On the Importance of Altruism, Prosocial Behaviour and Christian Love in Behavioural Economics Research

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The article discusses the concepts of altruism and prosocial behaviour and their importance in interdisciplinary studies of behavioural economics. The basic theoretical models and concepts of altruism in Behavioural Economic are reviewed. Altruism is shown to be a hidden and complicated form of selfishness. In essence, altruism and prosociality are therefore not fundamentally different concepts: both are ultimately self-oriented. In article we take Christian worldview and compare altruism with Christian love and discusses their differences and the importance of their theoretical and practical implications. We show that altruism and Christian love are not only diverse, but contradictory concepts, which in our opinion is of great importance at least in terms of promoting  well-being of human society.

Posted for comments on 30 Sep 2020, 10:48 am.

Comments (1)

  • Rafael Galvão de Almeida says:

    I thought the article to be interesting, since relationship between economics and Christian thought and theology has a lot of potential to understand how both works. I have been somewhat researching a few of these issues and I believe I can us share it to comment on your article. The literature on Christianity and economics is overrepresented by American authors, so I’m glad that you offer another perspective, from mostly Eastern Orthodox writings. In the first draft of this comment, I was going to suggest to specify the exact tradition you base your argument, but I guess there’s no problem in using a general blanket term for “Christian thought” in this case, since love is usually considered one of the least controversial topics in theology.

    One thing that needs to be clearer is how exactly evolutionary and behavioral economics mingle. Kahneman and Thaler aren’t exactly on the same research terms as Bowles and Gintis; the former borrows more from psychology and decision theory, and the latter from evolutionary biology and complexity studies developed in the Santa Fe Institute, though the latter is much more distant from the orthodoxy than the former. As far as I know they study altruism from different perspectives, so making this distinction clearer could be useful, and how they relate to sociobiology (it also should be made clear on how sociobiology influences the perspective being criticized in the article). One way would be introducing sociobiology in the beginning of the article (since the term only appears once). In the end, the allure of sociobiology is similar to rational choice theory, creating explanations that have scientific auras, with mathematical models and apparently value-free premises and conclusions.

    That being said, the relationship between Christianity and evolutionary economics and behavioral economics is underexplored. In Faith & Economics, the peer-reviewed journal of the Association of Christian Economists, there is only two reviews on this issue, one from Bloem (2015) and another from Yungert (2018) (though this is more libertarian than Christian), and no proper article. Tan (2013) wrote a literature review of these issues, though. It is a suggestion to incorporate in your research.

    One thing that wasn’t clear: when you’re citing Pope and Meisinger, are you citing them to support or criticize their argument (especially on p. 7)? Because, from the references (I didn’t know of them beforehand, by the way), they attempted to understand the relationship between altruism and Christian thought. Were they approving or critical? Because this is a phenomenon I see in a lot of Christian circles, of people rushing to conform some scientific discovery to the faith. In addition to Tikhomirov, I can also quote the example of James Clerk Maxwell: he was one of the most important physicists of the 19th century and a devout Presbyterian. When he was invited to join an institute to combat materialism, he refused. At the time, many Christians were using the idea of “ether” to prove the Bible, but Maxwell scoffed at those attempts because he knew that the physics of 1876 would be different from 1896 – the ether is an extinct doctrine today (see McNatt, 2004).

    I just have one personal problem with this phrase: “First of all, in my opinion, true science and true Christian teaching cannot contradict each other, since truth is one.” This is an idea that I think it’s similar to the idea natural theology, of a distinction “book of God” and a “book of Nature” in the Western European 17th century thought. As Charles Taylor wrote in A Secular Age (Taylor 2007), this separation ended being one foundation of today’s secularism. Stephen Hawking’s closing words in A Brief History of Time became famous, that if we discovered a theory of everything of physics, we would “know the mind of God”. In other words, “find the Book of Nature”. In my thesis I asked whether economists could make a similar claim (after a known macroeconomist claimed DSGEs would become a Theory of Everything just like from physics, a few months before the 2007 financial crisis explode for added irony). I argue that neither economists nor physicists can ever fulfill that claim because science will never be perfect, there will be always debates and scientists will abandon and recover theories until the end of time. To argue otherwise might be dangerous.

    One example that might pass over our heads is theology. Pick any book on the history of theology – it shows how it’s a human creation and has always changed. I say this not to disqualify it, but emphasize how our understanding of God might not set in stone, and yet sometimes we do hit the target and reach an agreement that approach us from God. Not understanding this can lead to problems. I can see it in my own Christian community in the doctrine of Rapture; it’s a recent and anthropocentric doctrine disguised as a flashy theocentric one, and it just creates perverse incentives. It’s also a factor for the association of the alt-right and Christianity in the US and Brazil because they think it’s the only correct way to interpret the Bible, that puts them in a heroic position. So I critique Hawking’s words in the sense that “if we could learn such exact knowledge, it would not be quite correct to say we learned what God had in mind when He created this world – instead, we would become God.” (Almeida, 2019, p. 98), and I didn’t write that in a positive way. That is the reason why I don’t think that there is such a thing as “true science” – we can keep discovering more accurate, more applicable scientific knowledge that can improve our lives and tell us more about the universe, but I don’t think we will ever reach the point of discovering the “true true” causes of things and, from a theological point of view, neither is this knowledge available for us.

    Though one thing I appreciate is the exposition that economics has ideology, it’s not as value-free as orthodox economists claim (there was a discussion in this journal last year, see Donald Gilles’s article and my comment in Vol. 9, n. 1) and extending this assessment to the evolutionary theory should be considered. Roscoe (2014) has an interesting argument on how evolutionary biologists such as Dawkins use evolution to base morality and how, in the end, becomes a new guiding myth (and a poor one), and how economics might take advantage of it to justify neoliberalism – which, in spite of what the American Christian Right might say, they go against any historical Christian doctrine. I also tend to agree with Robert Nelson (2001)’s argument that economics becomes a secular religion in many contexts, in order to fulfill the niche that used to belong to theology in the 19th century. As much as scholars run away from the discussion of values and ideology, its ubiquitousness reaches a point that efforts to avoid it are like sweeping the dirt under the rug. As Taylor (2007) wrote, the so-called Secular Age is actually one that has many competing views and values.

    But when you write “It is also a fact that evolutionary theory and its modifications are not based on scientific facts and belong to a purely philosophical and philosophical category” I think the writing needs to be careful. It does not consider why, then, it is considered the most accepted theory in biology. Let me use the example of economics: the tenets of neoclassical economics have been disproven, unverified, refuted both at empirical and theoretical level so many times (like, browsing the WEA’s site, who hosts this journal, can give you a modest sample of critiques to orthodox economics). And yet, it still remains the same: rational economic agents in a general equilibrium framework. It has changed at a snail’s pace. And the main journals still thousands published studies in these lines yearly, the PhDs students in the most prestigious centers are taught these doctrines and so on. This has disastrous consequences (see anything written by Steve Keen, Johnathan Aldred, among others). But the majority of economists still subscribe to it because it opens to a wide range of issues and has produced good enough results. And, especially, no heterodox doctrine managed to get enough clout to challenge its hegemony or serviceability. Being a heterodox economist is still a career gamble. I suppose the theory of evolution has a similar issue, but I am not a biologist and I am not confident enough to adventure so far from my field of expertise (even though I spent a lot of time studying general scientific methodology; while some “rules” in both biology and economics might be similar, I’m sure they’re not the “same” – as much as I know how some orthodox economists dislike heterodox economics, they always refrained themselves from calling it “pseudoscience” in peer-reviewed publications, while the situation is different in other sciences) so I can only comment using a proxy of economics. Maybe you could focus more on the normative consequences of sociobiology alone (because there were evolutionary biologists, such as Stephen Jay Gould, who opposed sociobiology).

    As for final thoughts, the article needs a bit of rewriting to think more about its audience, since this is a generalist journal. I mean, in the sense of how Christian thought can contribute to the general debate.

    Almeida, R. G. de, Dreaming of unity: essays on the history of new political economy. Thesis, Doctor in Economics. Belo Horizonte: UFMG, 2019.

    Bloem, J. Review of: Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics. Faith & Economics, v. 66, 2015.

    McNatt, J. L. James Clerk Maxwell’s refusal to join the Victoria Institute. Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, 56(3), 204-215, 2004.

    Nelson, R. H. Economics as Religion. UPenn Press, 2001.

    Roscoe, P. Dr. Pangloss and the best of all possible markets: evolutionary fantasies and justifications in contemporary economic discourse. In Campbell, N. et al (eds.). Myth and the Market. UC Dublin, 2014.

    Tan, J. H. Behavioral economics of religion. In: Oslington, P. (ed.). The Oxford handbook of Christianity and economics, 2014.

    Taylor, C. A Secular Age. Harvard Press, 2007.

    Yungert, A. Review of: The Moral Economy. Faith & Economics, n. 71, 2018.

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