Argument from morality (known as virtue-signaling in common lingo) doesn’t seem to convince the masses most of the time when it comes to changing their behaviors on issues pertinent to the world, even if the argument is reasonable. There are sound arguments from social-justice activists, environmentalists and vegans that question our moral compasses when it comes to egalitarianism, being mindful of the environment we live in and for increasing the circle of empathy to all the animals around us – but they just don’t seem to be working for most people for some reason – why is that?
If you study the nature of change in human societies, be it any social justice movement or a strive for a better environment, only a few people change their attitudes or behaviors based solely on the revision of their moral values at one time. While I’m not discrediting the achievements of countless men and women who fought for moral change across the millennia, I also want to bring to the attention of people the fact that new technologies and apt economic motivations have always aided us in the process, and have made transformations quicker. Significant changes in human societies in terms of our behavior have always needed economic incentives, newer technologies, substitute behaviors or behavior channels first before the moral stimuli start to kick in.
To state a few examples – first wave of automation making slavery obsolete and financially cumbersome, invention of home appliances saving time for the then housewives to enter the workforce, discovery of the contraceptive pills and birth-control techniques giving women reproductive rights to spear-head the most significant of feminist movements, invention of live-television allowing the words of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela to be heard across households, and high-speed internet and social-media bringing people close enough to empathize with other people having different sexual-orientations and granting them equal rights. On top of all these, the incentives for bringing more people equally into mainstream economics were beneficial for all – which ended up changing the behavior of the previously resistant masses and made the world a better place to live in. To talk about the most pertinent issue of the late 20th century, the Ozone depletion – economic incentives in the form of substitutes for Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were established; CFCs were then banned, markets for non-CFC compounds were subsidized – and today the Ozone is recovering successfully. What we can see from these few select examples (and there are a lot more) is that for us to change our behavior as a species, we need to change the nature of our economy first so that it gets easier for people to change their attitudes.
Human beings are adaptive creatures over the long term but can also be resilient to short-term changes. This short-term resilience can be overcome if you provide them with alternatives that aren’t hard to transition into – such as cheaper electric vehicles with better range than gasoline ones, affordable bio-degradable plastic, lab synthesized meat as good as or even better than actual ones, vertical farming and aquaponics more practical and yielding than conventional farming. These could all prove to become paradigm-shifting alternatives that may help us tackle the most pressing issues of our time. And the common ground these technologies share is that they make it easier for us to change our behaviors for the better. We don’t buy things because they’re moral, we do that because we think they benefit us – we are selfish creatures indeed, and that is a reality we need to exploit for our own welfare.
Being aware of behavioral economics and creating markets strong enough to compel even the most rigid politicians to change their policies is equally important. If activists want to be effective, they need to start embracing this process more than just looking for a “symbolic gesture” intended to question people’s moral values. Because if we go for the “shaming” tactic, factions of people are sure to become defensive and even more resilient to change than before. For instance, most of us in favor of taking immediate action against climate change believe that people who are resistant to this idea, and who think of climate change as a hoax, hold lesser moral values, are uneducated and dogmatic. Then we argue assuming that we stand on a moral high-ground, which we may, but we forget that the other person might also be arguing against you with a similar mindset. Playing the devil’s advocate, I could say that the oil companies are resilient to accepting the climate initiative because they fear that they are losing their investments and their markets and hence lobby hard; a proper way to incorporate them into the climate plan would be to provide a fair deal to these companies and an opportunity to modify and diversify their products – such as investing in Hydrogen fuel and subsidizing carbon-trapping technologies they install (a model that is being adopted in Canada and Norway). If our strategy is to antagonize head-on and vilify companies and people, we cannot convince other humans to change their behavior as they will become defensive and protective; we will reach a state of political deadlock – the likes of which we are witnessing across world politics today – dividing people and not getting anywhere in solving even the most existential issues.
The key to tackling this conundrum, in my opinion, lies in the proper understanding of the behavioral sciences – both at the level of individuals as well as the masses. This would teach us to adopt non-zero-sum strategies when dealing with humans as opposed to the ineffective zero-sum game. Playing the blame-game will also not amount to much in this regard. If certain people do not want to change their lifestyles drastically, we should aim for strategies that are minimally invasive – such as biodegradable polythene bags, or electric trucks that are not very different from the previous products. This is very hard to achieve, no doubt, but I believe it is still a better approach than to waste valuable civilization-years preaching people about virtue. People do not change because they want to be good and to do good, they change when they understand the benefit of choosing the better option.
I believe that there’s no harm in introducing behavioral sciences as early as middle school. My argument is that since we are always interacting with other humans as individuals and are exploring our social and political identities from an early age, it would help us as a species if we taught our children to understand the core mechanisms which drive our species in everyday life. The reason I am writing this article is to highlight the multi-lateral nature of reality and how the study of behavior is key to addressing problems in a realistic and non-romanticized manner. We are so much distracted by all the short-term “activisms” that become viral on social media, we often forget to focus on the most effective strategies for solving our problems. We easily sway towards profound statements and emotional rhetoric which are amplified by the media, and we forget to study what the actual problems and their solutions are.
Positive change isn’t brought about solely by demonstrations and movements for a noble cause, it is also a result of chance and is determined by uncontrolled convergence of random events into favorable outcomes. The best way to ensure that change occurs across a large number of people quickly could be by putting more emphasis on the study, awareness, and application of behavioral economics. Because moral arguments may be enough to influence the most educated or aware elites of an area (try telling a poor Nepali villager during a festival that killing animals is morally reprehensible and see how he responds), but the elites sadly do not form the bulk of the population at any time in history, even if objectively their moral values may be more utilitarian.
It may sound authoritarian at first glance, but the reality is that we can attain a more fluid path towards progress if we can focus on modifying the behaviors of the average people – economics is always obsessed with the middle-class for a reason. And the best way to do so is by planning for better, localized economic incentives that can yield technologies and strategies which people find beneficial and voluntarily opt for – changing their behaviors and hence their moral values in due time.