25 Jun 2009

Humans, Incentives and Righteousness

A few, slightly-scattered thoughts on morals...

We tend to pursue self-interest, to the point where we feel it's ok to harm others -- even when that harm is far greater than the benefit we get for ourselves (breaking a car window to steal change in the cup holder). This problem will persist as long as men are less than angels. We try to control this behavior with incentives (punishment, social stigma, guilt) but these are imperfect AND costly. Will we ever be able to get along?

This problem (need to control self-interest) lies at the root of many problems:
  • Some people think we can get there by "altering consciousness," but that implies we can walk away from one of our deepest instincts (self-interest over group-interest). This is the role of religion...

    Religion can improve in-group survival/performance. It works in this way: We are told that it's good (in God's eyes) to take care of others -- if we give now, we will be rewarded later. Others, being told the same thing AND seeing us act so cooperatively, cooperate in turn. Thus, a religious community tends to thrive in an atmosphere of "taking care of your brother and sisters in God." Such a solution works quite well, until one religious group runs into another, and "kill the infidels" is invoked by political leaders more interested in their power (and their group's power) than the interests of other humans (and their leaders). Thus, we see how politics/religion can turn from good to bad in the pursuit of selfish human needs.

  • The police are there to "protect and serve" and they do so by enforcing the law. But what should they do when the "law" bans something that's "socially beneficial"*
    1. Cops know that people should obey the law.
    2. The violator is not obedient.
    3. The violator is thus unworthy of respect/should be punished.
    4. Besides prison, is it ok to take a bribe to let the violator go away? It's not like anyone cares. People care about murder but not about socially beneficial crimes like smoking marijuana.
    5. Thus are cops corrupted, and corruption -- as a gateway drug -- will lead to more abuses (extrajudicial murder, bank theft, violation of other civil rights, etc.)
    6. This gets MUCH worse when drug dealers/felons fire back/kill cops. Now druggies are deadly :(

  • Many water management problems can be traced to collective action problems -- the few trying to exploit the many (by free-riding, etc.)
Bottom Line: Although it seems that we are a long way from "just getting along," we can structure institutions and incentives to make it easier to cooperate and harder to exploit. It just takes time.
* No person or group could collect enough money (votes) to oppose that action, e.g., a murder victim could pay more than the murderer (as % of income) but few are willing to outbid someone who wants to smoke marijuana...


  1. People who haven't studied or don't care about economics are often horrified to hear me say that a great deal could be achieved, in terms of conservation, if the incentives and the property rights were well defined and aligned. One of the greatest problems I find with a part of the environmentalist movement is the idea it's all a moral choice, that making people feel guilty will make them change their behaviour. All that has achieved is some discrediting of environmentalists as a whole.

  2. The selfish gene theory provides a counter to the idea of unrestricted self interest. Through the mechanism of kin selection cooperating groups can do better than competetive or uncooperative individuals. There is a large body of knowledge supporting this position, but it is not widely appreciated or understood.

    In support of your observations on the role of religion, Robert Wright, in his book, "Three Scientists and Their Gods", made the observation that groups with strong religious beliefs out perform groups without religious beliefs.

  3. @enviroecon
    I agree.
    @david and enviroecon
    Positive incentives work much better than negative ones.
    The selfish gene approach has been supplanted with a lot of studies on multigene and multiorganism approaches. Hugh Gusterson and Jared Diamond are sources of the anthropology of this. E.O. Wilson talks extensively about social structures in insects. The gene and cell level biology now has many sources including a huge new literature in neuroscience.

    Positive incentives, patience, and persistence (as well as knowing what you are talking about ;-) ) are turning out to be most effective.

    What might be the positive and negative incentives and property rights that would work for the water situation? How do you know from case studies that these approaches would work?



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