Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Sacrifice and Opportunity Costs

I am still catching up on questions and comments from the studio audience. Today, I would like to address a pair of comments to a statement that I made in the post called The Bibby Survey: Kindness. There, I wrote:

We would not say that a person who likes eating chocolate ice cream is making some sort of sacrifice when he eats chocolate ice cream. He is doing what he desires to do.

Doug S. wrote in response:

I disagree. The person who eats chocolate ice cream is sacrificing the ability to do something else with the resources (time, money, stomach capacity, etc.) used to eat that ice cream. He sacrifices some desires in order to fulfill others. (An economist would call this the "opportunity cost" of eating chocolate ice cream.)

This is true. However, there is an important difference between ‘opportunity cost’ and ‘sacrifice’. Opportunity costs are bi-directional. The person who gives $1000 to combating malaria in Africa suffers the ‘opportunity cost’ of not being able to spend $1000 on a luxurious long weekend with his wife. At the same time, the person who spends a luxurious long weekend with his wife suffers the ‘opportunity cost’ of not being able to give that $1000 to his favorite cause – fighting malaria in Africa.

Though both actions have an ‘opportunity cost’, it is not the case that we generally call both actions a ‘sacrifice’. It is the concept of ‘sacrifice’ that I was getting to above. The person who truly values fighting malaria in Africa in fact is not ‘sacrificing’ a weekend get-away in order to pursue this interest – not if his fond desire is to fight malaria in Africa, and weekend get-aways are nothing but an expensive waste of money.

The reason we get asymmetry with respect to ‘sacrifice’ that we do not get with ‘opportunity costs’ is primarily because ‘sacrifice’ is a moral concept, and ‘opportunity cost’ is not. The values that we have reason to cause people to pursue we do so in part by heaping praise on those who pursue them, and condemnation on those who do not. The person who makes the ‘noble sacrifice’ is the person who performs an act that we have reason (or think we have reason) to encourage people to do. We use the term as a flag – ‘This act deserves praise’. However, it does not imply that the agent actually cared about the things that he had to give up in order to perform this ‘sacrifice’.

This relates to the rest of Doug S.’s comment:

By the way you seem to be defining "desire" and "sacrifice", no act that a person willingly chooses to perform could ever be considered a sacrifice. Would you say that, say, a firefighter who dies in the line of duty didn't make a sacrifice because he desired the chance to save other lives more than he desired avoiding risk to his own life?

My original claim was intended to point out the fact that, when it comes to eating chocolate ice cream, even though the agent must give up something in order to eat the chocolate ice cream, we (competent English speakers) do not say that this involved some sort of sacrifice. If a person who, instead, gives his money to charity is, like the person who buys a chocolate ice cream, is doing what he wants most, then what sense is to be made of calling the other a sacrifice?

It is not sufficient to hold that we do, in fact, make this distinction. I wish to know the rationale for making it – a description of the difference that actually makes sense.

One rationale that I mentioned above is the moral distinction. We use the term ‘sacrifice’ as a moral flag to identify acts that we have reason (or believe we have reason) to encourage people to make.

However, the psychological distinction between the person who wishes to prevent malaria in Africa more than he wishes to spend a luxurious weekend with his wife is no different than the psychological distinction between the person who wishes to eat chocolate ice cream more than he wishes to eat vanilla ice cream. Any claim that there is a qualitative difference is false.

There are two factors compounding the case of the firefighter mentioned above.

First, the fire-fighter’s actions are those of sacrifice in the moral sense. They are actions that people generally have reason to flag and claim to be worthy of praise. Creating a society with people such as that is a way of securing our own safety and happiness and those of other people we care about – including those that the firefighter cares about.

Second, as Doug mentions the calculation involves risk. According to standard decision theory, the value of an action that involves risk is determined by the possibility of a particular result and the value of the result. A firefighter who risks his life in a situation where there is a 1% chance of death may not be willing to do so if the chance of death is 100%. So, if he gambles and loses, he has, in fact, thwarted the most and strongest of his own desires. We are talking here about a genuine gamble, and a genuine loss.

Both of these justify a use of the word ‘sacrifice’ without refuting the point that I was trying to make in my post. A person who chooses to be a firefighter, and who even chooses to go on a suicide mission (where the chance of death is 100%) is morally, though not psychologically, acting any different than the person who chooses chocolate over vanilla ice cream.

This leads to another comment to the same post that Eneasz made:

I understand how being generous when it is a strong desire of yours that you are fulfilling is self-rewarding, and thus definitionally not a sacrifice. However, money is what our society values above almost anything else. No matter how fulfilling such acts might be, they still feel like a sacrifice to the actor regardless, due to the lost income and corresponding social status.

To the degree that a person values social status over charity then, to that degree, giving up money to fight malaria in Africa would, in fact, feel like a sacrifice, even under the system that I described. This is a person who is facing two strong but mutually conflicting desires. One of them must give way to the other. Since both desires are strong, the desire left unfulfilled (if the agent believes it has gone unfulfilled) can be expected to generate feelings of frustration and regret. That is to say, this will qualify as a sacrifice in the psychological sense.

However, it is still the case that the person who does not value influence (or some other state that is in conflict with contributing to the fight against malaria in Africa will not feel this regret. This is the person who feely chooses charity over other options and would do so regardless of the other options that become available.

We are a culture that teaches people to value social status more than the eradication of disease. For that reason, those who contribute more to the fighting of disease cannot only be said to be making a sacrifice in the moral sense. They are also more likely to also be making a sacrifice in the psychological sense – because we, as a society, make it psychologically difficult for people to pursue those types of ends.

One of the ways of promoting generosity, I would argue, is to point out that the person who learns generosity without these conflicting desires will not suffer any of this anguish over his choices. He can, in fact, choose generosity as freely and with the same immunity from conflict as the person who chooses chocolate ice cream over vanilla. That is a good position to be in.


Anonymous said...

We are a culture that teaches people to value social status more than the eradication of disease.

I don't know how malleable the desire for social status is; I suspect it has a genetic basis, as social status is important to reproductive success. (If many other social animals, as well as humans, have a desire for something, there's a good chance the desire has a significant genetic component.)

Anonymous said...

I tend to agree with Doug on this. It seems every (almost every?) social species come with a genetic disposition to seek higher social status. At least, from a layman's perspective. I could be quite wrong. However, it may not be possible to remove this desire for social status. Perhaps a better approach would be to tie social status less to things like wealth, and more to things like generosity.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Doug S., Eneasz

I would argue that the practice of praising and rewarding in morality depends on these types of relationships. Praising and rewarding links the types of behavior that one wants to encourage to something that the agent has a natural desire for. At first, the agent sees the object as something to pursue as a means to obtaining (or, in the case of condemnation and punishment, avoiding) something else that the person desires. That desire can well be a genetic (natural) desire.

However, the agent (well, most agents) come to value that object for its own sake, pursuing it even when the end that it was once linked to is no longer available.

Thus, a child learns not to lie at first as a way of avoiding punishment. Yet, comes to dislike lying even when parental punishment will not result (like, when he gets older).

By tying charity to social status - by giving praise to those who are charitable - one begins by pursuing charity as a way of obtaining praise. Yet, eventually, one becomes a person who is charitable even when one cannot expect praise.