My basic model of humans is very Mr. Rogersian. I think humans are basically well-meaning and want to do the right thing; when we do bad things, it’s because we’re wrong or irrational or weak or stupid, but not because we actually want to do wrong. So for instance I think that people really do want to help sick children; they just give to Make a Wish Foundation instead of the Against Malaria Foundation because they’re not very good at the whole helping sick children thing.
(This is part of the reason I’m so big on accurate beliefs. Because sometimes people believe that God wants them to fly a plane into a tower, or that Jews are Always Chaotic Evil and bent on destroying Germany, or that it will work very well to turn Russia into a dictatorship of the proletariat via a revolutionary socialist state, and then their attempts to do the right thing go disastrously wrong.)
Recently, I’ve started reading Overcoming Bias, because pretty much the most productive thing I can do while depressed is archive-binge blogs, and a blog I really like span off from it. Robin Hanson, who blogs at Overcoming Bias, really fucking hates people. He calls humans homo hypocritus, because we don’t actually want what we say we want; instead, we want to signal our abilities and loyalties.
Robin Hanson (if I understand him correctly) would argue that the person giving money to the Make a Wish Foundation doesn’t actually want to help sick children; they want to feel nice, like the sort of person who helps sick children, and– more importantly– they want everyone else to believe that they’re nice people who help sick children.
My initial reaction to this is “No! That’s horrible! You terrible person!” Unfortunately, “you’re a terrible person!” is not actually an argument that something is not true. My sense of revulsion at that idea is nothing more than a sign that I’m biased in favor of the “humans: basically nice” explanation.
The problem is that I can’t figure out a way in which the two theories make different predictions. I can point out that sometimes people figure out that the Make a Wish Foundation is less good at helping sick children than the Against Malaria Foundation is and stop giving to the Make a Wish Foundation; but Hanson would say that that just means they want to signal that they care about effectively helping sick children. Hanson can point out that people often give more to charity when their friends encourage them to or give to charity themselves; but I’d reply that I never claimed humans were purely altruistic, just occasionally altruistic, and it makes perfect sense for people to give more if you get two things you want (social approval and happy sick kids) rather than just one.
And yet it seems intuitively like there ought to be a difference between these two Grand Theories of Human Nature. I mean, it doesn’t just boil down to “humans boo!” or “humans yay!”, right? So I decided to throw up my hands and ask my commenters what they think.