and say, 'What a fool? He could have had that money and he just missed his chance.'

Michael McCullough: Well, I think through history, we have arrived at certain principles. Some of them have been just--I like to call them ethical discoveries. I know a lot of people don't like that idea. But, we discover a principle, we discover the Golden Rule. This would be a good thing to do. God wants it; the Lord wants it. It's good for you. And, we begin to, I think, build institutions designed to make fulfilling those principles easier.

Humanitarianism would be a more modern example. What's humanitarianism? It's this idea that we try to help solely on the basis of need and nothing else. It's a universalizing sort of instinct or inclination. You find need. You try to meet it. It doesn't matter if the person is voted for another president than you did, and so on.

What's the justification for that? Well, you asked historians and you asked Michael Barnett who has done a great history of humanitarianism, and he can tell you the entire natural history of that idea. People don't care about the natural history of that idea. They get--what they find is through the actions of their parents, the moral instruction of their parents, exposure to inspiring stories, narratives of other people.

They hear justifications, sometimes, for these imperatives. Sometimes they don't. They just hear it's right or it's wrong. But they internalize the norm; and then the behavior can become unmoored from its justification--from its ethical or religious justification. You could ask people to reconstruct, like, 'Why do you believe anything is right or wrong?' And, most people will have a hard time explaining the justification.

One of the things I actually do a lot with my students is I ask them--I think this is true--most college students are pro-choice, now, on college campuses. I could be wrong about that.

Russ Roberts: I think that's true.

Michael McCullough: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: Let's assume it is.

Michael McCullough: Yeah. So, I like to ask them, 'Can you explain to me what the argument in Roe v. Wade that prevailed was? That provided a justification for the outcome of Roe v. Wade?' And none of them can. I couldn't have either if I hadn't bothered to go study it myself. It was an argument about privacy.

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

Michael McCullough: It was--

Russ Roberts: Strange, constitutionally.

Michael McCullough: It was grounded in this idea that we have a right to protection against illegal search and seizure. And, that's what it got moored to. I mean, if your house is private, that, no matter what's going on inside of it, your body must be private as well.

I mean, it's a very interesting argument, but there's nobody who can explain that to you. They just get the idea--they develop a conviction that it's wrong for other reasons.

And that's perfectly--it's fine that the mind works that way. It does work that way so we have to kind of accept it. People aren't walking around as sort of--as you say, they're not walking around checking out their Kant.

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

Michael McCullough: Right, right. So, we get these ideas. They come from certain places. They are reinforced. And, also supported by institutions.

So, ultimately we're left with habit and we're left with the support or the encouragement or discouragement of behaviors by institutions. And I think that's where most of us are operating most of the time.


Russ Roberts: So, defenders of religion would argue, and I'm not going to push this even though I'm religious. I'm not convinced by it. But, defenders of religion would argue that those norms and institutions that evolve in the aftermath are unreliable and may not persist. They can switch. They can change.

Another way to think about this, is: I want to live in a world where people are generous to other people who are in need and under stress; but most of us would rather let other people do the heavy lifting.

Michael McCullough: Right.

Russ Roberts: And so: Does anyone rise above their natural instinct? And so, let's turn to Adam Smith who you talk about in the book and we've talked about a lot of the program.

Smith's answer was very different. Smith's answer was: I'm not very empathetic. It's very limited. I think he calls it a weak reed, or compassion is a weak reed for explaining why people are so generous, for others--

Michael McCullough: I like that--

Russ Roberts: to lean on because it's going to bend. And, instead says, 'We care about what other people think of us. We care about our reputation. We care what an impartial spectator would say judging us.'

And, you could argue that the reason parents ultimately encourage their children to be less selfish than they might naturally be is so that they'll get along well in civilized society, and will be thought well of. Again, it's a different roundabout way of saying it's self-interested to be generous. What are your thoughts on that as a summary of Smith?

Michael McCullough: I think it's great. Conscience for him was absolutely the governor of moral behavior. But, it gets built on, I think--he didn't know any evolutionary biology because it didn't exist--but, he certainly believed there was a--as Hume did; I mean, Smith was probably cribbing off of Hume on this point--that we have an endowment, a cognitive psychological endowment that does enable us to imagine the suffering and simulate the suffering of other people. It probably was something that was sort of reserved for the near and the dear, the friends and kith and kin.

But, it's good cognitive science. I mean, what they're saying is: You know what it's like to feel pain. It stinks. You know what it's like to be sad, miserable, and so forth.

So, when you witness somebody going through something, you make a statement to yourself in some way, like, 'This person seems to be crying.' And then you reconstruct: What could be causing their crying? Well, maybe it's, 'I know the person's wife died two weeks ago.'

So, then what you do is you convert this idea into what Hume called an impression. It changes from just sort of a representation to a feeling. And, then you say: This is how I'm feeling or imagine I would feel. So, this must be how that other person is feeling. So, that's compassion according to Hume and Smith.

So, I think we have these twin inheritances, certainly in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, where we have the impartial spectator. We have conscience--which gives us this ability to actively self-regulate. And, then we have compassion which is sort of less controllable.

And, sort of embedded in their notions of right and wrong or what's right and wrong depends on what's good and bad for you and for other people.

So, it seems to me, in TMS--in the Theory of Moral Sentiments--Smith is trying to bring several of these pieces together. Principle-based, self-government, if you like. And, also an endowment, a natural endowment for compassion and sympathy.

Russ Roberts: So, I think that's half-right--not your view of it, but just the beginning of the story--because I think it's missing an important piece, which is this: So, I see you crying. I won't pick you. I see someone crying and I know that their wife had been ill.

A good part of my life, and this is nothing to be proud of, but I just want to be away from that person. I don't want to be around him. I feel that pain. I don't like it. And Paul Bloom talks about this in his book on empathy. We talked about it in the program. Listeners should go back and listen to that conversation.

But, I don't like that feeling. It doesn't make me want to help you. It makes me want to run away from you. I want to think about something else. If I see you on the corner, I'm going to avoid you, if I'm a normal person--not a bad person.

So, I think you need the next piece. And, I think Smith's explanation is this--I don't know Hume--but Smith's explanation to this is part of the story. I don't think it's the whole story. The next piece is: Why do I feel good alleviating your unhappiness? Because that's not necessarily--that's not a natural response.

My natural response is to avoid you.

So, to get pleasure, or satisfaction of a somewhat religious kind, or spiritual kind, or whatever you want to call it. And, for me, religion helped me with this a little bit, but meditating also helped me--becoming, having a meditation practice. And I can't explain it, by the way. I don't--it's not like I said, 'Wouldn't it be great if I were a nicer person?' But, I think it's made me a nicer person. It's made me more aware of other people and given me more satisfaction from alleviating their struggles or empathizing with them and getting just pleasure from that because I think people--and Smith talks about this--they get benefit from other people just bearing some of their ordeal even if it doesn't literally eliminate it, that it's shared. Smith talks about it.

So, in Smith's view--I don't do it because it feels good. I don't do the--I don't visit you on the corner and say, 'Are you okay?' because it feels good. I do that because I think that's what I'm supposed to do in the circles that I swim in and that gives me a good self-image knowing that other people think of me that way. And it does create a habituation.

But, the habituation requires some kind of pleasure, reward, something. And that part is, I think, mysterious.

And I would phrase it this way: Would you want to be a better person than you are now? Would you like to kind of be the mix of self-interested and compassionate?

And I think--it's not obvious that you'd want to be a better person. But the way you and I would define better Kantian, Biblical, whatever ethical system we were referring to: Why would I want to do that? Wouldn't it be better to be a selfish--wouldn't I be--in other words, don't I want to live in a world without a conscience? Isn't that going to be a lot more fun?

Michael McCullough: Yeah. So: Is Smith's answer that we're sensitive to praise and approbation--

Russ Roberts: Approbation.

Michael McCullough: Okay.

Russ Roberts: Disapproval, yeah. Approbation and opprobium.

Michael McCullough: Yeah. Okay, okay. So, that's great. So, that's his--kind of how he solved it, is we're deeply social and--

Russ Roberts: Yeah. He says we're hardwired. He talks about the author of nature and he says, meaning God, is in us. He didn't know genetics, but he was basically saying it's hardwired in our selves, that we care about what other people think of us.

And, that suggests that if we can get away with something, we will. But, he's saying that pain when you go, 'Oh, you didn't go visit him when his wife died?' I go, 'Oh, gosh. I'm a horrible person.' Why wouldn't I say--I could say to myself, 'Yeah, I didn't. I got to play football. I got to watch football. You sucker, you went and visited his wife when his wife was dying. What were you thinking?'

But, we don't feel that way. And, we have--we have inherited not genetically, but culturally, a view that that's just not done.

Michael McCullough: Yeah. So, how much--I don't remember--I don't remember Smith spending a lot of time anywhere sort of--I mean, he had one project which was the psychology. Does he talk anywhere about how our, sort of the residue of culture ends up producing people who disapprove of your selfishness and approve of your kindness? Does he talk about where those ideas came from in Western--

Russ Roberts: Yeah. And no, and, the reason it's important is that--you know, in his circles, maybe that's what generated approval and disapproval. But you and I can imagine other circles where those are silly, those are foolish. He was talking about his circle of friends in Scotland who's an armchair theorizer, mostly. And, what we would call civilized men and women--gentlemen, gentlewomen, whatever. In his day, it was gentlemen. They didn't talk too much about women.

But we're talking about people who respect or disapprove of our behavior. And we choose--I would argue that the ultimate ethical choice we make in many ways is who we choose to be in our circle, because we're choosing the implicit judges of our behavior and that determines what I aspire to. Right? If I have friends who are rowdy thugs, I become a rowdy thug because that's what they respect. And, if I have friends who are kind and thoughtful and giving, I tend to be more like that.

Michael McCullough: Yeah. This is why as parents we worry about who our kids hang out with.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, exactly.

Michael McCullough: Because as Judith Rich Harris talked about in her book, No Two Alike, we end up--you know, parents have surprisingly little direct influence through shared environmental effects. The things you can do for your kids that are responsible for why you're similar in values or behavior to your kids. A lot of that is genetic transmission.

So, by the time kids--I'll give you the example of religion just because it's it's fun. When children are small and living in the home, what we know from twin studies is that their religiosity does have an environmental component.

So, if you're going to church or synagogue on Sundays, and Saturdays, or Sundays, Friday nights, your kids are going. And, that's going to show up as an environmental effect. If you believe in God, if you engage in certain forms of religious practice, or you would embrace certain religious ideas, that's going to look like an environmental effect. Your kids will resemble you; and that's going to look like it's coming through the environment.

But, once those kids leave home, that apparent environmental effect goes away. And, what's left is they're going their own way genetically. It's their genetic affordances plus the effects of the people they surround themselves with--

Russ Roberts: Yeah, their new environment--

Michael McCullough: Yes, exactly, exactly. That's harder to track down quantitatively.

So, we're in this really interesting position, I think, as parents where we--I think our most potent effects on our childrens' outcomes are going to be by trying to engineer their social environments as best we can. You know, so that they end up with good influences.

That's--in some ways that's the best we seem to be capable of doing. Which is not bad.

And, to some extent, I think that's probably what's producing the difference between, you know, villains and law-abiding, you know, citizens.


Russ Roberts: So, I want to close out this section with a thought on, again, how economists look at this and why I think it's misleading or wrong--part of a book I'm working on.

So, I think if you tell your kids--I think that's the wrong way to think about it. If I said to a parent, 'How do you want your kids to turn out?' Now, of course we understand if you're a parent, you aren't really in charge of that exactly. And, maybe not so much at all. But, if you said, 'What do you want your children to aspire to?' most people would say, whether they mean it or not, they would say, 'I aspire them to be good people.'

And, I think they'd also say, 'I want them to be happy.'

And, I want to suggest that that word 'happy' is a very complicated idea. That, living by an ethical code, religious, secular, humanist, or whatever doesn't lead to happiness in the normal way people think about it--parties, nice car, big house--pleasures.

It does lead to meaning, though. And I think that's a different kind of happiness. And, the economist is just waving his hands and say, 'Oh, that's what I mean. Meaning is fine. Whatever gives you pleasure. It includes meaning.'

But, I think when you draw your utility function as economists do, as a function of stuff, you're missing out on this subtle point, which is that meaning matters, and is generated by--it cannot be generated by stuff.

Now you can say, 'That doesn't speak to me.' That's fine. It may not speak to you today.

But I think a lot of parents, and grown-ups who are thinking about their own lives, aspire to a world where what gives them pleasure is meaningful, ethical things rather than stuff.

And, either that could be a social norm that comes out of philosophy or religion or--not sure what it is. But I think that's fundamentally what's driving a lot of this, these norms and institutions that you're referring to, this idea that it's honorable. But, it's not just, 'Oh, people think a lot of you. So, you should be a good person.' It's tangled up in this sense of self.

Michael McCullough: Yeah. Yeah. Let me go back a minute for my own education. Is it true that in neoclassical economics, it's taken as sort of an article of faith that you can't know what's in people's utility functions?

Russ Roberts: Oh, yeah. We brag about it. 'We don't know what floats your boat. We don't care. We just look at the demand curve slopes downward.' Makes sense. Then we start saying, 'Oh, and let me tell you what policies make people better off.'

Michael McCullough: Right.

Russ Roberts: Well, how did that leap happen? 'Well, because we want to be important. We can't say anything about'--anyway, I think it's problematic. But we don't--we pretend. We proudly say, in the card-carrying guild that we don't know what gives people satisfaction. And, it's not important. Whatever it is.

Michael McCullough: Okay. So, that explains how you get theorists, researchers like Ernst Fehr, for example, who wanted to make the case that, to varying degrees, people have others' welfare in their utility functions, right?

Russ Roberts: Sure, absolutely.

Michael McCullough: So, we can have this bundle of preferences that are in some sense hedonically self-serving or in some other way self-serving. But, then we can build in a parameter that's how much you regard the welfare of other people, right?

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

Michael McCullough: So, it seems to me like that's where you'd want to place--that's where you'd want to place a lot of the things we're talking about today--

Russ Roberts: Sure--

Michael McCullough: We don't know how those things get in there. Where does that variance come from?

I mean, in some ways I think that's the project. Right? That's the project you and I care about, is: what stuff's going in there and how did it get there?

So, and I mean, I kind of like that idea. I don't know what's in there. In my own research, I'll tell you what I do think is in there a lot, and it is how other people regard you. I think this is really important and underappreciated as a moral motivation.

In a lot of the work we've done in my lab we've been trying to figure out, actually: when people share money, for example at the Dictator Game, which I'm sure a lot of your listeners are familiar with. It's this experimental economics game where you're handed a bolus of money and the experimenter says, 'Give as much as you want,' to this other person. There's this notional stranger out there and they're going to get whatever you send them. You could send them all of it, half of it, none of it. It's up to you--

Russ Roberts: A penny--

Michael McCullough: Yeah, exactly. It's up to you.

And, the canonical finding is: People share. Even when there's no prospect of a return, benefit, or gratitude, or anything like that.

And, folks like Ernst Fehr--and there's a variety of other people working in this space;. Herb Gintis would be another one. Sam Bowles was another one. I mean, great economists--want to attribute that behavior to some degree as an other-regarding preference.

But, we've done a lot of work to try to take these games apart in my lab and figure out: How do you get people to reduce their giving in a Dictator Game?

Or, how do you--another one they are really into is we seem to punish bad guys. We seem to have a taste for punishing selfish people.

I won't bore you with the details, but we've spent a fair bit of time in my research, in my lab, trying to create experiments where we remove any possibility that others are going to know what you do. And this is beyond--don't get me wrong: economists have done a lot of due diligence to try to remove these influences. But I sort of devoted a big chunk of my career to really trying to remove them, so there's no way another person is going to know whether you're helpful or generous or whatever--punitive.

And we find once you create a kind of hermetically sealed environment where research subjects just know deeply, are convinced deeply that no one's going to know the consequences of their--no one's going to become aware of whether they were generous or whether they punished the bad guy--they do it a lot less. They do it a lot less. Sometimes they end up not doing it at all.

Russ Roberts: But, there are still people who share.

Michael McCullough: Yes. Absolutely.

Russ Roberts: That's the shocking part.

Michael McCullough: Right. Yeah. Yeah; yeah. Well, that's exactly right. This stuff doesn't go to zero even when we do our best.

So, the story I impart, I want to tell during my day job, when I'm trying to write books, is that have--we need to recognize that we are really deeply motivated by people's approval and disapproval.

I mean, it goes way deeper than these experimental games would lead you to believe.

I want to exalt that in my work. I don't want to say, 'Well, this is just stuff we shouldn't--this is just, like, kind of fluff that should be depressing to us.' You know. But, to me, like, that's the gold.

We do want to create worlds in which people internalize the norm at the leftover stuff, if you like; but they also really are sensitive to--I mean, to me this is part of becoming a civilized socialized human being. You really do care about seeming a certain way. So, I want to, in some ways, revive that and rehabilitate that.


Russ Roberts: Well, I think Adam Smith would point out that even in your hermetically sealed environment, there is one person who knows whether you've shared or not, and that's yourself.

And, that is part of your earlier point about your self-identity and your sense of your keeping consistent with your principles: 'What kind of person am I if I only share when I know that people are watching?'

So, I have a personal norm that I want to honor. It might be hard for me if it's a lot of money and I really am convinced no one's watching.

And sometimes you'll hear economists in these situations say things like, 'Well, people give--they share anyway because that way later, they can imagine if they were in that same situation, they'd want somebody to share with them.'

And, a good economist then says, 'Yeah, but they're not in that situation. This is just now, and why would you--?' That sounds nice. But I think there's a bizarre, sort of--what we call, it's a religious, karmic, superstition.

In other words, that first story I just told, that's the free-rider problem: 'I don't have to worry about that. I'll take it all.' And, when I'm in the other end, some sucker is going to give me a share because they feel guilty. 'Great, that's fantastic.'

But, I think people are uneasy with that. And the question--the economist says, 'They shouldn't be. It's irrational.'

But, it's not exactly irrational. And I think embedded in us, so-called rational people, whatever that means, look down on superstition.

But, again, if you are superstitious, if you think that, 'Oh, if I take advantage of this guy in the Dictator Game, when I'm on the other end someday in life--my car broke down or I'm in trouble--what goes around comes around,' or whatever it is. I mean, that's a silly statement--unless you're religious, and most people don't think--and even religious people don't even necessarily believe in that. But, I think it works on us, in a way that it's not quote "rational" in the normal sense of the word, but it helps us self-enforce those norms that we want to self-enforce.

And I'll just close this piece of conversation by saying that--I recently interviewed, it hasn't aired yet, but Don Boudreaux talking about James Buchanan. And his point was that: I can aspire to what I put in my utility function. So, sure he can shove people's concern for others as something they get pleasure from. But, that's a choice. It's not something we're endowed with.

And, that's what the human enterprise is--a huge part of it's about choosing what to put in your utility function. And I think that's just a very deep, subtle, insight. Anyway a lot of stuff there, sorry.

Michael McCullough: Yeah, that's great. I really love that. And he's writing about this in a book about Buchanan or was this just--

Russ Roberts: No, this is an article of Buchanan's where he's talking about--he says 'Man,' meaning human beings, 'Human beings want freedom so they can become the people they want to become.'

Michael McCullough: That's nice.

Russ Roberts: It's beautiful, right?

Michael McCullough: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: And, the economists' idea of seeing us as a util machine, a utility robot, is sterile and wrong, and strips away, I think, the part of humanity that is about aspiration and that we would call flourishing, fully defined.

Michael McCullough: Yeah. That's great. There's some wonderful psychologists who have been toiling in this vineyard for decades. It's a group that, whose theorizing goes under the label 'self-determination theory'. And, there's a lot of them out there now. It's a point of view that's been championed for many, 40 years, by Ed Deci and Richard Ryan.

And, it's great stuff. They're really trying to figure out where we get intrinsic motivation from. And, that's applicable in a lot of areas. That's applicable in education, you know, child development, goal setting and any number of endeavors, human endeavors.

But, what they really want to do is place the regulation of behavior on a sort of continuum that goes from highly externalized--where you're just being governed by the immediate reward and punishment contingencies in your environment over to--and you can analyze people's personalities this way or their motivation in any given dilemma--all the way over to the behavior being regulated by internalized moral principles. Or, the desire--this swings back around to what we were talking about--or, the desire for integrity.

So, there, you've got behavior that's--I'm doing these things even when nobody's looking because it's important for me to be the kind of person who does these things even when nobody's looking.

So, I think that's great stuff. And they're really trying to--you know, to me, it's still a hypothesis: Are there any people hanging out on that end of the continuum? But that's how they want to kind of depict things.

And, it ends up being--what we know about it so far, for example, from their work is: You want kids in schools--who are operating on that end of the continuum, who are not just responding to the immediate rewards and punishments from teachers. So, yeah: integrity is important. We ought to take it more seriously as a scientific concept, I think.

Russ Roberts: I should just mention that my first published paper in economics was putting other people's well-being in your utility function. So, I understand that as a technique. I just think most economists have trouble doing that in an artful and fully meaningful way. And, I mean, I didn't--for sure, I had--this incredibly sterile model of charitable giving in that work.

Michael McCullough: Was this an analytic model?

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Trying to explain why--I was looking at the trade-off between government spending on charity and spending by private charities. I came to the conclusion, that you mentioned in the book, which is most things we call charity in the United States aren't charity.

Michael McCullough: Right.

Russ Roberts: They're not aid to the poor. And, my argument in that article was that the government has chosen a level of aid to the poor that makes it not rewarding to people to do because they've already chosen a very high level.

And so, we give our charitable giving to--so-called charitable giving--to education, religion, which is about half, which is pretty self--and there's some charity within religious giving, but it's not so much. And, the part that we do to help poor people is to help poor people who aren't helped by government: soup kitchens and other poor people who are homeless who can't get a check in the mail and so on.

But I just want to--for listeners out there, I mean, I'm very aware that there are ways that we can salvage utility theory by putting stuff in there. I just think the way it comes out at the undergraduate level and at most graduate levels is just, 'No, no, no. It's stuff. Stuff is what people care about. Income.' And that just--I think that's just wrong.

Michael McCullough: Interesting. Yeah, right.


Russ Roberts: I want to close by talking about--I'm going to summarize what I see is the last part of your book, which is that the amount of humanitarian aid has grown tremendously over time, certainly compared to, say, 1500. There's a lot of resources devoted to helping people other than ourselves through governments, through private charities, and so on.

And I was surprised you didn't talk about how futile most of that is. And, I think you have to--if we're thinking about what motivates the giving and help to the poor, you have to talk about its ineffectiveness.

So, the standard way an economist likes to say this is that: Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos or Warren Buffett has done more for the world than Mother Teresa. The way I would describe it, the capitalist reforms of China has done more for the world than the World Bank in all of its activities in trying to help poor people. They were not very good at it. And we should care about results. And I know you do.

Michael McCullough: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: So, how do you respond to that? I think most humanitarian efforts--I'm not talking about visiting the poor guy whose wife passed away, because I think that has a big impact. But, the most organized, top-down efforts--pretty mixed bag. What are your thoughts on that?

Michael McCullough: I completely agree. In the book, I talk about a really interesting few years in the early/mid-1980s when a lot of rock stars got really interested in trying to deal with social ills, both here and around the world. And, I remember I was actually a teenager during the time of Live Aid or, you know--

Russ Roberts: foreign aid. There's a whole bunch of them.

Michael McCullough: Yeah. Right. And I remember being so inspired. You know? I mean, it was a time when rock music--it's just hard for people I think to get--my children would not understand this by listening to the radio. But, like, these bands and these artists really cared. You know, I think about Peter Gabriel or U2, or any of these bands: The Police, David Bowie. Like, a lot of these people in the 1980s really were developing an awareness of sort of the world, and the wider world, and the extent of hunger and, you know, of political prisoners.

I mean, it was a time--it was such a heady time. I remember teenagers getting interested in figuring out like: What can we do? It was like a Woodstock, in a way, but it wasn't about, you know, exploring your inner world: it was about the outer world--the wider world of poverty and suffering.

So, this led to this massive transatlantic concert experience called Live Aid when all these rock bands from the United States and from Europe were performing simultaneously. It was kind of this crazy event.

You know, they raised millions and millions of dollars to deal with famine. You know, particularly famine in Africa. The effort was kind of really kicked off by an awareness of an Ethiopian food crisis.

So, lots of effort; people were opening their checkbooks trying to help get food to Ethiopia, other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere that were really struggling.

But, once we did the autopsy on these efforts, what we realized is what was going on in Ethiopia was not a famine caused by lack of rainfall or by drought. It was largely--and Amartya Sen talks about this a lot--that most famines are not due to weather and climate. They're due to mismanagement. They're due to food not getting to where it needs to go.

And also, so, most of the food we send, it ends up rotting on docks at the Red Sea, or it ends up in the mouths of soldiers--you know, of a militia.

Russ Roberts: [crosstalk 01:01:53]

Michael McCullough: Right. So, by some estimates, 90% of that aid, that food aid that went to Ethiopia ended up going to what came to be called the Wheat Militias. These were militias that were being paid either in the grain we were sending over there or the money that they made by selling it on the black market.

So, I'm with you, Russ. To me, that's a very sobering lesson in how hard it is to do good because we often have such poor information about what's going on, on the ground.

So, aid has the potential to be very inefficient. We just often don't have the information to do it well. And, we are often--I mean, this is not going to come as any surprise to you--but we often can't see the indirect effects.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I've been picking on economists throughout this hour, but that's one thing we're pretty good at--

Michael McCullough: --eah, exactly--

Russ Roberts: is worrying about that. Whether--we don't know exactly what it is, but we're sensitized. I think one of the advantages of economic education is it sensitizes you to unintended consequences. So, that's good.

Michael McCullough: Absolutely, absolutely.

So, there's no doubt that we've spent a lot of money that didn't have impact.

And, this led to a period in the late 1990s when individuals and countries really kind of had developed a kind of compassion fatigue. Are we just dumping money into a black hole where it's not helping anybody? Not making the world a better place? Not encouraging development?

So, this led to the Millennium Development Goals at the end of the 20th century when the United Nations tried to get serious about, you know, really making a big push of cash.

They spent a lot of money, not nearly as much as they expected.

And, a lot of people wondered whether that was a failure--whether all of the money that was raised in pursuit of these eight or so Millennium Development Goals, about encouraging development in the Global South, did anything. It actually looks like, by the best counter-factual models you can draw given the data we have, that they did do some good. They reduced maternal deaths and neonatal deaths. They--we--there were many, many--perhaps half a billion people raised out of, raised above the poverty line, extreme poverty line of like a $1.95 a day.

Um, so, it's hard to evaluate--but very difficult to evaluate. I mean, you know, that's the other thing is, you know, the information is not always great and the evaluation is very problematic, as well. It's hard to know how to draw up the counterfactuals.

So, you look at--I look at the research and in a chapter of the Kindness of Strangers called 'The second humanitarian big bang'--pardon me, 'Tthe second poverty enlightenment,' which is how I described these last few decades of the 20th century.

We did try to start getting good at measuring, you know, and figuring out what works and what doesn't work. But, it's really hard.

And you fast forward to where we are now and the UN [United Nations] has come up with the Sustainable Development Goals. And, that is a--I think there's like 167 objectives in this list of Sustainable Development Goals.

Russ Roberts: It's not enough--

Michael McCullough: It's not enough, right.

Russ Roberts: 240.

Michael McCullough: Yes, exactly. Get to a good round number. And, that is a mess. That is a big mess.

Because if you can't track--you know, if it's hard to know, whether getting grain to Ethiopia is going to reduce famine--if that's hard to know--how are you going to attract 167 objectives?

So, this is tough stuff.

I'm really a fan of the economist, Bjorn Lomborg in Copenhagen who has spent quite a lot of time developing what he calls The Copenhagen Consensus which was a really systematic attempt to do a benefit-cost analysis on all of these Millennium Development--sustainable Millennium Development Goal objectives.

It's so eye-opening. Because, they realize that a lot of these interventions or a lot of these goals aren't going to pay their way. You're not going to get a dollar of welfare back for a dollar you spend on it.

So, there are some things that have huge bang for their buck. But a lot that if your goal is to make the world a better place and not just to look busy, you want to think about a second time.

Russ Roberts: Yeah; I'm very appreciative of Bjorn's contrarian nature, and I think he's added a lot to that conversation. And, he was on the program talking about some of that.


Russ Roberts: But, I do think there's a risk. It's good to quantify things, but you do have to remember that not everything can be quantified. I think that's hard to remember. I think about Chris Arnotti who was on the program talking about his book, Dignity, and he spent a lot of time among what we would call down and out people, drug addicts and others who can't find work either because they're drug addicts or they couldn't find work so they became drug addicts. They're in parts of America that have been "left behind" economically. And, often people move.

Historically, that's what they do when they get left behind, when a place gets left behind. The people go somewhere else, where it's thriving. And we've talked interminably on this program about why people don't move. Are there barriers to moving because of economic change? Are there barriers to moving because of rent control, and zoning has made it expensive, hard to find places to live?

But, he identifies something I think is very important that economists never think about, and policymakers don't want to think about, which is: A lot of people like to be close to where they grew up.

Now, I'm not one of those people. Chris admits he's not one of them. A lot of us who are in the educated classes who write about public policy left our home, went to the best university, took the best job we could get, didn't worry about whether we're close to our parents and just were kind of self-centered in that way or didn't value those--a lot of ways to talk about it. But, I think a sense of home and a sense of place is undervalued. If we only look at so-called economic benefits, we don't--and by economic benefits, I mean measurable benefits. We lose some something there.

I think the Chinese evolution of their economy that's brought hundreds of millions of people out of poverty is one of the most extraordinary and important changes of human history. But, I wouldn't want to pretend that that's all good because they're all richer. I mean, rich is good; but they changed their lives. They left their communal closer familial place in the countryside and moved to a more urban environment. And, God bless them. Everybody should be free to do that. But, I wouldn't want to make that a goal of policy because then they'll have a higher standard of living. Our standard of living is great if that's what people want. It's not always what people want.

Michael McCullough: Yeah. I've been thinking about that a lot actually myself and it does seem like you guys and gals assume that the way you get a market that works well is if people can take their stuff to where it's valued. I guess in the realm of human capital there's no exception to that. It's going to be through the free flow of human capital that you also realize that value, right?

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

Michael McCullough: So, but--I mean, is just that--

Russ Roberts: I'm all for freedom. I'm all for freedom. I just don't think we're ought to be steering people. I think it's a huge mistake to have goals. Any goals. That was badly said. Individuals can have goals, but the idea that the world should have a goal: 'By 2038, we should have xyz,' because all the goals conflict, especially when there's 167. And, then you've got no way to trade off against them. Political mechanisms don't do that well. Even individuals struggle to do it sometimes. I don't know. I'm just making the general point that I think the natural urge to make this "scientific" has got issues that I think are often forgotten.

Michael McCullough: What do you think about the notion of freedom? I'm sure you've thought about this a lot. But, what do you think about the notion of freedom as capabilities? Like, the way you build freedom or liberty within individuals is just to increase the range of things they are capable of doing. Does that work for you?

Russ Roberts: Martha Nussbaum was on the program talking about that--it was a while back. In the abstract, it's a great idea. Obviously, we can think about freedom as a lack of restraint, but obviously the more capabilities you have, the more options you have, the more choice you have, and that's a part of the human experience.

But, again, I think the--this is my individualistic bias--I think that's a choice that we as individuals make. The idea that we should make it for people, that we should have a goal of expanding capabilities, that we should have training programs just to pick the most narrow definition of capability.

I mean, I want my kids to appreciate classical music, and ballet, and art, and poetry, and the American musical, and a great novel. Those all take work, by the way. They're not like candy. They take some investment. When we think about that in a more general sense of how you live your life, I'm really uncomfortable with the idea of saying that it should be a public policy goal to figure out how to give people "more capability." Give people more freedom to choose those capabilities. So, certainly I don't want to give them a lousy education through a school system that's inadequate. I do think there are policy implications of the claim. But I think there's a tendency if we're not careful to make it more of an engineering problem, which I think we should stay away from.

Michael McCullough: I respect that. I think I agree that there's a hazard there, almost all the time.

I'd be curious to know what you think about Lomborg's biggest conclusion, which is that the biggest bang for your buck you're going to get is by liberalizing trade? I mean, I think he came to the estimate that something--for every dollar you spend on liberalizing trade, you get millions of dollars back in increased welfare--utility, if that's what you prefer. And, the reason for that is you can liberalize trade by just ripping up a piece of paper, or signing a piece of paper. Because all we're talking about is barriers to trades and lifting those barriers.

Is that the kind of hands-off intervention that you would prefer just allowing people--not prescribing, 'Hey, I know how to make you better off.' But, instead just say, 'I'm just going to move some impediments to you doing what you think is going to make you better off'?

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I'm a big fan of the free choices that people make in molding their destiny as they see fit, giving them the maximum freedom to find work, which is tailored to their skills.

I think--my disagreement with that is the bang-for-the-buck idea. Again, that's a natural thought. It's not a bad thought, but I don't want to use that only. And, I would emphasize the idea that: give us the freedom to choose my path and let emergent order--markets, what we would call markets--be fluid and dynamic as much as possible to match me with someone who would value what I do.

The problem with, I think, public policy today in 2021 is that there's so many pieces of that equation that have been ruined. I mean, just the most obvious examples of what we mentioned earlier, the zoning issue. I can't easily move to a city because the restrictions on what is allowed to be sold to me have to be a certain size, and therefore I can't choose to make a trade-off between location and the size of my dwelling. I think that's a terrible infringement on--you could say it's good intention. 'Oh, yeah. It'd be terrible. People would be exploited to live in these tiny hovels.'

But, I think that's a misunderstanding of what makes life important, and valuable, and let people flourish. I think we should be free to make those trade-offs. And there's so many areas like that where we've so ruined the natural feedback loops that serve people's aspirations, that this sort of standard policy descriptions don't work so well.

Health care would be another example. The labor market is so ruined by the healthcare mess that decades of policy interventions have done. I'm not saying we should go to no government involvement. That'd be my first thought. But, the current system, the idea of saying, 'Well, let's just fix it over here,' which normally might be a good idea.--this is called second best theory in economics. It's such a mess right now.

So, I don't have those sort of standard reactions I used to have when I was younger. I still call myself a free trader, but I think if you have free trade, you don't have some other things like a good education system.

Michael McCullough: Interesting.

Russ Roberts: Which is problematic for certain people and not others, and that's not so healthy.


Russ Roberts: I think the trickiest part of all this--and we should probably close on this--is that I'm really pretty confident that when my friend is crying and I give him a shoulder, I'm making the world a better place. I think the writing of a check is so much easier and dramatic. People want to join a movement or be an activist or fund this solution. And, I think we ought to spend more time reading to people who can't read well and helping them be whatever makes their hearts sing. Open the door for somebody carrying their groceries through. I just think those things are--as I get older, I find them much more meaningful and more likely to be actually helping.

Michael McCullough: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: I still give. I think it's not an excuse. Not like, 'Nothing works, so I just don't have to give anything.' I don't believe that. But I do believe that we don't spend enough time thinking about how to help the people around us. And, I don't mean do-gooders, being a do-gooder and saying, 'Oh, that person needs this. I need to--.' But, being there for them when they need us in whatever way it is.

Michael McCullough: Yeah. I would be very eager to try to avoid us thinking of these as mutually exclusive, obviously. I am taken with the effective altruism movement, at least as a basic sort of governing principle for figuring out how to--the questions we should be asking, when we're thinking about charitable giving at some remove from the people we're helping, where we can't know the effects.

It seems to me that the right questions at least are: Is it going to help? Does this organization have the capacity to convert my whatever-thousand dollar check into more--a thousand dollars or more--into welfare for other people.

It seems to me to be one of the right questions to ask. It's the same question that would govern--I think explains why you might want to cut back on your meat consumption, ultimately. At least as an ethical matter. The pleasure I get can't possibly be higher than the suffering that this animal had to incur to put the chicken on my plate. I do find that really compelling as, at least the kind of questions I want to be asking myself, and I think we should be asking ourselves when we're giving it some distance.

But, that can be a spiritual or a matter of integrity, too. It's just saying, like, 'I want to do the most good for the most--do the most good I can,' ala Peter Singer or something like that. I know that's fraught. I know that's very, very difficult to do. But those seem to me to be really important questions to be trying to exercise my way through.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. We have a lot of episodes on that. We'll put links to that. It's a whole 'nother conversation which we will return to, Michael. It is fraught. I think it is the right question. I just don't always think they're giving the right answer, but I'm glad they're asking the question. I think it's incredibly important.

My guest today has been Michael McCullough. His book is The Kindness of Strangers. Michael, thanks for being part of EconTalk.

Michael McCullough: Thanks for having me.

Russ Roberts: It was great. Take care.