Saturday, 4 April 2009

Revenge might be a good cold dish, but not a lifeplan.

A new study indicates that people who engage in revenge are less likely to find work, or keep it. There is "positive reciprocity" and "negative reciprocity". The positive is when you do something nice for someone who does something nice for you; the negative is the opposite. Some people are more positively reciprocal, others more negatively reciprocal. Those who are positive have more friends and make more money, because, the study found, they work harder for more pay. Negatively reciprocal people are not encouraged by higher pay, but will work less for lower pay, or try to harm the company they're working for. They also are less happy.

I personally would prefer a study that doesn't relate to pay. I look at money as a necessity to get by, but not as something I inherently want. Nor am I interested in the mammon that one can gain with the money. Certainly, I like the occasional book, but money is an inherently negative concept to me, because of my cultural upbringing. This study looks at something that is a root of all kinds of evil- money- as the primary incentive. It could be argued that those who are inspired by money do better by the standards of their society, when working in a capitalist system. The study therefore has some flaws that need to be addressed.

But let us take it at face value. Let us accept the basic premise as it stands. I still find it a rather primitive motivating force- Utilitarian, rather than Kantian ethics. Certainly, Kant leaves a lot to be desired, but what was positive in his ethics was the Categorical Imperative- the good is that which, if done by everyone at all times, would still be good. It bears a resemblance to the Utilitarian ethic (also known as the George Bush ethic) - "Do what is best for the greatest number of people." And yet the Categorical Imperative is worlds apart from the ethic of the Utilitarians. Ultimately, the Utilitarian ethic degenerates into mob rule, where the majority dictates upon the minority. Kant asked us to consider what was best for everyone, and not just what served the greatest number. He argued that ultimately, if it was not something that everyone could do, then it was not worth doing.

The Categorical Imperative bears a more than passing resemblance to the ethics of Jesus- "Do to others as you would have them do to you." Jesus' ethic was rather often that the good of the one, or the few, outweighs the good of the many- for in Jesus' ethics, there was no differentiation between the good of the many and the good of the one. (Witness the story of the Garasene Demoniac, where Jesus condemns the livelihood of ten cities so that one man might be saved from demonic possession.) The ethic of Jesus takes it a step further, best exemplified in the Gospel by Luke- the best action is not that which serves the majority, or even all people, but that which serves the minority- those outcast- for our needs and desires are (and should be) inseparable from those so outcast. It becomes the ethic of the minority, but not those who rule. It is rather the ethic of the minority who do not rule.

This is rooted in the the difference between the ethic of Jesus, and how that ethic is commonly interpreted. It is not "Do unto others so that they will do unto you." There is never any expectation of return. It is how you would want them to treat you. But it is love of your enemies, which Jesus also calls for. It is love for those who mistreat you, who hate you, who despise you- to pick up your instrument of torture and gruesome death and follow in the path of Jesus.

We come back to the root of the study. The difficulty with the premise is that those who get ahead are those who are considering their own best interests. They are happier than those who desire harm for another, attacking those who attack them, for they are motivated by doing good for those who do good to them. But this motivation is ultimately selfish in origin. It is more limited than the Utilitarian Ethic, considering what is good for the greatest number. It is more limited than the Categorical Imperative, considering what is good for all. It is more limited than the ethic of Jesus, considering what is good for the lost sheep. It has no place for doing good to those who mistreat you.

Yes, it undoubtedly works. You do better in this society if you are positive and encouraging. It would make sense that you would have more friends. But that does not make it right. One would want to see further studies, looking at less materialistic societies, to see if the "getting ahead" was dictated by the materialistic basis of society. And one would want to compare those who are encouraged by an Positive Reciprocal Ethic, with those motivated by Utilitarianism, Kant, and Kingdom Desires.

All of this is not to say I'm at that exalted Kingdom level. Or the level of Kant. Or the level of even John Stuart Mill and the Utilitarians. For I have to merely think back to my last time driving on the freeway, and see how much more I was focused on Negative Reciprocity. But how, pray tell, could one possibly apply the ethics of Jesus to the American freeway system, and expect to ever get anywhere?

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