Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Self-interest and collective outcomes. Morals from old Indian stories.

Most of the stories that I read back when I was a kid had what was referred to then as "the moral of the story."  In the elementary schooling years, we even had to write specifically about "the moral of the story."  Thus, the story of the milkmaid who daydreams away only to trip and fall and spill the milk might have a bottom-line guidance of stay focused on the task and quit the wishful thinking.  Aesop's Fables that we read, of course, had moral guidelines as well.

We also read a number of "Indian" stories.  Often they featured benevolent kings who tried to shape good behavior among the subjects.  In one story, a king (was it Vikramaditya?) gets pissed off (ok, that was not the language used in the story) that people are lazy and selfish, especially when doing something for the common good.

So, the king devises an experiment in order to teach them a lesson.  In the dead of the night, he has a hole dug in the main thoroughfare, buries precious jewels, and covers that with a huge boulder.  The obstacle in the middle of the road would be a nuisance but one person alone would not be able to move that boulder.  A few people would have to get together and remove that.  If they did, on their own out of the goodness of their hearts in order to help others, then, of course, they would then see the jewels buried there, which would become their reward as well.

It turns out that the king's view was confirmed.  His people went around the boulder, all the while complaining about it.  Selfish as his subjects were, they did not want to pool their strength and get rid of the rock that was inconveniencing everybody, including themselves.

So, yes, the moral of the story was all about how unity is strength and that cooperation is better than selfishness.

Decades after studying that in the elementary school curriculum, and after formal explorations into understanding self-interest and collective outcomes, I now wonder if that story says a lot more about India than I would have otherwise thought.

It is a land where, to a large extent, there hasn't been a long and sustained history of powerful individuals or institutions compelling people to behave in a certain manner.

Hinduism's gazillion gods mean that unlike with the Judeo-Christian traditions, there is no possibility of a hierarchical institution that shaped people's behaviors.  Even within different regions, there wasn't any continuous dynastic powerful monarchies that shaped human behavior. And, in the modern era, the democracy there permits a great deal of pursuit of narrow self-interest in many ways.

Thus, there has never been a fear of god, or fear of the king, or a fear of the state, employed as a tool to shape human behavior in order to attain targeted collective outcomes.  Therefore, even following the rule is not a part of the Indian psyche, leave alone coming together to do something good for all?

Nothing comparable to the phenomenally evil and powerful ways in which the Catholic church enforced rules. Nothing comparable to how Russia's rulers or the murderous Soviet system enforced rules. Nothing comparable to the centuries of Chinese social organization in which monarchs have simply been replaced by the Party.

In the absence of a compelling reason of a fear of a greater power, are we humans more likely than not to behave in ways that only furthers our own self-interests, perhaps even by flouting the rules, and even if that means that there will be inconveniences for all including our own selves?


Ramesh said...

Interesting hypothesis. Does the plurality of India naturally lead to a lack of discipline. And do unitary societies encourage discipline ?

Not so sure. In India, where some social mores have been deeply entrenched, discipline follows automatically. The blighter may jump the red light, but he will not go anywhere near a God wearing footwear. The "discipline" of caste is often followed meticulously in villages. Perhaps your surmise is right - in those examples I gave, retribution is swift and severe. Perhaps human behaviour is such that only the threat of punishment keeps us in line.

Begs the question, if this is so, Have values made much headway in human society ?

Sriram Khé said...

I should have added in that hypothesis that after centuries of that kind of conditioning, Europe (and its siblings)now have a fairly rule-obeying society ... but, that was the result of so many generations having been brainwashed under the threat of all kinds of punishment ...
Consider this for instance: churches, by putting up benches (pews) in churches (even as far back as 1600 years ago), people were conditioned into following a line. And they had to wait for their turns to go up to the padre to receive holy communion ... Catholicism was one tough military school! Those habits then spill over to secular establishments too ... fast-forward a few generations and you end up with the joke about the typical Brit who, even if the only one approaching a service window, does not directly walk up to the window but walks through the labyrinth ;)

Contrast that with the typical Indian temple scenario ...

I remain convinced that most of us stay on the legit side of transactions only because of the threat of punishment ...

We have advanced in material terms, we have advanced in terms of our understanding of science and technology, ... and so on ... but, I suspect that if we remove the threat of punishment, and if we removed the state that enforces the laws that we have agreed to, we will soon return to our animal instincts ...

Shachi said...

As usual I will try and relate it to my life.

I went to a Convent school, and it was very strict. It was also an all day school so they had more time to teach us the rules and how to obey them. The kids studying in gujju medium schools always had plenty of free time compared to me. Me and my friends all did great in college coz we were much more sincere than our counterparts. I also thrived here in this country when many of my friends struggled. My dad was an extension of my school teachers - a strict master - kept me foussed.

Did I miss out on fun? No. Had plenty of fun summer vacations and travels and fun times with cousins and friends.

I think the strict discipline was necessary. It helps me even today.

Great post, as usual :)

Sriram Khé said...

Oh yeah, the more structured our life is does not automatically imply that one doesn't have fun ... in fact, a structured life--not too regimented--probably yields a lot more time for fun stuff ... I can, therefore, easily relate to you writing that you had lots of fun time too ...

The best example I can provide for structure working out to the best outcome: the railway stations in India when there is a simultaneous mad rush from those on the platform to board the train even as there is a rush of people trying to get off the train. And all with huge suitcases too ... if people would line up on both sides of that door, the whole process would take way less time, cause no stress, and everybody will be a happy camper ...

Oh well .... :(

btw, schooling is a post that will soon appear ... tomorrow, I think, if I am structured enough with my use of time ;)

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