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Rewarding Motives or Outcomes

By Chris | April 20, 2010

Apparently, the internet is under consideration for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.  And while it is undoubtedly more deserving than Obama, I don’t have strong feelings on whether it is the best choice.  The internet is under consideration because it has done much to facilitate political activism in authoritarian states. Evgeny Morozov, at the Net Effect, argues in this blog post that the internet should not win the prize.  This particular passage rubbed me the wrong way:

Reason 3:  It would undermine the reputation of the Nobel Peace Prize. Why reward people who were acting solely in commercial interest and it just so happened that their product/invention was used for some noble purpose? Take Twitter: when the “Twitter revolution” in Moldova happened, most of Twitter’s senior executives probably couldn’t place that country on the map….commitment to world peace does not rank high on the list of Twitter’s objectives (for all the good reasons – they are in the business of making money, after all – leave the world peace to Bono). Don’t we want to award this prize to someone who at least WANTS a more democratic and peaceful future and WORKS towards it?

Motives do matter, but they are nearly impossible to know.  If I volunteer at the soup kitchen, am I doing it because I care about the homeless or to pad my application for a service scholarship?  Should the scholarship committee care?  No.  Prizes should reward outcomes not motives.  No one was denied the Nobel Prize because their academic discovery was in the pursuit of fame or fortune.

Granted, motives are not irrelevant.  Suppose a burglar inadvertently sets off an alarm alerting police who upon inspecting the residence discover a dangerous gas leak.  The burglar is no hero.  There is a strong argument to be made for rewarding only intentional, rather than incidental, outcomes.  But, it’s ridiculous to try to ascertain the inner motives of another human. The point of a prize is to create the incentives for things that we want more of.  If we want more altruistic-looking people we should reward (or attempt to reward) motives.   If we want a better world, we should reward outcomes.

What bothers me about Morozov’s comment is his disdain for commercial interest.  The founders of Twitter created something they thought people would value.  They created something they thought would improve communication and spread information.  Yes, they did so in the hope of being rewarded monetarily for their creation.   So what?  Is that really any different from a professor pursuing tenure at an elite university? They probably didn’t imagine their product would be used for political activism in remote corners of the world.  That’s ok.  John Nash didn’t anticipate that his theories would transform economics and political science.  It’s futile to reward the best humans. Prizes should reward extraordinary things that make the world a better place.  Using those criteria, the internet is most deserving.

Topics: Economics | 6 Comments »

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