Friday, July 08, 2016

What’s in this for me?

I went to graduate school after an undergraduate program in engineering,  An undergraduate program that was devoid of any formal thinking about the humanities and the social sciences.  Come to think of it, I am surprised that the university admitted me to graduate school and, more shockingly, gave me money to come and study!

It was a vast amount of ground to cover--from getting introduced to various ideas with which many were already familiar to even learning how to write.  Keep in mind that this was before the days of the Web--no Wikipedia or Google to help out.

As a former commie sympathizer, I hadn't paid a great deal of attention to selfishness.  The political philosophical discussions, especially in what Robert Nozick offered, were fascinating.  It was in one of those contexts that another graduate student, who was ahead of me in the PhD pipeline, talked about how material incentives worked better than moral incentives did.  The virtue of selfishness.

Over the last thirty years, it has been a struggle for me to understand this fundamental aspect of how we people function as individuals and as groups: What can drive us to do the right thing?

David Brooks writes about it in his latest column:
To simplify, there are two lenses people can use to see any situation: the economic lens or the moral lens.
When you introduce a financial incentive you prompt people to see their situation through an economic lens. Instead of following their natural bias toward reciprocity, service and cooperation, you encourage people to do a selfish cost-benefit calculation. They begin to ask, “What’s in this for me?”
When I think, read, and write about the human condition and empathy--like in the post yesterday--I am convinced that unless there is an innate, humane, moral prompting, we will not be able to create a heaven right here on earth.  Economic incentives that manipulate us into doing the right thing will always turn out be not enough--as kids, we might do the chores for a buck, and then the buck does not feel enough and we ask for more.  As adults, if we are guided only by economic incentives, then we begin to ask for more and more.  As Brooks notes:
Imagine what would happen to a marriage if both people went in saying, “I want to get more out of this than I put in.” The prospects of such a marriage would not be good.
But, society has even operationalized that through the marriage prenup.  Unlike what Frank Sinatra sang, love and marriage do not apparently go together like a horse and carriage!  
Whether you are a teacher serving students or a soldier serving your country or a clerk who likes your office mates, the moral motivation is much more powerful than the financial motivations. Arrangements that arouse the financial lens alone are just messing everything up.
Yes, the self-interest based arrangements are messing everything up.  I do not mean to suggest that the world has become awful, and I bet neither does Brooks.  Plenty of measures--from life expectancy to peace to prosperity--will easily show us that we live in much better times than in the past.  But, there is something missing in all that.  Happiness, contentment, empathy, and all those aspects of the human condition do not seem to be around as much as I would like to see.  More than ever before, people seem to be constantly searching for happiness and contentment, without realizing that these come from the long-neglected moral motivations, and do not result from selfishness.  Empathy, of course, is all about the other, which requires us to minimize the self-interest.

At the end of it all, one thing is clear: The answers to these are not easy.  If only more people will think about all these, instead of madly rushing around propelled by their selfishness.


Ramesh said...

I don't think they are mutually exclusive. It is OK to be driven to make money and also to give it away. Gates, Buffett, Zuckerberg ....

I think there's also an age dimension to it. Earlier on in life, you are driven to be selfish to assure a decent life for yourself. Later on, when that is reasonably assured, it no longer is a prime motive.

Having said that, its all too easy to take selfishness to an extreme. I agree that moral motivations are generally at a decline. That is sad.

Continuing from the previous post, a big hug to Anne.

Sriram Khé said...

The selfishness that I explored in this post was not merely about making money or giving it away I am way more worried that we humans apparently do not want to do the right things unless we can be sufficiently tempted by "what's in this for me?" I am way less interested in whether people who make money give quite a bit of that to charity.
As an example, consider clean air or clean water. Apparently we don't think keeping them clean is a good thing to do--unless there are financial incentives. The lack of incentives mean that we are ok with polluting, and apparently we will work to clean it only with the right kind of incentives. Such an attitude is more than a tad f*ed up :(

Anne in Salem said...

You have mentioned heaven on earth twice recently without linking a video of Belinda Carlisle. Look it up and enjoy - the music, not the video.

Moral choices are a luxury some can't afford. Take organic food. Most people can't afford it, no matter how much they want to make the moral choice of food grown without chemicals. Clean energy is more expensive than coal. If you can afford to heat your house only to 60 degrees, adding more to the bill for clean energy isn't an option. If the choice is food or morals, I think most people would choose food.

You say happiness and contentment come from long-neglected moral motivations. It is well-documented that helping others generates more benefit for the helper than the helpee, in satisfaction, contentment, happiness. So we can be selfish and selfless at the same time.

Sriram Khé said...

I had no idea about Carlisle ...
And then it turns out that I am more than familiar with much of her music ... more than the "heaven is a place on earth" the "mad about you" is one heck of a 1980s piece ;)

You write "If you can afford to heat your house only to 60 degrees, adding more to the bill for clean energy isn't an option." True. No question about that one. But what prevents those who have a lot more to spare from spending more in order to have, for instance, a less polluted air or a less polluted land? Why don't those who have plenty to spare work on important issues because of moral incentives, and why do they need tax writeoffs and rebates as financial incentives in order to do the right things?

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