My old friend and former Kennedy School colleague Michael O’Hare teaches public policy at Berkeley. (Tom Schelling once remarked that whenever he felt he needed to hear an entirely original idea, he’d sit next to Mike in the faculty dining room.)
Reproduced below (with O’Hare’s permission) are snippets of an email dialogue prompted by my post on Judah Benajamin, Benjamin Disraeli, and reputational externality.
Reputational externality can enforce good behavior for all the reasons you say. But the irreducible price of this trick is to endorse and legitimate a lot of mischief, especially stereotyping (ascription of believed group traits to individuals). Being proud to be Jewish or a New Yorker or what have you is importantly and deeply absurd, like being proud of your Nobel Prize winning great-grandfather: pride, if it has any use at all — and I’m not sure about this — should be strictly constrained to things you caused or advanced.
The more distinguished and wonderful my ancestors were the more abashed and embarrassed I should be not to have become even more famous and wonderful than they: Living off our genetic capital is less admirable than having invested it for a net gain!
(An analogous absurdity I just came upon: being upset about an unflattering drivers license or passport picture. Of all pictures you might care about, surely the one that’s seen only when your real live face is right there above it, in person, ought to be the least distressing!)
Hoping grandpa would be proud of me, or being proud of my children, makes sense. Wanting to make the Jews proud of me is a little risky because of the little toxic contaminant it always carries (see above) but in a world in which cultural, regional, professional, and other identities are real and have unquestionable gross (probably net, if handled properly) advantages, I guess it’s OK…and our instinctive acceptance of it says something as well.
But Disraeli, witty or not, got it completely wrong. O’Connell could well say, “you guys had a five thousand year head start, and here we are peers in all important ways; what are you boasting about?”
We both teach in public universities: aren’t you more admiring (on the whole) of your students who are the first in their families to go to college than the third-generation Harvard students we used to get?
Mark Twain once said that geneology is the science of tracing your ancestors back to people who didn’t care to trace their ancestry back any futher.
Wanting to make your ancestors proud of you: good.
Resting on laurels: bad.
Separable? Search me.
More separable if we try hard to regard admirable inheritance as a set of duties rather than an entitlement.
And if people study their discreditable ancestors as well as their creditable ones.
You leave great-uncle Oscar out of this, dammit!
It’s being proud of ancestors that’s bizarre under scrutiny. I think the subconscious motivation is something like “various traits are heritable genetically. Grandpa had good ones. Therefore you should infer I have them too.” But of course it still doesn’t work, or shouldn’t, because traits are not what the world should reward; you get paid generally, and should, for what you make, not what you can make or who you are.
This last is one of the great misleadings of the educational system: all the grades we get for saying stuff and knowing stuff, and SAT scores, give people the wrong idea about what’s valuable.
Right. But it’s still true that caring about the effects your actions have on the reputation of your group can be a powerful motivator of good behavior.
The fact that you and I are deeply indoctrinated to prefer achieved to ascribed status doesn’t change that. Rome conquered everything in sight partly because triumphal honors passed down the family tree; the descendents of a triumphator got to carry the emblems in an important family ceremony every year.
The idea of partly heritable aristocracy is not chopped liver. Yes, I did send my daughter to Harvard. Baltzell’s Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia is all, or mostly, about this. It’s one of my favorite books, possibly because it explained why it was obvious to me even in high school — where I knew maybe three Protestants altogether and had no idea that they actually mattered, much less that distinctions among them mattered — that I wanted to go to Harvard if I could get in but had no interest in (physically closer) Penn: a preference I couldn’t have begun to explain at the time.
As to the related behavior of treating in-group members better than out-group members: Carried to extremes, that’s obviously bad. But being kind to the entire world needs to start somewhere, and where better than those close in? This is an extension of “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”
OK. There’s no free or uncontaminated lunch, and no once-and-for-all fix. We just have to exert continued, retail-level, attention to resisting the temptations to bad habits associated with this heuristic/instinct. Like stopping after half a bag of Cheetos, again and again.