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.

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