UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Altruism and politics MacDermid, Robert Hugh


The growth of state authority in the societies of modern liberal democracies has resulted in a diminished scope for the exercise of individual obligations, duties and rights in private life. The decreasing sphere of individual authority may be partly explained by liberal theorists', and particularly John Locke's contention that individuals cannot provide without the coercion of the state, those public goods such as justice which distinguish the state of nature from civil society. For while man can be benevolent in private life, in public life he cannot be trusted to see beyond his own self-interest. Therefore, Locke and others concluded that public goods, which are produced by many and consumed by all, must be provided by the state. The thesis argues that benevolence or altruism is a theoretically possible if not prevalent motivation in public life. The spread of state authority manifest in the welfare state, reduces the opportunities and atrophies the willingness of individuals to behave altruistically. Moreover, different kinds of situations impose constraints upon the choice of an altruistic course of action. In a formal analysis of simple variable sum noncooperative games of the 2 x 2 order, altruism is shown to be a choice alternative in only a minority of games. But where altruism is not constrained, it is a demonstrable pressure on subjects' choices in two experiments. The subjects in the two experiments were required to choose between the two alternatives of a 2 x 2 game where decision pressures were defined over the payoff values of the matrix. The decision pressures represented in the games were benevolence, Pareto optimality, collective rationality, competition, and individual gains maximization. While the pressures of individual maximization and competition were revealed as the strongest by a multiple regression analysis, benevolence was shown to have a surprisingly strong influence upon the subjects' decisions. The finding supports the contention that individuals may be capable even in highly competitive albeit abstract situations, of sufficient benevolence to provide some of the public goods now supplied by the state. The findings therefore lend weight to the classical liberal argument for a reduced if not minimal state.

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