Given how polarized the world is now, I’ve been spending a lot of time lately wondering how decent, intelligent people can come to such wildly different perspectives that they can no longer even have a conversation with each other. I’d already listened to “Understanding Complexity,” which made me almost despair of anyone ever knowing anything. Any given person can only focus on some 1% of the data he perceives at any given moment, and on top of that, in this global interconnected world, all the variables “dance,” influencing one another in real time. Then I listened to “Think Again,” which (while rather hypocritical of the author, I thought) made the point that we should be humble enough to be open to outside information which might change our perspectives. These two messages are certainly compatible, though they still leave a question of how one is to actually arrive at any conclusions with enough confidence to make decisions and live one’s life.
That made this book a logical next step. I read it once before maybe 15 years ago, and at the time it blew my mind. I’m not a very “outside the box” thinker in most cases, unless someone draws my attention to the alternatives. This book is all about thinking outside to box, seeing associations and correlations in surprising places, and then investigating the data to determine if correlation = causation. Tempered with the message of “Understanding Complexity,” I went in with the question of, yes, but how can you know if the variable you choose is the only one, or the primary one? How do you know which variables are the “signal”, and which are the “noise”?
I’d forgotten the main premise of this book, though, which was that while morality is the study of how things should be, economics is the study of how they actually are (whether money per se is technically involved or not). Find the incentive, and you’ll find the human cause of any economic phenomenon. Incentives can range from social (shame and guilt) to financial (paying late fees for bad behavior, cash rewards for good behavior) to fear of loss or punishment. The authors postulated the rather pessimistic view that while there is such a thing as altruism (the pleasure one gets in helping others), anyone will violate his own moral code at the expense of others if the incentive is strong enough. Using this as a guiding principle, they proceeded to investigate real-world examples. Once they found the incentive, they followed that “signal” right to the smoking gun. Parents feel some guilt for leaving their kids at daycare an extra hour so that the teachers can’t go home, and this is a motivating factor that curbs incidence of it… but if the daycare institutes a small late fee, the incidence of late pickups increases, because the parents just bought off their guilt. People donate blood because it makes them feel good about themselves, but if you start to pay them for their blood, it becomes purely mercenary, and donations decrease if the amount is too low to serve as adequate compensation for the feeling they got from an act of altruism. If it’s too high, you may inadvertently inspire a black market in which people are forced to give up their blood at knifepoint. If teachers are rewarded financially for class performance, you’ve just given the teachers motivation to cheat on standardized testing (and indeed, some did: they found the evidence and fired the teachers). While in general people might have good will toward others, the second one’s own interests come in conflict with those of someone else, if the inducement is strong enough and the deterrents against it low enough, his own interests will win every time.
Put another way, mankind is inherently selfish, or sinful. This was especially interesting to me, as I had postulated (to myself) one unifying “signal” that might explain the differences in worldview between the two polar extremes of today, liberals and conservatives: in general, conservatives are religious to some degree. They believe in God. From this follows that man is inherently sinful and in need of redemption. Given the opportunity and sufficient motivation, we will, as a species, seek our own good at the expense of others. From a belief in God also follows that there is a moral law, His law, which is outside of ourselves. We didn’t create it, but we inherently know it. That means there is right behavior that is always right, and there is wrong behavior that is always wrong. One should never lie, cheat, steal, murder, or any of the other Ten Commandments–no matter how strong the incentive. On the other hand, in general, liberals are not religious. They tend to believe in mankind’s inherent goodness, not that he is in need of any kind of redemption–who would give it? Given the opportunity, liberals tend to believe that utopian societies are possible, and that we will all share and care for our fellow men in need, regardless of the cost to ourselves. Those who are irreligious also cannot logically believe in an absolute moral code–after all, if there is no God, where would it have come from? What we call “right” and “wrong” they must believe stems from evolutionary advantages and disadvantages to the species. From this it follows that morality is relative to the benefit to the greatest number of people; the end justifies the means. If many would benefit (or they think many would benefit) from a single act which might seem immoral on its face–well then, why not lie, cheat, or steal?
I think the difference between today’s diametrically opposed worldviews really comes down to what we do with God. He’s either at the center of everything, or He’s not. If He’s not, any worldview based upon Him must be wrong. If He is, then any worldview that doesn’t take Him into account must be wrong. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7).
My rating: ****
Language: very minor, only when quoting people
Sexual content: none (it’s nonfiction)
Violence: none (it’s nonfiction)
Political content: I’d say none–some political topics are brought up but not from a partisan point of view