Which Marley Was That?

Yesterday I was lecturing in my class about the role of empathy in altruism. Since it's the Christmas season I was making a lot of references to the various charity opportunities we are exposed to this time of year. For example, I was talking about the shame I feel every time I walk into the store past the Salvation Army bell ringer. I often give some money but it's motivated by shame. Same sort of shame I feel when a cashier says ringing up my purchase, "Would you like to donate $5 to help the homeless this Christmas season?" What are you supposed to say to that?

So a lot of helping is motivated by internal impulses to manage shame, guilt, and image. Not that I'm complaining too much. I tend to think guilt is a good thing. I appreciate my guilt. I told onto it as a talisman.

Still, it's not very altruistic to give out of guilt. Which is where empathy comes in. A lot of good empirical research, most of it done by Daniel Batson, suggests that altruism (being fully other-oriented) is possible when empathy is engaged.

So this is what I was talking about in class yesterday, about how we should cultivate empathy. To make this point I ended up talking about Scrooge in Dickens's A Christmas Carol. I was, in my dramatic way, recounting the Ghost of Marley visiting Scrooge. But after class I realized I'd made a mistake. Instead of calling him the ghost of Jacob Marley I was calling him the ghost of Bob Marley.

And that, we all know, is a very different sort of Christmas story...

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19 thoughts on “Which Marley Was That?”

  1. Well, given that one of his songs starts

    "One Love! One Heart!

    Let's get together and feel all right.

    Hear the children cryin' (One Love!);

    Hear the children cryin' (One Heart!),

    Sayin': give thanks and praise to the Lord and I will feel all right;

    Sayin': let's get together and feel all right."

    Maybe you didn't get the wrong Marley after all.

  2. I've noticed that there are some asking for donations who will play up the guilt in the asking, and to me, that's manipulative. We may not donate to every asker, and they may give us dagger eyes for walking by, but they don't know the individuals in need we have helped that none of the programs do.

  3. Ha ha ha!  Made my day (busy trying to finish a sermon and battle a cold simultaneously).  Thanks.

  4. I think it is Bob Marley in Dickenson's Christmas Carol. Now in Dicken's version that's a another story.

  5. Well, clearly you watch too much Muppets. Muppet Christmas Carol had the ghosts of Jacob and Robert Marley, played by Statler and Waldorf. Also, it's by Dickens, as Emily Dickinson would be yet again a different sort of story.

  6. Nor does the asker know anything of your own family's needs, which may be profound, and which you feel responsible to meet on a daily basis.  Not doing that might induce feelings of guilt, but the other -- not so much.

    I am curious as to how this subject came up in a class on Statistics. (Perhaps it was Psychology.)

  7. Good point. Made the change to Dickens.

    For those showing up late, in the original post I had it as Dickenson's Christmas Carol. As always, I'm an idiot. 

  8. The role of empathy in motivating altruism is very important.  But the first step to making this happen requires that we see the person with whole we empathize.  Adam Smith talks a good deal about being a good impartial spectator in TMS.  Hence, we do not get the civil rights movement until we have TV.  There is no abolitionist movement in Great Britain without Olaudah Equiano, Thomas Clarkson, and possibly Wesley (I'm not sure we needed Wilberforce!)

    Now, what is interesting about the sort of altruism which emerges from empathy is that it is ultimately self-interested.  That is, we empathize because we imagine ourselves in that position, or rather, we empathize in proportion to our estimated probability that we might be in the same position, and to the degree that we have opportunity to spectate the other in their position.  What we are really doing is motivating a sort of social insurance whereby I help the one who is in need because it might be me someday, and if that were to happen I would want someone to help me.  Of course we might also want to apply a time discounting parameter on this as well.
    Regeneration changes everything.  First, the time discounting disappears.  Knowing that I have a place with Christ in eternity means that my personal discount rate is effectively zero.  Tomorrow is the same as today.  I am in eternity now.
    Second, I have my sufficiency in Christ.  I do not give in expectation of reciprocity, but in response to blessings already distributed unto me.
    Third, having my reward in Christ already, I am not motivated out of self-interest.
    Fourth, giving in secret diminishes the desire for approbation from men, another major motivator in Smith's framework.
    How then am I motivated to give, and when?  I cannot constantly pour myself out completely.  Jesus didn't heal everyone or feed everyone.  He only did as He saw His Father doing.  He was listening to the Spirit.
    Because the goal was not mercy for mercy's sake, but mercy that glorified God.  Mercy fits in with His providence and His decrees. 
    We give, not only altruistically but sacrificially, not indiscriminately but obediently, not for reward or recognition but in response.

    Question: to what decree does "office," or stewardship of resources assigned to us on behalf of others for whom we have a direct responsibility (children, elderly parents, members of our local church?) set a constraint on our sacrificial altruism?

    Surely I may not give the food which God has provided for my child to someone else, may I?

    But then am I likewise to prefer my fellow countryman over a foreigner?  Countries being political and arbitrary, what about ethnic groups?  Who is my brother, right?

    Anyway, I have a paper on similar thoughts in a sort of Public Choice Economics, History of Economic Thought vein.
    Love this blog, recently started over from the beginning.

  9. You say, "That's cheating, in the sense that everything can eventually be linked back to self-interest... or Hitler for that matter."
    I agree.  This is precisely the line I wish to draw however.  I want to claim that the only thing which could make Christians really peculiar from anyone else is if they could somehow overcome this line and do something which is completely un-self-interested.  That is, something truly fitting into the category, "sacrificial altruism."  Because there are so many ways in which sacrificial altruism could be misunderstood as self-interested, Jesus identifies "loving one's enemy" as the identifying characteristic of the Christian.  
    There's no Darwinian explanation for such behavior.
    And any such behavior we do observe is most likely statistically insignificant.
    Which is the problem.

    I also want to take away from Christians the capacity to claim that they demonstrate regeneration if the only altruism they exhibit is non-sacrificial, which you show is within the realm of self-interest, broadly defined.  To be nice is not nearly enough.  Even robbers thieves and criminals care for those they are close to.  No.  One cannot claim to be a true follower of Christ unless they have taken opportunity to turn the other cheek.
    Nathanael Snow

  10. I want to claim that the only thing which could make Christians really
    peculiar from anyone else is if they could somehow overcome this line (between individual and species wide altruism)
    and do something which is completely un-self-interested.

    I assume you don't hold Jonestown
    up as a shining example of such altruism... yet it is exactly this:
    religiously inspired altruism.

    There's no Darwinian explanation for such behavior (the individual sense of loving one's enemy).

    Oh, but there is... and a lot of it. In the more primitive part of the brain related to sexual urges and food we find that actions undertaken for what we define as altruistic behaviour have been shown to activate what we call the pleasure centre (the mesolimbic reward response) as well as pronounced activity in the subgenual cortex/septal region. These neural structures are the ones that light up for activities related to social attachment and bonding, suggesting that altruism is not a superior moral faculty at all but clearly a basic and important part of our biological and physical brain structure.

    But also of interest is how the posterior superior temporal cortex is involved in different ways depending on one's motivation for an act - for self interest in the narrow sense (individual) or on behalf of benefiting another. This reveals that how we perceive other people's actions as meaningful is very important to how we determine and direct our altruism. This makes us very susceptible to acting in one way while thinking we act in another. Again, we easily are easily fooled.

    So we know that our biology is the basis for our altruistic behaviours, meaning that we come biologically ready to behave altruistically in the name of something we believe to be valuable. We also know that our beliefs about the world play a central role in determining how we direct and exercise these behaviours. Religious belief (just like, say, political belief) exercised in action through endorsed social functions (meaning we gain something we individually value (like status) from within the particular social group we support) is a complicated meshing of the two - from both our biology and beliefs about the world - that can just as easily lead christians to harmful actions as helpful ones, doing evil as doing good in service to their beliefs (in moral terms).

    I don't think you have a good basis, then, to suggest that directed altruism through some religious belief about the world makes people "really peculiar." I think it makes religious belief itself just as powerful a social force - for good or ill - as any other particular social allegiance (like politics or some social movement or what have you)... an allegiance which becomes a huge problem when one grants this impersonal belief one's personal authority to justify actions to its own ends and benefit.

    And isn't this exactlywhat we see in the world?   

  11. Again, very good.
    If what you say is the best Christians can do, then we should quit and go home.  If, however, there is some margin on which having experienced a transformation through an experience with the living Christ can change one's behavior, then there needs to be evidence of that.  Such evidence would entail a sacrificial altruism which goes beyond what you rightly describe as explainable through biological impulses.
    If you have not observed such agape love, then I am ashamed on behalf of the church.  I pray that someone demonstrates it toward you or where you can see it even today.

  12. On what basis, then, do you assume that agape love - not just for neighbours but strangers and even enemies - is actually possible, or in any way desirable, or even a benefit for either the individual or society in whole? Certainly the notion that non violence is the moral high ground is at best questionable for both, and seems to merely shift the burden to those willing and able to carry it but morally held in some measure of contempt for their altruism.

  13. I can only identify agape love in that I have experienced it, just in the way that you can only identify language by having heard it.  I don't assume that sacrificial love is in any way beneficial to oneself (quite to the contrary) nor to society (it depends on your unit of measure.  Utilitarians may only observe welfare losses.  I observe ways to overcome transitional gains traps which lead to long run welfare enhancements, economically speaking.  But all that is beside the point because my primary concern is...) but that the sacrificial action be glorifying to God.  Society may be destroyed, and I'm okay with that.  I personally adopt pacifism, constrained by responsibility to office, but I don't imagine that anyone else would ever want to be a pacifist.
    Which I suppose identifies me as a Christian pacifist existentialist, in that I don't expect anyone to act like a Christian without having first met Christ.
    And indeed, the Christian who adopts the pacifistic sacrificially altruistic ethic usually provokes contempt from other moral perspectives.  It should rightly be perceived as foolishness or a stumbling block by those unacquainted with Jesus.
    I'd rather be offensive in this manner than by advocating an ethic which forces prescribed "right" action on others at no expense to itself.
    Nathanael Snow

  14. Although a bit off topic, I am very curious: how can we determine which sacrificial actions are 'glorifying to god' and which ones aren't?

  15. It is - Required - of every man -
    That the Spirit Within him - should walk Abroad -
    Among his Fellowmen -
    And travel - far and wide -
    And if that Spirit goes not forth - in Life -
    It is Condemned - 
    To do so - after Death -
    It is doomed  - to wander Through the world -
    And mingle with the -
    Good People we meet - so-
    Dry your Tears I say -
    No woman - no cry -
    No woman - no cry -

    -Charles Dickenson, "A Very Marley Chrismas Carol"

  16. In all seriousness, how do we separate any action of a self from the will of the self?  Isn't every action one takes to appeal to a particular desired outcome?  Is actual altruism possible?   

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