Saturday, April 28, 2007

What is the incentive to do good?

Most, if not all, children are taught to do good by their parents and by the society as a whole. It would however be debatable as to how many actually try to do so when grown up. The reasons tendered (for doing good) would range from gratification and peace of mind to heavenly rewards. But what is the real physical, psychological and meta-physical reward for doing good?

The harsh reality is that, on an individual basis there is no real incentive to do good. Doing good normally costs the person doing it. But for maybe a sense of gratification or a peace-of-mind, both of which are trained responses which could have been trained otherwise. On the contrary, not doing good or instead doing bad could result in personal gains. Lot of people have identified this vile truth and try to reap such rewards.

Let us take a look at historical perspective. Man is a social animal. This means he needs the help of other men. Not that he needs help in the absolute sense but he would be able to do a lot better with help than without it. So this resulted in men living together as a society. Now in a society you have interaction between the members. Each of these interactions could be biased towards 'good' or towards 'evil'. In either case, on an average the good someone receives would equal the good he gives or the evil he receives would equal the evil he gives. However the total quality of life in the society as a whole would be much better if the interactions are biased towards 'good'. Thus ethics evolved and society as a whole tried to define good and bad and the kind of acceptable behaviour in the system.

The social fabric is held together by the value system. People who subscribe to the value system do good maintaining the quality of life in the system. However among the majority of do-good-ers a small minority of do-bad-ers can thrive. They will have a higher credit column in the 'good-bad' account book. They draw 'good' from the system and give 'bad' back to the system. The society tries to counter balance this by setting disincentives for doing 'bad'. So those of the do-bad-ers who get caught pays the price for doing 'bad'. However there still would remain a percentage of social parasites who are neither do-bad-ers or do-good-ers. They sap the goodness from society but does not give anything in return.

There is no real way of addressing the do-no-good-and-do-no-bad people in the society. The only possible way to address this in part is through social programming by instilling in people while they are still young a feeling of satisfaction and happiness associated with doing good. So the incentive would be personal and internal. Rational people should be able to identify the historical reason and the motivation for doing good should be the goal of making their lives better by making the total quality of life in the system better.


  1. You might be interested in John Maynard Smith's work on applying Game Theory to Evolutionary Theory. There are evolutionarily stable states for situations involving altruistic players.

  2. Earlier, whether incentive is there are not, we were taught about good moral values. We had a moral instruction period, one every week, when we we taught about these through stories which stuck in our minds. But I do not think in the religiously polarised india today, we cannot even think of MI without running afoul of hurting somebody else's religious sentiments!