I am enjoying hearing about this new book Yochai Benkler from Harvard University, also author of the Wealth of Networks.
The argument he makes is that humans are not purely self-interested creatures. In this interview the question is asked "How did we even get ourselves into a position where we have to make that argument?"
"If we look at the 40 year trajectory you might think of as scientific selfishness. From about the late 50s until early 90s we see a progression across many disciplines, economic obviously taking the lead, but also science, evolutionary biology, some aspects of psychology, continuously basically saying 'look we all talk about morality and fairness but that's not serious - serious people look at mathematical models, and they tell us that at the end of the day, if you want to get things done you have got to get the incentives right. Incentives mean material incentives and if you want people acting you need to monitor them, reward them if they do good things, you need to punish them if they do bad things.
All these other things that the mushy people talk about are peripheral in terms of getting things right in terms of incentives.
Developing in various academic disciplines, but we also saw it developing in companies and company policies with the rise of scientific management. We are at the point now where we can step back and say that what is not serious is that we are not being well represented by a self-interested model - we are much more complex than that. We need to build systems for this new complex view of ourselves as, to some extend self-interested for sure, but also concerned with empathy and solidarity, concerned with what we think is right, what we think is fair. Capable of being trusting and being trustworthy ... and that's what we need to understand now."
"I think the reason why the self-interest model was so powerful combines several factors. The first one is that we have to admit that it is at least partly true... It is not completely false ... but it isn't the whole story. It is also partly that we love clear, simple explanations, sometimes called by psychologists 'cognitive fluency', something that's easy for us to digest. It turns out when you look as people we are very complicated. It is a lot simpler to say that we can collapse it all into a simple, mathematically describable model that says 'if I add more money I get the behaviour I want - if I punish I won't'. So it's simple and easy to absorb."
Benkler goes on to describe how the rise of this thinking coincides with the period of the cold war and that these clash of ideologies - principally collectivism and capitalism, made it easy to adopt the model because we had a 'then and us' situation.
The case that Benkler makes is not entirely new - but I like the way that he describes his thinking and I do think that this book makes a hugely valuable contribution to trying to shift the mindset away from designing policy and systems which call on the more negative human qualities. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins has also contributed to this thinking. First published in 1976 The Selfish Gene suggested that although as human's we often behaved in socially supportive ways - this was always a conscious battle against our innate instincts. Dawkins received criticism when he ended The Selfish Gene with the following words:
"We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators. (Dawkins, 1976, p215)
In the 30th Anniversary copy of Selfish Gene, Dawkins defends his original statement by explaining:
…it is perfectly possible to hold that genes exert a statistical influence on human behaviour while at the same time believing that this influence can be modified, overridden or reversed by other influences. (Dawkins, 2006Ed, p331-332)
Our brains have evolved to the point where we are capable of rebelling against our selfish genes (Dawkins, 2006Ed, pxiv)
Frans de Waal, one of my favourite researchers has fought Dawkins for many years. Having studied primates for most of his life he strongly disagrees. In Primates and Philosophers he argues against 'Veneer Theory':
"Since Darwin saw morality as an evoluntionary product, he envisioned an eminently more livable world than one proposed by Huxley and his followers, who believed in a culturally imposed, artificial morality that receives no helping hand from human Nature. Huxley's world is by far the colder, more terrifying place."
Daniel Pink in Drive also gave us lots of research examples where the self-interest model had failed - from blood drives to toxic waste - introducing self-interest and incentives can suppress cooperation.
Thanks to David Archer for pointing me to the interview!