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Selfless is More

April 7, 2010

Why is it that we don’t just make other people happy when such powers are pretty clearly within our grasp? Is it because we think our own utmost self-interests can be maxed out by more selfish and extractive behavior, Pareto optimality be damned? Scott Adams–who I have recently come around to seeing as a serious thinker–seems to think so. He poses this hypothetical:

Suppose humans were born with magical buttons on their foreheads. When someone else pushes your button, it makes you very happy. But like tickling, it only works when someone else presses it. Imagine it’s easy to use. You just reach over, press it once, and the other person becomes wildly happy for a few minutes.

What would happen in such a world?

The first thing that would happen is that we’d create some rules of etiquette saying you can’t press anyone’s button without explicit permission. That makes sense, since sometimes you need to get some work done, and happiness can make you lose focus. You wouldn’t want people making you happy against your wishes.

The next thing that would happen is that people would realize they can sell the button-pushing service. People would stop giving it away for free. You’d be begging people to press your button and it would just seem pathetic. You might get some takers for a brief button-pushing fling, but it would get tiresome to push another person’s button every few minutes all day.

Perhaps some people would give their button-pushing services away for free, to anyone who asked. Let’s call those people generous, or as they would become known in this hypothetical world: crazy sluts.

The idea seems hyperbolic but it’s really more parabolic, which is interesting given the religious interplay in the issue of sex. E.g.,

Sex aside, it’s still not that hard to make others happy, and thereby make yourself happy in the process, if you’re slightly creative or even silly. Some (including previous days’ versions of myself) might cynically claim that you have to be selfless out of a detached sense of duty rather than some attenuated self-interest to be called selfless, but that word seems pretty hollow and meaningless if you don’t allow the actor to reflect on or consider the moral worth of his or her acts. As this fantastic little vignette demonstrates, sometimes a fleeting instant of selflessness or fun can return mountains of gratitude, entertainment, or satisfaction, but that doesn’t make the act any less valid from any ethical standpoint. It sounds sappy and Hallmark-y to note that love and happiness are two-way streets, but the Beatles had it right: “In the end, the love you make is equal to the love you take.”

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