The Golden Rule: Selfishness and Altruism in The Road
By John H. Miller, research professor, SFI, and professor of economics and social science and head, department of social and decision sciences, Carnegie Mellon University
"Yes. But in the stories we're always helping people and we dont help people" (p. 280).The starkness of the human interactions described in Cormac McCarthy's The Road illuminates one of the most fundamental questions that arises about human nature: Are we fundamentally selfish or altruistic? The answer to this question has perplexed scientists for centuries, including Cormac and his scientific colleagues at the Santa Fe Institute.
True altruism requires not only that we are nice to one another, but that we also do so at a real cost to ourselves without any expectation of any possible gain. Consider that while a honey bee may sacrifice itself by stinging an attacker to save the hive, its hivemates are so closely related genetically that the act provides some benefit to the sacrificial bee (or, at least to its genetic material). The biologist J.B.S. Haldane nicely summarized such a situation when he was asked whether he would give his life to save his brother and answered, "No, but I would to save two brothers or eight cousins." Being nice to someone with an expectation that they will be nice back to you in return also doesn't qualify as true altruism. Leaving a large tip at a restaurant you frequent is a far different act than doing so at a roadside diner that you will never return to again.
In recent years, social scientists have begun to do experiments designed to highlight human altruism. For example, suppose that you are given a pile of 20 one-dollar bills, and in private you are allowed to pocket whatever portion of the pile you would like and place the remaining money (if any) into an envelope that will be given anonymously to someone else. How much money would you give away? Would your choice change if, say, for every dollar you gave away the other person received twice (or half) that amount?
It turns out that the vast majority of the subjects participating in such experiments behave in a manner that reflects very thoughtful decision-making behavior. Moreover, while about half the subjects do tend to be fairly selfish, the remaining subjects often pass substantial amounts of money to others. We are just beginning to understand the limits of such behavior. For example, if you give subjects a bit of "moral wiggle room'' (by perhaps letting an initial coin flip—that can be easily overturned—determine their choice) or reframe the problem as taking money away versus giving money, very different patterns of giving behavior emerge.
About the Author
John H. Miller splits his time between the Santa Fe Institute and the department of social and decision sciences at Carnegie Mellon University. He recently co-authored a book, Complex Adaptive Social Systems: An Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life (Princeton University Press, 2007), that explores how ideas from economics, political science, biology, physics and computer science can be combined to illuminate topics in organization, adaptation, decentralization and robustness. His research ranges from understanding the behavior of critical economic and political systems to the fundamentals of human cooperation and altruism. He was born and raised in Colorado—the fourth generation of a family of ranchers.
Honesty, deception and other themes from The Road