Thursday, September 06, 2012

Ethics Are Incentives

It is not enough to know what's the right thing to do; one must also have the incentive to. If your back is to the wall, you'll do unethical things (even if you may justify it as ethical while you're doing it). But it is hard to blame people for doing bad things if they are just responding to incentives. Consider this passage from Nothing to Envy describing life in North Korea during the famine.
...[Hunger] targets the most innocent, the people who would never steal food, lie, cheat, break the law, or betray a friend. It was a phenomenon that the Italian writer Primo Levi identified after emerging from Auschwitz, when he wrote that he and his fellow survivors never wanted to see one another again after the war because they had all done something of which they were ashamed.

As [North Korean] Mrs. Song would observe a decade later, when she thought back on all the people she knew who died during those years in Chongjin, it was the "simple and kindhearted people who did what they were told--they were the first to die."
If you refuse to give a starving child your food when you are starving, are you really a bad person?