The Curse of the Cobra
There is an old story, probably apocryphal, that in colonial India the local Delhi government wanted to control the number of poisonous cobras in the city. So they put a bounty on each cobra captured.
But people being people, the cobra capturers soon realised that is was much easier to breed the snakes in captivity and then collect the bounty. So more and more snakes were being captured and the city government patted themselves on the back for a job well done.
But the cobra problem wasn’t getting any better. It didn’t take long to realise what was going on and the snake bounty was stopped. So with no incentive to manage the snakes, they were released back into the wild. The upshot is a lot more cobras than when they started.
So the Delhi government, with the best of intentions in making the city safer for its citizens, actually made the snake problem even worse.
But doing good is good. Isn’t it?
The moral of the tale is that even the best of intentions can lead to unintended consequences (see Goodhart’s Law and all the other documented examples of the Cobra Effect).
But surely, beyond the strange things that government authorities tend to do, the willingness to help others even if it disadvantages you is always a good thing. Isn’t it?
In the classic formulation of altruism you put in the effort and get nothing in return. More than that, you expect nothing in return. So doing something for nothing has to be good?
On the battlefield, or in times of crisis, we give medals for this behaviour – and rightly so, you say. Selflessness is a highly regarded virtue: a symbol of moral rectitude and high mindedness.
It is something to be emulated by everyone and by extension, an acknowledgement that there is something greater than the individual. There is such a thing as “society” (sorry Mrs Thatcher). Except, it is not as simple as that.
Most people accept that altruism is a good thing, with a few notable exceptions (see below). So what do we do about it? How do we act altruistically?
Are we hard-wired to be good?
History and experience tell us that the human race has not always been on its best behaviour. But history and experience also tell us that we’re also capable of outstanding feats of kindness.
Coupled with the fact that most of the time, we can rub along together without killing each other indicates that we are essentially social animals. Evolutionary biology would show that this is no accident, we have evolved to be social – and by extensions – evolved to be altruistic.
Moreover, our nearest animal relatives also share these characteristics. So, as ‘super-apes’, are we as nature has programmed us? Giving us the capacity to get along with our neighbours, to look out for others in the hope that they will look out for us. All well and good, but wait!
Altruism is about selflessness without reward. Does this definition still hold if we are programmed to behave in this way? Especially if there’s a reward. Evidence suggests that altruistic behaviour is linked to the same centres of the brain that regulates the reward system and gives us that ‘warm glow’ feeling when we do good.
Therefore, are we programmed to be ‘good’ and the slaves to our own brain chemistry? We act as though we have autonomy over those actions. It may be imaginary, but we still believe it to be the reality of our everyday experience.
Preserving the concept of altruism
Why do we choose to be altruistic? Are we rational actors who understand the impact of our actions and if so what is the best way to behave to maximise the good that we do?
If we’re not super-apes or self-rewarding hedonistic individuals, what are the consequences of rational calculation on our altruistic behaviour?
This brings us briefly to rational egoism – a phrase coined by philosopher Ayn Rand. Self-sacrifice is counterproductive. Therefore altruism is a bad thing. This is essentially the Ayn Rand position. It’s not a viewpoint that most people subscribe to but it does have a certain seductive logic.
Is selfishness better?
Let’s start with a little thought experiment: What if being selfish maximises the benefits for all? So, if we are not acting selfishly, we don’t make the best uses of our limited resources.
At its heart is the problem of how rational actors will behave when exercising the right to act in their own ‘enlightened’ self-interest.
It’s fair to say that most economists would not align themselves to the extreme position of Ayn Rand. But altruism and self-interest are uneasy bedfellows.
Altruism and the idea of ‘crowding out’ has shown that economic models are not as robust as they could be in predicting behaviour. This has lead to the idea of ‘impure altruism’ and the realisation that when the government makes cuts, private altruism doesn’t make up the difference.
However, the strong point to be made here is that irrespective of the failings of the behavioural economic models, the alignment of rational self-interest and altruism has its own logical consequences. Welcome to the world of effective altruism.
At its simplest level, effective altruism is the will to behave in the most economically rational way that maximises the resources available to create social good.
This can be as simple as an individual maximising income through a particular career choice, usually, one not readily associated with doing good (banking perhaps), and sacrificing lucrative personal income to support socially beneficial activity elsewhere.
Therefore, the seemingly selfish desire to further one’s own career can be socially positive. But this says nothing about how to spend those resources…
A solution would be to invest those resources in a way that generates the maximum benefit (as can be seen in the efforts of Peter Singer and Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz) to popularise the concept and provide a framework to make those decisions.
Indeed, Singer’s position is that not acting altruistically is not just inefficient but positively immoral – if altruism leads to greater benefits then is it our moral duty to use our resources to maximise those benefits. To do otherwise is almost sinful
Back to where we started (and the cobras)…
What’s the moral of the story? Probably, like anything else, being ‘good’ is not as straightforward as it seems. The message of the cobras is that to do good needs planning and thought. And that’s a good thing.
Understanding your impact in real-time, or as near as real-time as you can, will nip those unintended consequences in the bud. Better information on impact leads to better decisions.
In addition, better information provides better insight into personal motivation and organisational processes. Organisations and other businesses are target driven, therefore the trap leaders and managers need to avoid is high levels of social impact at the expense of others who are equally in need.
To help you achieve this, you should consider using tools like Impact to help you monitor and report on your social value generation. Start the journey, get the data, make the mistakes, but make sure you learn from them. And more than anything, be good.