For goodness sake, just be selfish ! - RSA

For goodness sake, just be selfish !


Among the many great maxims of the 17th century French writer Francois de La Rochefoucauld is this: ‘Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue’. I lack Francois’ turn of phrase but here is my thought for the day:

‘Shame provokes vice as much as it protects virtue’.

Here are three ways being ashamed makes us behave badly:

The ‘What the hell effect’:

As Dan Ariely describes in his latest book and Animate, when faced with temptation most people most of the time weigh up the benefits of sinning with the bad feeling that results. But there comes a point, when people have erred several times, that the possibility of feeling good about oneself diminishes. This tilts the balance (vice is still attractive but virtue feels unattainable). As Ariely explains, the reason Catholic confession has a measurable and benign impact is that it enables people to wipe the slate making the maintenance of virtue (and its loss) salient again.

It’s the cover up that kills you:

From Richard Nixon to Chris Huhne it is not the shameful act but the attempt to avoid being shamed that leads to the greater vice. Over and over again it is what we do to avoid admitting self-interested misbehavior that leads us completely to  abandon our moral compass.

Defending the vice by damning the world

Last night’s Moral Maze was on private education and it’s worth a listen. Quite late on an important philosophical division emerges between the champions of independent schools.

When I asked former St Pauls’ School high master Martin Stephen whether there would be private schools in a perfect world he said words to the effect of; ‘no, private schools are necessary because of the weakness of the state system’. As a free market libertarian Michael Portillo’s disagreed, for him the perfect world is the one with the greatest freedom including the freedom of parents to spend their money on buying the best education for their children (in fact, in Michael’s perfect world there are no state schools).

But, back to Martin Stephen’s rationale: Last night all those who defended the morality of private education (including Michael P) did so by, in one way or another, denigrating the state system.

I think private schools damage society in a number of ways (increasing inter-generational inequality, denying state schools access to pupils and parents who could be great assets), but arguably the worst effect comes from the apparent need for the defenders of the independent sector - in order to justify their decision to try to give their own children an advantage - constantly to run down the state sector thus contributing to the well-attested and abiding myth of decline which afflicts educational discourse.

A very high proportion of national journalists and columnists were privately educated and/or privately educate their own children, so the views of the fewer than 8% of parents who make the choice to go private are massively disproportionately represented in the media. .

Today at the RSA we have Stewart Lansley speaking to his book ‘The cost of inequality’ which persuasively argues that extreme inequality is not only problematic for society (the thesis of The Spirit Level) but also for the economy itself. The policies which saw inequality grow so starkly (particularly in the US and UK) were based on an economic ideology which is now largely discredited. Arguably, this ideology proved to be so attractive to those in power precisely because it enabled the rich not only to get rich but to argue that in doing so they were benefitting the whole of society. The damage was done less by individuals being greedy, which on its own may benefit the individuals a bit and harm the poor a little, than by the need to legitimate greed by propagating a set of ideas and policies which subsequently proved disastrous for everyone but the very rich.

As a tolerant kind of guy and also one who has himself virtually no moral foundation for self-righteousness, I would find it unattractive, but not in any way intolerable, for fellow citizens to say they were choosing private education simply because they wanted to give their children a social advantage over other children or that they were opposed to higher taxes and restrictions on bonuses for entirely self-interested reasons.

That people make choices we don’t approve of is a price of freedom that is well worth paying, even if those choices have small adverse effects on everyone else. Indeed to accept that people will often act in their own interests regardless of the impact on wider society and to tolerate this while at the same time promoting social values which encourage wider social responsibility is a pretty good balance of the virtues of freedom and justice. The message is ‘if you choose to put self-interest first, it is better to admit it than to peddle false ideas and destructive myths to hide your motives’.

As David Runciman argued brilliantly a few years ago, personal hypocrisy (doing things which don’t accord with your view of how the world is and should be) is in its impact a much lesser vice than political hypocrisy (altering your view of how the world is and should be to serve your self-interest).


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