The Ethics of Incentives: Motivated or just plain spoiled?

Going to a Jesuit university, ethics are a main part of our curriculum. My capstone course for the Honors Program is philosophy and ethics, and I recently wrote a paper on the ethics of Santa Claus. I wrote as the devil’s advocate, but it really has me considering the value of incentives in behavior and education. Are incentives teaching true ethical morals or are they merely manipulative bribes?

My early life was extremely comfortable, and I can admit that I was spoiled. Money and gifts were often incentives. While this may have “worked,” now that our socioeconomic status has differed, I can better reflect on the true value of it.

My parents gave my sister and I money whenever we got our report cards. Initially, we were to receive money if we got good grades. Good grades were never defined clearly, but we were always at the top of our classes anyway. I learned to expect the money. Being a perfectionist, I believe that I would have worked hard in school regardless of a reward, but I also never believed the bribe would be taken away had I done poorly. My GPA was one of highest in my graduating high school class.

In college, I remember initially wondering if these bribes would continue since my parents weren’t checking my grades. They weren’t, and it was never officially announced that they would stop. My parents knew my work ethic was not going to change. However, I did not get straight A’s like I did in high school. While I still made the Dean’s List most semesters as a member of the Honors Program, I got a couple of C’s throughout college. It didn’t really bother me, and my parents didn’t comment on it. My personal belief changed that college education came from experience and not grades. Working 2-4 jobs at a time while studying with the maximum allowed credit hours, I didn’t spend hours everyday studying or doing homework. I didn’t spend hours every week either. That’s been fine with me, and I feel like I have learned so much. At the same time, I wonder if my grades would have been different had my parents still given me money. Can extrinsic motivation create intrinsically motivated character?

I don’t think that extrinsic motivation is the cause of good ethics. If one is motivated only by incentives, then the true value of an ethical act may not be understood or appreciated. Incentives may not hurt, but I think that they may not always help. If they are regular and expected, they will lose their value as a reward.

I am so grateful for being spoiled, but sometimes I marvel that I’ve turned out the way I am. It should have been expected that I grow up to be a spoiled brat. Since my parents struggled making ends meet in the last few years, I have become more aware of my financial privileges. Although I plan to live comfortably in the near future, I definitely want to raise my children humbly. While my work ethic may be intrinsically motivated, not everyone else may be that way, and I want to inspire them to work hard to be productive and self-efficient, not just to be rewarded. To me, no prize in life is worth it if it is not earned.

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