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?

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