The seniors in the class are on the job market now. It is natural in that setting for them to focus on themselves. And as college increasingly comes to be seen as preparation for the world of work it encourages focus on oneself throughout the time spent as a student. Do selfless acts fit at all into that mindset? What I'm thinking about here is having a sense of responsibility in the community or the workplace. How does that sense of responsibility develop? Indeed, does it develop at all?
In class about 1/3 of the students don't show up. It's not always the same ones who miss but there are a handful of students whose attendance has been very spotty. Among those is one student who wanted a face-to-face meeting with me early in the semester, which he subsequently blew off. Then he had a variety of excuses for why his course work would be turned in late. He is not alone among his classmates on being late in completing the homework and some other students have missed submitting work entirely.
Even among those who attend regularly most will not raise their hands. And for those who were there from day one this poses a different problem. As our class is on the economics of organizations I treated the first class session as an extended example using the class itself as an organization. One key economics issue is whether the organization itself acts in an economically efficient manner. I then explained that questions students pose in class are public goods - the other students benefit from those questions being asked. With public goods there is a reason to expect inefficiency - the free rider problem. In the class setting, the student posing the question might be embarrassed for asking a stupid question. Being responsible in this context means overcoming that personal discomfort for the benefit of all. On the first day I thought that message was well understood by the class and we actually achieved a fair amount of class participation by the end of the session. Unfortunately, it didn't carry over to subsequent sessions.
I am quite prepared to believe that I'm making things seem more grim than they really are. One thought is that responsibility correlates highly with maturity and these 20-something students are for the most part still quite immature. They'll get there; it will just take a while. Another thought is that people act responsibly in those domains where they care deeply but less so elsewhere. By the time students become seniors the classroom may be one of those domains that students don't care about so much. Then it is also possible that some of this is peculiar to Econ majors, who are known to be more selfish than the rest of the student population.
Yet I'm wondering whether: (a) we should overtly be teaching responsibility and (b) we are implicitly teaching irresponsibility, the consequence of being at a large public university where individual students can readily vanish into the crowd. To a certain extent the various University 101 courses that are offered in each college address (a). I think we've been doing those for about ten years now. To my knowledge there has been no formal assessment done, though my sense is that these courses are not sufficiently intensive and/or there are other factors that tend to counter the lessons from University 101. Those other factors are what I meant by (b).
In the rest of this post I'm going to muse about what responsibility means and where it seems to have emerged in others and in me.
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A few days ago the Ayn Rand phrase, The Virtue of Selfishness, manifest in my head. So I Googled it and then, finding the book in pdf form, I started to read it. Almost immediately, I became challenged by what she says, which seems like a bunch of half truths or out and out distortions to me.
Altruism declares that any action taken for the benefit of others is good, and any action taken for one’s own benefit is evil.
I read this sentence several times. My first thought was to ask, what do I believe on these matters? In my worldview, actions that benefit oneself might be quite okay, even to someone who considers himself an altruist. One doesn't have to be Mother Theresa to be a good person. Then I read a little further and again returned to this sentence. It is artfully constructed, written from the perspective of the person taking the action. Does this person have good reason to believe that the action so taken will achieve its intended purpose? Might the person aver a benefit to others while really only intending a benefit to himself? If a person has a mistaken belief that the action will benefit others or if the person is being duplicitous when taking the action, is taking that action properly called altruism?
There is, of course, more to it than that. Who the others are matters. Use of the word altruism brings to mind the words from the Emma Lazarus poem - your tired, your poor, your huddled masses... Altruism in this sense means giving to people who can't fend for themselves. Certainly other sorts of giving is possible and indeed happens frequently. In the class I teach I discuss Akerlof's model of Labor Contracts as Partial Gift Exchange. In plain English you would call this either collegiality or good citizenship. Both of those have elements of giving as part of the notion, but don't require the recipients to be needy, just appreciative. There is also the type of giving with a quid pro quo, an indirect way to scratch one's own back in a place that is hard to reach by oneself. Surely that is not altruism, yet use of the phrase any action connotes others independent of their standing.
A couple of paragraphs later, it says:
Observe the indecency of what passes for moral judgments today. An industrialist who produces a fortune, and a gangster who robs a bank are regarded as equally immoral, since they both sought wealth for their own “selfish” benefit. A young man who gives up his career in order to support his parents and never rises beyond the rank of grocery clerk is regarded as morally superior to the young man who endures an excruciating struggle and achieves his personal ambition. A dictator is regarded as moral, since the unspeakable atrocities he committed were intended to benefit “the people,” not himself.
I found the first two of these binary juxtapositions offensive, even while knowing ahead of time that Ayn Rand championed the entrepreneur who follows his own inclinations as the path to produce success. (I never read Atlas Shrugged and never will. I did see the movie starring Gary Cooper. I liked it as a story, which I could watch without getting into the morality play that Rand intends for the audience.)
Doesn't it matter how the industrialist made his fortune? I wonder what Rand would think of the recent Volkswagen debacle, or of the practice of buying out a pharmaceutical company for the purpose of jacking up prescription drug prices, or of the Gordon Gecko character in Wall Street. Rand seems inclined to focus on the Steve Jobs type, the creative inventor, and then to ignore any unsavory business practices that might be part and parcel of the wealth accumulation strategy, for example Apple's well known approach to tax avoidance. Or to take another such hero, Bill Gates, consider how Microsoft competed against Netscape.
Then there is the matter of the rags to riches story in the second example. Rand seems not to care about distinguishing between the first phase where the transition has occurred, which most people would find admirable as long as that didn't happen in an unsavory manner, from the second phase where great additional wealth is accumulated after substantial wealth has already been acquired, which might seem quite offensive especially if some of that wealth was generated as a taking from others who can ill afford to part with it.
I confess to not fully understand the context within which the sentence about the dictator is intended. Were there some Liberal sympathizers of Castro who were vocal about this at the time Rand wrote The Virtue of Selfishness? I only did a quick search on the question as it is far afield from what I want to write about here. I found nothing from the 1960s but did find a piece from this May that makes the argument. Perhaps Rand meant the sentence as a veiled form of McCarthyism. Certainly her rejection of altruism seems to be coincident with a fervent anti-communism, so what she may be really rejecting is the State as an instrument of altruism and not so much individual acts of charity, which is what I take to be the position of many Republicans today. Even in this, however, the choice is not one or the other. Rather it is the degree of acceptable subsidy/transfer as well as the acceptable set of recipients. You don't hear too many Republicans decrying tax advantages for big business that amount to welfare for the rich. So it would seem they really aren't against using the State as an instrument of giving. What they are against is using the State for giving to poor people.
Let me turn to my own views of when selfishness is appropriate and defensible from a moral perspective. Many years ago I attended a retreat meant for new administrators on campus. (I had been an administrator for a while, but had gotten a promotion.) One session was led by a department head who told the rest of us in no uncertain terms - take care of yourself. He said he had put on about 50 pounds while being department head. This is not just a matter of administrative work being too sedentary. It is mainly about work stress coming from overwork and that people on campus can be very pushy. The stress never relents and in the search for a palliative a vicious cycle can develop. The person doesn't sleep well, thinks about work and nothing else, gets insufficient exercise, and then is prone to over eat possibly to drink too much and take other stimulants in excess. One needs to be selfish enough to avoid this sort of vicious cycle. It is very hard to do and I'm not saying I mastered it. I definitely did not. But the principle, take care of yourself, is one that makes sense to me.
Here is a different sort of example. I tell my students in their blogging to please themselves. This is a strange piece of advice for them to hear as I'm the one reading their posts and for years and years they've been indoctrinated to act in a way that pleases the teacher. But the reality is they haven't written much up to till this point and so they can't possibly know what will please me as a reader. They have a much better chance of learning what will please themselves. As they do this, they will end up writing better.
In both of these there is a dialectic at root between the me and the we. (See definition 9.) With the blogging, over time they need to develop a sense of taste as to what is pleasing. If that sense of taste is formed from they're reading the writing of others, a social act, then they should find that when they do please themselves with their writing others will like the writing too. Likewise when the administrator takes care of himself he is in a much better position to the address the needs of others in his charge.
This sense of dialectic is elemental in my view of things, where it seems to be absent entirely in how Rand presents the issues. The issue as I see it is to find a reasonable balance between we and me, which in turn might depend on circumstance, social norms, and perhaps personal preference as well.
When I was an undergrad at Cornell students dressed down, even the rich ones. When I was a grad student at Northwestern, quite a few of the undergrads I taught dressed up. That didn't feel right to me then. To this day I disdain Veblenesque displays of conspicuous consumption, for example seeing BMWs in the parking lot on campus. On the other hand, one of my direct reports when I had the campus job used to make fun of me for drinking "foo foo coffee." That way I'm spoiled, no doubt, especially if comparing myself to my parents but not if comparing myself to those who buy more exotic coffee drinks. My point here is that my views don't specify where the line should be drawn but only that some balance is the goal and quite unfortunately there are some obvious situations today, for example in our Presidential politics, where such balance is not present.
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Our formative development on where responsibility comes from (or not) is a matter that should fascinate all of us. After reading those student blog posts I made a post for the class on the matter. Let me highlight two of the references linked there (and with brief annotations provided). One is Hanna Rosin's piece The Overprotected Kid. The veiled hypothesis in that piece is that kids benefit enormously from play at sport or other group activities requiring skill, where they are heterogeneous in age and proficiency. Getting such situations to be fun for everyone is a challenge. The challenge can be met by the older and more proficient kids taking care of the younger and less proficient among them. This is the social context in which a sense of responsibility is born. In contrast, organized sports teams, little league for example, tend to cluster kids by their proficiency and have adult supervision. It's the parents who then end up managing the disputes, not the kids themselves.
The other is Sherry Turkle's piece Stop Googling. Let's talk. Here the argument is that kids become more impatient by having their heads always looking at their devices. If they are bored with something they simply click over to something else. Multiprocessing is the path to narcissism. All of us are getting to be more about me and less about we this way. It seems to me that the polarization of our politics is tied to this. Nuanced argument with some depth is too boring. Sound bites win the day instead. As a society, putting away our devices is the way to take care of ourselves.
Let me give one more example and then close. This one is far less clear as to what is actually going on. It might be an example that we is becoming more important in our social existence. Alternatively, it might be that we is being appropriated for private gain and is there purely for marketing purposes. On this one I'm not sure, but I think it bears paying some attention.
The example is provided by the latest professional golf phenom Jordan Spieth. His play has been outstanding. But it is his demeanor that I want to comment on. He has shown an effervescent sportsmanship that you don't see in the other players. When he has done interviews after winning a tournament he repeatedly makes reference to we and never once refers only to himself. In this case we means his caddie, his coach, his personal trainer, his business manager and his family and friends who travel to the tournaments and are there to give him a hug at the end. If it is all genuine, it seems to show a deep appreciation of the teamwork that was necessary for his golf success.
Alas, it may all be marketing. As a fan it is too hard to tell. We don't know enough, but take a look at this site, where the company Under Armour markets Jordan Spieth apparel. If you look at the incomes of true superstars in sports, Michael Jordan providing the quintessential example, much more of it comes from endorsements than directly from the athletic competitions. In other words, Jordan made a lot more from Nike than he did from the Chicago Bulls. Spieth must be well aware of this. While high skill of the athlete is no doubt necessary to get such an endorsement contract, image matters for the price tag on that contract. The companies want to market a wholesome image. Being for we may be part of that.
From this marketing point of view Tiger Woods became Michael Jordan's successor and remained that till he had his fall from grace. Speith is the heir apparent. Jordan let his NBA Championships (as distinct from his leading the league in scoring) speak to his being a team player. Woods, playing a game that few would call a team sport, may have made reference to his caddy or his swing coach from time to time and when he first won the Masters he made quite an emotional speech about the Black pro golfers who preceded him and who made it possible for him to succeed. Yet he didn't go overboard about the contribution of others to his own performance the way Spieth seems to be doing now.
If Spieth is genuine in his descriptions this would be a welcome development that I expect other players will emulate. But if it is all marketing, nothing more, it is a shame. We really need to be tilting the balance more toward the we end of the spectrum. There are too many other things at work pushing it the other way.