Michael McCullough on the Kindness of Strangers

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0:33

Intro. [Recording date: January 7, 2021.]

Russ Roberts: Today is January 7th, 2021 and my guest is author and psychologist, Michael McCullough of the University of California San Diego. His latest book, and the subject of today’s conversation is The Kindness of Strangers: How a Selfish Ape Invented a New Moral Code. Michael, welcome to EconTalk.

Michael McCullough: Thanks for having me, Russ. I’ve really been looking forward to this for a while. So, thanks for having me.

0:54

Russ Roberts: So, the fundamental question of this book is: Why do we help strangers? Why do we care about the poor when they’re not related to us? And, your book starts with an exploration of the evolutionary possibilities for that phenomenon. The fact that your subtitle says How a Selfish Ape Invented a New Moral Code suggests that that approach is not going to be entirely successful. But, why don’t you start by talking about the evidence that there might be a genetic basis for our–an evolutionary natural selection basis–for our compassion.

Michael McCullough: Sure. Well, one of the things that bothered even Darwin was how it is that we came to take an interest in other organisms–period. It seemed to him from the outset a loser in the eyes of natural selection for you to pay costs in order to benefit other creatures.

So, this remained a puzzle. Not a mystery so much as something that people threw up their hands and said, ‘Well, we’ll never figure this out.’ But a puzzle to be solved.

And, it ultimately got solved–definitively–in the 1960s. Although the hints were there through evolutionary biology through most of the 20th century.

But, it came down to a couple of theorists to show how a gene that creates a benefit in another and that produces a benefit for an individual at a cost to the benefactor could actually become more frequent, become more common in the gene pool due to the action of natural selection.

And, one way, obviously, you can do that is by taking in an interest in the welfare of your relatives who happen to have the odds of sharing that gene in their bodies as well. So, when that gene causes you to raise their welfare, you’re plausibly increasing their genetic welfare as well.

Another way we do it is through friendship or through reciprocity. If I provide a benefit–if I sell high and buy low, then we can get, essentially get the gains of trade. I help you today at a relatively cheap cost to me, you get a big benefit; and the next time then the shoe is on the other foot, you provide a benefit to me that’s sort of cheap to you to provide but really beneficial to me–and natural selection will favor a psychology that promotes that kind of reciprocity over time.

Russ Roberts: The interesting part about those genetic explanations–and I think–I don’t see this discussed very much, and you may not have anything you want to say about it. But, it’s easy to say a gene that favors your relatives over strangers.

But, you have to really provide a mechanism for how that could be genetically driven. In other words, it’s pretty clear that, in the animal kingdom for sure and I’m sure in the human species as well, a mother can recognize its child, in all kinds of complicated ways, in ways that we can as humans–I forget the name of it, but the movie about penguins. The animated film about penguins. Mom knows that–it all saved us–but the mom knows which one is hers; and vice versa the child can find its mom. The offspring can find its mom.

But, it seems to me that the idea that, ‘Oh, a gene that only looks at close relatives.’ Well, that might be hard for a gene to actually achieve. You can always tell a just-so story. ‘Well, but if a gene could do it, it’d be good.’ Yeah, I agree. Or a gene that said ‘Help lots of people,’ which doesn’t work so well. That’s not so good. A gene be generous, give away lots of stuff. Again, whether a gene could do that or not.

But, I think the tricky part of this is to say a gene that urges you to feel good about helping other people when they’re close relatives isn’t so straightforward. Do you see my point?

Michael McCullough: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: I never see this discussed. It’s always just, like, there’s a lot of hand-waving like ‘Oh, yeah.’

Michael McCullough: Sure.

Russ Roberts: And, it turns out genes are really complicated. Like, there isn’t a gene even for things like height, or things that we think of as pure genetics. There’s multiple genes as interactions. So, this idea that we’d have this subtle gene that would say, ‘Oh, he’s a third cousin. I won’t deal with that one.’ I don’t know. It just seems like a bit of a–a little too simple.

Michael McCullough: Sure. And I get where you’re coming from. I mean there’s a–you bring up a couple of really interesting issues. I mean, and they’re really rich issues.

One is the question of whether there are genes for things. I mean, we can all agree, I think, that genes exert causal effects on how our bodies and minds turn out. You know–that doesn’t necessarily, you know, entail the conclusion that it’s a gene for that. But, we do end up, I think, inevitably playing kind of needing to play a trick on ourselves. And, if we’re going to talk about natural selection, we almost inevitably end up talking in this language of, you know, agency because genes are being selected for effects that promote the inclusive fitness of their bearers.

So, you could do that. You could kind of trot out a linguistically perfect explanation that doesn’t involve this concept of agency. But it’s hard. It’s a mouthful.

So, we end up kind of doing this, you know, hand-waving, ‘Well, this is a gene for that,’ because we believe it evolved, because of those effects.

So that’s one really–I mean I think that’s a really rich point you make.

But you also make this point about how is a gene going to know? And, you know, back to a genetic language that it’s supposed to be helping relatives.

And I actually the evidence that organisms end up being kind of picky about who they provide benefits to–I think the evidence is good for that. Actually, even in humans. I think there’s plenty of psychological and physiological reasons to think we do have the capacity to be picky and we evolved the capacity to be picky.

7:34

Russ Roberts: Yeah. It’s very possible.

I just feel like there’s a certain academic bent of that evolutionary psychology literature. It’s like, ‘Let’s see how far we can push this.’

There just seems to me to be a simpler explanation, which really that I think the way I understand your book, which is: we’re basically self-interested. There is some non-self-interest certainly for our relatives and friends, and excuse me, our close relatives–it’s biologically driven.

But, a lot of what drives us to be generous with our resources to strangers is cultural. It’s something that we have passed on to our children, accepted from our parents, those around us, our friends. I think without that, it’s hard to explain a lot of the details in the real world. But, what are your thoughts?

Michael McCullough: Oh, I completely agree with you.

I think that the answer to why we’re kind to strangers, why we take an interest in their well-being, is largely because of a kind of cultural ratchet that’s been working over many, many millennia actually.

But, that is interacting–these twists and turns of history are interacting with an evolved psychology that performs cognitive jobs for us.

I mean, you can think of the sort of the–I mean, ultimately I think a satisfying answer to any question about human behavior is going to have to invoke genetics, obviously. Well, maybe that’s not so obvious to everyone. Invoke culture, obviously.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. We’re not robots, instinctually driven, in every aspect of our life.

Michael McCullough: Right. Right.

So, the cultural influences are enormous. But you do need a mind that’s receptive to culture. You do need a mind that’s receptive to conversation. That’s–because not all minds in the world can do that. Human minds can do it, but, you know, there are people who might disagree with me a little bit. But, you’re not going to find a dog mind that’s well tuned for cultural learning–

Russ Roberts: transmission, yeah. Agreed.

9:57

Russ Roberts: So, let’s move to what I think is the tricky part of this, which, I’m not sure is in the book–which is, I think the economist’s way of writing about this is we’re–which is totally sterile by the way. So, I’m not going to defend it exactly the way I’m going to say it.

But, the economist’s view is, ‘Well, we do things because they make us feel good.’ And I think that rather banal and hard-to-argue-with argument hides a lot of what is actually going on.

So, let’s take the Golden Rule, which you spend a lot of time on–do unto others as you would have done to yourself. It’s also the silver rule which you didn’t mention, but it’s the flip side, ‘Don’t do to other people what you wouldn’t want done to you.’

Ans rhese ethical mottoes, why do we follow them in your view?

You talk about them as if it’s they’re very important. They became very important during the Western Civilization and in Eastern Civilization and elsewhere. Other religious precepts came into people’s minds. Why do you think they’re important?

Michael McCullough: Well, I think the reason they became important, I think, is a really interesting story.

And then we can talk about why they are sort of still important, why they have causal power now.

I mean, the reason they became important is because in the last few centuries, before the Common Era, a variety of world religions popping up in the Indus River Valley, the Yellow River Valley in China, ancient Israel, classical Greece–all discovered, assembled–a new kind of religion and spirituality that was more cosmopolitan, less tribal, more universalizing, more devoted to putting our moral preferences into law, codifying our ethical intuitions or hard-won ethical experiences.

And, in the midst of that, all of these traditions discovered, arrived at the idea that the way to be right with God was–or to achieve enlightenment or satisfaction, you know, spiritual well-being was through concern for everybody.

And, Karen Armstrong, the writer–she writes a lot about religion–her way of describing this kind of ethical discovery is that somehow–for spiritual fulfillment and all of these traditions–somehow you have to stretch your compassion so that it can embrace the entire world.

So, this was deeply yoked to spirituality; to sort of the formalizing of ethical thought in a way that people hoped would be generalizable at least over the–it’s not over the entire universe of human beings. At least the people in your civilization or your society.

So, that’s how it came about originally. I mean, all of these details are lost to time obviously. But these are special, these are exceptional changes in how people thought about compassion, and it was really yoked to spirituality in a deep way.

13:38

Russ Roberts: So, the question I want to probe for a little bit–which is tricky–is to think about how self-interested and how altruistic that is.

Because, you can easily say, and this is, again, the way economists think. I think it’s wrong. But, the way economists would describe it is, ‘Okay, well nothing’s really changed here. This is just self-interest rewritten. Because, I want to go to heaven or I want to be right with God.’ The way you phrased, which I like. So, I do these things. I don’t like them in and of themselves, but overall it’s worth it, because I want to get this other benefit. It’s an investment.

It’s no different than putting away a few seeds for the winter to grow food next summer.

And, I think that’s wrong, but I want you to react to that. Because that’s not–I would not call that compassionate. I would call that selfish, actually. And, I think it misses something, which I’ll get to. But I want to hear you first talk about it. What’s your reaction to that?

Michael McCullough: I think a lot of the justification for the acceptance–at least honoring it in the breach–this endorsement of the Golden Rule does have a really self-interested basis in history.

The idea that this is–can I say, ‘This is what’s going to get you into heaven,’ or, ‘This is what God expects,’ or ‘This is–We discovered the secret about the fulfilled life.’ And it involves care for other people. I think that really is, deeply, embedded in how people took up the Golden Rule. I mean, I think that’s how people largely arrived at making it sensible–was in some way they saw it as a key to doing better, being better, being better off, even in these spiritual terms.

But, I do think, ultimately, it got some of its teeth from a–similarly, I think it is a self-interested motivation, but it’s an interestingly different self-interested motivation, which is the desire to be consistent with one’s principles. And that’s a different kind of thing–

Russ Roberts: It’s very different–

Michael McCullough: You know, you can be interested in one’s own well-being, in principle. One could be deeply interested in a stranger’s well-being.

But, you could help other people or have a conviction to help other people that’s not driven by self-interest per se, and it’s not driven by other interests, but instead it’s driven by an interest in being consistent or faithful to a set of principles.

And I think that’s a really under-appreciated moral motivation. It might be quite rare. It might be something that’s hard to study in the laboratory. In fact, we’ve tried on a couple of occasions to study the Golden Rule and it’s hard, to study in the laboratory.

But, I think I want to help hold out the possibility that some of the time we take actions in the world, you know, not because it feels good or because, you know, we think there are going to be all these extrinsic rewards or because we deeply care about others–although I think probably sometimes we do. But, instead simply because we want to try to be faithful to some ideal that’s important to us.

17:10

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I think–the way I would describe it is we have a sense of self, an identity of who we are–that we want to live up to. And when we violate that, it feels bad.

But, I think this issue of the intrinsic value or the principles of it, I think it’s a little trickier because we don’t always start that way. And I think–as a–I’m somebody, I came to religion later in my life; and I don’t like going to the hospital. I find it scary–like many people, I think. And when I first got, became a religious Jew, I learned that one of the obligations is to visit the sick. And, I thought, ‘Well, I don’t like that obligation.’ ‘Maybe I’ll skip that.’

But I decided I couldn’t; and I have visited many people in the hospital who I didn’t want to go visit. But, that experience changed over time.

Now, you could argue, ‘Oh, yeah, well, you started to enjoy it because you thought God wanted you to.’ Or, ‘you were supposed to get right with God.’ But, something else happened, which is, for me, and I think this is somewhat universal among these kind of phenomena–I actually start to enjoy it.

Now, I can’t really–I’m not the right judge of why I enjoy it. I’ve got a self-narrative. I’ve got my sense of self, we just talked about. And I’m just telling the story. It makes you feel kind of silly. It’s like, ‘Oh, this is what he’s been bragging about: he likes seeing people in the hospital,’ which is all part of this as well, right: the way I see other people seeing me, which is another part of my self-identity.

Michael McCullough: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: But, my point is that I think I gave an example of someone coming to religion later–children, coming back to our nature/nurture discussion, it comes so naturally to them to share their candy. And I think the acculturation of parenting, religion, values, ethics, humanism, whatever you want to use in your family, you try to teach your children often–not just to do it, but to enjoy doing it. Ultimately, which it doesn’t start that way.

Michael McCullough: Well, that’s right. I mean, there’s an interesting–the trajectory of moral development and the internalization of principles is super-interesting. Young children don’t have the capacity to internalize principles at a really deep level, but as we age we can–let’s say by the time we’re sort of to middle childhood–we can begin to understand justifications for why. We can give accounts for why certain things are good and bad.

Much earlier than that, you can teach children that certain things are good and certain things are bad, and they’ll get rewards, praise, blame. Praise if they do them, blame if they don’t. Disapproval if they don’t. But, the internalization of principles comes later.

And, I think one of the things that lots and lots of people have talked about, the power of norms as regulators, sort of autonomous regulators of human beings is really important. Often what happens–we think–is that norms have a kind of self-government to them. Or they enable a kind of self-government.

What we can do is represent ideals and evaluate whether we’re getting better at approaching those ideals or whether we’re steering away from them. And, this allows us to regulate our behavior in ways that I don’t think any other animal can do.

So, part of that is you have an ideal. It doesn’t feel great, but you either by bearing down and pushing through and trying to be faithful to that, we get tougher. There’s a toughening process, so it becomes easier. It’s just like lifting weights or something like that. But, as well, things become habits and we can put them on autopilot.

So, the interesting thing about norms or a desire to be faithful to a principle is you do things out of effort, out of a hope that someday it will become easier or simply you’ll just think it’s the right thing to do, but they do become easier. And, then at some point you ask people, like ‘Well, why do visit people in the hospital?’ And, you’re just like, ‘I don’t know. That’s what I do on Saturday afternoons. That’s my thing now.’ Some people might go do drama or play bridge. Why? ‘It’s fun. It’s the thing I do on Saturday afternoons.’

22:27

Russ Roberts: The problem with that, of course, is that I could go out and go to a crowded area and do some pick-pocketing, which would be both natural–to take money from strangers–and rewarding. We have lots of stuff I can enjoy after I’ve taken the money. And yet, you don’t think that’s a good idea if I asked you. My parents would be horrified. My children would be ashamed.

For me the question is why is it that in the–and you write about this in many different angles–as religion has receded as the source of the motivation for some of this ethical behavior replaced by Kantian ethics, which, I suspect most people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the categorical imperative. We don’t need to go into it, but nobody literally says, ‘I wasn’t sure what to do. I picked up Immanuel Kant and I saw I shouldn’t pickpocket.’

So, the challenge, then, is in the absence of this–religion doesn’t leave behind a genetic footprint to continue to inspire people after they don’t believe in it anymore. People who don’t believe in religion, which is a relatively large group of people, many of them are still ethical, just like there are religious people who aren’t ethical. But, many irreligious, a-religious, atheistic, agnostic folks don’t think it’s a good idea to be a pickpocket. Why? That’s the challenge. Like, aren’t they suckers? We say, ‘Well, they get admiration.’ Why don’t we look down on them and say, ‘What a fool? He could have had that money and he just missed his chance.’

Michael McCullough: Well, I think through history, we have arrived at certain principles. Some of them have been just–I like to call them ethical discoveries. I know a lot of people don’t like that idea. But, we discover a principle, we discover the Golden Rule. This would be a good thing to do. God wants it; the Lord wants it. It’s good for you. And, we begin to, I think, build institutions designed to make fulfilling those principles easier.

Humanitarianism would be a more modern example. What’s humanitarianism? It’s this idea that we try to help solely on the basis of need and nothing else. It’s a universalizing sort of instinct or inclination. You find need. You try to meet it. It doesn’t matter if the person is voted for another president than you did, and so on.

What’s the justification for that? Well, you asked historians and you asked Michael Barnett who has done a great history of humanitarianism, and he can tell you the entire natural history of that idea. People don’t care about the natural history of that idea. They get–what they find is through the actions of their parents, the moral instruction of their parents, exposure to inspiring stories, narratives of other people.

They hear justifications, sometimes, for these imperatives. Sometimes they don’t. They just hear it’s right or it’s wrong. But they internalize the norm; and then the behavior can become unmoored from its justification–from its ethical or religious justification. You could ask people to reconstruct, like, ‘Why do you believe anything is right or wrong?’ And, most people will have a hard time explaining the justification.

One of the things I actually do a lot with my students is I ask them–I think this is true–most college students are pro-choice, now, on college campuses. I could be wrong about that.

Russ Roberts: I think that’s true.

Michael McCullough: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: Let’s assume it is.

Michael McCullough: Yeah. So, I like to ask them, ‘Can you explain to me what the argument in Roe v. Wade that prevailed was? That provided a justification for the outcome of Roe v. Wade?’ And none of them can. I couldn’t have either if I hadn’t bothered to go study it myself. It was an argument about privacy.

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

Michael McCullough: It was–

Russ Roberts: Strange, constitutionally.

Michael McCullough: It was grounded in this idea that we have a right to protection against illegal search and seizure. And, that’s what it got moored to. I mean, if your house is private, that, no matter what’s going on inside of it, your body must be private as well.

I mean, it’s a very interesting argument, but there’s nobody who can explain that to you. They just get the idea–they develop a conviction that it’s wrong for other reasons.

And that’s perfectly–it’s fine that the mind works that way. It does work that way so we have to kind of accept it. People aren’t walking around as sort of–as you say, they’re not walking around checking out their Kant.

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

Michael McCullough: Right, right. So, we get these ideas. They come from certain places. They are reinforced. And, also supported by institutions.

So, ultimately we’re left with habit and we’re left with the support or the encouragement or discouragement of behaviors by institutions. And I think that’s where most of us are operating most of the time.

28:24

Russ Roberts: So, defenders of religion would argue, and I’m not going to push this even though I’m religious. I’m not convinced by it. But, defenders of religion would argue that those norms and institutions that evolve in the aftermath are unreliable and may not persist. They can switch. They can change.

Another way to think about this, is: I want to live in a world where people are generous to other people who are in need and under stress; but most of us would rather let other people do the heavy lifting.

Michael McCullough: Right.

Russ Roberts: And so: Does anyone rise above their natural instinct? And so, let’s turn to Adam Smith who you talk about in the book and we’ve talked about a lot of the program.

Smith’s answer was very different. Smith’s answer was: I’m not very empathetic. It’s very limited. I think he calls it a weak reed, or compassion is a weak reed for explaining why people are so generous, for others–

Michael McCullough: I like that–

Russ Roberts: to lean on because it’s going to bend. And, instead says, ‘We care about what other people think of us. We care about our reputation. We care what an impartial spectator would say judging us.’

And, you could argue that the reason parents ultimately encourage their children to be less selfish than they might naturally be is so that they’ll get along well in civilized society, and will be thought well of. Again, it’s a different roundabout way of saying it’s self-interested to be generous. What are your thoughts on that as a summary of Smith?

Michael McCullough: I think it’s great. Conscience for him was absolutely the governor of moral behavior. But, it gets built on, I think–he didn’t know any evolutionary biology because it didn’t exist–but, he certainly believed there was a–as Hume did; I mean, Smith was probably cribbing off of Hume on this point–that we have an endowment, a cognitive psychological endowment that does enable us to imagine the suffering and simulate the suffering of other people. It probably was something that was sort of reserved for the near and the dear, the friends and kith and kin.

But, it’s good cognitive science. I mean, what they’re saying is: You know what it’s like to feel pain. It stinks. You know what it’s like to be sad, miserable, and so forth.

So, when you witness somebody going through something, you make a statement to yourself in some way, like, ‘This person seems to be crying.’ And then you reconstruct: What could be causing their crying? Well, maybe it’s, ‘I know the person’s wife died two weeks ago.’

So, then what you do is you convert this idea into what Hume called an impression. It changes from just sort of a representation to a feeling. And, then you say: This is how I’m feeling or imagine I would feel. So, this must be how that other person is feeling. So, that’s compassion according to Hume and Smith.

So, I think we have these twin inheritances, certainly in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, where we have the impartial spectator. We have conscience–which gives us this ability to actively self-regulate. And, then we have compassion which is sort of less controllable.

And, sort of embedded in their notions of right and wrong or what’s right and wrong depends on what’s good and bad for you and for other people.

So, it seems to me, in TMS–in the Theory of Moral Sentiments–Smith is trying to bring several of these pieces together. Principle-based, self-government, if you like. And, also an endowment, a natural endowment for compassion and sympathy.

Russ Roberts: So, I think that’s half-right–not your view of it, but just the beginning of the story–because I think it’s missing an important piece, which is this: So, I see you crying. I won’t pick you. I see someone crying and I know that their wife had been ill.

A good part of my life, and this is nothing to be proud of, but I just want to be away from that person. I don’t want to be around him. I feel that pain. I don’t like it. And Paul Bloom talks about this in his book on empathy. We talked about it in the program. Listeners should go back and listen to that conversation.

But, I don’t like that feeling. It doesn’t make me want to help you. It makes me want to run away from you. I want to think about something else. If I see you on the corner, I’m going to avoid you, if I’m a normal person–not a bad person.

So, I think you need the next piece. And, I think Smith’s explanation is this–I don’t know Hume–but Smith’s explanation to this is part of the story. I don’t think it’s the whole story. The next piece is: Why do I feel good alleviating your unhappiness? Because that’s not necessarily–that’s not a natural response.

My natural response is to avoid you.

So, to get pleasure, or satisfaction of a somewhat religious kind, or spiritual kind, or whatever you want to call it. And, for me, religion helped me with this a little bit, but meditating also helped me–becoming, having a meditation practice. And I can’t explain it, by the way. I don’t–it’s not like I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if I were a nicer person?’ But, I think it’s made me a nicer person. It’s made me more aware of other people and given me more satisfaction from alleviating their struggles or empathizing with them and getting just pleasure from that because I think people–and Smith talks about this–they get benefit from other people just bearing some of their ordeal even if it doesn’t literally eliminate it, that it’s shared. Smith talks about it.

So, in Smith’s view–I don’t do it because it feels good. I don’t do the–I don’t visit you on the corner and say, ‘Are you okay?’ because it feels good. I do that because I think that’s what I’m supposed to do in the circles that I swim in and that gives me a good self-image knowing that other people think of me that way. And it does create a habituation.

But, the habituation requires some kind of pleasure, reward, something. And that part is, I think, mysterious.

And I would phrase it this way: Would you want to be a better person than you are now? Would you like to kind of be the mix of self-interested and compassionate?

And I think–it’s not obvious that you’d want to be a better person. But the way you and I would define better Kantian, Biblical, whatever ethical system we were referring to: Why would I want to do that? Wouldn’t it be better to be a selfish–wouldn’t I be–in other words, don’t I want to live in a world without a conscience? Isn’t that going to be a lot more fun?

Michael McCullough: Yeah. So: Is Smith’s answer that we’re sensitive to praise and approbation–

Russ Roberts: Approbation.

Michael McCullough: Okay.

Russ Roberts: Disapproval, yeah. Approbation and opprobium.

Michael McCullough: Yeah. Okay, okay. So, that’s great. So, that’s his–kind of how he solved it, is we’re deeply social and–

Russ Roberts: Yeah. He says we’re hardwired. He talks about the author of nature and he says, meaning God, is in us. He didn’t know genetics, but he was basically saying it’s hardwired in our selves, that we care about what other people think of us.

And, that suggests that if we can get away with something, we will. But, he’s saying that pain when you go, ‘Oh, you didn’t go visit him when his wife died?’ I go, ‘Oh, gosh. I’m a horrible person.’ Why wouldn’t I say–I could say to myself, ‘Yeah, I didn’t. I got to play football. I got to watch football. You sucker, you went and visited his wife when his wife was dying. What were you thinking?’

But, we don’t feel that way. And, we have–we have inherited not genetically, but culturally, a view that that’s just not done.

Michael McCullough: Yeah. So, how much–I don’t remember–I don’t remember Smith spending a lot of time anywhere sort of–I mean, he had one project which was the psychology. Does he talk anywhere about how our, sort of the residue of culture ends up producing people who disapprove of your selfishness and approve of your kindness? Does he talk about where those ideas came from in Western–

Russ Roberts: Yeah. And no, and, the reason it’s important is that–you know, in his circles, maybe that’s what generated approval and disapproval. But you and I can imagine other circles where those are silly, those are foolish. He was talking about his circle of friends in Scotland who’s an armchair theorizer, mostly. And, what we would call civilized men and women–gentlemen, gentlewomen, whatever. In his day, it was gentlemen. They didn’t talk too much about women.

But we’re talking about people who respect or disapprove of our behavior. And we choose–I would argue that the ultimate ethical choice we make in many ways is who we choose to be in our circle, because we’re choosing the implicit judges of our behavior and that determines what I aspire to. Right? If I have friends who are rowdy thugs, I become a rowdy thug because that’s what they respect. And, if I have friends who are kind and thoughtful and giving, I tend to be more like that.

Michael McCullough: Yeah. This is why as parents we worry about who our kids hang out with.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, exactly. [More to come, 38:52]



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