Selfishness and the Ultimatum Game

Discussions of economic revolution and collective ownership are often frought with claims about ‘selfishness’. But this notion is not often defined in much detail. I think we can learn something about it by looking at ‘the ultimatum game’, an experimental set-up that psychologists have used (also by independent common-sense, which psychologists also use, though to a debatable extent).

The set-up is simple. You and I are given a tenner. I decide on a way to split it between us, and you either accept, and take what I offer you, or reject, in which case we both get nothing.

If we both desperately wanted money, I would give you 5p and take all the rest for myself, and you would accept that. But that’s not what happens. By and large, I propose something relatively even, most commonly 50/50, and you either accept if it’s even enough, or reject if it’s substantially unequal – even though this means you choose nothing over something.

What this, together with a bit of common sense, indicates is that there are least two potentially opposed aspects of ‘selfishness’: there is the mere possession of the money, and then there is the ‘dignity’ that you would sacrifice if you accepted 5p. In some sense, I object to the grossly unequal distribution because it is ‘unfair’, not in any ethical sense but in that it carries an implication that I am only worth 5p out £10, and this offends me.

Let’s be clear – this is not at all challenging the claim that humans are all entirely selfish. Whatever convenient and satisfying misanthropy anyone wants to bring to the discussion can be accepted: the point is that my selfishness includes a desire not just to possess things, but to symbolically assert my value and dignity.*

Now if this is correct, then we might hazard the following suggestion: that conflicts and disputes over distribution of resources will in fact be greatly inflamed by any attempt at the ‘unequal incentives’ and ‘rewards’ that are supposed to be required by people’s selfishness. That is: if it is declared that each person will be paid only in proportion to their effort/skill/desert/beauty/other ‘meritocratic’ measure, then any distribution of goods will become ensnared in wranglings because if person A gets anything better than person B,  then it will be felt to imply a superiority of person A and a defect in person B.

By contrast, if the distribution of goods were put upon some other plan – such as 1) free access for all, 2) equal rations, or 3) distribution according to need – then this component of ‘selfishness’ would be much reduced. Where it is impossible to ensure equality (e.g. if there’s a few houses to distribute, but they are of very different quality) then person B might be much more happy to simply accept a moderate inequality, becauseit would not an insult or an offence – indeed, this selfishness might then be turned around, as the desire to show one’s personal worth produced a desire to accept the distribution in a businesslike fashion and go on to more important matters rather than holding everyone up.

Conversely, the supposedly ‘meritocratic’ character of capitalism (admittedly laughable in most respects but nevertheless widely felt) might in fact be generating a sort of ‘selfishness’ that would otherwise be insignificant: that by telling us that high-paying jobs are a sign of worth, and poverty something to be ashamed of, it gives people motivation to pursue wealth that does nothing for their actual happiness.

The upshot then would be that people’s selfishness, properly understood, is an argument in favour of relatively ‘pure’ communism, and against wage-paying or incentivising systems.

Anyway, take-home message: selfishness is not a single thing. Desire for things (‘materialistic’ selfishness in yet another sense of that word) is distinct fom pride, and their relationship may be open to alteration by changes in the supposed

*Someone might decide to pronounce that people are not only naturally selfish but also naturally servile and undignified, and that this is why socialism would never work. But at this point it begins to seem as though they have a dictionary beside them from which to pluck vices at random, by which to win arguments.

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