Most of us possess at least some extent of an idealistic, albeit unrealistic hope that our contributions will make the world a better place. While we can indeed help those below us to improve their standards of living, the same cannot be said about moral behaviour. It’s not just that moral standards are deeply influenced by religious perspectives or cultural norms, nor is it because our irrationality often prevents us from seeing things clearly – and these are already very significant factors – but because as people become more trusting towards each other, it becomes far too rewarding to do harm.
To put into perspective, none of us are willing to commit a crime because we are well aware that the consequences of our actions (no matter how minor) have repercussions that we are unwilling to bear. Whether it’s life imprisonment or the risk of being socially shamed on various digital platforms, we care enough about our reputation that we are automatically deterred from doing anything criminal. It may not be obvious to us, but we are always sub-consciously weighing the possible gains and losses in every moral situation, and we are very capable of exploiting every outcome to the fullest.
However, and take this as an example, if a successful burglary would gain you millions of hard cash while a failed attempt would only put you in jail for only a few years, a number of people in rather difficult and trying circumstances will consider the entire enterprise a heist worth carrying out. The benefits (assuming the burglary isn’t about trying to break into a fortified military vault) are enticing enough to diminish the threat of jail time. It’s also why during a mass revolt, looting and pillaging of shops (in addition to many horrific crimes) break out. Without law and order, there are no serious consequences, so it would seem almost stupid and too unrewarding to be the morally upright citizen.
This unfortunately also extends to our moral interactions with each other. In a world of lies and deceits, truthfulness becomes appreciated. A moral quality becomes valuable because amidst its abundant opposite value, it is now a rare commodity. However, isn’t the opposite true as well? If everyone was absolutely trusting, deception (and any other immoral behaviour) becomes far too rewarding to ignore. In short, the more trusting people become, the more you are rewarded for being the manipulator, the liar and for practicing duplicity.
Take our present situation as an example: being a successful con artist is difficult to pull off because many incidences of scams and schemes have already been reported. Now wiser to the different methods of deception employed, fleecing someone of their entire life savings would be almost impossible. A small sum of several thousands, especially if carried out over a period of time with a smattering of deceptive reassurances, might be possible to pull off. However, what about a universe where everyone is fully committed to open trust? The one bad apple will far too easily bankrupt everyone in existence until you are forced to learn to build your guard up. In such a situation, it simply makes no sense to be the good guy.
School examinations are a particularly apt analogy. Almost no student will ever consider cheating except in very unusual situations – you risk expulsion and permanent damage to your career prospects. Yet in the state of Bihar, India, exam cheating is rampant. The top scorer was notorious for being unable to spell ‘political science’ and thought it meant something related to cooking. Over there, parents scale the school wall to help their children cheat. It’s not hard to see why. The rewards for blatant cheating against the limited invigilating vigilance (and weak deterrences) only mean that the immoral choice of academic dishonesty becomes too rewarding to pass up. Why be good when it’s better to be bad, and far easier?
The way I see it, there’s a balance – a sort of equilibrium – between moral and immoral behaviour. In the long and dark past of mankind, long before established systems of modern governance, it would often be more profitable to just kill someone (and their family/group so they can’t take revenge) and take what they had. If you were strong and belonged to a powerful social group, you could easily get away with it. Now, because of various policies and laws, people are far more useful alive rather than dead. So we negotiate.
So for those (and they are often religious) who envision a world of warm love, or one that’s governed by a divine being who can spread his brand of justice to eliminate misconduct, they are probably disconnected from reality. For the rest of us, it just means we should temper our expectations. This is what it means to live in society. Besides, how else could we appreciate moral conduct if we haven’t been on the receiving end of a great deal of anguish before?
So have you thought about (HYTA) why it is impossible to build a world where everyone’s trusting, kind and caring?