Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

A few thoughts on charity and helpfulness

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Since writing a few earlier texts ([1], [2]) negative towards charity, I have repeatedly seen, with some early puzzlement, the claim that charity would be a major evolutionary benefit—even when directed towards strangers.

To outline my resulting thoughts on this topic:

  1. It is important to make a distinction between cooperation, reciprocal* help, and one-sided help. The first often** allows humans to accomplish more than they can individually or in a more timely manner. The second leaves the “helpee” better off without harming the helper.*** The third is good for the helpee but bad for the helper, risks that the undeserving are helped, risks abuse, and risks a dysgenic effect through allowing the lazy, unfit, stupid, whatnot, to afford children.

    *Where the reciprocation need not be immediate or even short term, and might also, in an extended sense, be indirect e.g. through A helping B, who helps C, who helps A. In a further extension, parents helping children might be included: the parents received help from their own parents and the children will someday help their own children, in a chain of “paying it forward”. Note that there can be some overlap with cooperation.

    **Team-work in schools often provide counter-examples. Among the problems, note that the more intellectual the task, the more the result tends to be determined by the best individual brain, who might even be held back by the team.

    ***At least to some approximation and when accumulating help given and received over a life-time and all actors: that the exact “value” of the overall help in each direction, for two given individuals, will be equal is unlikely.

    For an example of cooperation, consider an Amish barn-raising as portrayed in fiction*: the entire village comes to perform the work that a single man,** or even a single family, would be extremely hard pressed to manage on his own. There is a bit of hard work, then a bit of a feast, and then everybody goes home happy.

    *Reality might or might not be different.

    **In my recollection, these scenes have been heavily dominated by bearded men, but feel free to include women and children.

    For an example of reciprocal help, take the same barn-raising and the understanding that those who helped today will themselves be helped in the future, when they have a barn to raise.

    For an example of one-sided help, with a dose of abuse and the undeserving being helped, take a barn-raising for someone who sees his fellow villagers as dupes, whom he has no intention of helping in return.

    (The barn-raising can be varied further, e.g. that a family with fewer working men might, non-abusively, be net-recipients of help and a family with more working men net-givers of help, or that an old widow might be unable to repay in kind, having either to find other means of repayment or be a non-abusive charity case.)

  2. What is good (general sense) for society, what is good (general or evolutionary* sense) for the individual human, and what is good (evolutionary sense) for the individual gene are not necessarily the same. For instance, help given from a parent to a child is often good in both senses and for society, both individuals, and the genes that they both share. However, help given to a complete stranger is likely to be bad for the genes, good for the individual stranger, and the result for the individual helper and society will depend on the circumstances (including the degree of future reciprocal help).

    *In the below, I will not be exact with this differentiation and mostly work with the implicit assumption that an evolutionary advantage is an objective good. This for two reasons, viz. to keep the discussion simple and because this type of discussion often is used in an evolutionary context and my motivation is partially from an evolutionary claim (cf. the first paragraph). However, this is not the only perspective on the issue.

    This might be a clue to charity-towards-strangers as an evolutionary benefit: it might, within some limits, be beneficial to society, and a more successful society might bring sufficient benefit to the individual that a lesser fitness within the group is overcome. (Cf. my, usually anti-Leftist, analogy that a smaller slice of a larger cake might be better than a larger slice of a smaller cake.) However, this with both a “might” and caveats like “assuming that sufficiently many others are sufficiently charitable” and “assuming that society has had enough time to benefit” (which might rule out a net benefit for a “first generation” helper).

  3. In sufficiently small and tight groups, charitable actions are likely to be to one’s own benefit, through factors like a higher chance of helping a relative and the higher chance of repeated interactions, in turn, with a greater chance at later reciprocation, the greater risk that today’s helpee might be the only possible helper when today’s helper needs help, and the greater ability to judge whether someone is worthy of help. (Compare e.g. a decrepit old man who has hunted for the tribe for decades with a spoiled girl who absorbs help without ever reciprocating and prefers to spend her days watching her reflection in the nearest pond.)

    In larger and looser groups the opposite applies. Indeed, someone needing help on the subway in New York might not be someone the helper will ever see again, whose worthiness is impossible to judge, etc.

  4. A charitable attitude that does make sense in a certain evolutionary setting does not necessarily make sense in another. For instance, humans living in small and tight groups might have benefited even from entirely selfless and uncalculated charity (cf. above), and might have been rewarded by evolution for being unselfishly charitable. Move such humans into a larger and looser group, and the impulse might now be unfit, because more calculation and deliberation is needed to get a sufficient payback, to not reward the undeserving, etc. Move one of these selflessly charitable humans to a big city, and the result might be horrible.
  5. A charitable attitude that uses someone else’s money, work, resources whatnot, can be a very bad thing. Contrast, on the one hand, a wish to help the needy and the resolution to donate money and spend a few hours a week in a soup-kitchen with, on the other, the same wish and the resolution to press for higher taxes to fund a government program, often in the abused name of “solidarity” (cf. excursion).

    From such attitudes*, the horribly inefficient and abused well-fare state has arisen, where the undeserving are helped as much as or more than the deserving (who are less likely to need help), where laziness and dumbness are rewarded by the state, while hard work and intelligence are punished, where the list of those who are to be helped is extended further and further,** where there is less and less personal responsibility, etc.

    *Combined with the self-serving votes of many who look for help for themselves, obviously.

    **Where, indeed, many only need help because their income is eroded by the money that they pay to the government …

  6. Overall, I would at a minimum recommend calculated help over selfless help, once we move outside family and close relatives: I help you today, so that you can help me tomorrow; resp. I help you today, because you helped me yesterday.

    Reservation: I am a little on the fence when it comes to close (non-relative) friends, but would tend towards calculation, as there is a considerable risk that one “friend” or another will otherwise turn into a free-loader. This with the further reservation that someone who has proven himself in the past might be helped in a blanket manner.

Excursion on money:
Much of reciprocal help could be handled wonderfully and even more fairly through use of money and paid services—well in line with my earlier texts. (At least, had it not been for those pesky taxes, today, and the low availability of money or money-equivalents, in the past.) For instance, the barn-raising families with more men could have been paid more than those with few men for their help, while someone who carelessly burns his barn down and needs a new one has to pay twice (once for raising the original barn, once for the new). In addition, those paid in money today do not need to wait for ten years to be repaid with a reciprocal barn-raising.

Excursion on solidarity and “The Farmer Paavo”:
The abuse of the word “solidarity” by e.g. the Swedish Left (“solidaritet”) is outrageous: “we” must show solidarity—by taxing others and giving to ourselves or our voters.*

*Depending on whether the statement is made by a Leftist working-class voter or a Leftist politician.

This is to be contrasted with the very well-know Swedish–Finnish* poem Bonden Paavo (“The Farmer Paavo”):

*The author, Johan Ludvig Runeberg, was of Finnish nationality and the setting is Finnish, but he was a member of the native Swedish minority and wrote in Swedish.

The poem has a repeating pattern of something going wrong with Paavo’s: farming activities (floods through melting snow in the spring, hail in the summer, cold in the autumn), his wife despairing and exclaiming that God* has abandoned them, and Paavo resolutely pushing through with hard work, ditch digging, and bark bread, while selling of cattle to pay for new seeds. At the end, the two first steps are reversed in character: the intended harvest survives the three misfortunes and his wife rejoices over the newfound happy days and bread without bark; however, in the last step, Paavo insists on bark bread, as his neighbors field is frozen. (With the implication that a portion of Paavo’s harvest will be going to the neighbor.)

*Runeberg was a priest and Paavo’s contrasting confidence in God is another theme of the poem,

That is solidarity.

(Whether it is selfless or calculating, resp. one-sided or reciprocal, help will depend on unstated circumstances. There is no mention of the neighbor helping Paavo in the past, but that might very well be because he has suffered the same set of misfortunes in the prior years.)


Written by michaeleriksson

July 30, 2020 at 3:22 pm

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