Incentive vs. Character

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?






5 responses to “Incentive vs. Character”

  1. Larry Avatar

    Kindness? Empathy? Giving? Generosity of spirit?

    Not in this day and age, pal.

    Now quit smoking that joint and get back to work.


  2. Tamsen Avatar

    I was thinking this morning how the difference between giving and transactions has everything to do with people’s distance from us.

    I give freely to those closest to me. At one level out, in a personal project I get paid for (but one disconnected from my “professional” life and role), there’s an imbalance: I give more than I get paid to give and get paid at a rate far below what I would charge in my purely professional realm. But it’s an appropriate imbalance, because I care deeply about the people whom I serve and what their results are.

    At a further level, a purely professional one, it’s transactional most of the time (but the best and favorite clients often get more than they pay for–because I *want* to give more, and have enough experience to know that, over the long haul, that extra service will be repaid).

    At the furthest level, when I’m writing, or interacting with folks I don’t yet know, it’s often free again–because I enjoy sowing seeds and seeing if and how they grow.

    To me, those who value kindness are those who value the unknown. When you give, truly give, you do so without knowing what, if any, the return will be. Indeed, giving while expecting a return is not giving at all.

    As you say, it’s a transaction–a sucker’s bet, and half-enacted. And you’re the sucker.

  3. Richard Nikoley Avatar

    I’ve heard it said that the only _true_ mark of a man’s character is whether he get’s out of the shower to take a pee.

  4. Joel Valdez Avatar

    I feel MORE pleasure giving than receiving! It’s a more lasting feeling.

  5. Therese Avatar

    Actually, no, not quite right. Yep, ‘Character’ is when you do it becaus its the right thing to do regardless of incentives. BUT particularly when it DOES NOT ‘feel good’. Its what happens with the the stuff you dont really want to do and thats not going to fun or in anyway gratifying that tests the mettle.

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