by Leon Felkins

Written: June 11, 1995

Revised: July 06, 1998

Copyright 1995


"Let us try to _teach_ generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish." Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

"He that studies books alone will know how things ought to be; and he who studies men will know how they are." Charles Caleb Colton (1829)

We are witnessing some incredibly baffling problems in the world today. It seems that as the countries of the world become more "civilized", more "democratic", societal problems and conflicts just get worse. The theme of this essay is that many of these problems are a result of an inherent and unavoidable paradox involving the conflict between the needs of the individual and the needs of the society that the individual is a member of. This class of problem, often called "Social Dilemmas", while not unknown in the academic community has received little public attention. Yet these dilemmas may present insurmountable barriers to a peaceful world and harmonious societies.

This conflict between the individual and society, "the atomic vs. the whole", is manifest in many ways, several of which will be examined in this essay. The issue regarding the problem of individuals acting collectively is examined in considerable detail. Other problems, such as the problem of influencing group behavior, predicting group behavior and the helplessness of the individual are also discussed.

Generally, the actions we take, as we struggle through each day, are driven by self interest. Much of our self interest can be satisfied by a direct individual action, but other self interest can only be satisfied by group collective action. An example of the first would be something like raising my own garden and an example of the second would be public roads. While the connection between reward and effort is straightforward with direct individual action, it is extremely confused and complex when it is achieved by collective action.

While self interest is the primary subject of discussion in this essay, it should be noted that humans also sometimes take actions to help others without any thought of personal reward. A case could be made that even these so called altruistic acts are ultimately selfish in that they give a good feeling to the person doing the action, but for our purposes here we will assume that they are truly altruistic. I further classify an action contributing to the group as being selfish or altruistic. A particular activity, such as the sandbagging of a levee that is in danger of breaking, could be selfish for some (their own house is endangered) or altruistic for some (only other people's houses or lives are endangered).

In summary, individual actions can be classified first as being selfish or altruistic and second as being a direct individual action or a group action. It is important to note that an action made in support of the group can be either selfish or altruistic.

According to the social scientists, while our genes would have us always look after our own self interest, we can be taught to look after the interests of the group we belong to (see Dawkins, Richard; The Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976). For the most part, members of the animal kingdom are always acting selfishly. But there are exceptions. The ants, wasps and bees - the "social insects" seem to act for the group's best interest rather than the individual's interests. In particular, soldier ants routinely sacrifice their lives to save the colony. It is hard to see how this could be anything but promoting the welfare of the group over the individual.

What about humans? Do we humans generally act to promote individual interest or do we act to promote the interest of the group (like the social insects)? The answer has to be "both", since we do not just follow our instincts but also are motivated by what we have learned (see my essays on memes). This paper will examine some of the tragic difficulties that result from the confusion and conflict between looking after the interests of the self and looking after the interests of the group.

While we are instinctively selfish, we can be taught to think and act altruistically. Selfish instincts are driven by our genes while altruistic activities are generally "meme" driven. The term "meme" is used to represent psychological forces acquired from our environment, as described by Richard Dawkins. Acting through the group for selfish reasons may also have some genetic motivation but is more likely driven by memetic forces. (for a contrary opinion on this, see the intriguing book, The Origins of Virtue, by Matt Ridley, 1997, Viking)

It is apparent that there are many activities, in which individuals may contribute, that would have results that could far exceed the benefits that could be achieved by the individuals acting alone. Yet, paradoxically, these same actions may appear to the individual as not being worth the personal effort (See The Social Dilemmas for an examination of this issue is some detail). In this case, we must conclude then that our selfish instincts if moderated by some learned altruistic concepts would make life nicer and more pleasant for everyone. Unfortunately, this approach appears to have some surprisingly troublesome and possibly unsolvable problems (they have "no technical solution" according to Hardin in his famous essay, "The Tragedy of the Commons") associated with it. Still the leaders of society apparently feel that problem can be overcome by the approach of restraining instinctive actions and augmenting them with concepts (memes) that are good for the group.

Group Behavior Vs Individual Behavior

"Giving every man a vote has no more made men wise and free than Christianity has made them good." H. L. Mencken
"If voting could change anything, it would be illegal." Graffiti
"Everyone would like to behave like a pagan, with everyone else behaving like a Christian." Albert Camus

When we proceed with some activity that costs us time, money or other resources, we expect to get some return for our efforts. Depending on the action, that return to the individual could be to me direct (like planting my own garden) or indirect from being a member of the group (like voting). When we take an action that we (or possibly our close friends and family) directly benefit from, it is easy to assess the cost/benefit (or "utility") equation. But when we do something for the collective group - in which the reward derives from being a group member - the situation is much more complicated.

It would seem reasonable to wonder how the benefits derived from being a member of the group compare to the cost to the individual making the contribution? Amazingly but typically, the return to the individual -- from being a group member -- is less than the cost of the contribution made by the individual! This diabolical phenomenon is referred to by a number of names including "Many-Person Dilemma", "Contributor's Dilemma", "The Voter's Paradox", or, in general, "Social Dilemmas" (SD). More on this later.

At this point, an example might be helpful.

Suppose a certain small town has a local bank. This bank provides services to the community that are beneficial in that benefits in excess of the cost to the individual members is provided. For example, it provides loans to local businesses which result in them making more profit than they could on their own. It consolidates the money from the citizens and makes investments that result in higher return than they could achieve on their own. And so forth. Unfortunately, due to some external conditions, the bank finds itself in trouble. You have $10,000 in this little bank and you hear rumors that it might fail. What should you do?

Your options are this: If you leave your money in the bank and enough others do the same the bank will survive and you and the other members of the community will share in the benefits of having a local bank. But that reward to you is not as great as the potential loss of $10,000. From your point of view, the logical action is to withdraw your deposit.

Many more similar examples could be presented. This apparent paradox has been a perplexing problem to some of our greatest thinkers. It seems to have no solution.

From another viewpoint, it is paradoxical that there are situations in which certain behavior improves the lot of all members of society but the particular individual can reap even better rewards if the rest of society follows that certain behavior while he or she takes a different route! An example is the case where everyone is honest but me. I get the benefits of the trust resulting from people being honest but can reap far greater benefits by taking advantage of that trust and being dishonest. That is known as the "freerider" problem.

In summary, the achievement of personal interests through group efforts is burdened by a serious dilemma: even if each individual in the group would receive benefits in excess of that individual's contribution, that individual would receive even more net benefit by not contributing at all, i.e., freeriding. The interested reader can examine this baffling phenomena in more detail by reading the articles referenced here.

Cooperative Successes and Failures

"He who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god." Aristotle

"We must never forget that if the war in Vietnam is lost, the right of free speech will be extinguished throughout the world." Richard M. Nixon

The soldier ant calmly and willingly goes to its death to defend the colony. The eagle does not. Most of the members of the animal kingdom seem to be driven by individual selfishness even though the actions taken are often beneficial to the group as a whole.

Humans use both approaches with some success and some failures. There are many examples of our behavior that show that we humans do sacrifice as individuals to promote the best interests of the group. It is apparent that our leaders have been very successful in teaching or forcing us to act in the interests of the group when our genes tell us to look after our own best interests.

Some examples of somewhat successful cooperative behavior of humans:

1. Military combat duty

Most people, when called to serve, will go to their deaths in a war action that they do not understand or have not investigated its validity. They pay with their deaths for something that often is only serving the ambitions of a few politicians or the hysteria of a misinformed public. This is an extreme example of the cost to an individual of a particular action vs. the gain to that individual from being a member of society

2. Welfare programs

We contribute greatly to programs that we personally get little or no return from.

3. Morals

For the most part, we don't steal and lie even if we could get away with it.

4. Altruism

We fund schools, art, culture, etc. at great expense where the personal benefits are poor compared to what we could do with the investment for ourselves.

Many more examples of successful group behavior could be presented. Of course, some group behavior is good and some is bad (and we are not likely to agree on which is which!).

Examples of non-cooperative behavior overriding cooperative behavior:

1. Reduction of the National Debt

It ain't going to happen. Why? Because my community, as represented by my community's politicians, will thwart your community's attempts to cut back on expenditures that are beneficial to us. Each community is acting like an individual in this case and looking after the community's interest rather than the nation as a group.

2. Government waste

When a government employee wastes money, we all lose - including the individual doing the wasteful spending. After all, he/she pays taxes too. Unfortunately, the cost of their taxes is insignificant to the rewards they get directly for the wasteful spending.

3. Medical

While it is true that I would like for health costs of the group to be reduced, when I am sick I would like the best care that the group can afford - if you don't mind. Scientists and philosophers say that we are naturally motivated by self behavior and that looking after the group's interest has to be learned or forced. Unfortunately, much danger lies in the teaching and forcing.

How we are Taught to Act Cooperatively

"Men who live for long under government and its bureaucracy, courts and police, come to rely upon them. . . .The state releases the individual from the 'responsibility' or 'need' to cooperate with others directly; it guarantees him a 'secure' environment in which he may safely pursue his private goals, unhampered by all those collective concerns which it is supposed to take care of itself." Michael Taylor in Anarchy and Cooperation
"The shepherd always tries to persuade the sheep that their interests and his own are the same." Stendhal

Our social leaders (church, school, political, the press, etc.) recognize the value of having each individual act in such a way as to benefit the group as a whole. As mentioned above, it would be of great benefit to all the members of society if the members were honest, did not steal, etc. Unfortunately, it is all too obvious to most individuals over three days old that it is easy to take advantage of this situation -- by being dishonest -- with potentially great personal rewards. Our leaders recognize this and try to convince, deceive or force the individuals into thinking and acting in ways that make society better for everyone (or at least, better for the leaders).

But it is extremely difficult to pull this off. Every youngster knows that there are immediate and direct rewards for lying. While she may realize that in the long run it would be good if we all could trust each other, she is about to get severe punishment if she admits that she skipped school and spent the day partying with her friends.

So what do the leaders do about this paradox?

The political officials try to counter "aberrant" (not good for the group) behavior by propaganda or, more likely, by the threat of punishment. As the situation stands before outside interference, if no one steals property we would all be better off but there is a great temptation to the individual to steal since he or she would benefit greatly. This can be countered somewhat by imposing the threat of potential punishment for the person that gets caught. Now the rational individual has to weigh the rewards of the theft against the possibility of being caught and punished - which could greatly exceed the value of the theft.

There are a couple of problems that diminish the success of this approach. One is that it is a fact proven by research that people find it difficult to rationally assess probabilities. While direct response is easy to assess, the chance that something may happen, no matter how good or bad, is not assessed very well by most people. People still have sex with strangers even though there is a chance of contracting the deadly AIDS disease or getting shot by a jealous spouse. On the other hand a person will usually be inhibited if there is obviously an immediate minor consequence - such as getting punched in the nose.

Another problem is that knowledgeable people are more skeptical of the effectiveness of crime control methods than the ignorant. While in the past, the mass of individuals might easily be deceived into believing that law enforcement was all-wise and powerful, the majority of individuals, being better educated, are now somewhat cynical about the whole business.

The church leaders try to solve the problem by the simple and effective technique of convincing folks that even though they may pull off a theft or lie undetected, they can't hide from God. We are taught that HE is always watching us. Great idea, but unfortunately does not work on those that are not into religion and, again, is much less effective on educated and knowledgeable people.

Another effective tool that the church and others use is to convince the individual to feel guilty when they violate a rule. This extremely effective tool has been picked up on by the more "liberal" members of our society and used with great success. That this method of using guilt to control can get out of hand is easily observed at the universities trying to outdo each other with "political correctness".

The press and the educational establishment use all of the above to help control aberrant behavior but primarily use the last one, the "control by strings of guilt". Without reference to religion, we are daily bombarded by the concept that it is "wrong" to steal, lie or to have disapproved sex. The success of this approach is obvious as most individuals do feel guilty if they commit such acts even if they don't know why and are not religious.

Without passing judgment on whether any of this is "right" or "wrong" (much of it clearly benefits society), it is obvious that the methods for implementing "group think" have had significant success with the mass of our society. Unfortunately, these methods do not work on a significant portion of the members of our society - to our great expense and aggravation.

Further, we should recognize that while these methods may generally work for the good of society, these same tools may also be applied to encourage actions that may not be in our best interests. Examples already given hint at this: e.g., while it is good for society to convince everyone not to steal, it is bad for society to have people go to war to get maimed or killed just to further the ambitions of politicians.

Predicting Group Behavior

"The people as a body cannot deliberate. Nevertheless, they will feel an irresistible impulse to act, and their resolutions will be dictated to them by their demagogues. . ." Fisher Ames (1758-1808)

It seems obvious that predicting what a group does is simply the act of predicting what the individuals in the group do. That is, group behavior follows from individual action. Well, it may be obvious but it is apparent that a lot of folks - particularly our leaders - tend to think in terms of making the "group" do the right thing. It does not and will not work!

If you want the group to act in a certain fashion, you must provide incentive for the individuals in the group to act in the desired fashion. Government employees are going to continue to waste, goof off and spend us into oblivion unless we provide incentive for the individuals in the government to act otherwise. Education is going to continue to go to hell unless we can make it attractive for the individuals involved in education (educators, students, parents - at least) to act otherwise. Crime is going to continue to increase unless we find some way to make it attractive for the police, the judges, and the criminals to want to personally contribute to the elimination of crime. Universities are going to continue to turn out politically active but work-avoiding air heads if we can't come up with a way to make the professors, the administration, and the students personally want to correct that situation.

For example, how do we stop excessive waste and spending by our government? At the present time, government employees in management positions are rewarded for spending. There is no real reward for not spending. Government employees frantically search for ways to spend money at the end of the fiscal year so they will not be in the embarrassing position of not spending all their budget. It is very important to realize that they do that because they are rewarded for spending. You can moan and rant all you want to at this mythological thing called "government" but nothing will happen until you direct your attention to the individuals that make up the government.

And so on for all the rest of the groups mentioned.

So, the rewards and/or punishments must be directed to the individual rather than the group. It will do no good to make a law that requires "congress" to stay within the limits of a specified national debt. But providing incentives to the members of congress to reduce their personal authorizations of spending would work. Of course, that is not easy, but who said it was going to be. It just happens to be the only solution. It will do no good to rant at the general population that they ought to have "family values", but it might help if the individuals in these families were rewarded for following these values (whatever they may be?) If you want to correct such ills as the Savings and Loan mess then make sure there is not an incentive to the managers of these institutions to spend other peoples money recklessly. And so on.

The Myth that You can do Something about it

"It is easier to love humanity than to love your neighbor." Eric Hoffer
"I love mankind; it's people I can't stand." Charles Schultz
"We walk alone in the world. Friends, such as we desire, are dreams and fables." Ralph Waldo Emerson
"The most common of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind." Mencken

A fascinating aspect of the problem of the "individual vs. the group" is the irrational belief of most individuals that they can correct societal problems if they so desire. The reasons that they give to justify taking no action is that they are "too busy" or "not interested enough", etc. In reality, practically the individual is helpless with regard to societal problems - even in a so-called "free society".

While the leaders have successfully indoctrinated most of us into looking out for the group, one of the confusing myths constantly promoted and readily consumed by our society is that you are a free individual and if things are not to your liking, you can do something about it. Not really.

The fact is, the individual can do no more to change a burdensome societal ill in a social democracy than he/she can in a dictatorship. Sadly, in some ways, the situation is worse in a democracy, because in a dictatorship you know you can do nothing, but in a free society you are deceived into thinking you can do something. Practically, you cannot. It is a problem fundamental and inherent to the "individual vs. group" phenomenon.

Imagine yourself as THE victim of a robbery and not just a member of a group that has a certain average number of robberies per month. Passing a harsher crime law (and, in turn, eliminating a few more personal rights) may reduce the statistical parameter, "number of robberies per month", but does nothing to alleviate your suffering, the person that just got robbed. That is what we are trying to focus on here - the individual's plight - not the statistics for the group.

Every individual has been strongly indoctrinated to believe that they can change things. There is a reason for that indoctrination. If a leader wants to be able to control a society, for good or bad, a most effective approach would be to get each individual to think in turns of the group. So, the individual is taught to think, "If I take action A, and most others do likewise, we can achieve success". That is collective thinking and, from an individual point of view, is seriously flawed by the clause, "and most others do likewise".

The real question is, "What can I as an individual do?" In other words, from a strictly personal point of view, what can that person do. Not what will happen if many others do a certain thing, but what will happen if I do a certain thing.

The success of a group action comes from the group's efforts, not my effort. If I can somehow influence the group to act a certain way, then I may successfully change something. Few of us have that capability so we are back to "What can I do?". Unless there is evidence to the contrary, I must assume that my actions will have little influence on others.

In any case, the issue here is what can the average individual do about any of society's ills, not what the politicians, entertainers and celebrities can do.

Some examples:

1. What can you do if the government requires you to pay taxes that support wars and other programs that you strongly oppose?

2. What could you do if you were called to fight in another "Vietnam" type war?

3. What can you do if your community decides by majority vote to raise taxes 50% to pay for building a home for the "motivationally impaired" citizens? Or worse, establish a law to allow taking of property of those that "motivationally excel" to be distributed among the "motivationally impaired" (and their agents, of course!).

4. What can you do about it if your community chooses to give "equal time" to the religious view of creationism and have the textbooks modified to that effect? Taking your children out of school doesn't completely solve the problem, you surely realize.

The fact is you can do essentially nothing to change some dictate from the government, be it federal or local, that is impacting your personal life whether you live in a democracy or a dictatorship.

Even heroic effort on your part is likely to fail. Yes, I am aware that there are some instances of some individuals, with great personal sacrifice and expense, successfully correcting a societal ill. The odds of success are about the same as winning the lottery - which certainly does happen, but I wouldn't stake my life on it.

One more thing: one of the biggest myths promoted by all those in power is that if I don't like something, to correct it all I have to do is vote. There is nothing more certain in this world than the fact that my vote absolutely and positively will have no effect! While I might be successful (but not likely) in convincing others to vote in massive quantities to correct a bad law, my individual vote will do nothing. Except to make me feel complacent.

It is a farce to say that you can't complain about law X if you didn't vote in the election (for or against politician Y). First off your vote didn't count - the politician would have been elected with or without your vote. Second, what she does after election is not under your control. If she is honest, she would go by the majority (this is a democracy, supposedly). If she is less than honest, she will go by whoever screams the loudest, hurts the most, helps the most, pays the most, or whatever. Unless you have complete control of one or more of those things, you, the individual, can forget having your will be done.


"The Americans will always do the right thing... after they've exhausted all the alternatives." Churchill

"We must abandon the prevalent belief in the superior wisdom of the ignorant." Daniel Boorstin

"The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt." Bertrand Russell

There are several inherent conflicts between the individual and the group of which the individual is a member of. These conflicts are often called "social dilemmas" in the literature, the most common example being the so-called, "Many Person Prisoner's Dilemma" in which it is in the best interests of all to contribute to some group goal but the individual has even greater rewards by "freeriding". Further examples of the individual/group conflicts are the control of groups and the helplessness of the individual.

Individuals enjoy or could enjoy many benefits that derive from being a member of society with each individual making appropriate contributions. To achieve these group benefits, the leaders of our society have convinced a large portion of our society to act in society's best interest rather than their own. Unfortunately there are many that continue to act in their own self interest, which includes taking advantage of the fact that others are being cooperative. This flaw is catastrophic to the concept of a benevolent society optimized for the benefit of all members. This single fact accounts for the major troubles we have: crime in the streets, massive welfare, massive blood-sucking government, a national debt that will grow until we collapse, continued loss of constitutionally guaranteed rights, breakdown in education, and on and on.

It is not productive to think in terms of making a group "do the right thing". If you want the group to do the right thing, then make sure there are incentives to the individuals in the group to do the right thing. To do that you must carefully analyze what it is that motivates the individuals in this group. Or, simply go ask them.

Finally, it is seen that while it is a common belief that in a "free" society, a person can change things if they so desire, the reality is that the individual is essentially helpless. In particular, while it is an acknowledged useful belief, it is a myth that an individual's vote will change anything. If a change comes about, it is the result of many people voting, not the one individual. The result would not change whether a particular individual voted or not.

What is the value of these revelations? Plenty. Our present approach, living on myths and dreams, is on a path of destruction for society as we know it. Understanding the fundamental flaws in our thinking is the first step to coming up with a solution.

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