[guest post] Harry Potter and the Fuzzies of Altruism

Here’s a guest post from Robby Bensinger about the psychology of altruism with a little bit of Harry Potter thrown in. 

Effective Altruists are do-gooders with a special interest in researching the very best ways to do good, such as high-impact poverty reduction and existential risk reduction. A surprising number of them are also Harry Potter fans, probably owing to the success of the EA-promoting fanfic Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

The author, Eliezer Yudkowsky, calls that nice inner glow you feel when you help people “warm fuzzies“. But I’ve noticed that not everyone who’s interested in charity and social justice gets identical “fuzzies”. People with the same humanitarian goals can differ not only in their philosophy and tactics, but even in their basic psychological motivations. So I decided to construct a taxonomy of fuzzies modeled after the four Houses of Hogwarts.

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slytherfuzzies — how it feels to save the world by improving yourself, mastering your own will, and achieving your personal goals.

Slytherfuzzies are that self-esteem boost, that sense of being effective and just plain Awesome, when you successfully help people. Fuzzies are especially slytherin when people’s happiness is seen as an indispensable means to achieving slytherfuzzies (or just Victory), rather than your altruistic impulses being used as a mere means for making the world a better place. Picture Gandhi cackling in a darkened, smoke-filled room and muttering, ‘All goes according to plan…’

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ravenfuzzies — how it feels to save the world as an intellectually stimulating puzzle.

One helps people not so much out of felt empathy as out of boredom, or curiosity, or a conviction that happy, healthy human-style intelligences help make the world a more beautiful, interesting, and complicated place. Any altruist can recognize the value of doing research and figuring out what actually works, but when you’re driven by ravenfuzzies your altruism will exhibit a ravenclaw’s detachment and openness to experience.

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gryffinfuzzies — how it feels to save the world from within a hero narrative, (e)utopian vision, or any sort of Moral Quest.

A gryffinfuzzy can be as proud as a slytherfuzzy, but the grounds for pride are externalized — things are finally The Right Way, not necessarily my right way. Compared to hufflefuzzies, gryffinfuzzies are more bold, epic, blazing, and abstract.

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hufflefuzzies — how it feels to save the world in the form of lots and lots of sick baby bunnies.

Hufflefuzzies are warm. Personal. Social. Fuzzy. They’re probably the most common and essential source of altruism. They are units of reverse schadenfreude, of empathic joy, of emotional connection, solidarity, or belonging.

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I’m not trying to get a perfect mapping from canonical Houses to moral sentiments. Experiencing hufflefuzzies doesn’t make you a hard worker. Experiencing slytherfuzzies doesn’t make you a conservative.

Instead, I’m using the Houses as an excuse to investigate the different reasons people do good. It’s a common error to assume that everyone thinks and perceives the same way you do. If adopting a more complicated view of happy glowy squishy humanitarian fuzzies helps us better understand each other, and better reach out to people with different styles of moral reasoning, then adopt it we should!

In my own case, I seem to be mostly motivated by gryffinfuzzies. I find that especially interesting because philosophically I’m much more likely to explain and defend my ethical views in terms of the value of empathy (like a hufflepuff bodhisattva), or the value of diversity (like a ravenclaw Feyerabendian), or just in terms of my personal preferences (like a slytherin existentialist). Apparently my core moral intuitions are quite distinct from my intellectualizations of morality.

What about you? What drives you to do good? What combinations of fuzzies do you experience, and do they vary for different kinds of charitable work? Are you working on cultivating some of the varieties that you’re currently missing out on? Do my groupings make sense to you, and are there any fuzzies I’ve left out?

Robby Bensinger is critical thinking activist and philosopher. The former president of the Indiana University Philosophical Society, he does research in the intersection of science and religion, consciousness studies, value theory, and metametaphysics. (Yes, metametaphysics.) He has been heavily involved with the IU Secular Alliance for the past five years, and works much of his mischief at the blog Nothing Is Mere.

Why Being Pro-Gay is More Than Just a Smart Business Move

Last Tuesday, Equally Wed magazine held a National Starbucks Appreciation Day and encouraged people to go to Starbucks to show support for their pro-gay rights stance. The event was a response to Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day, in which droves of people went to Chick-Fil-A to celebrate their right to deny others their rights. The magazine later renamed it “National Marriage Equality Day” and invited other gay-friendly companies to participate.

Starbucks established itself as a company that supports marriage equality earlier this year when its Executive Vice President, Karen Holmes, released a statement on behalf of the company in support of gay rights legislation in Washington state, where it’s headquartered. But it’s far from alone in taking a public stand for gay rights. For example, the Oreo cookie’s official Facebook page made news by posting this photo back in June. American Apparel–hardly a bastion of ethics otherwise–carries a “Legalize Gay” shirt. Companies frequently march in gay pride parades. And so on.

Gay rights are obviously an emotional issue for many people (myself included), and I’ve seen some very different responses to this trend of companies coming out in support of gay rights. Some people get very excited and enthusiastic about supporting these companies in return, and take this to mean that the leadership of these companies is strongly invested in gay rights. Others are extremely cynical and claim that it’s all just a business ploy and means nothing.

I think that, as it often does, the reality lies somewhere between these two extremes. Businesses never do anything–especially not anything that requires them to spend money–solely out of the goodness of their hearts (hell, businesses aren’t people, so they don’t even have hearts). But that doesn’t mean that businesspeople don’t genuinely care about certain issues and want to use their position as leaders to advance those issues.

First of all, many companies literally put their money where their mouth is when it comes to being pro-gay. They don’t merely post a picture on Facebook or sell a pro-gay t-shirt; they combine their ideological stance with tangible action. Starbucks, for instance, provides same-sex partner benefits to its employees, meaning that an employee’s partner can use their health insurance. (Pretty cool that Starbucks provides insurance even for part-time employees, too.)

Google, meanwhile, not only provides same-sex partner benefits, but even compensates its gay and lesbian employees for a tax on partner benefits that heterosexual couples do not have to pay. It also launched a campaign called “Legalize Love,” which will work to combat workplace discrimination in countries with anti-gay laws on the books.

Aside from partnering with one of the most well-known queer people in the country, JCPenney has recently run ads in its catalogs that feature same-sex parents. What’s more, they did this soon after One Million Moms ran a highly-publicized boycott against them for hiring Ellen Degeneres as a spokeswoman–kind of like an extra fuck-you.

People who know more about marketing than I do seem to agree that being pro-gay is good for business. Furthermore, a study shows that even internal policies–as opposed to public actions like these–helps businesses, at least according to the businesses themselves.

Credit: lightfran/Flickr

But what’s more important, at least to me, is that these smart business moves are also helpful to LGBT people. Even the symbolic gestures that some companies make–such as Oreo’s Facebook picture–can make a difference. If even one LGBT person comes across them on their newsfeed and feels like the world is a bit less shitty, I would consider that a good deed done.

A lot of the cynical pushback against this comes down to the mistaken assumption that there is such a thing as “true” altruism. Hypothetically, true altruism is when the person doing the altruistic act derives absolutely no benefit from it–no financial gain, no social capital, no personal sense of worth and value. The latter is, of course, an inescapable aspect of doing good things for people–doing good feels good and everyone knows that. And yet you still see people claiming that altruism is ultimately “selfish” because it feels good.

So, either there is no such thing as altruism, or our concept of “selfishness” needs to be redefined. In their support of gay rights, these companies are being “selfish” in the sense that they’re serving a few of their own interests, but they’re also being altruistic in that they’re taking up an issue they don’t have to take up–nobody asked them to do it, and a lot of good may come of it.

Finally, trends in business can be a barometer of public opinion. The reason all these companies are suddenly “jumping on the bandwagon” (as a cynic would say) and openly supporting gay rights is because they can. In prior decades, companies that lobbied for gay marriage rights or published pro-gay opinions would probably have been run out of business–or at least seen their profits severely decrease.

But today, being pro-gay is good for business. I think that’s something to celebrate.