Do individual competence, integrity, and excuses even matter? We already use structural incentives to get people to do good things they might otherwise choose not to do: economic incentives, legal disincentives, social pressure. If markets, laws, and opinion can squeeze societal usefulness out of groups of selfish individuals why worry about self-centered behavior? Why not just encourage individuals to figure out what they want for themselves and then structure institutions to squeeze social good out of whatever choices they make in aggregate? Let individuals worry about how to get what they want.
The answer seems obvious, at least for social pressure. It is circular to rely on social pressure to police behavior while socially encouraging selfishness. Humans desire acceptance and a feeling of being good which empowers social norms to shape behavior. But if these norms accept excuses and glorify happiness then that is what they will encourage.
While a bit less obvious, civic concern and individual responsibility pull a lot of weight in legal incentives. It is much easier to incentivize people to do the right thing in a community that mostly agrees on the importance of doing right than in one that mostly agrees that everyone should focus on themselves. On what basis should the creators of incentives and enforcers of rules not optimize for themselves otherwise? The difficulty of establishing the rule of law in countries without a sense of civic responsibility should speak for itself.
And while markets might be still less obvious, non-economic concerns with fairness and contribution significantly aid markets. Simple and effective economic incentives are easiest to implement when most believe that good people don’t merely do whatever is most profitable. Consider Deirdre McCloskey’s extensive writings on the importance of values to capitalism, Fukuyama’s Trust on the importance of unselfishness in coordinated endeavors, or simply imagine how different the world would be if most thought it prudent to sneak out of restaurants without paying if they could get away with it.
The pragmatic focus on institutions is valuable and necessary, but so is the idealistic focus on the Motivational Compass of individuals. These Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian priorities are in inherent and essential conflict, but one that can be healthy if each sticks to their natural scope. Contemporary encroachment of Hamiltonian values into everyday interactions and beliefs attacks the sense of individual agency and meaningfulness of pride and progress. It questions the honor of competence and integrity. It separates individual actions from larger concerns and mostly leaves hedonistic Last Personhood and cynical battle of interests as the seemingly coherent options.
The basic beliefs that one can contribute more or less, that one can understand how things work better or worse, that these are skills that can be honed, that developing and applying these skills makes one a better person begin to be treated as naive, reductionist, and judgmental. But these beliefs are the essence of mentoring competence and integrity and the fuel that motivates achievement and contribution. Without them people who build, innovate, excel, and uphold principles can only be understood as freaks with an odd set of personal interests and an indifference to their own suffering.
Everyday Individuals Affect Society
While few dismiss the impact of institutions on individuals, many seem to dismiss the impact of individuals on institutions. Many find it difficult to mirror reasonably. They feel their own experiences deeply and see resulting emotions as justified. But they complain when others stereotype. They intuit how demands might affect their own happiness and see how rights and freedoms permit them to reject unpleasant requirements. But they complain when a plumber overcharges, a taxi driver “forgets” to pick them up in inconvenient places, or when products are shoddily manufactured. They perceive effects on the well-being of their family and in-group, empathize with them, and see injustice to be fought by any means available. But they complain about selfishness, lies, and lack of objectivity.
Many fundamentally miss the Banality of Problems: things get done by people and people doing them are just themselves in a different role. Projects become easier and tasks get done better when individuals subjugate their emotional experiences, immediate happiness, and short-range empathy to principles like prioritizing truth, doing good work, and being fair and considerate. This difficult, and occasionally objectionable, task is made not only feasible, but pleasant, by socially defining a good person as someone who makes those sacrifices: by having such actions bring personal pride and familial respect, by making them a required part of happiness.
Questions of competence, ethics, and integrity are not merely personal preferences. They affect not only personal capabilities, but institutional ones. They influence not only what individuals want, but ways in which communities are constrained. They develop not only individual desires, but social preferences.
Contribution and Extraction
Individuals are free to make the choices they wish, but they bear responsibility for the impact of these choices on systems, institutions, and society.
To a greater or lesser degree, choices either create or extract value. They are thus open to judgment and are a valid component of what it means to be a good person. The sense of responsibility for impact is a major motivation to make socially responsible choices in the short term and to improve abilities to do so over the long term. Evaluation of such choices validates, rewards, and guides them. Responsibility and judgment serve essential functions that cannot be nullified by effects on individual happiness or existence of individual freedom to choose differently.
Underneath this is a seemingly self-evident preference for contribution over extraction. Contribution is hard. Contribution creates value. Societal gains rest on accomplishments of contributors. The fundamental societal challenge is encouraging contribution. Individual traits that aid contribution, or that aid systems that aid contribution, add to the world. Conversely, traits that extract from such systems for individual purposes take from the world.
Once responsibility for impact on society is accepted, it becomes important to figure out what actions are better, what skills and values best enable such actions, what educational methods best produce such skills and values.
How, Why, and What Questions
Understanding is essential to this process. Contribution takes the world as a consequence of causes that one’s actions affect. The primary questions are “How?” and “Why?”: How does the system function? Why does the system exist? How do my actions affect it? How can I make the system work better? It sees models of the world and challenges of execution as primary and develops goals in symbiosis with them.
Extraction interacts with the world primarily through “What?” questions: What resources are available? What do I desire? What steps do I have to follow? What goals are important? It takes the world as a given and sees goal-setting as primary.
While there are many plausible “How?” and “Why?” questions at many depths, the specifics of the “How stuff gets done?” model aren’t as important as acceptance that such models are crucial and skills that improve creation of such models are essential. Surprisingly many don’t value such models and do not apply whatever models they do come up with to all sides in equal measure.
Compassion and Consideration
Extractors don’t have to be mean. Many of them are, in fact, giving and kind. But while these qualities are good, they aren’t necessarily fair or compatible with contribution and understanding. There is a difference between being compassionate and being considerate which messes with our moral intuitions.
A compassionate person feeds the ducks while a considerate person refrains from doing so. A compassionate person slams on the brakes so a fragile pedestrian can cross the street sooner while a considerate person avoids getting close to the crosswalk so many fast-moving drivers don’t have to stop for one pedestrian. A compassionate person accommodates and forgives readily while a considerate person focuses on not having to be accommodated or forgiven.
Such differences aren’t rooted in disparate appraisals of sympathy or abilities of empathy, but in divergent scopes of their application.
A compassionate person is kind and sympathetic, but their concerns tend to focus on issues they can see and their solutions on feelings they can mirror. Their sympathies tend to lie with sufferers. When ducks swim towards them they feel their desire and seek to satisfy it. They prioritize the emotional reward of doing something nice, such as the joy or appreciation on someone’s face. They are weary of abstract demands that might blunt their desire or ability to accommodate visible needs.
A considerate person thinks about effects of their actions on others more broadly. Their sympathies tend to lie with contributors. They empathize with ducks they see, but also with park keepers, visitors, and animals they do not see. They consider systemic effects of sympathy. They prioritize the rational reward of improving systems on the largest possible scale. They are weary of emotional biases that might encourage them to prioritize visible suffering over longer-term, systemic benefits or greater suffering elsewhere.
Kind people give fish and joyfully accept gratitude of the individual and their peers while considerate people teach to fish and strive to value impartial praise concerned with systemic impact.
The two aren’t always in conflict. Compassion can be the right solution – even at institutional scale. Considerate actions can be aligned with kind ones – especially at individual scale. Both value empathy and giving. Specific actions and beliefs can be neither, either, or both. But the two approaches ultimately depend on different skills, encourage different temperaments, and prioritize different trade-offs.
How and Why of Accomplishment
Effectiveness of strategies depends on accuracy of models, compatibility with high-level goals, and consideration of constraints and capabilities in goal-setting: on the quality of answers to “How?” and “Why?” questions.
The quality of answers improves with reduced effects of anything that obscures first principles of the objective situation: biases, incentives, desires, ignorance, and carelessness. This leads to values like rationalism, integrity, stoicism, curiosity, and conscientiousness.
This doesn’t mean crushing romanticism, emotions, pleasure, intuition, or play as these are essential sources of motivation and creativity. In means trying to direct them towards meaningful contribution: to view rationalism romantically, to take emotional pride in integrity, to find directing desires pleasant, to introspect on intuition, to seek play in work. And to have whatever doesn’t fit be accepted as recharging relaxation, earned reward, and creative perspective expansion: essential, but ultimately subservient to competence and integrity. It is crucial to rise above desire-filled Last Personhood, but the ideal destination isn’t robotic rationalism, but energetic meta-rationality.
Effectiveness of execution depends on capabilities, feedback processing, perseverance, and prioritization of goals: on the extent of knowledge, ability, experience, and commitment.
To not be parasitic, answers and execution must take ownership. Strategists need to be able and willing to follow their own plan. Execution skills need to include low-level capabilities, not just abilities to convince others to do the work. Because this is sometimes impractical, a sense of integrity takes ownership by proxy and makes ignorance, hypocrisy, incompetence, selfishness, and manipulativeness into grave insults.
Prioritization of integrity and focus on proving yourself can manifest in ways easily misdiagnosed by outsiders as esoteric preferences, ignorance of consequences, or lack of social skills. For example, asceticism enables committed focus and reduces excuses due to material and emotional temptations; radical honesty demonstrates unwillingness to sacrifice objectivity and integrity to be liked, achieve immediate goals, or hide inconvenient facts. Such principles aren’t necessary or sufficient for competence and integrity, but they aren’t unconnected either.
The path of ownership, integrity, excellence, and contribution is demanding and often diverges from one that best generates acceptance, happiness, pragmatic results, and personal profits. It is a gross oversimplification and an insult to explain that people choose it because that is just the way they are. They choose it, and do the extra work, because they believe it to be better. There are several paths to this belief, but they ultimately stand on teleological drive for individual excellence and impact of individual competence and integrity on society. And these positions, in turn, need cultivation together with skills that prove them capable of producing superior results.
Possibility and Accessibility
The core question of accomplishment is whether something is possible and the fundamental proof is it being done.
These are separate from how desirable, accessible, or expensive something is. A major part of developing competence and integrity is learning that many limits aren’t of possibility, but of accessibility: limits of knowledge, desire, effort, and endurance. Individual contribution is heavily tied to pushing against such limits and extraction is heavily tied to excusing the responsibility to do so. The willingness to exert is a significant measure of individual commitment to accomplishment and achievement is a substantive proof of its presence. Dedication to resist the excusing influence of personal preferences, abilities, experiences, emotions, and costs is a substantial part of the ethos.1Kipling’s If— extols the lengths this commitment to avoid excuses can go to.
It is a matter of integrity to answer challenges to validity of strategy, execution ability, or individual integrity with committed action. Marc Andreessen’s call to build exemplifies the “prove it” mindset of accomplishment.
This doesn’t, of course, mean that every challenge must be accepted. It means believing that every decline, delegation, and decree draws on a line of credit backed by one’s integrity: a line established and validated by previous accomplishments and everyday acts of contribution, consideration, conscientiousness. And it means recognizing the sacrifices of those who take up the challenge and the commitment of those who succeed.
Once something is proven possible by being done the bulk of the challenge is seen as complete. The next step is to explain how it was done so it can be applied on a larger scale. Because the work is considered to be the hard part, the burden is perceived as being on the listener finding ways to understand the proof rather than on the explainer finding ways to convince.
The Real World
The benefits of a perfect world full of considerate, inquisitive contributors are easy to see and many rush from this realization towards exploration and validation of methods that best promote their development. But the reality is that people with incompatible values and skills are a large majority and this is unlikely to change. An often-ignored question sits between defining what is good and striving to achieve it: is goodness a worthwhile social goal even if it cannot attain scale? Is trying to be the change one wants to see in the world a worthwhile individual goal even if it is lonely, depressing, and ineffective?
Similar questions apply to all sets of idealistic values. Should we try to raise idealistic builders if we know there will never be many of them? Should we try to be kind in a cruel world? To be ethical in a selfish world? To be honorable in a pragmatic world? To be peaceful in an aggressive world?
Each person who is more honest or reasonable or compassionate or capable or altruistic makes society a bit more so. They make it a bit easier for the next person to be like them. But they also make many feel worse about themselves. The hope is that discomfort leads to self-examination and proof of possibility to inspiration, but the reality is that they often lead to self-justification and conquering. Ostracizing and taking advantage of naive contributors is a survival strategy for many.
Idealistic builders make their own lives more difficult and open to abuse on the presumption of greater contribution and meaning: is the presumption valid and do pragmatic alternatives offer a better path?
On societal scale, the pragmatic alternative is to make regular people feel good about themselves, use institutional manipulation to keep their behavior reasonable, maybe have them contribute here-and-there without being too demanding. At the same time, funnel ambitious people to enclaves of productivity where they can be held to different standards and protected from scrutiny.
On individual scale, the pragmatic alternative is to learn to interact with people and systems effectively, keep your identity small, and curtail self-limiting integrity and idealism. It is advocated by the likes of Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, Green’s The 48 Laws of Power, Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad Poor Dad, and Hamming’s You and Your Research:
“Many a second-rate fellow gets caught up in some little twitting of the system, and carries it through to warfare. He expends his energy in a foolish project. Now you are going to tell me that somebody has to change the system. I agree; somebody’s has to. Which do you want to be? The person who changes the system or the person who does first-class science? … My advice is to let somebody else do it and you get on with becoming a first-class scientist. Very few of you have the ability to both reform the system and become a first-class scientist.”
But such alternatives leave pragmatic doers unenviably exposed to arbitrary charges of hypocrisy, immorality, selfishness, and vigilantism; charges that can be used strategically in conquering games. And they make “better” people whom idealists worked so hard to raise feel even more like fish out of water: even less sure of the correctness of their efforts and sacrifices.
Milton Friedman was pragmatically correct when he said that “making it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right things” effectively solves problems. But it’s a small step from embrace of such institutional truths to dismissal of individual efforts to define a right person, be one, or raise one.
The more society appears accepting of mediocrity, excuses, and pragmatism the more difficult it becomes to develop idealism. People who want to contribute may increasingly find more effective manipulation genuinely superior to efforts to understand, invent, build, perfect, and explain. People who want to be ethical may increasingly find helping people feel happy genuinely superior to encouraging high standards, having principles, or contributing to something larger. And people who might have prioritized contribution may increasingly find prioritizing themselves comparably defensible.
Complexity and Perfectibility
Commitment to considerate contribution rests on answers to a long chain of questions. How does competence and integrity contribute to individual actualization and well-being? How do they contribute to society? How much of a duty is there to contribute? How do specific skills, values, and meta-capabilities affect competence, integrity, consideration, and contribution? How is each skillset affected by social norms? How can best skills and values be developed?
Each question leads to many more. Each hypothesis engages large action hierarchies. Each answer demands proof.
Most answers aren’t clear-cut. Each step exposes mind-boggling complexity and consequent uncertainty. Which prompts two main responses: see it as a challenge, up commitment, and be more demanding or to see it as a justification, cut standards, and be more forgiving.
The responses are self-reinforcing. Lower effort, standards, and capabilities together with flexibility generate mistakes, unpredictability, and frustration which increase complexity and deepen the perception of unmanageable chaos. Conversely, best-effort attempts at perfectionism generate systems that internalize complexity and deepen the perception of understanding and agency.2All systems eventually cease working and require adjustment or replacement, but the approach is responsible for much progress.
One response devalues theory, structure, and responsibility because of complexity; the other blames complexity on insufficient theory, structure, and responsibility.
The more answers validate that increases in capability, integrity, or desire to contribute improve the world and are achievable, the more important it becomes to motivate people to strive and to find better ways to achieve. Accomplishment is hard so strivers need all the mentorship and recognition society can offer.
The more answers limit duties to society, prove that abilities cannot always be developed, or question the value of unscalable high standards, the more important it becomes to make people OK with imperfection and to find paths to contentment. Life is hard so people need all the compassion and support society can muster.
It is difficult to overstate how different these perspectives are. One side tends towards passionate, considerate, Jeffersonian, warrior idealists focused on individual competence, integrity, and contribution. The other tends towards diplomatic, forgiving, Hamiltonian, utilitarian pragmatists focused on individual happiness and institutional effectiveness.
Whether they have answers or just a proud desire to prove perfection possible, idealists focus on creating theoretical models and strategies and getting them to work through committed execution. They expect solutions to be accepted once proven: effort is expected to be exerted and abilities developed once a workable plan is shown.
Pragmatists, on the other hand, seek solutions with few long-term dependencies. They don’t put much stock into theoretical models and often dismiss idealistic proofs as not extendable: because, ultimately, sufficient effort will not be exerted and sufficient abilities will not be developed.
Pragmatists don’t seriously wonder how people become competent or principled: they simply take for granted that such people exist and look for them when they are needed. For idealists, such people are precious and finding ways to develop and protect them is paramount.
Pragmatists don’t seriously wonder how skills, personality traits, or mental state interact with action: they simply accept existence of actions and look for ways to manage them. For idealists, character, intent, and mental models of agents are primary.
Pragmatists don’t seriously wonder how systems turn out the way they do: they simply take each situation as a given and look for ways to solve problems they see. For idealists, impact on systems is critical and specific situations are mere data points that it is crucial to not overweight.
To idealists the question is not how to enhance individual perception of happiness, but how to find and enable the most meaningful and productive approaches to flourishing; not how to improve participation, but how to increase striving for excellence; not how to solve a crisis, but how to solve excuse-making that caused it.
To pragmatists, it never hurts to ask, spending is patriotic, the customer is always right, cries indicate injustice, big data solves abuse. Horrified idealists connect these solutions to inconsiderate and incompetent masses; frivolous consumerism divorced from personal responsibility; diminishment of pride and integrity; The Coddling of the American Mind; and bi-polar indifference to circumstances.
Idealists desperately exhort: “Why? Why do it this way? It is possible to do better with a bit more more knowledge and effort. I’ve done it, I can prove it!” Last Persons confidently retort: “Not everyone is like you and many don’t want to be. Just stop being such a hater and everything will be all right.” Pragmatists shrug and resume planning their PR campaign.
Footnotes [ + ]