I’m not opposed to positive reinforcement which is essentially the idea behind incentive based economies – the economy America keeps demanding that we have and we have more of – but we’ve gone too far. We’re now incentivising doing good for yourself and out of fear of being hypocritical we’re punishing doing good for others. We’ve become a culture defined by its economics, and the economic system is one that punishes sharing – that is based on the idea that empathy is dead, or at very least a silly concept born out of childish naivete.
While I’m not sold on the idea that empathy and positive reinforcement are incompatible, if we are to treat that as the choice we must make then we have a tough decision on our hands. The decision is grounded in this simple question: What happens to the psychopaths? We can either pat lots of people on the back at the risk of patting the wrong person on the back, giving psychopaths our endorsement and our resources, or we can act as indiscriminately with our second chances, giving psychopaths fewer resources but more opportunities to use those limited resources. With fewer resources psychopathy has a harder time mounting power, though with more opportunities psychopathy has an easier time conning their way into laziness. You give psychopaths resources you end up with people like Bernie Madoff and companies like Goldman Sachs. You give them opportunities you get “welfare queens.” Which is more destructive? Which do we truly believe hurts us more?
We can strive to be the society that has left the largest mark on our world through the unchecked psychopathic reign of a few (these are the societies that created the pyramids and the great wall of china, though our great accomplishment will be a large hole in the ozone layer) or do we strive to create a society in which the people who are here in the present are happy and creative and our psychopathic few are kept in check through comfortable but mindless tasks. Do we suffer evil or lazy?
I propose this, but don’t think we need to answer this question.
I believe there is another conclusion that starts with a rethinking of how we define culture and economy. As I said before, we define our culture through our economy. Black Friday and Valentines Day are holidays in America that were created solely by economic forces. Buying a house and a car has become an American right of passage – ideas created to increase the bottom line of industries in power. In America, the question “what do you do?” is aimed at finding out how you acquire money. Because culture is being decided by economy, empathy has been pushed aside. There was no mathematical way to talk about how empathy and profit are correlated when America was defining itself as a superpower. While that’s changed, and an empathetic culture has proven to provide a longer-term profit, it’s more important to change the direction of the equation. No longer should we be slaves to the economy because money should not dictate how we live, rather we should dictate how money lives. Money is simply pieces of paper and metal, right? We need to embrace the idea that our economic system needs to be a reaction to our culture, and if we change our culture first – specifically to something empathy based – than our economics will change too. If we define our culture and let our economy follow, economics will have the best interests of the people in mind as opposed to having the best interests of the money in mind.
Defining culture does not mean that we define what a family should look like, or how a person should dress, culture is how we treat others within our society, so let’s define our culture to be one where empathy reigns supreme and psychopathy is shunned.