Thursday, December 27, 2018

Do you acknowledge a personal responsiblity to seek mutual benefit?

In The Community of Advantage, which I reviewed in my last post, Robert Sugden observes that when individuals participate in market transactions it is possible for them to be motivated by mutual benefit, rather than personal benefit or even by the potential to use proceeds for altruistic purposes. They may see virtue in voluntary transactions that enable people to get what they want by benefiting others.

Sugden points out that being motivated by mutual benefit is consistent with Adam Smith’s famous observation that we do not rely on the benevolence of shopkeepers to provide us with the goods we need. The shop keepers don’t sacrifice their own interests to provide us with goods, but they may act with the intention of playing their part in mutually beneficial practices.

Sugden suggests that adoption of the principle of mutual benefit has implications for personal responsibility:

“According to that principle, each person should behave in such a way that other people’s opportunities to realize mutual benefit are sustained. But beyond that, no one is accountable to anyone else for his preferences, intentions, or decisions. Individuals relate to one another, not as one another’s benefactors, guardians, or moral judges, but as potential partners in the achievement of their common interests".

Individuals decide how to use the opportunities that are available to them, and accept sole responsibility for the consequences.

Sugden’s discussion of ethics includes responses to the virtue-ethical critique of the market of philosophers, such as Elizabeth Anderson and Michael Sandel, who argue for collective action by citizens to impose limits on the scope of markets - on the grounds that motivations of market participants are inherently non-virtuous and therefore liable to corrupt social interactions.

However, some virtue ethicists have adopted a much more market-friendly approach. I have in mind, particularly, the template of responsibility proposed by Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen in The Perfectionist Turn.

Den Uyl and Rasmussen suggest that “the fact that one must make a life for oneself is an existential condition”. To be a person is to have self-responsibility. Each person is primarily responsible for her or his own flourishing. Human flourishing involves “an actualization of potentialities that are specific to the kind of living thing a human being is and that are unique to each human being as an individual”.  Actualization “is dependent on the self-directed exercise of our rational capacities”. Flourishing amounts to the same thing as “the exercise of one’s own practical wisdom”.

As noted in an earlier article on this blog, an entrepreneurial analogy is used by Den Uyl and Rasmussen to describe what a flourishing life involves. Flourishing is activity rather than a passive state. It involves discovery of opportunities, and alertness to new opportunities amidst changing circumstances, rather than merely efficient use of the means at our disposal.

The authors suggest that if we accept that human flourishing is the goal of ethics, then we should learn from exemplars. People who have flourished in difficult circumstances may provide us with useful models of action. Of course, the idea that it can be helpful to personal development to identify and emulate the values that drive heroes has been around for a long time. It seems to work best for people who are sufficiently self-authoring to be able to recognise that famous people are not always good exemplars of human flourishing.

Den Uyl and Rasmussen argue that the ultimate value of the template of responsibility is integrity, which “signifies a coherent, integral whole of virtues and values, allowing for consistency between word and deed and for reliability in action”. They suggest that integrity expresses itself interpersonally in honour. Although acknowledging that honour may be “too old-fashioned a term for today’s usage”, they maintain that it does “capture the sense of what it means to greet the world with integrity”.

An alternative term, that captures some of that meaning, is trustworthiness. Den Uyl and Rasmussen briefly discuss the question of why they consider opportunistic participation in untrustworthy behaviour to be inconsistent with individual flourishing. They argue that such opportunism puts “the relationship we have with ourselves as a whole in disequilibrium by eroding what we ought to be in our relations with others generally”.

I have a vague idea of what that means. We can’t flourish if our behaviour is inconsistent with our values. Peoples’ consciences are often troubled when they engage in untrustworthy behaviour. When confronted with an opportunity to benefit unfairly at the expense of another person we sometimes hear people say, “I couldn’t live with myself if I behaved in that way”. I am not sure whether those sentiments are best explained in terms of evolved moral intuitions, internalisation of norms of reciprocity during the maturation process, a combination of both, or something else. Perhaps it doesn’t matter much how such sentiments are explained; the important point is to recognize that humans generally view untrustworthy behaviour to be inconsistent with their values.

Results of the trust game suggests that in a world we live in there seems to be a widespread expectation that even people we don’t know may be somewhat trustworthy. The trust game is a once-off game played between anonymous strangers (A and B). A is given $10. She can choose to keep it all or send some to B. B receives 3 times the amount sent by A. B can choose to keep all the money she has received, or send some back to A. In the results of games reported by Robert Sugden, A players sent on average $5.16 and received back $4.66, with B players keeping $10.82.

Sugden suggests that the willingness of A players to send any money to B players can explained in terms of their expectation that B players can be trusted to play their part in producing mutual benefits.  

In real world interactions, people have greater knowledge of the trustworthiness of others. Sugden points out that the principle of mutual benefit requires trustworthiness:  

"In an economy in which there is a general tendency for people to act on the Principle of Mutual Benefit, it is in each person’s interest that other people expect him to act on that principle”.

He explains:

In choosing whether or not to enter a trust relationship, each individual is free to judge for herself whether or not that will be to her benefit, taking account of the possibility that other participants may be untrustworthy. To the extent that some person, say Joe, can be expected to act on the Principle of Mutual Benefit, he can be seen by others, and sought out by them, as a potential partner in mutually beneficial interactions that those others are free to enter or not enter, as they choose. Thus, Joe’s being seen in this way allows him to access opportunities for benefit that would be closed off if his potential partners expected him always to act on self-interest."

That reasoning might suggest to some readers that it is more important to establish a reputation for trustworthiness than to have an intention to be trustworthy. A lot of commercial advertising seems to make that presumption. Fortunately, there is some evidence that individuals’ dispositions toward trustworthiness are translucent. When people have face-to face interactions with others they are quite successful in predicting who will cooperate and who will defect. On that basis, Sugden suggests that having a disposition to act on the principle of mutual benefit makes it more likely that other people will expect you to act in this way.

Summing up, accepting responsibility for making something of one’s own life is an integral part of what it means to be a human, and seeking mutual benefit in interactions with others follows naturally from that. Integrity in our behaviour toward others is of central importance to flourishing because we cannot flourish if we don’t live according to our values, and because we cannot flourish unless other people trust us sufficiently to seek mutually beneficial interactions with us.

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