Tuesday, May 29, 2007


Does It Pay To Be Nice?

I believe that it does. All my life I've believed, without proof, that being kind to others, by default, was the right way for me to live.

(Please note that I said "by default". Knowing nothing about a person, my initial tendency is to treat them kindly. If they respond otherwise, I feel no obligation to continue being kind. "Turn the other cheek" has never appealed to me.)

In general, I've seen this work for me in my own life. By being kind to others, most people seem inclined to want to be kind to me -- and, as a result, when I need help and ask for it, I'll often get it -- not by persuading, and not by pleading, but because there will be people who genuinely want to help me. I've seen people in similar situations who have no compunctions about burning their bridges behind them -- and I've seen what a difficult time they have getting help when they truly need it.

But I never had proof of any sort that this worked. I was content to try to follow this path anyway; it suited me and my temperament to try to work with other people, rather than against them. But I did wish, from time to time, that there was a way I could reassure myself that my strategy was a winning one. (Call it the reluctance to be played for a sucker -- which, I suppose, must be the primary motivation for the opposite approach.)

It looks as though I'm not the only one wondering about such things. Bill Whittle has written about it at length, discussing it in the context of the Prisoner's Dilemma. (The Prisoner's Dilemma, and the computer simulations of it, have actually provided a neat way of experimenting with social policies: does it make more sense, in the long run, to work hard to be nice and fair? Or does "get him before he gets you" provide better results? Read Bill's essay; the answer may surprise you.)

On the way, Bill also discusses a very important concept that was new to me: The Remnant. He quotes from Isaiah's Job, by Albert Jay Nock, as follows:
[T]he Lord commissioned the prophet to go out and warn the people of the wrath to come. "Tell them what a worthless lot they are." He said, "Tell them what is wrong, and why and what is going to happen unless they have a change of heart and straighten up. Don't mince matters. Make it clear that they are positively down to their last chance. Give it to them good and strong and keep on giving it to them. I suppose perhaps I ought to tell you," He added, "that it won't do any good. The official class and their intelligentsia will turn up their noses at you and the masses will not even listen. They will all keep on in their own ways until they carry everything down to destruction, and you will probably be lucky if you get out with your life."

Isaiah had been very willing to take on the job – in fact, he had asked for it – but the prospect put a new face on the situation. It raised the obvious question: Why, if all that were so – if the enterprise were to be a failure from the start – was there any sense in starting it? "Ah," the Lord said, "you do not get the point. There is a Remnant there that you know nothing about. They are obscure, unorganized, inarticulate, each one rubbing along as best he can. They need to be encouraged and braced up because when everything has gone completely to the dogs, they are the ones who will come back and build up a new society; and meanwhile, your preaching will reassure them and keep them hanging on. Your job is to take care of the Remnant, so be off now and set about it."
Quite the sobering thought, that -- and a powerful argument in favor of Fighting the Good Fight, even when you know in advance that it's hopeless.

Please do take some time and read the whole thing.


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