2014-11-17

Good Personal Conduct Is Utility-Maximizing

I.

How many times has this happened to you?

You're driving down a busy highway, when suddenly another motorist does something frustrating. Maybe he cuts in front of you too closely. Perhaps he's driving too slowly in front of you and holding up traffic, or perhaps he unintentionally-but-obliviously boxes you in, preventing you from changing lanes when you need to. It could be that you tried to merge, and he prevented you, or it could be that he held you up in order to let in a long line of other vehicles from another lane.

You lose your temper. You honk at the offending motorist, and/or you flash your high beams at him, and/or you yell out the window, and/or you give him an obscene gesture, and/or you drive in such a way that you are able to somehow exact your "revenge."

Once it's all out of your system, you continue your drive, only to discover that the offending motorist is driving to the same destination. Either you're driving home, and you discover that you've been yelling profanities at your neighbor, or you're driving to work and you realize you've been honking at your coworker, or you arrive at your destination to find that you're parking near the other motorist and must awkwardly make eye contact in the parking lot.

At that moment, you feel like an idiot.

II.

I once overheard a colleague discussing an interpersonal conflict with her manager. She relayed the story of an email incident with another employee. It seemed that a particular email exchange had gone sour and the two of them had exchanged terse words (via email). As the story progressed, the employee's emotions ran higher and higher, until the "climax" of the story, in which her interlocutor had written something particularly unreasonable in one of the most recent emails.

When she was finished recounting the incident, her manager replied: "Okay, so what's the issue?"

The employee launched into a passionate description of how unreasonable the other employee had been. She started to describe how she felt the other employee should have responded, but her manager interrupted her.

"I mean, what do you want me to do about it?" The employee stammered a bit. She was caught off-guard and couldn't really form a sentence. So the manager continued. "I'm trying to run a department here. If there's an issue that you need me to address, then I'll talk to [the other employee] about it, but I can't really get involved in all of this when I have work to do."

The manager ended the conversation by telling the employee to let him know if the offenses continue, and then gave her a few ideas for how she could respond the next time something similar happened. It was evident that the employee felt that he wasn't doing enough, but she was forced to accept his decision and move on. 

Even if her interlocutor had been guilty of all charges, my colleague hadn't done herself any favors by taking a personal conflict to her manager. The truth is, they both ended up looking bad to the manager, because neither one of them could find a way to get over their minor differences and have a productive working relationship with each other. 

The employee felt that by tattling, she would be able to come out on top; instead, she made herself look like an ass.

III.

It's easy for one to get so caught-up in a situation that your short-run objectives that one loses sight of one's own long-run interests. Automobile traffic can be frustrating, but one shouldn't get so emotionally invested in it that one's conduct puts one's own best interests at risk. Similarly, letting one's passions get the best of one at work will only make one look bad when things go awry.

It's easy to be susceptible to this problem because, in the heat of the moment, our short-run interests are in the forefront of our minds. If something bad happens to us, well, that's bad. Our minds and our passions will insistently remind us of the fact that something bad is happening. When we're upset about it, it can be difficult to convince ourselves to just chill out, take things slowly, don't act rashly, and above all take the moral high ground.

True, I spend a lot of time on Stationary Waves arguing for ethics for their own sake. But being an ethical person has a huge upshot from the perspective of pure, hedonistic self-interest. That upshot is: if you always conduct yourself ethically, then you never have to worry about making yourself look like an ass.

I'm not really trying to be funny here. It's tempting to cut corners, tell half-truths, sneak around behind people's backs, In some rare cases, it might even pay off. But if you're interested in maximizing long-run utility, then you shouldn't act on your emotions under the assumption that it might pay off. Insteady, you should act on logic subject to the most likely scenario.

So break it down: 
  • In rare cases, you can lie without getting caught, throw colleagues under the bus, honk like a madman at any passing car, etc., without ever having to worry about repercussions. This costs you very little, but only comes with a very unlikely payoff. The expected value is low.
  • On the other hand, you could always choose to take the moral high ground. You'll definitely never get the unlikely payoff of lying, cheating, stealing, and being mean. But you'll also definitely never look like an ass. In fact, you'll always come out with a good reputation whether your win or lose.

IV.

Being a good person is the right thing to do, but good personal conduct is also in every person's best interests in the long-run. To see this, you have to be willing to look at more than just the facts that are staring you in the face. You have to form predictions based on the most likely outcome and run a quick cost-benefit analysis on it.

I realize that when you want to complain about someone or yell at traffic, you don't really want to do the cost-benefit analysis. But that's okay - that's why I wrote this blog post, so that you can see that if you had done it, you'd have come to the conclusion that good behavior pays the highest rewards in the long-run.

If, after all these years, I've yet to convince you to be ethical for its own sake, try being ethical for reasons of pure hedonism.