How do norms shape our behaviors? As social animals we rely on a good reputation which helps us gain allies, build coalitions, and have close bonds between family and friends. A good reputation increases trust, convinces others that they should invest in our friendship, and tells the social group give us a hand every now and then if we need help. When it comes to building and maintaining a good reputation, norms are crucial.
As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write in their book The Elephant in the Brain, “It’s rarely in people’s best interests to stick out their necks to punish transgressors. But throw some reputation into the mix and it can suddenly become profitable. Someone who helps evict a cheater will be celebrated fro her leadership. Who would you rather team up with: someone who stands by while rules are flouted, or someone who stands up for what’s right?”
Standing up to point out things that are wrong can be dangerous. The person breaking the rules could fight back, people close to the rule breaker might retaliate, your time could be wasted, and you might lose social status if people don’t really care about the rule breaker’s actions. Being the person who enforces norms is not always the best on an individual level.
However, as a social group, our reputation helps us maintain the norms and institutions which help us function and allow us to have whistle-blowers, police, and people who generally care that rules, laws, and regulations are actually being followed. We often have a temptation to slack off, to do something that we enjoy but know to be bad for ourselves, or to engage in some sort of activity that is fun but reckless. Knowing that we will have to interact with people in the future, that we will rely on social groups in the future, and that we will need others for anything we want to do later constrains our actions and behaviors in the moment. We try to be the type of person that society favors because we know it will benefit us at a future time. We care about our reputation because we might need substantial assistance from others at some point in our life, and we know that if we have a negative reputation, people are less likely to trust us and assist us in our time of need. As social creatures, developing an invisible system of reputation is what helps bond our norms together and hold them in place.
Reflections on our mortality are common in Marcus Aurelius’ collection of thoughts, Meditations. He takes a very stark approach to the reality that we are not going to live forever, and the fact that our time on this planet is very short compared to the life cycle and existence of nature and the Earth. Beyond simply acknowledging our mortality Aurelius looks at what our temporary existence truly means, and how we should act during our lifetime given that we will one day be gone.
He writes, “How strangely men act. They will not praise those who are living at the same time, and living with themselves; but to be themselves praised by posterity, by those whom they have never seen or ever will see, this they set much value on. But this is very much the same as if though shouldst be grieved because those who have lived before thee did not praise thee.” In this quote he focuses on the desire that humans have to make a lasting impact on this planet and to live on in the memory and reverence of those who will follow after them. He criticizes this idea and says that it is foolish to be so focused on the future rather than the present. Living to impress those who will never know you, and being so focused on creating a reputation to impress future generations is a poor focus for our lives. Aurelius did not believe such a focus was worth our time, especially if it limited our ability to make true connections with those living with us now.
What Aurelius wrote about 2,000 years ago is still a struggle for many people today. Rather than worrying about how we can be great people now and make a real impact in the lives of those who are around us, we focus on what we can do to build a reputation to impress those we will never know in future generations. We would all find it absurd to think that people who lived before us should have honored us, but we seem to desire that we are honored after our death by those who we will never meet. We will not be around to feel the warmth of their support or praise, and living solely to be impressive in posterity leaves out the present and diminishes your ability to truly enjoy living and change the world.
In his collection of thoughts, Meditations, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote about the lessons he learned from those around him when he was growing up and maturing into an emperor who would be known for his wiseness. In his writing he dedicates a long section to the lessons he learned from his father. One of his lessons deals with reputation and how we see our reputation. Aurelius writes, “He was a man who looked to what ought to be done, not to the reputation which is got by a man’s act.” I highlighted this section because I think that it is an idea and perspective that I want to cultivate, but that I find difficult to live out.
The lesson that Aurelius learned from his father and focused on as he wrote this section is to think of others and to think of society before thinking of oneself. To truly commit to the causes at hand requires a certain selflessness that cannot be fostered if your main focus is on what you will receive by taking part in acts that are beneficial to the whole. It is not a bad thing to recognize that benevolent actions and social engagement will have positive outcomes for you as an individual, but it is a bad thing to participate in outreach programs if you are only doing so to enhance your own reputation.
As a whole, our society in the United States recognizes that it is not always a bad thing to volunteer time, effort, or money toward positive causes with a thought of a reward at the end. We offer tax write-offs, provide t-shirts and donuts, and dedicate space to the names of volunteers on plaques or buildings as a way to encourage and recognize those who do good in our society. Benefitting from the good you do for others is not a bad thing, and offering small rewards may help others move in a direction where they become more generous with their time and money and are more willing to help others.
The real challenge is finding a way to do good acts without expecting some sort of reward or recognition. The more we can focus on doing good because we feel that it is our social responsibility or because we understand that it gives our lives internal meaning, the more we can engage in social causes and become fully committed to our actions. Participating to be noticed and recognized means that our full energy and effort is not being brought to the table, and as a result we are not doing the most good we can do.