The cynic’s guide to conspicuous compassion

Andrew Norton has always been cynical about public displays of compassion. He can’t bring himself to accept that the ‘luvvies‘ and ‘worthies‘ are motivated by empathic concern or moral principle. Like many classical liberals he’s convinced it must be some kind of self-interested behavior.

But in a recent post to Catallaxy Norton softens his views on conspicuous compassion. On balance he decides that it’s probably a good thing:

for those of us who would prefer less state and more voluntary action a norm in favor of charity is pretty essential. We are not all saints who will give generously without being asked; we need a bit of social pressure. Perhaps then some of this status-seeking can be a positive thing, a by-product of trying to look good in the eyes of our peers is that we help others.

Norton is onto something, but I don’t think he has it quite right yet. On the one hand he ridicules ‘worthies letters’ where high status individuals publicize their moral views. On the other he praises self-interested philanthropy. Clearly it’s not self-seeking behavior that worries him.

The classical liberal ideal is a society with a small state and a large philanthropic sector. One way this might come about is through a kind of conspicuous consumption. By donating large amounts of money, wealthy individuals are able to signal their economic prowess. Like a peacock’s tail, philanthropy is a liability only the economically fit are able to afford. Individuals are able to signal their ability to make money in the market by creating charitable foundations and making large donations.

Norton’s complaints about luvvies seem to be about something different. Conspicuous charitable giving can be a forceful display of economic superiority. Signing a petition, attending a protest march, or performing at an anti-war rally cost too little to be signals of prowess. If we assume that these behaviors are also self-interested then what benefit to they provide? And how might they be harmful to freedom and economic growth?

Patrick West, the author of Conspicuous Compassion, thinks that it has something to do with neurotransmitters:

Why do we so desperately want to show we care? It is a symptom of what the psychologist Oliver James has dubbed our “low serotonin” society. Despite being healthier, richer and better-off than in living memory, we in the West are more depressed than ever. Institutions such as the church, marriage and the family have withered in the postwar era. Raised in fragmented family units, more of us live by ourselves. Ostentatious caring permits the lonely nation to forge new social bonds. As James concludes: “A common impulse behind wanting to give love unconditionally to non-intimates is the desire to receive it.”

Philip K Dick might have agreed (think of Mercerism) but Norton isn’t so sure. An alternative explanation depends on the distinction between ‘status’ and ‘prestige. Joseph Henrich and Francisco J Gil-White argue that while status is about dominance and power, prestige is about influence (pdf). Prestigious individuals have knowledge and skills which others are keen to acquire themselves. An individual who is allowed into the prestigious person’s social orbit has an opportunity to benefit. They may be able to learn new skills, acquire access to social networks, and pick up insider knowledge.

The desire to get close to an individual with superior knowledge and skills, according to Henrich and Gil-White, leads to deference. Others "believe that [prestigious people] have earned the right, if not to be obeyed, at least to have their opinions and desires considered more closely than those of ordinary people." This deference to opinions can extend well beyond the individual’s area of expertise. For example, an actor may be encouraged to speak publicly about politics.

One example of prestige in action is the post-graduate student / supervisor relationship. Prestigious supervisors are keenly sought after and are forced to limit the number of students they take on and the amount of time they spend with them. One way to do this is to prefer students who share their own tastes, interests, and values. Students defer to their supervisor’s views more than they would defer to a less prestigious person’s views. The editors of newspapers and journals can exert similar influence as can think tank founders and successful politicians.

This process can produce a cascade of moral emulation as lower prestige individuals attach themselves to those with higher levels of prestige. In this system not all of the emulators will be sincere. Some will feel pressured to publicly display views they do not agree with.

In an open society like Australia’s there is no reason for economic prowess and social prestige to always coincide. A constant battle for think tank intellectuals like Norton is the influence of the ‘chattering classes,’ ‘elites,’ or ‘latte left.’ These people are influential but not necessarily economically or politically powerful. Think tanks like the Centre for Independent Studies offer people with economic power an opportunity to translate this into influence over opinions. If universities won’t foster the views they support then they business people can create alternative sources of intellectual influence.

Those who want to enter public life as intellectuals or experts need to find an institution or individual to mentor them. Dumping on the values of potential mentors is bad policy. But in the process of getting ahead many young academics, journalists, and think tank researchers are forced to deny their own views and beliefs. Only a lucky few will find institutions which embody their own values perfectly. Hostility to this kind of conformity may show up in unexpected ways. I can’t help wondering what pressures Norton might have felt.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
17 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2021 years ago

Philanthropy seems to have worked for Ray Williams’ self interest.

http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,5744,11704122%5E2702,00.html

News reports about his guilty plea last night suggest that his work for charity will be looked on kindly by the Court in sentencing.

As to the argument about intellectuals, values and mentors, I agree up to a point. Truly has it been said that academia is the last feudal vocation. But I wonder to what degree the assimilation of the values of an institution, mentor or supervisor merely reflects a process of socialisation into a particular occupational role or intellectual identity. I also doubt how pervasive it is. I’m not sure that good supervisors necessarily reject students who challenge their views. That’s not been my experience, anyway – I certainly respect my Doctoral supervisors but am unafraid of signalling intellectual disagreement with their positions.

One also needs to look at the degree to which we all have to moderate our views in all sorts of different contexts in everyday life. Those who do are not necessarily being untrue to their values. Those that don’t are often exceptionally irritating.

I disagree with Andrew Norton on a lot of issues, but I respect his opinion and his ability to argue it. I’m not sure, Don, that he’s been more subject to pressure than anyone else. But maybe you’re not saying that. It might just be a bit late at night but I found it a bit hard to follow the logic of your argument completely.

Always good to see a Phildickian reference, though.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2021 years ago

The other question worth posing to Andrew is the degree to which social norms do still encourage philanthropy. I have no doubt that at elite income levels, philanthropy and prestige are related, but I wonder how far the income scale philanthropy goes.

The other big question – one debated over at Catallaxy on another thread I think – is the distributional effects of private philanthropy versus collective provision organised by the state. Aside from the big issue of buying cruddy singles to fight starvation in the Sudan (not to mention the lack of resolution of the underlying political issues that isn’t at all helped by these actions – if anything it gets the pollies off the hook) while people are suffering in this country, there’s a range of other problems with the allocation of the money even if one ignores the rights/citizenship arguments. Jason Soon had a very strong argument against Rafe Champion’s position on private philanthropy as I recall.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
2021 years ago

Don, Mark – I am happy to concede that I don’t have a fully worked out theory of status/prestige and when its use is appropriate. Not being an egalitarian makes things tricky; I have no objections to inequality as such, but I do think there should be norms (and sometimes laws) surrounding the powerful and influential and the way others respond to them. Inevitably these will be context-specific, but I need to think more about the links between them.

Like Mark I don’t entirely follow the latter part of the post. I think Don has a fair enough description of why certain issues become fashionable – this is not to say that people are insincere, just that a social process influences which issues becomes prominent.

But I am not sure about the ‘pressures’ the CIS puts on me. The very post that prompted Don’s comments was me saying I was not convinced by a book the CIS published this week. Nobody there has said anything about my failure to follow the corporate line. I don’t agree with everything the CIS publishes and nobody would expect me to do so. But I agree with enough of it to be happy to work there and to be an enthusiastic supporter.

If suddenly I decided that big government was a good idea then the CIS would presumably sack me -and I would resign if they suddenly decided big government was a good idea. But I don’t require ‘pressure’ to think the way I do – I hate to tell you this, but I am actually sincere in my beliefs.

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
2021 years ago

Let me see if I can get your argument right, Don.

1. Andrew Norton questions the motivations of some people who make very loud noises about their good deeds. This is naughty and bad.

2. You question Andew Norton’s motives. This is good and proper.

Maybe we’re all singing from the same sheet here.

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
2021 years ago

Additionally,

“I hate to tell you this, but I am actually sincere in my beliefs”.

Andrew, you should be proud of your beliefs. It can be hard to repeat them in company, unsure that you’ll get the cold shoulder, but give it a go. I once sat down for beers with Bob Ellis and told him to his face I was a student liberal. After he’d abused me some, and I’d abused him some, we had a good chat about writing.

Don
Don
2021 years ago

Andrew,

Here’s a question – could you have been sincere and outspoken about your beliefs AND pursued an academic career in Australia?

I guess I’m curious about whether you might have ended up as an humanities or social science academic had the political climate in Australians universities been different.

Jacques,

I think we ARE singing on the same sheet. I was interested in what Andrew said in his post on Catallaxy. I thought he’d got the classical liberal position right – to be consistent liberals should support conspicuous philanthropy.

But I also saw his point about conspicuous displays of moral outrage. These are clearly different. I wondered how you might combine construct an explanation which acknowledged the value of the first kind of conspicuous compassion but not the second.

And yes… I think there are social contexts where it’s hard to be openly right wing. This is where the social pressure comes in.

Don
Don
2021 years ago

Mark,

Thinking back to 1996 and the Hanson saga I wonder whether there were quite a few people in public life who were never very convinced about multiculturalism.

They spent years biting their tongues. They kept their beliefs private and didn’t challenge what they saw as the respectable view.

I think the backlash was so severe because there had been a lot more silencing of dissent than persuasive conversation. When people finally did speak up they were angry. They felt they’d been oppressed.

I think the right’s idea of the ‘elites’ isn’t entirely fanciful. Just because a group of people doesn’t have economic or direct political power doesn’t mean they don’t have other kinds of influence.

Politicians and business leaders are rarely able to shame others. They don’t wield a lot of moral capital. The churches have lost a lot of theirs and moral leadership is now openly contested.

What bothers free market advocates is the influence of individuals and groups who are openly opposed to capitalism and identify big government with moral goodness.

They need a way to turn financial capital into moral capital. They need to make sure that the views they favor are kept in play as legitimate opinions and not caught in a spiral of silence where they become seen as morally deivant.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2021 years ago

Don, yeah, I kinda know what you mean. I’ve worked in Ipswich (home of Pauline Hanson – or at least the city around which the Federal seat she held for one term – Oxley – was based). It’s an old coal mining town. And an old railway town. Beautiful houses – if you still want to snap up a gorgeous renovated Qlder on the railway line to Brissie for less than $200k, go there. The heart got stripped out of the place by Mr Goss – the State (in the guise of the soon to be corporatised Queensland Rail) was one of the biggest employers. Fortunately, Mr Beattie has learnt from Mr Goss’ mistakes, and Ipswich is now going ahead, and back to returning Labor MPs – but for a while at state and federal level it was the One Nation stronghold. A mate of mine, whose dad was the Labor MP who lost his seat to Pauline, had a bbq shortly after the 96 election. I remember well what he said to a member of the ALP from the local area – a motor mechanic if I recall rightly (it was 8 years ago) – who was decrying “political correctness” – Les Scott said “well, mate, that’s just being polite and calling people what they’d like to be called – a bit like the golden rule, really”. That struck me then, and it’s stayed with me. If only PJK had been able to communicate the same message so well and so simply. He should have been able to – he grew up in a not dissimilar area. But ironically, he’s a classic case of social mobility into (an) elite and that’s probably why he couldn’t or rather wouldn’t. Here endeth the lesson!

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
2021 years ago

Don – I don’t think I would have been as outspoken within academia, not necessarily because of direct pressure but out of simple prudence – appointments are made by committee, and you don’t want to risk offending too many people. This doesn’t mean I would not have been sincere about the things that I did say. Rather, I would have chosen topics and angles that were less likely to get me into trouble.

Don
Don
2021 years ago

Andrew,

I guess the ‘simple prudence’ you’re talking about is one kind of pressure.

Another might be the way react to views they find morally repellent. Out of politeness they might first assume that you meant something else. They might ignore your comments and change the subject. Or they might look at you as if you’ve just farted (people who fart in public aren’t invited to give seminars).

I can see how people who are economically and socially liberal are able to survive in the social sciences and humanities. But I’m not sure how someone who was socially conservative would fare.

I’m not sure if sociology academics (for example) know how to debate social conservatives. So many conservative positions are classed as ‘prejudice’. Conservative literature tends to be treated the same way as pornography (you wouldn’t want to expose vulnerable undergrads to it). There’s a sense that some positions shouldn’t be argued about in public – they should be ignored, riduculed or put down.

Given that social scientists in these kinds of fields have a near monopoly on some social issues, any deference to expertise by journalists, bureaucrats, or politicians is likely to lead in an anti-conservative direction.

If you were a social conservative who disaproved of economic liberalism is there any intellectually credible organization in Australia you could affiliate with?

Mark,

How many social conservatives can you think of who have tenure in Australian sociology departments? John Carroll comes to mind. Who else?

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
2021 years ago

In some ways economic liberalism would be harder for your average social science academic to handle than intellectual conservatism – to some extent the leftist and conservative intellectual traditions are reactions against the dynamic forces unleashed by market capitalism, which is why they can form alliances against market reform, while still differing in their positive agendas. This is why Carroll is not a complete anomaly in academic sociology. The only other conservative sociologist I can think of is Bob Birrell – in economics I would class him as a social democrat, not given to the hyperbolic outbursts against markets of Carroll but no market liberal either. The only liberal sociologist in the country that I am aware of is the CIS’s Peter Saunders.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2021 years ago

Don, I can think of a few – particularly organisational sociologists who work in Management Schools but also in Arts/Social Science Faculties – but I don’t want to ascribe a political ideology to people publicly – as I may be wrong. To be honest, I’ve never found that most of my colleagues in sociology are terribly politicised – I’m probably a bit of an exception. Most are probably Labor voters but I don’t think that a lot of them spend too much time thinking about politics. I really don’t know if an outspoken conservative could easily get an academic gig in sociology. It’s hard enough for anyone to get an academic gig at the moment. I tend to think this is an American debate that’s been transposed to Australia – but I don’t think it has the same purchase here.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2021 years ago

I should say also that in my own teaching, I’m always careful to present arguments in their own terms. When I used to teach a postgrad seminar on political economy and public policy, I used to teach Von Hayek in a fairly convincing way! I don’t think it’s ethical pedagogically to teach a political line. I also think it’s probably fruitless. The only person I can think of who does at my current place of employment tends to play to the converted and piss off the unconverted.

Don
Don
2021 years ago

Mark,

Maybe I’m wrong about sociologists. My experience is more limited than yours.

I understand what you mean about not teaching a political line. But I’m assuming you’d have boundaries about what was intellectually respectable and ethically acceptable. A person’s politics is revealed by where they draw these boundaries.

For example, what would you do if a student wrote you a comparatively well constructed, well-referenced essay arguing that Charles Murray’s Bell Curve argument was right? If you gave it a good mark would you feel you needed to comment?

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2021 years ago

Don, it’s never happened. It would depend on how persuasive a case they made. I think that Charles Murray’s stuff has severe methodological limitations so it would have to be persuasive indeed. I’ve certainly given good marks to essays arguing a case I don’t personally believe in. Far from politics usually being an issue, I found the time I had to exercise the most restraint in marking was when I was teaching Sociology of Religion.

As to sociologists in Australia, my general impression is that the Weberian “value-freedom” thing still has a lot of purchase. To some degree people are prone to fall into the same traps when it came to in terms of values that Weber did. I don’t agree with Leo Strauss on much but he argues this well in “What is Political Philosophy?”.

The most actively political sociologists in Australia tend to be feminists. Again, because of the general suspicion about value commitment that pervades the discipline, this can cause them problems. Similarly, po/mo and post-structuralist methodologies and epistemologies are generally regarded with disdain. So my impression of academic sociology in Australia is that the sorts of approach that all those who cast stones about “elitists” etc are convinced are common in academia are actually the approaches that would be to one’s detriment to adopt if one were looking for a career. Hence the irony with which I regard a lot of these polemics. May I say that I think being on the margins of a discipline is a good place to be, though?

Rafe
2021 years ago

I would really like to know how many students of of sociology get to find out anything about Hayek and other classical liberals or members of the Austrian school of social thought (apart from Schutz without mention of his teacher, Mises). Also bear in mind that some of the most effective indoctrination is done non-verbally.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2021 years ago

Rafe, it would really depend on what course they are doing. Unfortunately, economic sociology isn’t taught at much as it ought to be. In the seminar course I used to teach, the syllabus was:

Smith, Ricardo, Marx, Mill, Marshall, Kalecki, Keynes, Von Hayek, Friedman, Foucault.

It was a reading course so we met every second week – and I set the original texts for reading. I didn’t lecture, but rather we’d discuss the texts for three hours. I was only funded to hold 7 classes during the semester – so some of these thinkers were discussed together. Out of all the postgrad classes I’ve taught, it was the one for which I got the highest teaching evaluation rating (n=17) of 5 out of 5. It’s a Lickert scale where 1 = very poor and 5 = excellent. If I’d had the chance to teach every week, then the scope of the subject would have been wider.