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 (2)

  • 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.

  • Peter Earl says:

    Referee report on Rati Mekvabishvili’s ‘On the Importance of Altruism, Prosocial Behaviour and Christian Love in Behavioural Economics research’

    Getting involved as a referee for a paper on altruism is an activity that has an inherently reflexive dimension: Why should I bother to accept the task, given that fulfilling it will consume my time and mental energy, for no financial gain, and probably also for no gain in academic standing and no reciprocal benefits? As an atheist, I did not find myself being driven by religious principles when I accepted the task. But as a long-standing behavioural economist and a past editor of the Journal of Economic Psychology, I can make sense of my decision to take on the task as follows:

    I know what it is like to a be journal editor trying to find a referee for a paper, especially in order to get a timely report to the author, and as an author of journal articles I know what it is like to be kept waiting for inordinate periods of time to receive feedback. In other words, I sympathises with the plight of the editor and the author and that feeling of sympathy made me feel that I should agree to take on the task; it seems somehow wrong to me not to help if I can and am qualified to do so. In this sense, my altruism is consistent with the views that Adam Smith expresses in his Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith’s ([1759] 1976) contribution is not considered in the paper, and it deserves to be, as an early contribution to behavioural economics, one that contrasts sharply with the views regarding the role of selfishness in the working of the capitalist system for which Smith is better known.
    As an author myself, I am aware that the refereeing process will break down if authors generally behave selfishly by concentrating their efforts on writing works for submission while declining to accept refereeing tasks due to the latter chewing up time that could have been used in writing further works. To a degree, the refereeing system guards against such selfish behaviour via the possibility that those who consistently refuse to referee work in their areas of expertise will be punished by journal editors giving them desk rejections if they attempt to submit papers for review despite having never been willing to serve as referees. But to the extent that there are multiple journals that are both good targets for a paper and have similar standing, that potential punishment mechanism is somewhat limited. As a late-career author, with no plans to write papers that I would submit to this journal, such considerations also do not apply to me. However, one reason for accepting the refereeing task is that, given how much I have been writing and am likely to continue to write, I feel a duty to keep contributing to the refereeing process to a degree that is consistent with the burden that I impose on the academic publications system as an author. In psychological terms, this comes down to my self construct – I don’t see myself as the kind of person who freeloads in this sort of situation – and to the feeling of guilt that I immediately start to experience at the very thought of doing something that conflicts with my self-construct. This view of guilt in relation to the prospective dislodgement of one’s self is to be found in Kelly’s (1955) Psychology of Personal Constructs (defined on p. 502 as “the awareness of dislodgement of self from one’s core role structures.” I don’t know whether others have used the emotion of guilt as something that kicks in to drive altruistic and prosocial behaviour, but I think it deserves consideration (and we may note how advertisers play on this, as with ‘guilty mother’-style ads for, say, dietary supplements that a caring mother should give to her children).
    Guilt and sympathy aside, I also found it difficult not to accept the invitation to referee this paper due to experiencing the urge to ensure that the paper does not proceed to the acceptance stage if it presents an unduly narrow view of behaviuoral economics and where altruism and prosocial behaviour figure within the behavioural literature. At present, it has this shortcoming because it seems to have bought into the fiction promoted by Thaler (2015 – my copy, by the way, shows no sign of the co-author listed in the paper under review) that behavioural economics dates from around 1980 and his early contributions. The urge that I have to set the record straight here may partly reflect the operating rules of scholarship that I have absorbed by operating in academia for over four decades (consistent with Hodgson’s ‘hidden persuaders’ view of the assimilation of rules in cultural settings) but it may also reflect what Csibra and Gergely (2011) refer to as the human tendence toward ‘natural pedagogy’ in a much more general sense: whether on a genetic basis or via social norms passed down the generations, humans have an urge to share knowledge with those who seem to be in need of it to avoid wasting their time and other resources, and this knowledge-sharing tendency and being brought up to respect the wisdom of elders. has fitness-conferring evolutionary consequences for social groups (and note here, contrary to the penultimate paragraph of section 4 of the paper under review, that the selection of altruistic behavioural tendencies works view its impact on the fitness and survival of carriers of those tendencies, i.e., people within a group, or a group of people competing against other groups, via the behaviour that it generates).
    Given that in modern market processes much of altruistic behaviour pertains to the reviewing and recommending of products and potential solutions to problems, this urge to share knowledge with others warrants consideration in the paper. It may function in tandem with sympathy and guilt: for example, if there is a callout on a suburb’s social media for assistance in learning how to shop for gluten-free food by the mother of a newly diagnosed sufferer of Coeliac disease, an experienced Coeliac sufferer may have great trouble holding back from volunteering, mindful of her own experience when she was diagnosed. This ‘difficulty in holding back’ aspect of altruistic choices based on such foundations is, I think, problematic to frame in terms of a ‘rational cost-benefit’ calculation: one does it because the genetic and socially programmed rules of one’s operating system dictate that we do it, without there being any side glances to other ways of spending our time, unless other more basic, higher-priority rules kick in to over-rule operating in an altruistic way (cf. Maslow, 1970, 1971).

    From the above standpoint, I do not think that there is any need to make Christian love a central part of a paper on the economics of altruism. Quite apart from the issue of what is supposedly going on among those of other religious persuasions or among agnostics and atheists, we simply don’t need to bring religion into the economic analysis if we start trying to understand altruism in terms of the more general framework of the operating rules (genetically inherited, socially acquired and personally constructed) by which people run their lives: a religion is simply a particular set of ‘do’ and ‘don’t’ operating rules. Hence, I think the author would be wise, in a revised version of the paper, to remove most of what is said in relation to Christian love and present the prosocial and altruistic aspects of religious modes of thought as cases of outsourced elements that those of faith have chosen to take into their operating systems or have acquired via the Hodgson-style ‘hidden persuader’ mechanisms of social life.

    Finally, as far as work by behavioural economists who operate in a pre-Thaler way or whose thinking predates 1980, I think that in addition to following up the ideas above and seeing what can be gleaned from the pioneering book by Collard (1978), the author particularly needs to consider the role of altruism in the thinking of first behavioural scholar to receive a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, namely, Herbert Simon, the 1978 winner. Unlike the modern behavioural economists, Simon’s focus was on problem solving in organizations and a key concern there was with the challenge of getting workers to contribute to the organization’s activities in ways that go beyond what they need to do to keep their jobs or believe they need to do to ensure good enough promotion prospects. (The distinction that Williamson, 1975, 1985 draws between ‘perfunctory cooperation’ and ‘consummate cooperation’ may be useful here). Simon’s concerns arise because job contracts are vaguely specified and, to make matters worse, those in leadership roles are granted their authority by those that they manage giving them respect, rather than this authority coming from their formal role in the organization. A docile, altruistic workforce is a great asset to an organization, though not one whose members are so docile as to hold back from being whistle-blowers when questionable things are being done (corruption) or when they think they can see a better way of doing things (challenging the boss, rather than being a ‘yes man/woman’). So Simon’s limited writing on altruism (I list below the ones that I am aware of, plus his key work on organizations) relates to an important context that the paper needs to consider – a context not unrelated to the ‘shall I agree to be a referee?’ question with which I started this report, for academic job contracts are very vague, and though academic managers are increasingly more explicit in telling their staff about what they will need to deliver if they are to get tenure or promotion, refereeing track records are not part of those kinds of deliverables (even though academics may attempt to use them as indications of the extent to which they are being taken seriously).

    Peter E. Earl
    University of Queensland

    Collard, D. (1978). Altruism and Economy: A Study in Non-Selfish Economics. Oxford: Martin Robertson.
    Csibra, G., & Gergely, G. (2011). Natural pedagogy as an evolutionary adaptation. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (B), 366, 1149–1157.
    Hodgson, G. M. (2003). The hidden persuaders: Institutions and individuals in economic theory. Cambridge Journal of Economics, 27(2), 159–175.
    Kelly, G. A. (1955). The Psychology of Personal Constructs. New York: W. W. Norton.
    Maslow, A. H. ([1954] 1970). Motivation and Personality (2nd Ed.). New York: Harper & Row.
    Maslow, A. H. (1971). The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York: Viking.
    Simon, H. A. (1947). Administrative Behavior. New York: Macmillan (3rd edition 1976. New York: Free Press).
    Simon, H. A. (1992). Altruism and economics. Eastern Economic Journal, 18(1), 73–83.
    Simon, H. A. (1993). Altruism and economics. American Economic Review, 83(2, May), 156–161.
    Simon, H. A. (2005). Darwinian altruism and economics. In K. Dopfer (ed.), The Evolutionary Foundations of Economics (pp. 80–88Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
    Smith, A. ([1759] 1976). The Theory of Moral Sentiments (edited by D. D. Raphael and A. L. MacFie), Oxford: Clarendon Press.
    Williamson, O. E. (1975). Markets and Hierarchies: Analysis and Anti- Trust Implications. New York: Free Press.
    Williamson, O. E. (1985). The Economic Institutions of Capitalism: Firms, Markets and Relational Contracting. New York: Free Press.

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