Thursday, October 29, 2009

Ethics, Reward and Finance

Money as Root of All Good

A brief theoretical interlude about ethics, reward and finance
By John Taylor; 2009 Oct 29, Ilm 14, 166 BE
In this series we are speculating on the possible introduction of local monetary schemes using three universal currencies based on trades and professions. Today we back off a bit in order to look at the right and wrong uses of money.
There are fundamentally three ways to get someone to go out of their way to do good or to refrain from doing harm: one is fear of punishment, two, hope for reward, and three, inherent value. Inherent value is another way of saying the "l" word, that you love the good and do the right thing for its own sake. Unfortunately, when speaking about moral behavior in a social context you have to ignore inherent value.
If I leave my diamond necklace in a public place, a hundred or a thousand people may walk by, valuing their own integrity above stealing, but if only one is tempted, I still lose it forever. Similarly, that one thief among a thousand saints may be perfectly moral in every other way, may do right for its own sake every minute of their life except the moment they glimpse my necklace, but that does not save me from becoming a crime victim.
Government and even religion do not have the power to impose love on everybody. Often one cannot order oneself to do what is for our own good; if we could, smoking and obesity, to name just two, would be unknown. And even if we could impose love, love in imperfect beings is never an absolute or a constant. All it takes is one fleeting moment of temptation in one in a thousand for that necklace to disappear.
That leaves the other two motivators, reward and punishment. Historically, rulers have been better at imposing punishments for wrongdoing than they at rewarding good deeds. Government as we know it today is obsessed with negative sanctions, such as war, fines and imprisonment.
There are good psychological and evolutionary reasons for this. For millions of years large predators lurked behind every tree, ready to pounce. This constant danger made our brains respond instantly and viscerally to any imminent threat of harm. No matter how much our ancestor hoped to better himself, no matter how sublimely he valued good for its own sake, his genes were not passed on if he did not respond instantly and ended up as dinner for a sabre-toothed tiger.
With the possible exception of agriculture, the two greatest human inventions ever were language and money. Among other things, they introduced into the social equation the two longer-term motivators, hope of reward and love of right. For the first time hope and love could equal and even surpass brute fear as prime movers. Language enabled communication, which permited humans to cooperate in their own defense. The new power of speech empowered a weaker species to scale the food chain and take on the largest, most fearsome beasts.
The invention of money gave birth to homo economicus. It is a practical fact that for most people most of the time, the most enticing reward is cold, hard cash, and losing it is the most repugnant sanction. Even the prospect of paying less than expected is an enticing prospect, judging by how often advertisers use the word "save!"
Why is money so powerful?
The biggest reason is that historically it permitted the division of labour to come about. With a reasonable expectation of fair recompense, it suddenly made sense to spend years learning a specialized skill and even longer working high priced masterpieces in that craft. In this sense, money is the root of all good, but only if it furthers professional virtues like thrift, knowledge and excellence.
Money, then, has become an even more constant motivator than fear. In effect, money pits a long period of time against a relatively brief chill. Whereas fear galvanizes the body for quick reaction, money impells us to delayed gratification. Much delayed. As the saying, Ars Longa, Vita Brevis, implies, an artist reaches beyond the grave, much less the next pay-cheque.
Language and money are so fundamental that we treat them like the air, we forget they are there. Distressingly, in spite of tremendous progress in just about every other area of knowledge, the two greatest accomplishments, language and money, easily the most fundamental inventions ever made, are being neglected. We act as if they were blind forces of nature that we cannot alter or improve. Yet the language barrier is widening the digital divide, and it remains the greatest structural cause of poverty and injustice. If linguists agreed upon a second language for everybody, we would remove it in a single generation.
Similarly, we treat finance and monetary issues as if they are fixed and forever beyond human purview. The result? Money ceases to motivate, and when it does move us, it does so in an unhealthy way, one that does not further peace, enterprise or expertise. As the Bible says, "the love of money is the root of all evil." If money becomes an end in itself, it loses the power to motivate good deeds, delayed gratification, for most people most of the time. Without engrossing careers, the source of good money is out of reach and ceases to motivate the masses. Fear and gross punishments again become the only thing that moves them. At the same time, the wealthy fear loss of their fortunes more than they hope for the far greater fortunes that could be made if economic equity were univerally applied.

Thus inequality is a churning maelstrom from which it is impossible to escape.

It is not a coincidence that countries with the highest income inequalities also have the highest rates of incarceration.
With little chance for the poor majority to better their condition legally, the only perceived way ahead is trafficing, pandering and other criminal activity. Even in supposedly egalitarian and freedom-loving democracies, a spirit of revenge proliferates. As punishment fails, and the authorities retaliate with even more severe punishments.

It is also not a coincidence that these unequal, punitive societies are also the most caught up in materialism, a worldview that concentrates on immediate motives at the expense of a longer view.

Next time we will continue with the question: What kind of currency and monetary policy would make money the root of all good again?



Unknown said...

Hmm, have you ever considered how the fear of the loss of money, particularly when that money is not in gradations but almost an "all" or "nothing" kind of situation. The fear of being drawn into a situation where you are forced to lose everything? You see, fear is attached to money when the money involved is the foundation of your existence. Before it happens fear is a great motivator to keep quiet, to go along, not to see, to compromise ones' principles, to rationalize away evil, to see the situation from a "detached point of view", to not make a commitment.

After you have experienced the loss, as a result of some action you have taken, then you see how much of your fears were grounded in your vision of reality or someone else's.

I suspect Abdu'l Baha saw all this coming, from some of his comments in Mahmud's Diary. But He knew that nothing is as delisious a tonic as pure experience. ;-)

Unknown said...

You know I like your blogs, but you really need a good editor. Your points can be made much simpler and in fewer words. I have had similar inclinations, so I suggest more serious study of Paris Talks, and less admiration of aspiring towards Shoghi Effendi.