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Circles of Moral Sentiments

November 27, 2011

One of the biggest quirks of human behavior is how we treat people of various groups completely differently. We devote our time and resources freely to helping out close friends and family, but mostly ignore strangers. With over 6 billion people on the planet, we mostly have no choice but to ignore most of them. Obviously, we do not have enough resources to take care of everyone the same way we take care of our friends and family, but why is our treatment of some groups so good and some so poor?

Adam Smith’s answer is that we each have circles of Moral Sentiment – we care more about those close to us, such as family and friends than we do about strangers. We care more about people who live in our country than those who live outside it. At every level of society, it is instinctual for humans to break each other up into ingroups and outgroups.

The Dunbar Circle
Robin Dunbar studied primates and discovered that the size of their social group was related to the size of the neocortex: the larger the neocortex, the larger the social group. In humans, this group is limited to around 150 people because of the cognitive limits of the human brain. Interactions within this group are characterized by love and friendship used to motivate action. Resources are shared, favors traded and both slights and kindnesses are remembered. While many people advocate policies which try to get the government to treat people as if everyone is in a Dunbar circle together, this does not work because people do not have the cognitive capacity to deal with it. Love cannot be used because the human mind is not designed to be able to cope with remembering and learning about such a tremendous group of people. You can be generous with your friends, because you can trust them and they have invested in your friendship. However, when confronted by strangers, blind trust is likely to result in being taken advantage of.

The Extended Order
One of the great achievements of human civilization is extending the circle of people we care about beyond the small group of hunter gatherers that nature has limited us to sympathizing with. Through the use of social institutions, people can be made to care about very distant people who they will never meet. In war, an army of 150 would be utterly destroyed by a force of 1,000, which in turn would be massacred by a force of 10,000. With the invention of agriculture, extremely dense communities arose, and with them the need to organize larger groups peacefully. Part of the social peace was an institution of gift giving and provision of basic goods. Even as societies created ways to help their members care about the “in group“, they must be made to hate the outsider to allow for effectiveness in war and competition for resources. Societies as a whole needed to take care of their members enough so that they would be prepared for war, which explains why welfare tends to focus on food and health care and why there are so many paternalistic movements against things that would impede our ability to engage in war – obesity and smoking. Welfare may be a mechanism to help social cohesion as well as a way to ensure that people are ready to fight, if the need should arise.

In order to organize societies as large as modern ones, either violence or self interest must be utilized. The violence can simply be a threat, so long as it is believed. In most modern societies, the violent capacity is hidden away in institutions and shared norms. So long as everyone acts within the rules, the violence never shows itself. Self interest on the other hand is quite clearly visible in modern society. People are almost never expected to work for one another, instead asking for money. Our food, shelter, entertainment and clothing all typically come from people who are motivated by their own self interest. Rather than lament the lack of altruistic motivations of those who provide for us, most economists instead celebrate the avoidance of violence which trade represents. Societies which have attempted to avoid greed in their organization have realized that love is not sufficient, and wind up relying primarily on violence to elicit compliance. The three primary human motivations: love, fear (of violence) and greed are each useful in constructing a well functioning society, but must each be used for the tasks which they excel.

Further Reading
Kling on voluntary associations


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