Moralism as a Response to a Free-Rider Problem

From the perspective of evolutionary game theory, moralism presents something of a dilemma.

Evolutionary game theory is a branch of mathematics that seeks to explain the behavior of animals and humans based on the assumption that all behavior ultimately must arise from the imperatives imposed by natural selection. From this perspective, human behavior originates largely in selfish motives and true altruism becomes the most difficult behavior of all to evoke.

Moralists exist in all cultures and in all cultures the moralist seeks to persuade or coerce other members of the culture into obeying the moral codes of the culture. Moralists concentrate on suppressing behaviors that do not cause immediate harm to others. Indeed, most moralists target self-destructive behaviors. Both individuals and societies spend a great deal of time and energy moralizing.

The evolutionary game theorist is forced to ask: Why bother? What is in it for the moralist?

We can dispense with altruism straight off. True altruism only occurs in individuals and then only rarely. No behavior that relies on altruism persist for long because altruism provides too many opportunities for cheaters to prosper. Stable, long term, cross-cultural behaviors only arise because they grant a survival advantage to the individual who engages in them.

What advantage does the moralist gain by trying to force others to engage in beneficial behaviors? At first glance, it would seem that they should hoard beneficial behaviors to themselves. If person A gains benefit from the moral codes he should be glad that person B doesn’t gain an advantage. People hoard other types of information, such a secret formulas, so why not try to hoard information about the best behaviors?

Viewing moralism as a grab for dominance on the part of the moralist doesn’t tell us anything. A lot of prominent moralists do gain individual power, but they only do so because large numbers of their fellows who do not gain the power and prestige agree with their moralizing. If a lot of people didn’t think that amoral behaviors needed suppressing, then no one could acquire power by trying to suppress them. We end up back were we started.

I think the answer lies in the ancient observation that the transgressions which outrage us the most are the ones we most want to commit ourselves. We usually view this as hypocrisy on the part of the moralist but I think it arises from the feeling on the part of the moralist that the amoral cheat on an implicit social contract.

Moral codes evolved to control our genetically defined behavior. If our innate impulses alone produced the best results, we would not need culture and morals in the first place. No culture makes elaborate rules to force people to breath. Moral codes focus on preventing people from engaging in immediately pleasurable acts or on forcing people to carry out unpleasant tasks. In general, moral codes trade the long-term good of the collective for the short-term pleasure of the individual.

If everyone follows the moral code, everyone benefits from the advantages that cooperation and collective action bring (such as division of labor). However, if compliance with the code remains voluntary, then we create a classic free-rider problem. If most people follow the code, then a minority can receive both the benefits of the collective and the benefits of engaging in behaviors forbidden by the code.

I think moralism exists to suppress this free-rider problem. People who sacrifice for the collective good feel cheated by those who do not. Everyone would like to party around the clock, have sex with cute strangers and consume all resources immediately, but if everyone does so, no works gets done. Enough individuals in the population must sacrifice their fun for the collective good, otherwise everyone starves.

The anger of the moralist ultimately arises from resentment at the amoral free riders. A lone non-drinker in a group of drinking friends soon feels resentment because they always end up the designated driver and get to end their evenings chauffeuring their intoxicated pals around and pouring them into bed. People who invest the enormous sums of time and money into raising up the next generation of humans soon resent the childless who spend their time and money in pursuit of personal pleasures and consumption. People who drive smaller cars to reduce CO2 emissions resent those who drive large vehicles. In each case the moralist feels cheated, because they made sacrifices that benefit everyone but don’t receive any greater benefit than those who did not.

The seeming rampant moralism of this age appears to arise from political doctrines that grant individuals the right to choose actions but which also shield them from the consequences of those choices. For example, in the ’60s we dismantled the legal and social restrictions against teenagers having sex, thus giving more individual choice. At the same time, however, we began paying money to teenagers who became pregnant. This creates a situation wherein a person who forgoes the pleasures of sex and delays child bearing ends up paying for the consequences of choices of those who showed no such restraint. As a result, moralistic arguments about “welfare queens” and “deadbeat dads” abound.

Moralism represents a threat to a general culture of liberty, because people so often turn to the coercive power of the state to solve the free-rider problem. Social conservatives focus on using the state to discourage or punish behaviors which lead people to parasitize others by dysfunction or dependency. The welfare state itself may have evolved due to resentment on the part of those who voluntarily assisted the poor against those who did not.

Only in systems which closely link individual action to individual consequence will we see low levels of moralism. We don’t see a lot of debate these days about the morals of land ownership because we have long since tied individuals closely to land ownership, but we do see a great deal of moralizing about communally owned resources such as rivers or the atmosphere.

Everyone moralizes and everyone hates moralizers. Ending moralism and its corrosive effect on individual liberty requires ending the free-rider problems that drive individuals to moralism in the first place.

22 thoughts on “Moralism as a Response to a Free-Rider Problem”

  1. The problem with this explanation is that it uses examples based on an assumption and it deals only with human beings. Evolutionary thinkers working with altruism explanations also study altrusim in animals, and such studies wil elimiate personal perspectives and biases.

  2. Joseph Hill,

    The problem with this explanation is that it uses examples based on an assumption and it deals only with human beings.

    Only humans exhibit behavior complex enough to qualify as moralizing. In order for a behavior to evolve to counter-act a free-rider problem, an organism must first develop sufficient foresight and memory to anticipate that a particular action now will create the problem in the future.

    Evolutionary thinkers working with altruism explanations also study altrusim in animals…

    And they have found that altruism is not a stable strategy and usually simply never occurs even as a brief fluctuation. We can eliminate altruism as significant driver of moralizing for this reason.

    …and such studies wil elimiate personal perspectives and biases.

    Very droll.

  3. Joseph Hill,

    The linked to article is in error.

    All the examples given in the first section qualify as symbiosis, kin selection or reciprocity. Vampire bats are in particular a famously studied example of reiprocity. Bats feed other bats based largely on whether those bat have fed them in the past. It’s a reciprocal relationship not an altruistic one.

    No species exhibits a systematic willingness on the part of individuals to sacrifice their own reproductive success for the benefit of others. Even mothers and fetuses compete with one another for the lion’s share of their shared resources and goals. Individuals who expend resources on others without some kind of balancing compensation reproduce less than those who behave otherwise.

    Many confuse altruism with cooperation . It’s a common error. Altruism by definition means expenditure without expectation of return. Cooperation means coordinated action. Altruism is anonymously donating to charity. Cooperation is buying something at Walmart. Altruism leaves the actor worse off. Cooperation leaves the actor better off.

    I guess I shouldn’t have linked to database of philosophy instead of looking harder to find a description in a biology or game theory related site instead.

  4. Dear shannon–you have helped me distinguish between reciprocity and altrusims, and I am grateful. But there does seem some forms of animal life that indeed act in what can only be termed an altruistic manner without it being a reciprocal relationship,as noted further along in examples given here.

    ps: I know that many teachers object to any citation from Wikipedia but the examples here seem decent, and I have found that Wikipedia is ok if you use it judiciously and with great care.

    again, thanks for your helpful remarks.

  5. Joseph Hill,
    The confusion is due to the careless use of the word “altruism”. If an animal or its genes benefit from an action then it is not altruism but merely cooperation arising from enlightened self-interest. Kin selection is not altruism. Symbiosis is not altruism. Reciprocal relationships are not altruism.
    If you could find a true instance of robust altruism then you could disprove the theory of natural selection in one swoop. The mechanism of natural selection is incapable of producing stable altruism. As Darwin said, natural selection cannot drive a horse to evolve a saddle just for the use of humans.

  6. Moralism represents a threat to a general culture of liberty because people so often turn to the coercive power of the state to solve the free-rider problem. Social conservatives focus on using the state to discourage or punish behaviors which lead people to parasitize others by dysfunction or dependency. The welfare state itself may have evolved due to resentment on the part of those who voluntarily assisted the poor against those who did not.

    I profoundly disagree with this.

    Moralism restricts liberty? I say no to that.

    It’s a common moral code which ensures liberty. If there was no moral against murder, rape, stealing, being deceitful, etc then there would be no liberty.

    It’s the restraint of the selfish wants of people that allows us to live in communities that aren’t police states.

    And Social Conservatives are just as apt as the Liberal Left to use the State to mold people’s behavior.

    As our founding fathers said… a liberty system such as ours can only work with a moral people. This morality is not a morality of laws, it’s a morality of conscience.

    As this country continues to get deconstructed away from its foundations, the power of morality of conscience gets more and more weak… this creates a lawlessness which then leads to increase power of the State to maintain order.

    I disagree that moralism leads to a restriction of liberties.

  7. Vince – Legistlated moralism is a threat to Liberty, and a threat to the health of society becuase it restricts moral evolution based on new circumstances. The morality of the Victorians would not allow middle and upper class women to work – and somewhat rightfully so – their ability to control their repoductive faculty was limited, and society lost so many new members to disease that reproduction was a critical role played by women. With the advent of birth control and anti-biotics, those mores could change, and thankfully there were not legislative barriers to overcome as well as social ones.

  8. Vince P,

    I think you misunderstood. I am not arguing that morals do not matter. Quite the opposite. Instead, I am arguing that people moralize in order to force everyone to share in the sacrifices that morality requires.

    I am most interested in behaviors which impose no major cost if a small percentage of the population engage in them but which impose massive cost if a large percentage does. Its not a problem if a small percentage of the population drinks, slacks and parties. The major harm occurs only to the individuals engaged in the behavior. If half the population can’t work effectively, then everyone ends up substantially worse off. Self-destruction becomes the destruction of the collective. (Something like this happened in poor communities with out of wedlock births.)

  9. Nicholas Wade has considerable discussion the moralism as cure for free-rider problem in his book “Before the Dawn”. He believes this is the socio-biological origin of religion.

  10. “behaviors which impose no major cost if a small percentage of the population engage in them but which impose massive cost if a large percentage does”…an interesting case to look at might be vaccinations for contageous diseases. If 99% of the people are vaccinated against something, then the 1% who refuse probably impose no significant costs on either society or on themselves–since the 99% vaccination level is sufficent to suppress the disease. If the ratio becomes 80%/20%, though, the number of people needed for the disease to propagate might reach critical mass.

  11. David F. – especially since many vaccines are at the 80-90% efficacy rate, making an 80% vaccination rate into a 60 – 70% effective coverage rate.

  12. David Foster,

    Thanks for the example. Vaccinations are indeed the type of behavior I am think of. If you add in the idea that all vaccinations come with some inherent risk then you have a classic free-rider problem.

    Assume that a parent seeks the absolutely safest course for their children. In an environment with low vaccinations, disease is rampant and getting a vaccination enormously benefits the child. However, in a high vaccination environment, the risk posed by the vaccine might outweigh the risk of contracting the disease. Therefore, in a high vaccination environment, an selfish parent would not vaccinates his own child thus off loading the risk of the vaccine onto all the other children while still reaping the benefits of having all other children vaccinated and unable to infect his child.

    This strategy will only work if the number of non-vaccinating parents stays below a critical threshold. Past that threshold, a large enough population of non-vaccinated children to support the spread of disease will exist.

    Without the government coercion, vaccination might be the subject of more moralizing as people who ran the risk of vaccination sought to prevent those who did not from getting a free ride.

    Personally, I always point out to parents who refuse to vaccinate just what parasites they are.

  13. In many school district, there is no choice for vaccinations. Either your child get what are called for or your child not allowed to tend school. You can say this is state intrusion into parental choice, or you can say that the school district trying tomake sure all children are protect ed and able to attend classes as required.

  14. Jospeh Hill,

    If you look at the debates surround compulsory vaccination during the 40’s and 50’s you see two arguments advanced to justify the practice: (1) Children need the individual protection of vaccination and (2) unvaccinated children poise a risk to everyone else (even the vaccinated because vaccines aren’t perfect. Enough exposure can result in infection.)

    Compulsory vaccinations didn’t provoke to much controversy because people where so damn glad not to have to watch children die. Most adults of the day had watched a child they knew die of something preventable by vaccination.

    I think that compulsory vaccinations also represent a response to the free-rider problem. If everyone must be vaccinated people can’t cheat.

  15. There now seems a rebirth of the anti- and pro-floride argument. Floride, we are now told, might in fact have consequences that are not good but it continues to be put into city drinking water. If you choose not to have floridated water for you or your kids, you can of course drink bottled water–if you find the few companies that do have floride-clear water (Ploand Springs is one). In this instance there is choice but unlike vacinations, no potentially quick dire illnesses.

  16. Joseph Hill,

    The Floride issue really wouldn’t fall under the type of problem I am talking about because it doesn’t offer the opportunity for one group to benefit at the expense of another. Everyone receives roughly the same benefit for the same risk. In case of vaccination, a small group can gain benefit from the risk took by others.

  17. Shannon—I think you’re on to something here, but there are a couple of factors in the equation that don’t seem to be mentioned.

    First is scale, or size. Modern society is an anomaly in historical terms. The vast majority of humans in past ages lived in small, cohesive, homogenous groups. Enforcing moral strictures and social/cultural norms is much easier in a small clan or village setting when everyone knows everyone else’s business, and the threat of disapproval, or even shunning, is generally sufficient to keep people in line.

    Modern social systems, and larger, more cosmopolitan cultures in past eras, run into a difficult problem with the dual issues of anonimity and diverse belief systems. I wonder how much of the legalistic response to violations of moral strictures stem from those issues.

    Secondly, I think you underestimate the value of sacrificial behavior for those who demand it but don’t perform it themselves. The foot soldier might receive some loot if he survives and his side wins the battle, but the lord receives enormous rewards purchased by the deaths of many of his followers, even though he might not have been on the front line himself.

    Supernatural justifications for the demand for sacrifice would seem commonplace precisely
    because it is so crucial that some give their all, and the favor or will of a divine entity demanding such action is a powerful motivator for generating the compliance of people who might not otherwise be so inclined. The present plague of suicide terrorists is an example of this phenomenon in action.

  18. The problem with ANY moral code is that while the many benefit, there are always those who must suffer so that everyone else may benefit. Islam is a very moral system of regulations. Women are savagely beaten, mutilated and killed if they leave the home and are improperly dressed in public. Those accused of engaging in illicit sex are brutally punished and murdered, pour improver les autres.

    In every moral system, someone must suffer – usually a large number of someones.

  19. The free rider issue is just a subset of the problem where cheaters will prosper if not detected and punished. The study is behind a paid firewall, but even monkeys will forgo a treat if someone else is getting paid more for the same activity. If you have a subscription to Nature, it’s in there somewhere. Some earlier wprk is summarized here.

    Also, a lot of moral behavior is based on the iterative prisoner’s dilemma problem. Everyone in the group prospers if they follow the rules, so the rules are enforced.

  20. Mitch Townsend,

    Also, a lot of moral behavior is based on the iterative prisoner’s dilemma problem

    Spot on. I just thought more people would be familiar with the free-rider problem.

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