Friday, May 22, 2015

Henry and Kant: outsourcing morality

Many might remember the way in which France qualified for the last World Cup. The equalizing goal  (which was enough for France to qualify) was scored because Thierry Henry, perhaps the most famous player on the French national team, kept by hand the ball from going off the pitch, brought it back and it was then easily tapped (by foot) it into the net. The reactions were fierce: from protests of the Irish players in the field, to the disagreements between the Irish and French politicians and requests for a replay. At the end, the Irish Football Association applied that, exceptionally, Ireland be included in the World Cup. Of course it all ended as such things usually end, the goal stood and Ireland stayed home.

But what I found interesting  in this story is not soccer but the role of morality and the institutions. The common defense of Henry’s act was as follows: sure, handball is a violation of soccer rules, but it is no different from a professional foul, or simulations to force a penalty kick. In every soccer game players try to use these tricks in order to win. To quote José Mourinho's famous words: to win is my job. So, the defense of Henry went on: it is the task of the referee, that is of institutions, to catch him, prevent them from breaking the rules and eventually to punish him. Hence Henry’s handball is not his problem (everybody would do the same), but the problem of inefficient institutions. Either the referees were not up to the task or soccer should improve its institutions, for example by the introducing more referees or by the use of video recordings.

Now I would like the reader to forget that we are talking about soccer. Consider it more generally.  Henry’s defense implies that  in life everything is allowed in order to achieve one’s objective,  and one should not feel at all bad or dishonest for doing it.  Institutions ought to prevent the achievement of such goals by illegal means. If I am a trader on Wall Street, my objective is to make money, by whatever means I can. It is the role of institutions to stop me. If they failed and the financial crisis happened, it is because they were badly designed. The entire moral order of society is outsourced, away from individuals and their internal controls to  institutions. We do not expect ourselves to be moral and behave fairly. It is not our duty: it is the duty of society to provide good institutions which would  punish those who steal and lie, and to create a good system of incentives which would reward those who contribute to society through their work, capital or inventiveness.

This position is close to the heart  of many economists. If the institutions and the system of incentives are well “calibrated", the society will move forward because misconduct will be  punished and good behavior rewarded. This will come about because each of us is a rational and profit-seeking individual and will follow own interests. The institutions will ideally “channel” our passions and interests so well that we shall, as “if led by an invisible hand”, be doing the things that are both in our own and social interest.

But is the improvement of institution, that is purely external control of human behavior with an implicit assumption that human nature obeys no rules unless it is punished, really enough to force people to behave morally? Returning to Henry’s handball, should our objective be only to improve the quality of refereeing or to introduce cameras, or should our objective be that the rules are  “internalized” so that people act in accordance with moral requirements regardless of whether they are expedient or not? Even if all other players are playing by hand and thus steal goals, we know that such behavior is immoral, and we shall not resort to it, regardless of  consequences.  But how can one convince people to apply internal breaks in a hyper-competitive capitalist society that rewards only success? Even when they start by behaving morally, would not the behavior of those who behave otherwise and who, behaving thus, become rich and successful, lead the first group also to lose their scruples?

It seems to me that with ever greater commercialization, globalization and the use of money as the sole criterion of success, we have gone further and further away from any attempt to impose internal control and have entirely outsourced it to institutions.  Perhaps it is inevitable because all previous attempts to do it internally, thorough religion or secular religion (like in socialism) have failed either because they led to endless wars (“my religion is better than yours”) or were incompatible with human nature (fall of socialism). So I have no answer to the “outsourcing” of morality. I see it as inevitable although I cannot say that I enjoy that prospect. Being an economist, I cannot even see exactly why I should not enjoy it, but I still do not.

After all, Thierry might have done the right thing. We shall get cameras and another handball will not happen. But something else will.

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