1-2.      This situation is upsetting for several related reasons. We instinctually care very much about our reputations. If others see us as untrustworthy or selfish, they will be less likely to enter reciprocal agreements with us. Inability to form cooperative agreements is an evolutionary disadvantage, so over time natural selection favored humans who protected their reputations. Humans with strong emotional ties to the principles of generosity and honesty--and even stronger emotional attachments to the appearance of generosity and honesty--tended to maintain their good reputations, be successful, and pass on their genes. As a result, humans today care very much about these qualities as well. Examining the situation with the donations intellectually, we would probably come to the conclusion that credit ought not to matter to us. Far stronger than this rational argument, however, is the gut emotional reaction that credit should go where it is due (especially when it is due to us) and that liars should be punished.1

            Our encouragement of fairness and kindness in cases that do not involve us has similar roots. There is an element of reputation-enhancement here as well; if people see us encouraging morality, they will likely assume that we are moral also. However, in this type of situation we are even less conscious of selfish goals than in the case of the hospital donation. Throughout human evolution, individuals who genuinely cared about morality maintained their reputations better than those who cared about reputation only, because they were less tempted to cheat for short-term gain. We evolved to forget about reputation and instead care purely about upholding the principles of good.  This instinct towards goodness is not specific to cases involving us, because it is not consciously linked to any selfish goals. The urge to enforce morality in others is also beneficial because it creates a community full of possible reciprocators. Reciprocal altruism works best when there are very few cheaters, so it makes sense that we would have an instinct to encourage other people to be good altruists.


3.         When I first started answering this question, I thought that some sort of utilitarian argument about considering everyone’s interests equally might suffice to convince a child to play fair. But I think that most children, assuming they had any idea what I was talking about, would probably roll their eyes at me and remain unconvinced by this line of reasoning. Utilitarian logic is a powerful tool for deciding between possible courses of action, but it assumes that our fundamental goal is fairness, and it does not necessarily provide justifications for itself. Utilitarianism is not very convincing to people who do not already have a strong sense that fairness and equal treatment are desirable.

            If I actually wanted to convince a child to play fair, a better tactic might be an appeal to empathy. If a child is old enough to be questioning the validity of fairness, presumably they are old enough to have developed a sense of empathy. This would make them receptive to the, “How would you feel if it was you?” argument.

This gets around the problem for human children, but it does not really provide a solution to the underlying question of how to validate our instinct towards fairness. This argument only works because children already have an instinct towards empathy.2 If I ran into a child inclined neither towards empathy nor fairness, I would have a much harder time convincing them of anything. Fairness, like so many other moral concepts, does not really have any objective “rightness” that can be pointed to as proof that everyone should play fair.


4. The relationship between religion and morality is more complicated than simply “belief in God causes moral action.” The desire to behave morally is deeply ingrained in human nature, and these instincts would not suddenly disappear without a belief in God. In fact, it seems more likely that the causal relationship is reversed. Humans may be inclined to believe in God partly because we want to understand our own morality, and because we want to ground our morality in something outside of ourselves.3 Without an understanding of natural selection’s role in encouraging reciprocity, humanity’s commitment to morality is explainable only in terms of some other motivating force, for example a religious one.


10.       Blood donors wear stickers so that others will be aware of their altruism. Since we use the people around us to judge appropriate levels of altruism, we might feel guilty if we see everyone but us wear these stickers. This system of judgment makes sense from the standpoint of natural selection; individuals who gave away either much more or much less than those around them would not have done very well. The ones who gave away more than they received through reciprocation would have experienced a net loss, and the ones who gave away too little would have appeared untrustworthy and would not have found partners for reciprocal relationships.

This tendency to decide morality by our surroundings helps to explain why more Americans are not utterly horrified by the disparity between how little they actually give and how much they have the capacity to give. Sadly, we have built up a culture in which a high level of selfishness is socially acceptable.4



1. As noted, there are many layers to situations like this.  (1) Telling others about the dishonesty of another person elevates your status as someone who has valuable information and is willing to share it.  (2) You might, for a time, consider not saying anything in the hopes that the mistake will be eventually discovered and you will receive a kind of “super-credit” for being genuinely altruistic.  (3) Your mind will begin calculating the investment you’ve made in this organization and if makes more sense, in terms of social capital, to repair these relationships or to cut losses and move on.  Etc, etc.


2. These are good points and suggest that perhaps ethicists should spend more time trying to convince others through emotional rather than rational means.  Or, even leaving the direct goals aside, they should simply try to make everyone more empathic in general and then let the moral and ethical benefits follow naturally.


3. This is a common argument for theism that may be most popular in Lewis’s Mere Christianity.  There’s much to admire about Lewis as a person and as a writer, but not so-much as a careful philosopher.


4. This is an extensive topic worthy of extensive analysis.  I’m inclined to think most of it has arisen naturally in society built upon capitalism and personal liberty.  What has followed are innumerable marketing strategies so finely tuned to every aspect of the human psyche that we are played like pinballs.