Incentives for Moral Behavior
G. Stolyarov II
Issue XCIV- March 24, 2007
In “Morality Does Not Require Religion,” I argued that morality is primarily a function of a person’s conduct, not of any specific ideology he claims to hold. I posited that moral conduct can be separated into three tiers, with each subsequent tier dependent on the prior ones:
Tier 1: Non-aggression against others
Tier 2: Non-damage to self
Tier 3: Civility and integrity
In consistency with the non-aggression principle, only violations of the first tier of morality ought to be punished by force of law. Violations of the second and third tiers, while immoral, ought to be legally permissible and addressed by other, non-coercive means.
Following a discussion of what morality is, an important practical question arises: how can we bring about more morality and less immorality on all three tiers? To act morally or immorally is ultimately an individual choice, and no number of external factors, however powerful, can completely determine that choice. Even a Nazi concentration camp guard—raised solely on anti-Semitic ideology—had the choice to disobey his orders to torture and kill innocent human beings; hence, he is rightly held morally responsible if he acted on those orders. However, a number of external factors can increase or decrease an individual’s incentives to choose a moral life over an immoral one. Ceteris paribus, an individual will purchase more of a good at a lower price than at a higher price. Similarly, ceteris paribus, an individual will tend to act more morally in the face of greater incentives to do so than he would in the face of lesser ones. Except for protecting individual rights against the initiation of force, it is not the direct function of government to bring about increased morality. Where, then, does one start putting such incentives in place?
Every reader of this article is an individual who, in his personal conduct, can choose to be moral or immoral. The best place to start in advancing moral conduct is with oneself. As such, it is essential to analyze the variety of personal incentives in place for moral behavior on all three tiers.
Personal Incentives on the First Tier of Morality
Irrespective of the legal structure of any given society, there are in that society people who would not murder, rape, steal, defraud, or otherwise violate the rights of their fellow men. In the face of rampant chaos, with thugs running amok on the streets, these people would still not resort to crime and would use violence only against criminals. Such individuals do not even think about violating the first tier of morality, and their default mode of operation in all legal climates is the full respect of all men’s natural rights. A just system of laws and a firm code of criminal punishments deters many from aggressing against others, but these individuals require no such deterrence. They abstain of their own free will from what the law seeks to forbid. What incentives influence them to so unconditionally observe the first tier of morality?
Incentive 1.1. Personal Reverence for Life. No man would dare aggress against what he deems sacred. Any deep-seated, sincerely held conviction of the sanctity of every individual’s life—and, correspondingly, his liberty, health, and possessions—will serve as the firmest deterrent against aggression for any given individual. For the conviction to be efficacious, it does not matter how it is arrived at—whether it be through a reliance on God, reason, natural law, utilitarianism, and/or a profound emotional pleasure in observing human life flourish and develop. All that matters is that the individual perceives the reasons for the conviction to be unshakeable or that, if he should abandon one set of reasons justifying non-aggression, he will replace it with another set of reasons arriving at the same conclusion.
What are ways to cultivate such a reverence for life? Approaches to reach this end can be abstract or concrete. A person can attain a conviction of the sanctity of human life through reading didactic literature or philosophy. The kinds of literature and philosophy that will accomplish this vary in their basic premises; their effectiveness depends primarily on the strength of the connection they establish between their premises and the conclusion that innocent human life must be respected. The more explicitly and convincingly this conclusion is established in the literature, the more likely the readers are to be inspired by it to act morally.
A concrete way to cultivate reverence for life is to extensively observe or interact with living things. People who enjoy spending time around children and domestic animals will find this concrete cultivation of reverence to be easier. They will be able to observe closely how these creatures behave and the immense beauty and complexity of their approaches to the world. From loving and appreciating children and animals to developing an unshakeable respect for the innocent adult humans into which most children develop is a small and fairly easy step—both intellectually and emotionally. While animals do not, strictly speaking, have rights, and children do not have some of the lesser rights of adults (though a child’s right to life is as firm as that of any adult), both animals and children let an individual thoroughly appreciate the beauty of life and therefore render him less likely to commit acts of aggression.
Incentive 1.2. Personal Productivity. Another concrete means of arriving at unconditional respect for innocent human life is pursuing occupations that cultivate and improve one’s own life and the lives of others. A person who enjoys building, developing ideas, educating, raising children, or practicing medicine—among numerous other activities—knows how much colossal effort is needed to engage in life-sustaining activities. The mere thought of an aggressor nullifying the effects of this effort through several seconds of destructive activity will horrify the productive person. Certainly, he will not want to personally engage in actions that will undo the creative efforts of people like himself. Since the pursuit and possession of property is integral to maintaining and improving human lives, the productive person will tend to respect the hard-earned property of others by seeing it as serving a vital role similar to the functions of his own property.
Furthermore, every second spent in productive activity is a second that cannot be spent in destructive activity. The more productive an individual is in his life, the fewer opportunities he has to inflict harm upon himself or others. As he continues to engage in productive activities, he develops the skills suited to performing those activities better—while he does not develop the skills necessary for aggression and destruction. Hence, not only will there be a time constraint on his ability to aggress, but there will also be a skill constraint. Since individuals tend to gravitate toward activities where they are more skilled, a consistently productive individual will tend to want to pursue productive activities rather than destructive ones in direct correlation with his productivity.
Incentive 1.3. Personal Education. For most people, developing productive hobbies, interests, and job skills is the best way to become and/or stay moral. Mathematical faculties and morality of conduct are distinct aspects of an individual, and a more mathematically adept person is not necessarily more moral. However, I am virtually certain that, if every individual in a society were somewhat well-versed in the higher branches of mathematics, there would be far less immoral conduct in that society than otherwise. The reason for this is simple: most people in such a society would be far more interested in finding the integral of x2e-x than in engaging in street brawls or ingesting mind-altering drugs. They will be more interested in pursuing the harmless activity they know—mathematics—rather than the harmful activities in which they are largely ignorant. An education in other intricate disciplines—whether they be productive or merely non-destructive—will tend to diminish a person’s impulses toward immorality, unless the education itself contains incentives for immoral behavior. It is primarily by giving people extensive skills in non-vicious activities that a quality education tends to foster virtue.
Incentive 1.4. Harmless Entertainment. Activities that are neither moral nor productive in themselves but are also neither immoral nor destructive will tend to influence the individual pursuing them to abstain from immoral activities. Let us presume that the board game or computer game X is such an activity. The individual who plays X does so not because he wishes to accomplish something or to live morally, but simply because he finds X to be entertaining. Playing X not only takes away time that could have been spent in immoral activity, but also further cultivates the individual’s skill at and interest in X—while not increasing his skill and interest in harmful and destructive activities. While, from the viewpoint of accomplishment, X is not as good a way to spend one’s time as a productive activity, it, too, can ward off desires to act immorally. It can also offer an individual an opportunity to rest and rejuvenate his energies after exerting himself in productive activity while not at all endangering his morality.
Harmless pleasures of this sort include many board games, most computer games, and some movies, radio shows, and television programs. Many of these even carry peripheral benefits, though these benefits are not the primary reasons that the activities are engaged in. The general rule with regard to entertainment is: so long as it does not advocate or insinuate immoral courses of action, entertainment tends to be conducive to the moral conduct of individuals consuming it. This can be seen by considering alternate uses of individuals’ leisure time had such harmless entertainment not been available. Some people—the ones already exceptionally productive and motivated—might have chosen to accomplish something else instead, but these people are always and everywhere a minority. Most would have pursued dissipative and destructive “pleasures” if the harmless ones were not available. Furthermore, the violent emotions of many would have found no outlet except in aggression against other human beings. Today, an individual can choose to take out his anger on fictitious monsters in computer games instead of engaging in bar brawls or taking to the streets in riotous protest. As the variety of harmless entertainment continues to increase, we can expect to see a decrease in violent crime, all other things equal.
Incentive 1.5. Personal Material Well-Being. Just as the presence of harmless entertainment disinclines individuals from committing immoral acts due to boredom or anger, so does the possession of a sufficiently high material standard of living virtually eliminate a person’s motivation to violate the rights of others due to his wish to satisfy his material desires. Rich men do not engage in theft in order to survive, unless they earned their fortunes as thieves and unless theft is their sole available means of earning further income. Ceteris paribus, the more property an individual owns and the higher an income he commands, the less inclined he will be to expropriate others with the aim of materially enriching himself. Wealth alone does not eliminate other motivations for crime, though it can certainly help when combined with productivity, quality entertainment, and a profound intellectual and emotional commitment to morality. What is indisputably true, though, is that virtually nobody in the Western world today will follow the example of Jean Valjean from Les Misérables and steal a loaf of bread to feed his starving family—for even those considered poor in the West today have substantial access to food, clothing, and even cars and televisions.
Personal Incentives on the Second Tier of Morality
Reverence for life, productivity, education, harmless entertainment, and material well-being all contribute to a person’s great reluctance to harm himself—just as well as they deter him from aggressing against others. Let us briefly consider how these incentives manifest themselves in inspiring an individual to adhere to the second tier of morality. The mention of each incentive is accompanied by what a hypothetical moral individual might think regarding it.
Incentive 2.1. Personal Reverence for Life. “I view innocent human life as sacred, including my own. Therefore, my harming or needlessly endangering my own life is out of the question.”
Incentive 2.2. Personal Productivity. “If I harm my own life, I will be unable to engage in the productive activities I enjoy. I will be neither as accomplished nor as happy as I could have been.”
Incentive 2.3. Personal Education. “If I harm my own life, I will not be able to learn more about or practice the disciplines in which I am well-educated. I will have wasted great knowledge and amazing potential.”
Incentive 2.4. Harmless Entertainment. “If I harm my own life, my death, pain, or discomfort will prevent me from truly enjoying the things I find pleasurable and entertaining.’
Incentive 2.5. Personal Material Well-Being. “If I harm my own life, I will be unable to enjoy the plenty of material things in my life—which would otherwise give me great comfort and convenience.”
Other incentives assist in self-preservation as well.
Incentive 2.6. Pride in Oneself. Much vilified throughout history, pride in oneself is no vice; in fact, it can be the source of great personal virtue. Pride is here defined as a conviction of one’s own worth as a human being. A proud person considers himself to be largely good, decently knowledgeable, adequately skilled, and unapologetically important as a sovereign individual whose life is worthy of living. This does not mean that a proud person views himself as omniscient, infallible, or incapable of improvement. Quite the contrary, his conviction in his own worth impels him to constantly seek ways in which he might improve himself in every area of his life. Furthermore, he always seeks a realistic estimate of his own knowledge and abilities—for such an estimate helps him make the best use of his potential. With the help of a realistic perception of himself, he will pursue tasks which he is genuinely able to accomplish, thereby reinforcing his self-image and the good reputation he seeks to have. He will avoid undertakings truly beyond his ability—for the inevitable failure in those will shame him before himself and others, and the proud man will go out of his way to avoid being shamed. Hence, the proud man never makes empty boasts; if he says he will do something, it is because he knows he can.
The proud man—using his meticulous capacity for self-evaluation—will constantly be on the lookout for ways in which he might be harming himself and will systematically eliminate those tendencies once he spots them. His pride leads him to seek his own advancement through productive achievement; the more he accomplishes, the more he can esteem himself. His high opinion of himself is also a powerful stimulus to moral conduct, because one cannot consistently behave like a brute or a criminal and yet still consider oneself good, noble, or worthy. The proud man’s reasoning is, “A man of my caliber will not sink to the level of base or immoral conduct.” The proud man will seek to act so as to be worthy of his self-esteem. Since he perceives himself as fundamentally good and his life as worth living, he will have no reason to harm himself and every reason to avoid such harm.
Incentive 2.7. Devotion to a Person, Thing, or Institution. Many people are greatly disinclined to harm themselves because they are strongly devoted to the well-being of some other individual, possession, or organization. Beneficiaries of this kind of commitment can be family members, friends, pets, treasured property, or organizations. A person will be far less inclined to damage himself if he understands that such actions will also harm his wife and children, would cause his carefully cultivated estate to fall into disrepair, or would bring about the ruin of his business. If a person has worked immensely hard to achieve the well-being of his family or of an organization he works for, he will be extremely reluctant to endanger by wanton self-destruction what he has hitherto strived to preserve and augment. Similarly, a man who sees it as his purpose in life to promote a given idea will not wish to hasten his own death—for that would likely imply the peril of the idea as well.
Incentive 2.8. Rejection of the Alternative. The alternative to life and flourishing is death and suffering. Striving to avoid the latter is as powerful a motivation for self-preservation as striving to positively pursue the former. The thought of one’s own non-existence—when seriously entertained—is frightening, as well it should be. Atheist-materialists have a powerful reason to preserve their health and longevity in this world, because they believe that there is no other world—indeed, that their very individuality is obliterated upon death. Believers in an afterlife will often still feel extreme discomfort at the prospect of leaving a life of which they are certain and with which they are familiar to possibly journey to another world—whose existence is not firmly established, and whose aspects are unclear and disputed. Entertaining these discomforts will in fact lead them to hold onto this life ever more firmly and thus adhere to the second tier of morality. The fear of death is a potent incentive to keep on living. It also helps the religious if their God prohibits suicide and other desecrations of his “temple”—the human body. Those who adhere to such prohibitions might even look forward to an afterlife, but they will not seek to hasten its arrival, because they believe that doing so will deny them the afterlife altogether.
Personal Incentives on the Third Tier of Morality
We have hitherto explored powerful personal reasons to be moral in not aggressing against others and in not wantonly damaging oneself. For most people, at least one of these reasons is strongly operational on each of the two tiers of morality. This is why, in virtually every environment, the vast majority of individuals are neither aggressors nor suicidal. Civility and integrity—the virtues of the third tier—are much rarer, however. They require a special set of incentives to augment those of non-aggression and self-preservation.
Incentive 3.1. Desire for a Good Reputation. A man with a good reputation is well-thought-of by those with whom he comes into contact. Those who seek a good reputation are most often moral, but they also seek to be perceived as moral, because such a perception on the part of others gives numerous advantages to oneself. People who are considered moral are more often trusted in work and in commerce, and are more frequently the beneficiaries of others’ generosity. Furthermore, they tend to find interactions with others to be far more pleasant than those who are generally thought to be morally questionable. Provided that a person genuinely practices the virtues he espouses, there is no fault with seeking a good reputation. In fact, a person who has a sound reputation will be more reluctant to commit a moral infraction, because he fears the accompanying loss of his good name. Moreover, if a person wishes to be seen as moral without actually being moral, his hypocrisy will be difficult to conceal—and will require tremendous effort to keep secret for any length of time. Once exposed, the hypocrite will be despised to far greater extent than an honestly immoral individual—hence, the incentives against seeking a false good reputation are strong.
Incentive 3.2. Desire for Personal Advancement. Connected with the desire for a good reputation is the wish—common to many—to achieve a more prominent position in some field endeavor. If one is rude to one’s employer or co-workers, however, one cannot hope to advance very far. Civility and integrity are the best long-term policies for reaching a high position in any productive or non-destructive area of life. Not only will a consistently moral person advance by virtue of his good reputation; he will also not permit an ill reputation to emerge and obscure in the eyes of others his merits as a thinker, worker, and creator.
Incentive 3.3. Desire for Friendship and Decent Interaction with People. Human relationships—especially close relationships involving only a few individuals—tend to work best in the absence of shouting, name-calling, deceit, humiliation, and tactlessness. In direct conversations between individuals—especially between friends—the incentive is great on both sides to avoid any behavior the other side might perceive to be unpleasant. The more long-term the relationship between two people, the greater the incentive becomes for both sides to behave with consistent civility and integrity. Rudeness might be tolerated once, but not systematically. A lie told to a person during a one-time encounter might slip by undetected, but not a lie told to a long-term friend or a valued co-worker. The greater prevalence of civility in smaller communities can be explained through this observation. In a small community, most people necessarily come into contact with most other people more than once; hence, virtually every interaction has long-term effects as well as short-term ones. The small community need not be geographical in nature; it could be one’s club or the company one works for. Wherever the social consequences of incivility and dishonesty are greatest, there the deterrent against those behaviors is strongest.
Incentive 3.4. Sincere Respect and Admiration for Others. One would not deceive or act rudely toward a person whom one greatly esteems—not simply because one wants that person to similarly respect oneself, but also because one considers that person to be too good to be lied or spoken unkindly to. Societies of extraordinarily meritorious individuals tend to result in higher instances of civil conduct, because every person therein sees every other person as deserving of such conduct. In this way, a person’s productive accomplishments can help increase the degree of civility he encounters from others; this will in turn serve as an incentive for him to be civil to others as well.
It is possible to extend the number of individuals whom one sincerely perceives as being worthy of civil conduct by considering that virtually every person has at least one area in which he is considerably talented, meritorious, or virtuous. Furthermore, it might take time to discover this extraordinary merit or virtue in an individual; until the discovery is made, it is best to make the assumption that the virtue exists and hence give the person the benefit of the doubt. In this manner, an individual can extend civil treatment to others by habit rather than by an explicit effort of the will—therefore rendering civil conduct easier than it would otherwise be.
Incentive 3.5. Inability to Be Uncivil or Dishonest. Rudeness and deceit do not come easily to some individuals. For them, it is not routine or in line with their character to behave uncivilly or to tell a lie; they do not do so in the course of their everyday lives, and it would take an extraordinary and painful effort for them to start. With such people, it is best they stay that way. Lying or insulting others are not necessary skills, and those who do not have them are far less likely to use them. In fact, being “bad at lying” is a virtue, as it leaves a person with no choice but to be honest. Even if he feels like telling a lie, he knows he will not lie convincingly, and hence will not be likely to attempt it.
Incentive 3.6. Pride in Oneself. As with his aversion to self-destruction, a proud man considers certain kinds of conduct to be beneath him. A man of his worth and merit, he reasons, needs not lie in order to obtain what he wants, and to be rude to others is for him a sign of baseness and vulgarity. The proud man seeks to become a paragon of civility and integrity so that his actions might always be in line with his image of himself.
Incentive 3.7. Desire to Be Treated Similarly. The oft-mentioned “Golden Rule”—to treat others as one would like to be treated—is a universal human motivator, spanning across ideologies. To be civil to others increases the likelihood of others reciprocating. To be honest with others makes it less probable that one will fall victim to a lie. In order to persist for any length of time, civility and integrity must in virtually all situations be multilateral, and most people will recognize this after even minimal reflection on the matter.
Institutional Incentives for Morality
The personal incentives for moral conduct all stem from motivations centered on one’s own values and desires and are mostly independent of the social and economic environment in which one lives. Other incentives to moral behavior, however, are intimately connected to the extended order of human interactions and exist only as a function of that order. Here, they will be referred to as institutional incentives.
Institutional Incentive 1. The Extent of Commerce. A well-developed market economy, spanning large geographic areas and including numerous individuals, has greater incentives built in for moral behavior than a less developed economy. The more opportunities there are to trade and exchange property peacefully, the fewer incentives exist to violate another person’s property by force. The market, by providing a convenient mechanism to meet individual needs without force, increasingly displaces force as the preferred method of social interaction. Even displeasure with another person’s goods and services can be manifested on the market with perfect adherence to morality. One can simply say, “I dislike the product of Person X, and I will not purchase his product; instead, I will purchase the product of Person Y.” A great extent of the market ensures that even unpopular or minority preferences are met—since a fraction of the sellers in a large market will devote themselves to furnishing such minority customers with products. Thus, the greater the extent of the market, the less inclined minority consumers are to become antisocial and, consequently, the less need the majority consumers perceive to coercively repress the minority.
Furthermore, the market is extremely conducive to civil conduct across ideologies and worldviews; a Christian might disagree with an atheist’s cosmology, but if the atheist is a quality widget-maker, the Christian might overlook these differences and trade with him nonetheless. The more opportunities people have to trade, work, and freely discuss ideas with one another, the more likely they are to treat one another with respect or at least toleration. Market economies are well-known to produce cosmopolitan, highly heterogeneous, and impressively peaceful societies with a vast degree of personal freedom and material prosperity. The entire contemporary Western world is a case in point. On the other hand, societies characterized by autarky—such as the ancient Greek city-states, the Medieval fiefdoms, Ming China, and Tokugawa Japan—also tend to be dominated by violent passions, distrust of outsiders, and the willingness to use force against others as a result of mere ideological differences.
Institutional Incentive 2. Cultural Organizations. Cultural organizations include libraries, museums, civic and humanitarian groups, churches, think tanks, discussion groups, and other institutions devoted to the spread of knowledge, virtue, and high art. The best cultural organizations arise spontaneously within a free-market framework and reflect the efforts of private individuals to use their hard-earned resources to bring about increased quality in some aspect of human life. Unlike government humanitarian initiatives, private cultural organizations are subject to strong feedback from the market and will not last long unless they use their resources wisely to actually accomplish the ends they seek. A successful private cultural organization can help individuals achieve increased productivity, education, and appreciation for the works of talented others. In fact, much credit for the high standards of moral conduct in late-19th-century America can be given to the efforts of private individuals like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie—who used their own funds establish a vast network of colleges, libraries, charities, and museums before the government ever began meddling with these institutions. Cultural organizations can be used to non-coercively correct moral and social problems—for instance, by encouraging voluntary temperance and abstinence, aiding productive individuals who have been impoverished by extraordinary events, and providing moral education to people who would otherwise not receive it.
Institutional Incentive 3. Political and Economic Liberty. Individuals who are free to speak and to trade as they wish will tend to be more moral than individuals who are kept in bondage to the state. As autonomous persons, they will recognize that they bear the responsibility for their own success or failure, for the securing of their own lives or their drift toward death. If they act with the best of moral intentions but fail, they can expect to be assisted on the free market by other conscientious individuals. But if they deliberately act with immorality, they will not find many willing benefactors. In a climate of political and economic liberty, the state will not assist them, either. A private benefactor might consider supporting a struggling poor man who soberly and diligently pursues the advancement of his career, but not a chronic alcoholic who spends any money given to him to fuel his addiction. The state, on the other hand, will tend to support the latter to a greater extent than the former—because the former will only rely on any sort of aid temporarily. To have no institutional refuge in the event of self-caused failure offers a strong incentive for virtually everybody to be more productive and moral than they would have been in the presence of a generous and all-encompassing government “safety net.”
Furthermore, people who keep more of what they earn are more likely to direct their activities toward production and away from dissipation and destruction. Hence, ceteris paribus, the general level of morality in a society is inversely proportional to the tax rate. This can explain why the American colonists rebelled against even extremely petty taxes levied by the British crown. Partly because they had the lowest tax burden in the world at the time, the American colonists were also among the most morally oriented of their contemporaries. Only an incredibly principled and thoughtful populace could engage in revolution based on the moral conviction that any taxation without representation is tyranny.
People who are freer in creating and producing in the way they like to create and produce will also be far more inclined to work than people whose efforts the government micro-regulates and attempts to conform to politically dictated standards. Thus, ceteris paribus, the general level of morality in a society is inversely proportional to the regulatory power of the state. If the economy is highly regulated, the incentives for being productive diminish greatly, and destructive activities become more lucrative in people’s eyes; their opportunity cost relative to the opportunity cost of productive endeavors diminishes.
Institutional Incentive 4. Technology. More technologically advanced societies tend, other things equal, to exhibit higher general levels of moral conduct. Technology helps augment the personal incentives for moral conduct by 1) increasing people’s opportunities to be productive, 2) raising material standards of living, 3) facilitating a greater extent of commerce, 4) allowing individuals greater de facto freedom even while the political constraints remain the same, and 5) raising quality of life so as to make living more attractive in people’s eyes, thereby further deterring individuals from engaging in any actions destructive of human life. With technological progress also comes a dramatic expansion in the available venues of harmless entertainment, thereby fortifying another personal incentive for moral conduct.
Institutional Incentive 5. Well-Functioning Military, Police, and Justice System. Government has a role in preserving morality, but this role is indirect; it consists of maintaining an efficient military and police force to ward off intrusions on individual rights both from within the society and from without. If the government does this job well, the deterrent against violations of the first tier of morality becomes tremendous—even for individuals with insufficient personal incentives not to aggress against others. Heavy criminal punishments for violent offenders—including fines, forced labor, and the death penalty for murder—tend to make initiation of force extremely unappealing. On the other hand, a lenient justice system that provides offenders free food and shelter at taxpayers’ expense and allows them to be surrounded by similar immoral offenders (this is known as the prison system) will only foster collaboration among vicious individuals to commit future crimes.
Institutional Incentive 6. The Right to Self-Defense. However, the government cannot provide a complete deterrent against crime and invasion on its own; there are simply not enough police and soldiers to accomplish this at all places and at all times. Only with complete legalized firearms ownership and the universally recognized right to self-defense can a society become virtually free from aggression. What person would dare commit even a petty theft if he knew that 50 of the 100 people on the street at the moment were armed? What fool would invade a home whose owner is better armed than the invader? Moral individuals who own weapons will not be in the slightest inclined toward aggression by such ownership—no more than the typical owner of a kitchen knife is inclined to use it to stab people.
Institutional Incentive 7. Social Ostracism of Immoral Conduct. In certain societies there develop norms of conduct which may be violated with legal impunity, but whose violation will bring about devastating social consequences to the offender. During the 19th century in Europe and America, immoral conduct such as adultery, harmful drug consumption, and prostitution was legal virtually everywhere, yet strongly shunned because its perpetrators would not be tolerated in respectable company. Indeed, social ostracism accomplished a far more stringent moral expectation with regard to these matters than legal prohibition ever could. Once governments began to forbid activities like prostitution and drug-taking, the burden of guarding against these vices shifted from private individuals to the state—thereby rendering the private sector far less vigilant against them.
The power of the institutional incentives for morality stems from their general disregard of individual ideologies. A given person with a given set of beliefs will be affected by the institutional incentives in a highly similar manner to another person with another set of beliefs. Lowering the tax rate or legalizing firearms ownership will influence the moral behavior of a Buddhist or a Christian in ways greatly resembling its effects on a Deist or atheist. Libertarians, socialists, and everyone in between will be benefited morally by an increase in the extent of the market or an acceleration of technological progress. Institutional incentives offer external stimuli toward moral behavior that work largely independently of personal motivations. Of course, the individuals most likely to behave morally have a combination of incentives—both internal and external—operating on all three tiers.
The specific incentives influencing each individual are far more nuanced and complex than the general outlines presented in this essay; indeed, I do not mean to reduce or trivialize these incentives through my brief descriptions, but rather to begin to display and hopefully to foster an appreciation for their intricacy and importance. Real-world incentives—personal and institutional—are what separates the generally peaceful, civilized, and pleasant modern man from his savage, club-beating, incessantly-warring tribal forebears. People who want to behave morally do so because of reasons far more important and efficacious than those which are commonly assumed to be the determinants of morality. It is not primarily because of specific beliefs X, Y, and Z that individuals act in moral ways; the beliefs do not even begin to represent morality’s true origins. Rather, a complex web of internal and external constraints works to create an environment that either enables morality to flourish or stifles and suppresses it. Morality cannot be legislated, imposed, or willed into being through ideology. The best we can hope to do as individuals is to influence indirectly its proliferation by personally making the most productive and least harmful use of our time and working to cultivate life and the institutions conducive to it.
G. Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist, independent philosophical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician, composer, contributor to Enter Stage Right, Le Quebecois Libre, Rebirth of Reason, and the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Senior Writer for The Liberal Institute, and Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator, a magazine championing the principles of reason, rights, and progress. Mr. Stolyarov also publishes his articles on Helium.com and Associated Content to assist the spread of rational ideas. His newest science fiction novel is Eden against the Colossus. His latest non-fiction treatise is A Rational Cosmology. Mr. Stolyarov can be contacted at email@example.com.
This TRA feature has been edited in accordance with TRA’s Statement of Policy.
Read Mr. Stolyarov's new comprehensive treatise, A Rational Cosmology, explicating such terms as the universe, matter, space, time, sound, light, life, consciousness, and volition, at http://www.geocities.com/rational_argumentator/rc.html.