By Kentaro Toyama
I go back and forth on whether the topic of virtue is worth a public airing. After all, much of it is obvious, it's not new in and of itself, and it's too easy to slip into glib, preachy generalizations. It was a challenge to keep things interesting for the last few days of guest blogging. I'm not sure I succeeded entirely, but some very kind feedback from readers has been helpful to keep me going. (This has been a great exercise for gaining some personal humility; I don't know how people like Jim do this at high quality day after day!)
Like everything else, there are cultural differences in what is considered worthwhile in the public sphere. Japan, for example, has a high tolerance for pushing virtue. You can see it in the small details. For example, it's common to see traffic signs with sincere admonitions to show courtesy to other drivers or to keep the roads clean. The equivalent signage in the United States has to appeal instead to humor or threats: "Litter and it will hurt: $316 fine." In a style of karate I used to practice, every class would end with a recitation of dojo principles. The first one was "Seek perfection of character." That wouldn't happen in a boxing studio.
In India, virtues come up in discussions of spirituality. Newspapers with broad readership have daily columns dedicated to it [for example, at right], and the writers, regardless of their faith, draw from a variety of traditions to make their point: Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Sikh, or secular humanist. People also readily engage in the topic. Here, for example, is the opening line of a real email that I once received from a man with a degree in electrical engineering from one of the world-renowned Indian Institutes of Technology. It was sent out to a mailing list of people interested in environmental issues:
Buddha, one day, was in deep thought about worldly activities and the ways of instilling goodness in human beings.
If you're anything like me, you suppressed a chuckle when you read this, or maybe you didn't even bother to suppress. I certainly chortled. Goodness in human beings?! Was he for real?
It's not clear, though, why this elicits a laugh. Don't we want goodness in human beings? Yet, something about the sheer earnestness collides with what must be an entrenched cynicism.
I can think of at least three kinds of cynicism that apply. First, there's what might be called biological cynicism -- a belief that human nature is fixed or sufficiently difficult to change that the effort isn't worthwhile. We can manipulate people's behaviors, but we can't expect people to change intrinsically.
Biological cynicism is built into influential models of policy. For example, classical economics models people as selfish, rational agents and stresses the importance of incentives like money. Behavioral economics has cast doubt on the rational-agent model, and economists readily concede that money isn't the only incentive -- people are said to have different preferences -- yet when policy-makers get down to business, money is the ultimate metric and often the favored instrument.
For most people, though, money is neither the only concern nor the primary concern. The best evidence for this is economists themselves: Here are a set of smart people who are the world's experts on money. If economists were exemplars of their own models, there shouldn't be economists off of Wall Street.