Posts tagged with: Human behavior

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Jerk StoreIn “The Moral Meanings of Markets,” in the latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality, Ryan Langrill and Virgil Henry Storr argue that markets ought to be understood and defended not simply as amoral, or merely moral, but as robustly moral spaces. In exploring the contention that markets reward virtues besides prudence, Langrill and Storr illustrate how market exchanges tend to promote civility and politeness. “It makes sense for profit-seeking businessmen to invest in goodwill and good customer service,” they write.

A recent piece in the Harvard Business Review, however, underscores the reverse phenomenon, the costs of rudeness. As Christine Porath and Christine Pearson write in “The Price of Incivility,” the virtues required for good business are not merely oriented towards customers. “Rudeness at work is rampant, and it’s on the rise,” they write: “Nearly everybody who experiences workplace incivility responds in a negative way, in some cases overtly retaliating. Employees are less creative when they feel disrespected, and many get fed up and leave. About half deliberately decrease their effort or lower the quality of their work.”

But Porath and Pearson also note that “incivility damages customer relationships. Our research shows that people are less likely to buy from a company with an employee they perceive as rude, whether the rudeness is directed at them or at other employees. Witnessing just a single unpleasant interaction leads customers to generalize about other employees, the organization, and even the brand.”

The costs of rudeness are illustrated even more clearly outside the context of “competitive market settings,” as Langrill and Storr relate. They note John Mueller’s observation that “since enterprises like these cannot ration by price, they are inclined to ration by rudeness.” And even outside the context of “non-price competition,” as we observe in our own experiences everyday, there are costs associated with rudeness. Customers can certainly use rudeness as a rationing mechanism.

How much would it be worth to you to be treated rudely the next time you stop in at a McDonald’s or buy something from the supermarket? How cheap would things have to be for you to shop at the jerk store? Just how good would the lobster bisque have to be for you to buy it from the Soup Nazi?

justpoliticsIn the most recent issue of Religion & Liberty (22.3), I review Just Politics by Ronald Sider (read the full review here). While the book has much to commend it, my review ultimately ends up being critical. I do not believe it succeeds in constructing a solid social framework for Evangelicals comparable to Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants, as is its stated goal. I write,

Just Politics may be a guide in the same sense that a field guide to birds can rightly be called a guide, but it does not succeed at being “a methodology”—like, for example, the scientific method—as is its stated goal. Or more to the point, unlike the Roman Catholic framework of subsidiarity, solidarity, and natural law or the neo-Calvinist framework of sphere sovereignty, the antithesis, and common grace, Sider’s framework (Part 3 of the book and the vast majority, nearly 140 pages) resembles more the things one would hang upon a framework than a framework itself.

Among the many things Sider highlights in field-guide-to-birds style (between “Starvation” and “Capital Punishment”) is this peculiarity under the category of the sanctity of human life:

Smoking

Smoking kills an estimated 438,000 Americans every year. Around the world, the death toll from smoking rises to 5 million each year.

The social costs are enormous. The US Department of Health and Human Services estimates that smoking costs the nation $75.5 billion each year in medical bills and $92 billion in low productivity. Lung cancer snatches fathers and mothers away prematurely.

Given the devastation caused by smoking tobacco, it is especially ironic that senator Jesse Helms, long heralded as one of the great pro-life supporters, strongly supported government funding to send American tobacco to developing countries under our “Food for Peace” program.

Christians must insist that the sanctity of human life applies to everyone, including people seduced by clever cigarette advertising. Christians must work for effective laws that prevent tobacco advertisements, forbid smoking in most public buildings and facilities, and educate the public on the dangers of smoking. American experience over the last thirty years demonstrates that this mix of government programs can reduce smoking and the deaths it causes.

I find the above statement both challenging and confusing. Let me explain…. (more…)

In this week’s Acton Commentary, I take a look at the relationship between sacrifice and self-interest. One of the common complaints against market economies is that they foster selfishness.

But as Paul Heyne points out, it is crucially important to distinguish between self-interest and selfishness: “Many of the most eminent and sophisticated theorists in the economics profession make no effort to distinguish between self-interest and selfishness or between rational behavior and greedy behavior.” The failure to make such a distinction leads to some pretty strange conclusions about the motivations behind human behavior. If you want to know why people work, just look at what they do with the money they earn.

To this end, I also highlight the perspective of Herman Bavinck, who describes the rhythmic relationship between the spheres of family and work:

Through the family God motivates us to work, inspiring, encouraging, and empowering us to work. Through this labor he equips us to survive not for the sake of satisfying our lusts but for the sake of providing for our family before God and with honor, and also to extend the hand of Christian compassion to the poor.

We go out to work to provide for our families, and we return home from work to enjoy and share the fruits of our labors. We do this daily, in fact. There is a deeply intimate connection here in the cycle between home and work, the dual aspects of the cultural mandate: Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and exercise dominion over it.
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Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, August 23, 2012

Brace YourselvesI was a guest on today’s Coffee & Markets podcast, where we discussed the complex challenges facing America as reflected in recent demographic trends. What do declining birthrates across the developed world indicate?

For one thing, they show that crises are not limited to one feature of our lives and there are important spillover causes and effects across social spaces. So financial crises have impacts on the home, and vice versa. Or as I wrote last year, “Healthy and vibrant economies promote the flourishing of healthy and vibrant families. But the reverse is also true. The vitality of each social institution is linked with the welfare of others, and the microeconomic effects felt by families necessarily have macroeconomic implications.”

The family is in significant ways the vanguard of civilization, and as family life is threatened so too are all of the other civilizational institutions. As Elias Boudinot put it, “Good government generally begins in the family, and if the moral character of a people degenerates, their political character must soon follow.”

So what about social reformation and renewal? There’s no better place to start then your own family and no better time to start than right now. As Hunter Baker observed:

The first moves are the most immediate. If you are a child, be a respectful child who wants to learn and grow. If you are an adult, take care of your parents as they age. If you are a husband or wife, stay committed to your spouse. Work on sustaining a stable and peaceful household in which all the members feel heard, cared for, and respected. If you are a parent, focus on loving your child’s other parent, providing financially and emotionally for the child, and encouraging the child in learning. If you are a grandparent, help young parents adjust to the newness of their role and encourage them in the hard work of taking care of children.

Check out the podcast episode as well as some of the recommended reading below:

Photo Credit: USA Today
Click for original source.

On Friday, representatives from the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, including His Holiness Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus and Metropolitan Josef Michalik, President of the Polish Bishops’ Conference, signed a joint message committing to further work toward reconciliation between the Russian and Polish peoples and between the two churches. (more…)

My ongoing reflection on the Hunger Games trilogy from Suzanne Collins continues with today’s Acton Commentary, “Bread First, Then Ethics.” This piece serves as a sort of follow-up to an earlier commentary, “Secular Scapegoats and ‘The Hunger Games,’” as well as an essay over at First Things I wrote with Todd Steen, “Hope in the Hunger Games.”

In this week’s commentary, I examine the dynamic of what might be understood to reflect Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as depicted in the Hunger Games (HT to Hunter Baker for his reference to Maslow). In general, “Maslow’s theory suggests that the most basic level of needs must be met before the individual will strongly desire (or focus motivation upon) the secondary or higher level needs.” Or more succinctly: bread first, then ethics.
Maslow's Hierarchy of NeedsThis dynamic is captured nicely in a brief dialogue in the film between Katniss and Peeta. Peeta expresses his frustration at their situation: “I just keep wishing I could think of a way to show them that they don’t own me. If I’m gonna die, I wanna still be me.”

To this Katniss responds bluntly: “I just can’t afford to think like that.” Survival first, then she can worry about making ethical stands or moral gestures. Bread first, then ethics.

In today’s piece, I conclude that “the pagan answer to the question of hope focuses on bread first, and only afterwards (and perhaps never) on spiritual or moral matters.” The situation is a bit more complex than this, however. What we should understand by “first” in this sense is not necessarily temporal, but rather a priority of purpose or significance.

There’s a certain element of truth to something like Maslow’s hierarchy, even if one might quibble with the details. As Bertolt Brecht famously put it, “Erst kommt das Fressen / Dann kommt die Moral,” or “First comes eating, then comes morality.” A church teaching that ignores the physical needs of people, or only on the life to come, is truncated and flawed. Scot McKnight’s recent book The King Jesus Gospel makes this point quite well.

Indeed, as the Puritan Richard Baxter observed,

If nature be not supported, men are not capable of other good. We pray for our daily bread before pardon and spiritual blessings, not as if we were better, but that nature is supposed before grace, and we cannot be Christians if we be not men; God hath so placed the soul in the body, that good or evil shall make its entrance by the bodily sense to the soul.

So seek first the kingdom of God and all these other things will be added as well. Do not allow for material goods to become a distraction, or even an idol, that steals attention away from our focus on “pardon and spiritual blessings.” But don’t let our focus on “spirituality” become otherworldly and disembodied.

The gospel is good news for the whole person, body and soul. What God has joined together, let no one tear asunder.

I saw the fine film Act of Valor last month, and I was struck by the level of sacrifice displayed in the lives of the service members featured. I have wondered in the meantime whether the scale of the sacrifice that’s been required of American service persons over the last two decades is sustainable.

One of the film’s characters leaves behind a pregnant wife, and beyond all of the usual and somewhat abstract “faith and freedom” reasons for serving in the armed forces, it becomes clear that service members are making the sacrifices of their time, talents, and lives to protect and defend their loved ones.

One of the things we struggle with in our church culture is the idea that “ministry” can only refer to the work of ordained ministers of the church. In the same way, though, the use of the language of ministry in common parlance illustrates something about how important that work is. It’s the same with how “serving your country” used to be understood. “Service” used to be shorthand for “serving in the armed forces.” Now it’s certainly true that this isn’t the only important way to serve your fellow citizen. But this use of language does show something about the value placed on the sacrifices undertaken by those who do serve in the military.

Roger Sterling CO

I wondered after seeing Act of Valor how long people would continue to be willing go abroad to fight and protect their nation, their friends, and their families when their own families, churches, and charitable organizations are under attack, not just from enemies abroad, but domestically, from policy decisions, legislative invention, and judicial activism.

A report released this week by the Council on Foreign Relations found that educational shortfalls at the K-12 level have significant domestic and national interest implications. As Joel Klein, co-chair of the task force report, said,

One statistic that blew members of this task force away is that three out of four kids today in America are simply ineligible for military service. It’s unbelievable. We’re drawing our national security forces from a very small segment of the population. And a lot of the problem is they simply don’t have the intellectual wherewithal to serve in the military.

One of the proposed solutions and needs identified to correct this problem was to introduce greater innovation into secondary education, especially through expansion of school choice initiatives. As Klein says, “We need to generate an environment that leads to innovation, and that empowers parents to really look over the next decade or so. We need to look at how we can transition from a monopoly on public school systems to one that gives parents and their children meaningful choices that stimulate innovation and differentiation.”

It seems to me, though, that the drift in this country is not toward empowering parents, families, charities, and churches. And so I wonder (and worry) what the future of America’s armed forces look like if we have the combination of increasing unwillingness and inability to effectively serve. The segment of the population that is both willing and able to serve might well become increasingly small, and no presidential fiat or campaign plank about increasing the size of the military could make it otherwise.

Source: Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Today marks the feast day of St. Benedict of Nursia, one of the fathers of Western monasticism. One of his most famous dictums was ora et labora: “pray and work.” His Rule served as the standard community rule for monasteries in the West for hundreds of years.

Consistent with his dictum, the Rule of St. Benedict contains some wonderful passages about the value of work in addition to other pious practices. For example, Benedict writes,

Idleness is inimical to the soul; and therefore the brethren ought to be occupied, at
fixed seasons, with manual work and again at fixed seasons with spiritual reading….

Knowing the spiritual dangers of idleness (such as boredom, depression, and gossip), Benedict prescribed regular daily work for the monks of any monastery that followed his rule. However, he did not absolutize the value of work, recommending time for rest and “spiritual reading.”

Furthermore, he offered consolation for those who labor in poverty:

And let them not be distressed if poverty or the needs of the place should require that they busy themselves about gathering in the crops with their own hands; for then are they truly monks, when they live by the work of their own hands, as did our fathers and the apostles.

Yet, he tempered even this by adding: “Let everything be done in moderation however on account of the faint-hearted.”

Indeed, we can see in St. Benedict’s Rule an excellent expression of the basic Christian view of the merits of work as well as its limitation for the sake of the worker:

To weak and delicate brethren let there be assigned such suitable occupation and duties that they be neither overcome of idleness nor so oppressed by exhaustion through work that they be driven to flight [from the monastery].

Due to the current economic condition of our country, many have had to settle for less than ideal work in order to make ends meet. St. Benedict provides a wonderful reminder about the honor inherent in all honest work, especially when enlivened with prayer.

I for one have worked at plenty of restaurants and factories and cleaned my fair share of toilets. Looking back, the best jobs (until I got my job here, of course) were not necessarily those at which I was the most comfortable but those in which I embraced St. Benedict’s dictum and united my labor with prayer. On this, his feast day, I hope others too, through him, can find satisfaction even in less-than-ideal jobs, embracing the vocation of prayer even if their desired vocation of work remains out of grasp.

All quotes from the Rule of St. Benedict are taken from The Rule of St. Benedict, translated into English. A Pax Book, preface by W.K. Lowther Clarke (London: S.P.C.K., 1931), which can be found online here.

Today marks the beginning of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church. Not simply a fast, it is a time for that true asceticism which, according to Fr. Georges Florovsky, “is inspired not by contempt, but by the urge of transformation.”

There is something of this true asceticism, even if imperfect and incomplete, at the basis of all human society. One must, even to only a small extent, renounce self-will to be a member of a family, a clan, or a tribe, not to mention a city, state, or nation. No community can exist or has existed without some semblance of this asceticism. Every member must deny some part of his or her self for a perceived common good in order to form any community, in order for society itself to exist.

Thus, asceticism is not and never has been reserved for monks in the history of the Church. As Florovsky notes, “Ascetical virtues can be practiced by laymen also, and by those who stay in the world.” Interestingly, Vladimir Solovyov even goes so far as to identify marriage as one of the first ascetic practices inasmuch as it constitutes a “limitation of sensuality” that results in increased “control of carnal passions.”

In a healthy marriage, the husband and wife likely find that the level of self-renunciation necessary to maintain family life extends far beyond the sensual as well. Indeed, during his address at Acton University this summer, Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America remarked,

Is there any greater ascetic than a young mother, a new mother, who has to get up at all hours, night or day, to feed the child, to change the diapers? That’s the image, that’s asceticism—it’s total self-giving in love. All real asceticism is self-giving in love.

On a personal note, my wife and I are currently celebrating the birth of our first child, and (to my wife’s credit) I can confirm the truth of His Beatitude’s statement. (Don’t worry, I change diapers too, but my wife deserves far more credit for “get[ing] up at all hours.”) According to Florovsky, through asceticism “a new hierarchy of values and aims is revealed.” Certainly, any other new parents would agree with me that having a baby literally changes one’s whole world. Suddenly things I used to value seem so insignificant.

Through marriage I was transformed into a husband. Through the birth of my son, I am now also a father. As Christians, both of the East and the West, embark on the ascetic, spiritual journey of Great Lent that culminates in the joy of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, I hope that all of us will also be spiritually transformed according to the likeness of Christ’s self-giving love.

My wife Kelly and our new little son Brendan.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, February 23, 2012

One of the conclusions from last week’s commentary was that the government shouldn’t be in the business of promoting a particular vision of the good life in America. That’s not to say that the government doesn’t have some role in promoting the common good or making some normative judgments about the good life. But it shouldn’t get anywhere near the level of specificity of promising a family, home, college education, and retirement for all.

In part this is because while moral good is objective, happiness is, by definition, subjective. The technical gloss on happiness in the scholarly literature is “subjective well-being.” This subjective element gets at why there can be such paradoxical disparity, say, between objective standards of rising affluence and static or even declining levels of happiness. Happiness has much more to do with how people assess their own levels of satisfaction and well-being than with simply objective measures.

Becky Hsu explores this over at the Black, White and Gray blog by observing the irreducible diversity and subjectivity of defining happiness: “The trick is in how people define happiness to begin with.”

The delicate balance that results from these considerations is that people must be free to define happiness for themselves within the boundaries of the moral order. And the role of the civil government and positive law in promoting that connection between liberty and happiness is definitive for good government. As Jefferson put it, “the freedom and happiness of man” are the “main objects of all science,” and such concerns help to “keep ever in view the sole objects of all legitimate government.”

I would argue that the best conceptions of happiness are those that intimately connect the subjective sense of well-being with the objective moral order, the source of which is God. The Christian doctrines of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation can go a long way in explaining why there is so often this disparity between objective material well-being and subjective well-being in human life.

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord,” confesses Augustine, “and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Or as the Teacher puts it, God has “set eternity in the human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11 NIV). This life is the beginning of the story.