Rules and Incentives are Strangling Society

Barry Schwartz, Swarthmore College psychology and economics professor, tells us how rules and incentives undermine society and make us feel like we’ve got to shower the grime of immorality off our skins at the end of every day. “Rules and incentives are no substitute for wisdom,” he says in a TED talk. At another point, he notes: “We need virtue, we need character, we need people who want to do the right thing.”

This talk is based on the new book by Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe, Practical Wisdom

This entry was posted in Practicing Goodness, psychology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Rules and Incentives are Strangling Society

  1. nancyjane says:

    This is great stuff: I listened to part of it this morning and put the book on my to read list. I’ve always been a big believer in bending rules! In fact, I have always considered it my duty to get around as many silly bureaucratic rules as I can: not to take advantage of other people, but because the rules are unreasonable.

    One of the things that makes me despair about environmental regulation and litigation is that it tends to be all about whether everyone is following the rules. It seems to me a lot of energy is being wasted on rule debates that should go into addressing real solutions to climate change and improvements in air and water quality.

    I am interested to see their suggestions on dealing with the financial industry and big corporations, which I think have developed a culture that considers it a weakness to bring virtue into the workplace. I agree with their point about how rules don’t work there, because people can always find ways around them, but I find it hard to think of how to fix the underlying problem.

  2. dianesilver says:

    Your comment about finance and the corporate world developing “a culture that considers it a weakness to bring virtue into the workplace” rings true. This is one of the reasons why I think the search for goodness (or perhaps the term is “virtue”) is more than just a personal quest. If institutions don’t believe in and promote virtue, then we’re all in trouble. And the signs are everywhere that goodness and virtue are considered either out-of-date concepts or impractical.

  3. Even when the institutions promote virtues, those virtues are often limited. Despite public perception, I’ve found over the years that most lawyers are virtuous, when virtue is defined by the canons of ethics and the general myths of the profession. Most lawyers believe very strongly in the idea of the rule of law and the adversary system, and they consider it their job to be strong advocates for their clients, even when their clients lack credibility.

    This is both good and bad. We have made huge progress in society because lawyers were willing to represent discrimination victims, atheists, etc. OTOH, lawyers who focus only on their clients’ desires and needs do not look at the big picture. In fact, looking at the big picture would not be virtuous within the world of the law, even though it might be in the larger society.

    You can find the same issues within journalism. I think most journalists believe in certain virtues and myths that define the profession: make sure to present both sides, stay neutral, don’t get too cozy with the people you cover, look for the hidden information. Those are often good. But often there are more than two sides to a question. And then there are the times when the “other side” is, in fact, peopled by crackpots — the “birthers” for example.

    Neutrality is hard to come by. I know journalists who refuse to vote, and I consider that a terrible thing; I don’t think one’s profession should keep one from being a citizen.

    One thing I’ve watched over the years is the conflict between science and law and science and journalism. The legal rules on admissibility of expert evidence are a good showcase of how the virtues of law and the virtues of science conflict. You can find something similar in press coverage of science.

    So in addition to what we see as a lack of virtues — and I suspect within corporations keeping your mouth shut to protect the short-term corporate bottom line is considered a virtue, while within the family, keeping your job at all costs might be seen as a good thing — we have competing virtues and virtues that leave gaping holes.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s