I went downtown today on the Metro to meet Dan Klein for an EconTalk episode at the DC Hoover Institution offices to record with Dan. I park my car in the Metro lot and get on the parking garage elevator with a rolling suitcase that has my recording equipment. A woman is on the elevator absorbed in her phone and steps out as I step in, thinking she’s on the floor for exiting to the trains. But the elevator has only stopped for me on the 4th floor so she steps back on. When we reach the exit floor she heads out quickly.
There’s a very heavy glass door to get outside. It never works well. And I’m wondering because I’m wheeling this case that’s pretty heavy whether she will hold the door for me, given that she seems to be in a hurry. Indeed she does hold the door, gives me a quick smile and then literally begins to run toward the platform where the trains are. She is wearing some kind of heels and doing the best she can to make time. I roll along as she races ahead of me. When I get to the platform, maybe a three minute walk, she is still there. Her speed ended up buying her nothing as it turned out.
I thanked her again for holding the door and then I asked her why she had done so. She looked puzzled. “I always hold the door,” she said. “But you were in a hurry,” I said. She again looked puzzled. “Did you think about it,” I asked? And of course she said no. I thanked her again and then noticed a tear slowly falling down her cheek. It was cold on the platform. My wife’s eyes can tear up in the cold. Or maybe my door-woman was just struggling to deal with something that was the source of her need to get downtown quickly.
I don’t think she was touched by my gratitude. But I was touched by her very very small act of kindness and loveliness–a small sacrifice of peace of mind to do what she presumed was the right thing to do. A small act of kindness that ended up not delaying her trip, as it turned out. And I was reminded of the Adam Smith virtue of propriety–that sometimes we do the right thing simply because it is the right thing. Economists tend to see the entire world as a giant cost-benefit analysis. And sure, you could treat the opening of a door for a stranger as a selfish act, an act where the cost of delay is worth paying because it outweighs the cost of feeling guilty or some other way of framing kindness. In this view, there is no altruism. Everything is self-interested.
I think this is the wrong way to think about it. Not all behavior is maximizing in this way. Sometimes we just do the right thing because we think it’s good to be a mensch, a person who does what is proper and kind. And yes, I understand you can say that someone who is a mensch is self-interested because feeling like a mensch makes you feel good. But I think that misses what actually happened.
That woman who did the small act of kindness didn’t do a calculation. She did what she thought was right. Period. Sure you can model her behavior as a form of self-interested calculus, but I think that actually misses what happened. She has a rule that she keeps. She opens the door for people who have stuff to roll or carry. And yes, if her hurry had been desperate enough she might not have done it. I get that. But that too would have been impulsive. We are not just calculating machines. Sometimes, we do what we think is lovely and ignore the cost and do it anyway, just for the sake of loveliness.
Ironically, in the conversation with Dan Klein, he returned a number of times to a fascinating point- the idea that being ethical is partly about making being virtuous a form of self-interest. What did he mean? I need to think about it some more but I think he was saying that as we grow as human beings, we can make habits out of virtue so that they become, essentially a form of self-interest. There was much to think about in this idea and I will be chewing on it for a while. You’ll be able to hear it yourself on EconTalk soon. Meanwhile, I hope that woman with the tear on her cheek was just cold. Her small act of kindness warmed my trip downtown.
Russ Roberts is the host of EconTalk, and a Center For Individualism Poetic Justice Warrior.