Friday, October 8, 2010

Money or Honor?

In the Philosophy through Literature course I'm teaching, focused on the search for utopia, we've now finished reading three visions of utopia - Plato's Republic, Thomas More's Utopia, and Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward - and are on to the fourth - B. F. Skinner's Walden Two. The class is going well, I think, and I'm loving exploring these thought-provoking books with my students. But recently we've gotten stuck on one question over and over again, posed by several increasingly disgruntled students in the class, who are getting tired of all these arguments on behalf of "socialism." Their question is: why would anybody ever work or try to achieve anything if it weren't for the motivation of money?

I've tried to defend Plato, More, and Bellamy, mainly because my style of teaching is generally to play devil's advocate and defend whatever book I'm teaching against whatever objections students pose to it. But I also find these students' bewilderment at how there could possibly be any non-monetary motivation to do anything frankly puzzling. There are so many other reasons to work!

One is the motive of honor, which we talked about in class quite a bit in relation to Bellamy. People work for public recognition of their achievements. Even if all workers are paid the same, if some are promoted to positions of authority, or celebrated in other ways, this can provide a motivation to excel.

Then there is the motive of public service: working to make a contribution to some community you care about. (These particular students don't "get" this one AT ALL.)

Finally, though this is insufficiently stressed by these first three authors we've read, there is the motive of pleasure in the work itself: doing the work simply because you love the doing of the work for its own sake, and you love the satisfaction that comes from doing it well.

I work for all four of these reasons. I do love money, of course I do, but if I had a choice between fame (honor) or money, I'd choose fame in a heartbeat, especially if all my financial needs were met by benevolent social arrangements. Public service is probably less of a motivation for me, but I do take on all kinds of service work for the philosophy department because, hey, somebody has to do it, and I'm a member of the department, so why not me? I do a lot of volunteering at my church for the same reason.

But above all, it's the fourth motivation that drives me: working for the love of the work itself. I love writing. I love teaching - even (or maybe especially) when I'm challenged by these money-grubbing students! I don't love grading - nobody does - but it's the price I pay for all the other joy that comes from my job as a professor. And I love every single thing that has to do with my life as a writer. I even love addressing envelopes that are to be mailed to editors. I even love licking the stamps to go on them.

So I say to these boys in my class: I hope you find work somebody that you'll do just for the love of it, and some community that you'll want to serve just because you care about it so deeply. And if you get some fame and fortune along the way, that's good, too.


  1. Are your students claiming that in fact no one ever does anything without the motivation of money? That is just obviously wrong. Or, are they arguing that it is irrational to do any work without the motivation of money? I have a lot of desires that can't be obtained with money, so isn't it rational that I pursue those desires? Maybe your students think that the only rational desire is the desire for money. That is just silly, because money itself is useless -- it is just a tool for meeting other desires.

    Maybe your students are doing a bad job of articulating a more reasonable argument, which is that utopias are doomed to fail because they can't provide good enough incentive for full participation of their citizens in the utopian project. If you can get your students to flesh that out, you might have some real philosophical learning.

    I recently read an article in Nature about sociological study of happiness. Some sociologists studied happiness of paraplegics and lottery winners. Paraplegics are happier!

  2. I decided that the paraplegics and lottery winners needed better research, so here is the original paper.

  3. I wish YOU were in my class, Scott!

  4. Down here in Houston, elementary aged kids are learning early that hard work pays off because it gets you into a better middle school (lots of magnets here), and then into great schools higher up, so you can 'have more choices' (translation, make more money). One of the things I love about International Baccalaureate is the bucking of this trend: you find out what you're good at and get smart so you can make the world a bit better.