The fine for smoking at the New York Marriott Marquis is $250. Feel free to do it; they’ll just charge your card.
Smoke in your friend’s house, however, and he just won’t let you back in.
These two examples display the difference between two kinds of repercussions– financial and social. If you don’t smoke in the Marriott, it’s because you don’t want to be fined. They have to fine you, because the relationship is transactional and they’ll never see you again. But if you don’t smoke in your friend’s house, it’s not because he’ll fine you; it’s because you will see him again (and you’re not an asshole).
One requires incentive– the other is just character.
You can tell good character by actions that are performed when no one’s watching– when there are no repercussions (such as fining someone for smoking) or benefits (such as buying somebody lunch). That’s the main difference between doing something for incentive, and doing it because it’s just the right thing to do and it feels good. If someone sees the good you’re doing, it can actually devalue it– anonymous donations are a good example of this.
I read a long time ago that Buddhist monks have a history of giving unconditionally to anyone, whether they agree or disagree with the reason for giving. This is supposed to promote a kindness and generosity of spirit that carries forward into the rest of your life.
Maybe we should do the same with building kindness and empathy– doing it in order to get better at it. Flex the muscles and it should grow… right?
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