The Kindness of Strangers

March 8, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

A philosophy professor at Brown, Felicia Nimue Ackerman,  has come out against random acts of kindness. Her op-ed, originally in the Providence  Journal, appeared in a New Jersey paper today (here). No Blanche du Bois she, Prof. Ackerman begins:
Suppose you stop for coffee on your way to work. When you try to pay, the cashier smilingly informs you this won't be necessary. “Someone has paid for 20 coffees and you are number 8,” she says.
How would you feel?
If you said you'd feel a bit more cheerful and that you might be inspired to do something similar, not so fast. Prof. Ackerman has a better idea.
If you want to make your thought count, why not direct it at a loved one? The money that you spend on 20 cups of coffee could buy a gift for your friend, spouse, parent or child, who would cherish it as a symbol of personal affection that — let’s face it — means a lot more than a cup of coffee from a stranger.
That’s the great thing about being a philosopher rather than a social scientist, I guess. You can make statements about what people would do or how they would feel and not have to worry about evidence. Me, I’m not so sure.  Assume a cup of coffee costs $1.50, so we’re talking about $30.  Also, economists tell us that it’s better to give cash rather than a gift.  It avoids “deadweight loss.”

Imagine a friend handing you $30?  “Here take it.”

“What’s that for?”

"‘Because I want you to have it. I want to give it to you.”

“Really?  But why?” And so on. 

None of this questioning of motives occurs with the explanation for the anonymous gift of a $1.50 cup of coffee. 

Which does more to increase the total amount of happiness in the world  – the 20 cups of coffee to 20 strangers or the single gift of  $30 in cash or merchandise to one friend? That is an empirical question, and not an easy one to settle. The two relationships (stranger vs. friend) are different.  More important, so are the outcomes Ackerman mentions (cheerfulness vs. strengthening of the relationship).  If I give my $30 to Dunkin’ Donuts, the last thing I’m looking for is to strengthen my relationship to the next twenty people who walk in.

Surely there must be some empirical evidence on both these kinds of gift.  For example, is there a variation of the Ultimatum game where the subject of the experiment is offered more than half and in the next round becomes the one who makes the offer?

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