Human Nature

How Economists Turned Us Blind to Our Own Goodness

Cultivating conscience: how good laws make good people

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By Lynn Stout

What’s the best way to get people to behave themselves? Legal and policy experts often assume people are basically selfish creatures who respond only to punishments and rewards, and who can’t be trusted to do a good job or refrain from lying, cheating and stealing unless given the right “incentives.” Are CEOs neglecting their firms? Tie their pay to share price with stock grants and options. Are America’s children failing to learn their ABCs? Give teachers bonus pay if they raise test scores, and fire them if they don’t. Are Medicare expenses increasing too quickly? Use “pay for performance” schemes that give doctors and hospitals a direct financial motive for keeping health care costs down.

This emphasis on “incentives” and “accountability” relies on a homo economicus model of purely selfish human behavior that was developed for theoretical economics, but has since spread to be embraced by policymakers, business leaders, and experts in a wide range of fields from political science to philosophy. Today, it’s hard to find a serious discussion of the possibility that we might encourage or discourage particular behaviors by appealing not to selfishness, but instead to the force of conscience. Many modern experts would snicker at the very idea. Conscience is viewed as the province of religious leaders and populist politicians, not lawyers, businessmen, or regulators.

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Blind to Our Own Goodness

This is odd, for every day we see people behaving ethically and unselfishly–few of us mug the elderly or steal the paper from our neighbor’s yard, and many of us go out of our way to help strangers. Our very language reveals our preoccupation with moral assessments. Just as the Inuit have many nouns for snow, English has a multitude of words to describe unselfish, conscience-driven behavior, including: virtuous; kind; fair; agreeable; honest; ethical; trustworthy; decent; upright; faithful; altruistic; humane; loyal; charitable; selfless; principled; conscientious; cooperative; generous; considerate; caring; and compassionate. Most tellingly, another simple word often used to describe unselfish behavior is “good.”

Policymakers and business leaders nevertheless usually overlook the unselfish, “prosocial” side of human nature, fixating instead on selfish misbehavior and how to stop it. This fixation may stem in part from certain biases in perception. For a surprising variety of reasons, including our psychological biases, the structure of our language and our society, and the way we select and train experts in law, economics, and business, we tend not to “see” ethical and unselfish behavior, even when it happens under our very noses. Americans watched their television screens aghast when hundreds of New Orleans residents began looting in the lawless wake of Hurricane Katrina. Few stopped to marvel at the miracle of the thousands of New Orleans residents who were not looting.

This collective blindness to our own capacity to act conscientiously—or, as behavioral scientists might put it, our capacity to act prosocially—can lead us to overlook the reality, and importance, of goodness, leading us to neglect the crucial role our better impulses could play in shaping society. Rather than leaning on the power of greed and selfishness to channel human behavior, our laws and policies might often do better to focus on and promote the force of conscience—the cheapest and most effective police force one could ask for.

Experimental Gaming and the Science of Conscience

Luckily, modern behavioral science offers policymakers a guide for how to put conscience to work. To a behavioral scientist, conscience might be better described as unselfish prosocial behavior, an objective approach does not require speculation on the internal motivations that sometimes lead people to behave ethically and sacrifice to help or avoid harming others. Extensive empirical evidence from behavioral economics, social psychology, and evolutionary biology proves that, far from being rare and quirky, unselfish prosocial behavior is not only common, but highly predictable—and easy to manipulate.

Over the past half-century, behavioral scientists have devised an ingenious parade of experiments to test what real people do when placed in situations where their material interests conflict with the interests of others. “Social dilemmas,” “ultimatum games,” “dictator games,” and “trust games” all test what human subjects actually do in various situations where they must choose between selfishness and prosociality. The results of such experiments demonstrate beyond reasonable dispute that, far from being rare, unselfish prosocial behavior is endemic. Researchers around the globe have run hundreds and perhaps thousands of experimental studies that consistently demonstrate that unselfish prosocial behavior is a real and very common phenomenon. Sometimes—in fact quite often—we sacrifice our own material payoffs in order to help or to avoid harming other people.

That possibility should interest anyone who lives among, cares about, or deals with other human beings. But it should especially interest those who study and care about law, regulation, public policy, and business management. Each of these fields deals with the central problem of getting people to behave in the fashion we think of as “conscientious”—to work harder than the minimum required, to pay taxes instead of cheating, to keep their commitments, to respect others’ rights and property, and to refrain from violence, theft, and mayhem.

The Jekyll/Hyde Syndrome

At the same time, the empirical fact that people sometimes act unselfishly is only useful if we have some idea of when, and why, this happens. What determines when we act selfishly, and when we show consideration for others’ welfare and for following ethical rules?

Luckily, experimental gaming demonstrates not only that conscience (or at least conscientious behavior) exists, it also teaches a great deal about when and why conscience comes into play. In particular, the data demonstrates that while most people are willing to sacrifice for others, they are only willing to act unselfishly in certain conditions. We seem to be collectively afflicted with a “Jekyll/Hyde syndrome” that causes us to shift predictably between selfish and unselfish modes of behavior in response to certain social cues.

In particular, three social cues seem especially important to triggering unselfish prosocial behavior. The first is instructions from authority. As we have known since the days of Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments on obedience, in which subjects obeyed instructions to administer what they thought were potentially fatal shocks to another human being (really an actor pretending to be shocked), people tend to do what they are told to do. This instinct for obedience, it turns out, can also be employed for more prosocial purposes. When asked to do so, subjects in experimental games routinely act prosocially—even when it is personally costly for them to do so.

Perceptions of others’ behavior also play a critical role. We are herd animals who act nicely when we think others are nice, and nastily when we think others will be nasty. When experimental subjects are led to believe others will act prosocially, they become more likely to act prosocially themselves—again, even when they must sacrifice to do so.

Finally, people seem more inclined to behave unselfishly in experiments when they believe others will enjoy large gains, not small, from their unselfishness. We seem to be “intuitive utilitarians” who are willing to sacrifice more when we believe others will benefit more from our sacrifice.

By manipulating social variables like instructions from authority, beliefs about others’ behavior, and perceptions of benefits to others, researchers have been able to dramatically change the behavior of human subjects in experimental games. When the social cues favor prosociality, behavioral scientists can elicit universal or near-universal unselfishness. Conversely, when subjects are told to act selfishly, believe others would act selfishly, and believe selfishness is not too costly to others, they exhibit near-universal selfishness.

The Role of Personal Cost

Experimental gaming permits us to develop a relatively simple, three-factor model in which conscience is triggered primarily by the three social cues of instructions from authority, belief in others’ prosociality, and perceptions of benefits to others. However, saying that social context matters does not imply that personal costs don’t. People are far more capable of acting unselfishly than the homo economicus model admits. At the same time, the experimental evidence suggests that the supply of conscience is not unlimited. As the personal cost of acting prosocially rises in an experiment, the incidence of prosocial behavior observed declines.

These empirical results indicate that if we want people to be good, it’s essential not to give them strong motivations to be bad. Unlike Oscar Wilde, most of us can resist small temptations. It’s the big temptations that do us in.

An Example: The Perils of Ex Ante Incentives

As an example, consider the disturbing implications that conscience carries for the contemporary enthusiasm for trying to channel human behavior through financial incentives. This practice is particularly common in the business world, where federal tax law since 1993 has required corporations to tie executive pay in excess of $1 million to “objective” performance metrics.

Unfortunately, behavioral science predicts this approach may often be counterproductive. Unless corporations can somehow develop “complete” employment contracts that fully specify all duties and obligations under every possible set of circumstances, emphasizing ex ante incentives will often have the perverse and unintended effect of promoting opportunistic, even illegal, behavior. Consider how the widespread adoption of stock option plans to “incentivize” executives at Enron and Worldcom to raise stock prices had the unintended effect of incentivizing them instead to commit massive accounting frauds.

To see why this might happen, recall that unselfish prosocial behavior seems triggered by at least three important social influences: (1) instructions from authority; (2) beliefs about others’ selfishness or unselfishness; and (3) perceptions about the magnitude of the benefits to others from one’s unselfish actions. Emphasizing ex ante financial incentives undermines all three. This is because offering a material incentive to induce someone to do something inevitably sends the unspoken signal that selfish behavior is both expected and appropriate to the task at hand. It suggests that others in the same situation are behaving selfishly. Finally, it implies selfishness must somehow be beneficial. (Otherwise, why is it being rewarded?)

Incentive contracts can also create large temptations that kill off conscience. The investment banking industry, for example, is notorious for employing incentives schemes that allow its traders to reap rewards that may reach into the millions of dollars. As we have seen in recent years, in the effort to reap these rewards, Wall Street traders took on excessive risks that nearly brought down their firms and the wider economy. Similarly, mortgage brokers paid bonuses for loan volume approved millions of inappropriate and shaky subprime loans.

Unless done very carefully, focusing on extrinsic incentives can have the unfortunate side effect of “crowding out” internal incentives like trustworthiness, honor, and concern for others’ welfare. Emphasizing material incentives, it turns out, does more than just change incentives. At a very deep level, it changes people. Relying too much on selfishness can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. By treating people as if they should care only about their own material rewards, we ensure that they do.

Taking Conscience Seriously

Why should contemporary legal and policy experts should be eager to do the extra work needed to incorporate the idea of conscience into their analysis? The answer is simple: we can’t afford not to. Peace and prosperity depend on our human capacity for courtesy, consideration, and forbearance. Today, unselfish prosocial behavior is so deeply woven into the warp and woof of Western life it often goes unnoticed. People take cash out of ATM machines without hiring armed guards; beefy young men stand patiently in line behind frail senior citizens; drivers wait for red lights to turn green, even when the police are nowhere in sight. We take for granted the countless unselfish acts of cooperation and restraint that bind us together in a civil society, just as we take for granted the gravitational force that keeps us from floating out into space.

But just as we cannot live well without gravity, we may not be able to live well without conscience. The statistical evidence indicates that cultural habits of unselfish prosocial behavior are essential to both economic growth and psychological wellbeing. Evidence is also accumulating that unselfish prosocial behavior is on the decline in the United States. Just as environmental scientists have become concerned about many sources of scientific data that point to the possibility of global warming, some social scientists have become concerned about the growing evidence that points to the possibility of “conscience cooling.”

If Americans are indeed becoming collectively more selfish, unethical, and asocial—concerned only with their own material welfare, and not with the fates of their communities, nation, or future generations—this shift threatens both our happiness and our prosperity. We need to respect, and cultivate, conscience.

Originally published at the Brookings Institution.

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  • Hema

    Beautiful work! Appealing to the better angels of human nature to create a cohesive society makes so much sense I wonder why it hasn’t been implemented thus far in legislations.

    • Kenneth Slayor

      I would suspect that it is because of the punitive actions it would require against all traditional philosophies and cultures of conscience. What creates a culture of conscience is a system of shared defined valuation. In the United States we have a secular set of shared valuations, what I will term Ethics, and a personal set of shared valuations, what I will call Morals. Because of the imposition of Ethical values over and against Moral values under the legal system by various groups, say Christians against Indigenous Peoples, Atheists against Christians, etc. the resistance to further interference in the practice of Moral conscience and the agreement to Ethical standard is resolutely entrenched.

      What is called the Lemon Test is utterly inadequate to the current state of events and the current understanding of affairs. Concerns about LGBT bathroom privileges were non-existent until the idea of former men or transvestite men in women’s bathrooms occurred to the media, while it was the idea of former women or transvestite women in men’s rooms no one cared, and no one still cares. Concerns about LGBT marriage and equality are all based on the continued practice of government issued licenses which originated to determine what children had a legitimate claim to inheritance of property from noble or landed parents; No such dispute is necessary anymore as all children are now legitimate in said regard and the head of state is no longer the head of the faith, so legal declarations are no longer under divine right authority. Yet, government continues to interfere in the issuance of licenses in a venue that is strictly and only a religious matter. All aspects of dependency, all rights to property, all obligations of taxation, all powers of attorney may be established by other venues without a license based on government entanglement in what is and has always been a religious ceremony.

      While those practicing Ethical Monotheism have been the most vocal, they have not been the only practicioners of belief to have those beliefs trampled upon by the heavy hand of government, nor are we even considering the freedom of expression of those who have a philosophical right to hold a pro-choice or pro-life position without the use of religious argument. The exacerbation of mistrust has been increased by the unwillingness for the wisdom literature of humanity to be included in the curriculum of the public school system. The left, in its hypocrisy, demonstrates that ‘abstinence only’ education leads to undesirable results while demanding an educational policy concerning the wisdom literature, the thousands of years of accumulated examples of good conscience, of our entire species be banned from education.

      Why? Because they claim separation of Church and State. Well, when that separation proves, as it is now shown, to result in the worst social conditions for an industrial state in the modern world then perhaps there is something wrong with its implementation. I watch self-avowed anti-theists such as Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins make statements about theology, usually Judeo-Christian, which are full of ignorance. I watch ministers make statements about academia which are full of ignorance. Not everyone will understand calculus, and not everyone will understand the intrinsic calculations of the metaphysical influences of conceptions in a mytho-poetic epic about the eternal connections between the cycles of the environment and the many subconscious identities with a man. Yet, while we are forced by law to maintain ignorance, to remain ignorant, to be untolerated in the expressions of our faiths, to have the source and foundation of our values denied any legitimate place in our society, then how would legislation even begin a dialog on a cohesive society?

      • To maintain separtation of Church and State, the State should not be responsible of the establishment of schools ….. The state should provide the funds to educate a child, and the parents should pick the school to educate the child. The state should be responisble for that which cannot be provided by other sources. A smaller state leaves us all freer.

        • Kenneth Slayor

          Absolute maxims like “A small government protects liberty” are fraught with problems in logical evidence. It would seem like a rational posit, if and only if, there were no other influence besides its opposite correlation that “A big government denies liberty”. Except that without a Big Government the Jim Crow Laws which were imposed by small government would still be denying liberty.

          The state must, and of necessity should, be responsible for the establishment of those things that are necessary for the common defense and to promote the common welfare – to include trade. It is also necessary that they ensure persons are equipped with what they need to be well informed citizens who can act responsibly in a representative democracy for the common defense does not start with military action but with the ability to read the literature of our heritage, write oratories with which to present our cause well before our fellow citizens, and in the prosecution of arithmetic that we might execute our arguments with reasoning and sound logic.

          We are Americans, the refugees from deprivation, from political oppression, from religious intolerance, and from racial and tribal genocides who being malcontents criminalized and crushed beneath the bloody jackboots of Old World thugs fled to these shores. The literature of our heritage ranges from the Go Rin no Sho to the Popul Vuh. Our right of inheritance is every culture, in every quarter of the earth, in every land and upon every sea where the blood and bone of our fathers and our mothers cries out “We gave birth to everything you have become.” Yet, we have silenced their voices.

          George Orwell feared that government would restrict what we could read, and he was correct. In the zeal to appear divorced from religion, government has separated us from our heritage – ordering our world heritage of wisdom silent in the education of our children. So long have they done this that it is to be doubted that there are even 20 persons left per 100,000 who could teach how to find the meaning of this literature. Aldous Huxley feared that because literature, knowledge, would become so immediately available the public would abandon any effort to learn. How much more horrified would he be with the digital revolution of today.

          And are we at greater liberty because of this? Would ignorance that we are in fact ignorant of the details in what we have lost make us free? Or would it just enslave us to a greater level of ignorance. For if we pluck out our children’s eyes at birth, they will never understand how they are blind.

          • R J Schundler

            It seem that we are in basic agreement …. Small Govenment does not mean no Goverment. It basicly mean Limited Govenment base on an agree Consitution …. Which is a static document, except that it can be amended from time to time. Small Govenment serves a purpose as state in Adam’s “Wealth of Nations” book 5 (today we might call it part 5. The purpose of governemt is to protects the Rights the people have (which belong to the people and not granted by the state). The “Jim Crow Laws” would represent the actions of BIG GOVERNMENT, just like the NAZI killing of Jews was something only Big Government can do. Small Government does not have the authority to do so. The term BIG and SMALL refers primarily to the extent that the Government has the authority over the lives of the people. The less authority the govenment has the greater freedom the People have. However since some people would try to enslave other people we need some government. So to remain free the People do need to have some government at lease until we as a people become Perfect People … Not likely! So we need some government, and we need to try to limit the control to the government we have, since there will always be people who will want the govenment to expand and control the thinking and actions of other. Example is everyone should be able to get a good education, but there are many who would want (BIG GOVERNMENT) to control what the children learn … (State control of the Schools), so how does a SMALL GOVERNMENT state promote education without controlling education …. SCHOOL CHOICE, the state provides the funds, and Parents pick the School…

          • Kenneth Slayor

            There is a disconnect here in that you are speaking within the context of a specific text from a specific book. When people hear the words small and big applied to government they do not think in terms of authority, they think in terms of size. Under these conditions big government is necessary. As an example, there is one police officer for almost 500 people and they are outnumbered by criminals. We have a 7 to 9 ratio of registered sex offenders to officers in just this one area of crime – not counting the ones that haven’t been caught. There are 15 to 1 ratios of those in free society who have been convicted and imprisoned (almost 14 million). This is not counting the domestic issues and areas like traffic control which are also their duty. Nor does it consider the more than a million and a half which are in prison currently being detained by those law enforcement professionals. Instead, reduction in policing forces to make “smaller government” has even resulted in conditions where cops get paid per piece on a contract basis in some places or get additional income for targeting people who can be turned into a court case so they can testify. Such cases are used to generate revenue by fining and eventually confiscating the property of the poor who simply lack the capacity to fight back. (I know this because this is how my mother lost her home in Ferguson, Mo. Not all the victims of the legal system there were Black.)

            If one wishes to debate where the lines in sand and stone should be concerning the limits of governmental authority then it needs to be done in those specific terms. The public is not educated enough to perceive the use of terms such as big and small in relation to such an inquiry. The other thing to consider is that there are four legs to the middle class: Government employment, Unions, Middle Management, and Small Business Owners. Decrying Big Government has been the clarion call to eliminate government employment. Downsizing has been the same, from the same people, to eliminate unions and middle management. With these three massive sectors of the economy now impoverished to bankruptcy or near bankruptcy, small businesses are dying because there is no middle class sufficient to support them. The wholesale legislated approval of streaming all acquirable units of exchange to the upper 0.1% has destroyed the financial foundation of our society. Only be re-establishing those protections for the middle class, to include the employment of persons to maintain the big government departments to protect that middle class, can we create a better economy for all.

          • R J Schundler

            I gusss you are not a Conservative or a Libertarian …. The term “limited” and “small” are used interchangeably. Since if you do away with a department at the Federal Level you should end up with less government employees. As you add a department, let say you have a department to keep tract of speech and gun ownership, well you will have to hire more people, so the government get bigger as they extend their authority. The terms do not come from “one book”, however, Adam Smith’s book explains what a government should and should not do and why. …… Most of the talk about “smaller” government is at the national level. …. the Consitution is a national document. At the local level people may want more or less police! That is a local level issue. …. However, while you are on local and state issues, less talk about all those people in jail which is diverting a lot of tax payers taxes to maintaining jails, instead of paying better wages to the police ….. Those people in jails are costing money to maintain instead of living more productive lives and paying taxes …. I have worked in this area, and worked with others in related areas …. Hense, you may have read about “School Choice” in one of the urban areas I was working in a community college student from the local area was telling me how lucky he was to have a mother who could teach him what he needed to know, and he was able to go to the community college. He said that he visited his high school, which was in a movie about the education problem, and when he was there the teachers tried to teach, even if the class was not paying attention, now he said they just read the newspaper. Parents to be able to send their child to a school of the parent choice. Let the money follow the student. This would insure that all schools must work for the interested of the students and their parents, not the interest of the local political machine. And “yes” most of the families I dealt with were poor Blacks, but my interest was not that they were Blacks, and in my family we have what we call family, but you might call them BLACK …. But they are not POOR, and they will go to the school of their parents choice, becasue we have the funds …. I believe that all parents should have a choice.
            As to how one gets into the middle class …. The name of the game for most is Education. I worked in a family business ….my father started the family business when there were not so many rules, now within the last few years for the first time there has been less small businesses at the end of the year than at the beginning …. When I was working, my number one complaint, was that the government was taxing away our ability to grow and complete with W.R.Grace …. Now my brother in the same business number one complaint is all the rules and regulations that no one knows about until you a fined. The Federal Government is killing the local community banks, and making it more and more differcult to have a small business. Yes, I am fight that, too. But my first fight is quality education for all.
            Now, Big Government, never protect Small Business …. I use to visit Washington a few times a year, but I was there to take anyone out to dinner, of to make big donations …. NFIB has weight in Washington …. But still the Big Banks, Big Business, Big Government, and Big Goverment Unions are the ones in control. They do not look out for our interest. (By the way the top .1% do not all have the same interest …. True most a pals with the Democrats and donate to the Party …. Or to their friends (Hillary). Some are Republicans and donate there.

            For the People to move forward, we must have SCHOOL CHOICE, so that every child would be free to leave a failing school to attend a school that meets the child needs. I also work to repeal all LABOR/INCOME taxes on both the employees and the employers, becasue a worker should be able to take home the money the worker earned (at lease the first $250,000). And we should make it easier for employers to hire employees. Next, I do believe in FREE TRADE, and it must also be FAIR TRADE, and I believe I can not cut employment based taxes without raising taxes somewhere else …. So I support the “FAIR TAX” on GOODs (You can look up the FAIR TAX on the internet). This would reduce the cost of goods produced in the USA, while increasing the cost of foreign goods. The Fair Tax is simular to the taxes of most exporting countries.
            I see that you have simular desires in terms of promoting upward mobility of all people, my means may differ, “Is it easier to change a few tax laws, and promote freedom of education?” Or to do go in your direction (by the way I not what laws you would change) …. Another item, when Conservatives talk about the FAR Left and the FAR Right, the FAR Left is absolute rule by one person (a King like Louis XIV of France, a Dictator like Hitler), the FAR Right is absolute anarchy (there is no government). Most people want to be some where between the two.

  • Rob Lewis

    Sociologists tell us that a key predictor of the success of a society is the overall level of trust in other people and institutions. Or, as this author might put it, the expectation that others will behave ethically and cooperatively.
    Unfortunately, one of our major political parties has waged a 40-year war on trust—in government, the media, the academy, science, even basic facts and logic. All they can offer to replace it is “Greed is good.” And we are reaping the rewards.
    Once we trusted each other enough to work together and sacrifice to do great things. Now we can’t even agree to fix a bridge that’s falling down because OMG! It must be a boondoggle! Sad.

    • expeedee

      And Harvard’s Robert Putnam, “Bowling Alone,” reports that trust and social engagement decrease as societies become more “diverse.”

    • Rob, one party has promoted freedom in the free market system, Free enterprise system, and in free educational choice …. These systems when permited to operate tend to help the poorest raise their Standart of living and enjoy life at a higher level, the other has tried to impose govenment control at every level …. In the end causing the poor to be poorer (as with FDR, Johnson, and Obama), and the age to have less services provided to them … And for working people to have less income …. Among those that have done the greatest harm to the poor, are FDR, Pres. Johnson, and Obama. One party try’s to promote TRUST, the other Party tries to command Trust (does not work) … “Greed is Good” in the economics sence where people want more of what is Good …. The problem is Your party does not teach what is Good, nor what is Better, and it does not even get near what is Best. And with hight taxes, mothers most leave their children to work, to provide the taxes the govenment takes from the family … In case you are not sure which party it is …. It is the Democratic Party, which as harm the working class.

      • Rob Lewis

        With no hope of convincing you about anything, I’ll just note:
        • Empirical evidence builds every day that there are serious problems with “free market” religion. The Invisible Hand doesn’t automatically solve all problems the way you think it does.
        • You worship “choice” as the ultimate good. But there is such a thing as too much choice, and it can make real humans (not Homo economicus) miserable. Read Barry Schwartz’s book “The Paradox of Choice”.
        • Are you seriously maintaining that Republicans have tried to “promote trust”? I give you St. Ronald Reagan: “The government isn’t the answer to your problem. The government IS the problem.” And on and on ad nauseam.
        • So you count “greed is good” as “better values”?

        • You are right the Invisible Hand does not “automatically solve”, however, it does not extend recessions into Great Depressions and Great Recessions. Too many choices can make deciding more differcult, however, I would rather decide what school to send my children that to have someone that could care less about them to make the decision for me. IF we the People can not make our own choice, who should make it ….. The Feds? China and the USSR did that for their people, as did the Sun King of France. By the way Rob, are you saying that we should have trusted Nixon more? You seem to be among those that think all the good people work for government, and all the low lifes work for private business …. Yet, it seems the first thing government does is look after their own with better retirement plans, the current pay and benifits …. Never cutting back on their own, always making the common people pay for it. From the government view point it is better to send the Poor Children to failing schools than to fire failing administrators and teachers. …… In case you do not know …. Greed is wanting something you value more than what you have. If I have poor health, I want good health, if I have good health and want better health. Same is true for food, and every other need … We always want what we think is better, however, we understand “better” to be. Let me know when you find someone that wants to be worst off based on their own values..

          • Rob Lewis

            Oh, so it was government meddling that caused the Great Depression and the Great Recession? You must really enjoy that Kool-Aid.
            And I was taught the value that greed is one of the seven deadly sins. Weren’t you?

  • I think the main thrust of this piece– that you need people to behave (i) ethically and (ii) somewhat generously at least at low levels– is quite true. Mutual aid societies and other private social welfare programs that were prevalent before their functions were taken over by the government are excellent examples of this sort of behavior.

    I suspect, however, that creating systems that encourage and harness these inclinations is pretty hard to implement in a top down fashion, e.g. through legislation, regulation or even within a large private firm. But I also suspect that understanding that these effects exist and can be important can help people to at least make marginal improvements in various programs, systems and institutions, e.g. a military recruiting, curbing pollution, employee rewards.

    These are just the sort of behaviors that are essential to economic growth and well functioning economies and societies. They are the sorts of behaviors that are sorely lacking most places where there are not well-functioning market economies. The lesson (to me at least) from the checkered record of development economics is that the key to creating a well-functioning society are good institutions at all levels. The problem is we don’t know how to create these top down so the best we can probably do is to encourage those that seem to function well by perhaps providing a little help and not creating artificial constraints– we should approach the problem with a great deal of humility and an appreciation of how much we don’t know even though there are a lot people living far less full lives than there might be if institutions were better.

    When it comes to encouraging and planning for these pro-social behaviors in our own society we should “approach the problem with a great deal of humility and an appreciation of how much we don’t know.”

    • Aritz

      “Society is part of the genre of consciousness,” says Lacan. Thus, von Ludwig[3] implies that we have to choose between the capitalist paradigm of expression and postsemanticist rationalism. Baudrillard’s essay on postdialectic discourse holds that the law is capable of significance, given that sexuality is distinct from consciousness.

      If one examines postdialectic discourse, one is faced with a choice: either accept textual neoconceptual theory or conclude that the goal of the observer is social comment, given that Sartre’s essay on Lacanist obscurity is valid. In a sense, many appropriations concerning the difference between society and art exist. Bataille suggests the use of postdialectic discourse to analyse society.

      • Just what I said.

        • Aritz

          You should approach your comments with a great deal of humility and not thumb them up yourself…

      • Hannes Radke

        Ummmmmmmm … what does this mean?

    • Good responce, one place we can start is with our Education System … A “public school” system estatblished by the state, made up of many different ethic group with different values, is almost certain to fail, since it ends up teaching only a very low level of selfishness without teaching the higher level of selfishness (advancing the soul). One of the first steps we can take in making a better community, is to enable parents to send their kids to a school of their choice. The state provide funding to the parents, and the parents pick the school. Some parents my pick a poor school, however, a Board Of Education tends to make more poor choices more often … So it is true that every parent will not make the best choice, they will tend to make better choice. In a Free Market/Free Enterprise system where one reputation counts people will tend to act at a highter level with less government interference.

  • Patrick cardiff

    Um, how can we argue
    against what is “good?” That is tautological in some respects.

    To Ms. Stout, conscience is
    an asset, that is, refined human capital. But unlike an accounting term, we don’t
    amortize it.

    The general thesis has subjective/objective
    issues. If one tries to generalize a concept of individual human capital, behavior gets
    “washed out” by the simple act of aggregation. That is, one loses
    the variety of “goodness” and “badness” when placing
    everyone in a defined category “conscience.” It’s a problem of ethics
    to determine good and bad, and there’s no simple answer. For convenience of
    measurement, perhaps, the definition of “conscience” becomes so broad
    that in the end it is effectively unusable. Thomas Aquinas would (did) have
    much to say about this. Anyway, we end up with a robot having the ethics of the
    estimator. Economists please listen up: you are “sinning” when you
    place things in nice, neat categories; by doing that, you defer to the rules of
    category membership; you are giving up what you say (incorrectly) that you are
    observing! It’s a lie if you do it deliberately, but don’t simply call it
    measurement error and plead ignorance, because you’ve been warned! This is a
    failure of traditional Economics: we observe but, really (really!), it SHOULD
    be empirical. It’s easier for everyone when hypothesis are backed up by
    confidence intervals. We should at least see evidence in the real world. Theory’s
    nice but it needs to be applied.

    What would a prior look
    like for a laboratory test here: one could show (and game theory is tailor made
    for subjective tests) that the anti-conscience crowd has “changed”
    with the times. Would a reasonable test be to survey society’s
    relationship with “securitization,” in the last 10 years say, as a
    response to peoples’ general stance about volunteerism, or taxation, or the
    Fourth of July? Sift out those who only care about themselves – the
    “anti-‘Other,’ anti-social crowd?” Like, “I got mine, so
    let’s establish the Department of Homeland Security?” This is
    impossible because finding definitions for, and comparing, such huge
    matters as “people” and “terrorism” is replete
    with imponderables; correlations are pretty darn crude containers of so
    much effect anyway.

    human animal is selfish (let’s face it), and of course over time is changed
    from selfish to generous to selfish back again. Most of us go through those
    cycles, I mean, maybe even peaks and troughs. I am against generalizing about
    the human animal because the snapshot that philosophers might use contains
    truth by degrees for one instant. A second later a different probability of
    truth pertains. Our social selves are constantly changing and therefore
    un-measurable. Consider: It is much more precise to find that “Actual
    laborers in new home construction in the USA in the last 10 years have been
    of Spanish heritage” than to say “we have become less
    altruistic.” I maintain that the local-geographic, micro, sustainable
    information contained in the former is more salient for understanding how
    society provisions itself. At least experiments at the smaller scale might be
    more relevant for replication. But absolutely, anything that contributes to our
    understanding of a long-run social response would be hugely helpful.

    • Economics can be tested, as an officer in the US Army, I applied economic theory when trying to manage my unit …. I could see the results (or should I say the lack of results) of policies handed down from above, I found the policies unproductive, so I applied (my right as a field officer) my own economic theories, based on enabling the drivers to “win” more free time (the only thing I could offer that was worthwhile to them). The result was a 300% increase in “ton/miles” ….. The change in my unit could be compare to the lack of change in other units. Hense a valid test. I tried a differ concept when I went to work for a privately own company producing goods instead of delivering goods. I had to play around a bit with what would modivate them to work independently while working to promote the welfare of the company and our customers … The end result was a 400% in provement in profits and output. The first “Thankgiving” was giving thanks to a simular situation where the Govenor applied some economic insight that resulted in great farm harvest …. It can also be applied at national levels …. Economics in a very productive field that can give wonderful results.

  • Brian Holdsworth

    Encouraging “good” behavior through leadership and role-models – Yes! Legislating “good” behavior – Not so much… As you say, expectations of selfish behavior, in the form of laws trying to prevent it, has the counter-intuitive effect of encouraging selfish behavior.

  • I would say the author does not understand economics ….. From a religious standpoint the Bible is our first book of economics …. The real question a person needs to ask is what are the value of the people one is dealing with, then you help the people trade that which they value less for that which they value more. As Jesus once said, “what does a man gain if he wins the whole world, but loses his soul?” …. Now one must understand that people are opperating within a personal value system …. Here is where our “public schools” tend to fail us, we need to have School Choice so that parents can send their children to schools that teach the children values and skills. When I was in the US Army, 78th Transportation Company, in Germany, I could not “pay” my drives more, but I was able to develop a “bonus” system where I gave them free time based on how much they accomplished, and I told drives that they were appreciated (basic army leadership skill) …. We delivered 400% more loads, saving the US taxpayer over $1,000,000 a month. When I left the service, I became a CFO, and increase the output of the plant by 300% by sharing 30% of the profits with the workers, and once again letting they know that they were appreciated, and giving them credit for telling the engineers how to design the process better. Economics works everyday, and people apply it everyday …. If you want to make a better system, you have to teach better values. Hense, if we want Heaven on Earth, we need loving parents teaching loving values, school teaching the same values, and effective religious teachers …. Many ministers do not understand the economics taught in the Bible and that is too bad….

    • Aritz

      The characteristic theme of the works of Gibson is the role of the writer as participant. Thus, the stasis, and some would say the dialectic, of the dialectic paradigm of discourse depicted in Gibson’s Idoru emerges again in Pattern Recognition. Sontag promotes the use of neocapitalist nihilism to read and analyse society.

      It could be said that Marx uses the term ‘capitalist Marxism’ to denote the common ground between narrativity and class. Lacan suggests the use of the semanticist paradigm of context to challenge sexist perceptions of society. However, many narratives concerning capitalist Marxism may be found. Foucault uses the term ‘the semanticist paradigm of context’ to denote a self-referential reality.

      But a number of desituationisms concerning the collapse, and eventually the absurdity, of materialist consciousness exist. The subject is contextualised into a capitalist Marxism that includes sexuality as a totality.

      Therefore, Bataille’s analysis of Debordist situation states that consensus is created by communication. Prinn[6] suggests that the works of Gibson are an example of pretextual rationalism.

      • The Article talks about the decline of moral/social values …. Which I suspect may be true, but then that has also been said by the early Greeks. From time to time the state makes it hard for humans to express themselves, at other time the state plays a positive roll. Being old than most, I was able to visit Germany in the post WW2 years …. The American Solider was an outstanding example of how good Americans were, caring and loving even of the defeated enemy. But to a large extent that is part of the swing of history….

        • Aritz

          “Class is fundamentally meaningless,” says Sontag. The subject is contextualised into a Batailleist `powerful communication’ that includes language as a reality. But an abundance of narratives concerning conceptual neopatriarchialist theory may be discovered.

          If one examines structuralist nihilism, one is faced with a choice: either reject cultural theory or conclude that society, surprisingly, has significance, but only if the premise of structuralist nihilism is invalid; otherwise, Derrida’s model of textual construction is one of “the precultural paradigm of expression”, and thus part of the genre of narrativity.

          Foucault suggests the use of conceptual neopatriarchialist theory to deconstruct archaic perceptions of art. Therefore, the characteristic theme of the works of Stone is a mythopoetical paradox. Sartreist absurdity suggests that consensus comes from the masses. But the subject is interpolated into a structuralist nihilism that includes narrativity as a whole!

    • Sarah Mills

      Critiquing economics is not the same as misunderstanding economics.

      • R J Schundler

        That is true, but if you are driving a car and it goes off the road, and you kill a dog, who is responsible for killing the dog? The CAR !!!! The car is a tool that enable one to travel futher and faster than one could by walking …. However, it is not the CAR that killed the DOG! It was the driver. Economics is just a tool that gives understanding, how one uses that tool is based on ones value …. The author was blaming economists … we just teach the social science of economics ….. It like blaming the teacher that teaches a student how to drive, and than blaming the teacher becasue the student years later had an accident!

  • John Bass

    Humans have reached a point where our unified conscience must first be directed toward the health of earth’s environment over that of humanity. We are 7.5 billion humans trying to exist on a planet that can sustain only 2.5 billion humans living at a European standard of living. The system of human conscience that has brought humanity to this point, is obviously failing us, and failing every part of the natural world.

  • Macrocompassion

    It is not by greed alone that we live. We need to provide as well as to exchange and take. And when we provide goods we seek to do this with the least effort. So it must be by a combination of greed and laziness that we think we can manage ourselves. But since these two matters are opposites, we finish up with an economics kind of existence, where the difficulties associated with having a sufficiency are properly balanced. The balance is upset only when someone finds a way of getting something for nothing. We label these kinds of people speculators and monopolists and there are insufficient constraints on their behavior, which is why we are paying so much of our earnings as taxes.

  • Balance nature’s budget of positive productivity of critical but uncountable flows, cycles, productivity enough to lift many up……to balance human consumption of rates of cash engineered to push the many down….