Monday, 3 October 2011

Do good outcomes eventuate from bad motivations?


Modernity is predicated on the conviction (derived from Adam Smith's 'invisible hand' argument) that with the right system (e.g. markets, democratic voting, competition and selection, conjecture and refutation, trial and error, peer review, or in general management), bad motivations in individuals can lead to good outcomes - therefore (ultimately) we should ignore motivations and focus on systems.


We can (and should) rely on the butcher's desire to make a profit in a competitive market in order to ensure that he supplies good meat at a reasonable price; and we can and should ignore whether the butcher personally wants to supply good meat at a reasonable price or whether instead he wants to provide bad meat, and trick people out of their money - or maybe wants to poison them for the fun of it. Don't worry - says modernity - the market will sort it out...

The idea is that the market prevents the butcher from being bad (by punishing bad butchers) and thus the system has an intrinsic tendency to channel humans to do good (even when those individuals are inclined to be bad).


Similarly in science, the peer review system is supposed to ensure that incompetent and dishonest scientists are prevented from succeeding while those (of whatever motivation) who do 'good work' will thrive.

And in politics, the system of democracy is supposed to take whatever human raw material is fed-into the voting, and create from it good government - good government is that which the electoral system vomits-forth. The old notion that a good system is that which leads to and facilitates good government is now obsolete and deemed 'fascist'.    


Indeed, the implicit assumption of modernity is that only systems (systems of the right sort) can lead to good outcomes.

Furthermore that requiring good motivations is tantamount to relying entirely on good intentions to yield good outcomes.


Humans are simple dichotomous souls - and if they infer that creating the best systems is more important than the individual motivations of the humans beings who work in the systems - pretty soon they start ignoring human motivations altogether.

And, motivations are predictions: understood by those 1. 'gut instincts' ('theory of mind') with which normal humans are born ; or 2. the assumption that what people have done, they will probably continue to do; or 3. group knowledge (from experience) that people of a certain type have a tendency to behave in certain ways.

Yet under politically correctness; to infer human motivations - that is, to predict human behaviour on the basis of group membership, past behavior or because of gut feelings - is to be prejudiced.

And prejudice is of course the most evil thing in the world, ever.

Because while predictions of human behavior are right more often than wrong, and are therefore useful - indeed essential; all such inferences may be wrong.


Yes indeedy - individual decisions may be wrong - but (I ask) compared with what?

If individual decisions may be wrong then this is only relevant if we know what is never wrong, what is always right?

The unstated inference is that while individuals may be wrong, systems may always be right.


So, as a matter of principle we are compelled to ignore inferences concerning the motivations of others.

We are not allowed to listen to gut feelings, learn from experience or use group level knowledge.

We must rely on systems, must rely completely on systems.


So what happens?

In the first place and immediately, the quality of systems declines sharply because those who choose the human being in the systems are not even trying to appoint the best motivated, and people who are known to be badly motivated nonetheless get appointed and continue to work.

Then there is an increasing degradation of human motivations due to the continuous societal pressure to suppress consideration of motivations - more and more attention goes into creating the perfect fool-proof system which is (supposedly) utterly immune to the motivations of the humans who implement it.

Indeed, humans are perceived and evaluated in terms of their ability to implement what the system requires: to deliver goods, education, health services.

Systems routinely chew-up and spit-out the best people - it happens all the time; the people who are well-motivated and do a good job are eliminated, because the system ultimately recognizes as 'good' only obedience to perceived and defined system requirements.


Humans are simple, dichotomous souls: either they will try to choose the best people, with the system shaped in terms of what helps the best people; or to construct the best system, with the people shaped in terms of what helps the system.

Yet systems cannot and do not pursue The Good, because they do not know The Good, therefore do not even try to pursue the Good. The more priority we give to systems the worse things become.

Bad people will always subvert good systems; ultimately because there are an unlimited number of ways of doing evil and wrong, and pursuing ugliness and lies, to do nothing or be selfish when people are thus motivated - yet the system is finite.

And good people will always tend to be rejected by systems, because it is possible for people to be good but systems cannot be good; therefore the pursuit of actual good by individual humans must bring them into conflict with any actual system.

And if the system is intrinsically favored over the individual, then effective good will incrementally be extirpated from social systems...


(Looks around... Oh my goodness! - it has already happened!)



  1. Woe betide the man who does his best.
    Shame on he that notices a problem.
    Trust not he that is too honest.
    No wonder I fitteth not into this dark, satanic system...

  2. Bruce, this is an excellent post. I think you have hit on the true problem with the modern, secular west. I think we are heading towards the kind of world Robert M. Pirsig writes about when "Quality" is subtracted from everyday life.

    The system rumbles on totally logically, but everything of value is debased. People are no longer restrained by right and wrong, merely by legal and illegal - and sometimes, not even then.

    Thus the recent London riots. The only remedy is increased law enforcement, because the idea that these people could be shamed into acting honourbly is increasingly ludicrous.