Investing in People

I’ve been hearing this refrain for what seems like forever now: ‘We need to invest in our [insert demographic group here]!’ Pick some class of people (but not just any, as we shall see), plug that into that opening phrase, and do an internet search. We need to invest in our children, in our women, in our entrepreneurs, in our African-Americans, in our veterans, and in our students, political leaders and the media proclaim. This phrase has been enthusiastically adopted by liberals and progressives, despite its strong capitalist, and thus ostensibly conservative, overtones. Because the phrase is so often coupled with the name of some group we’d all like to help succeed, it sounds so nice, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t we put more of our resources into helping others do well in life?

Of course we should. But remember what investment means: it’s putting resources into some venture in the hopes that it will pay off, and especially, that it will pay off for you. That, in itself, is not a bad thing. Investment, like capitalism generally, can lead to to all kinds of wonderful things: goods, technology, infrastructure, the arts, and other stuff which make other people’s lives better as well as your own, and more money with which fund more worthy projects. But think of the implication when it comes to investing in people. First, a good investment is one which has good results; so far, so good. But here’s what it also implies: putting our resources into bettering people’s lives is only worth doing if there’s something in it for someone else, and especially, for you. And that’s why I find the expression ‘investing in people’ irksome.

Of course, I realize that such expressions as ‘We need to invest in people’ are often shorthand for entirely benign sentiments such as ‘We need to invest in the projects and infrastructure that will provide opportunities and improve the lives of people because we care about their well-being’. Investment has become a buzzword that’s taken on more shades of meaning than it originally had, and political speeches and rallying cries are most effective when they’re short, punchy, catchy, and heavy on the use of buzzwords; I get it.  But I would be a more convinced of the humanitarian sense of purpose that investment rhetoric inspires if market interests were routinely subjugated to considerations of human rights and dignity and the health of our planet than the other way around. If it was used at least as often in the context of publicly supporting our elderly, our disabled, our homeless, our mentally ill, our artists, musicians, poets, volunteers, and others who don’t produce much of market value, it might not bother me much, and this essay wouldn’t exist.

As philosopher Michael Sandel worries, rightly to my mind, we seem to be transitioning from a market
economy to a market society, to the detriment of many. The rhetoric of investing in people is an emblem of a transition too far from from a humanistic, rights-based value system, and towards an acquisitive, incentive-based value system.

While personal gain has always figured heavily in market decisions, it seems to me that our behavior reveals less concern than ever about how our values should influence these choices. Despite what we find out about the low pay and awful working conditions of employees here and abroad compared to the wages of the company’s higher-ups, we keep gobbling their products up as fast as they’re churned out, and CEO’s continue to accept ever more lavish salaries without qualm. We know that children as well as adults are forced into labor mining rare earths, and that massive dumps of discarded electronics are rendering massive swaths of land and water in developing countries toxic, but we continue to invent, create, and gobble up new electronics without a murmur, and so on and so on. These are only two of the myriad ways in which we’re exhibiting a general loss of commitment to higher values in our market choices, and the noble working-class protests, strikes, and boycotts of the last century have disappeared and given way to complacent consumerism. We occasionally complain on the internet that higher-ups shouldn’t make quite so much when their workers are underpaid, and we sign petitions calling for a hike in the minimum wage, but we don’t do anything about it if our daily lives are made slightly less comfortable by doing so. As we can see from rising economic inequality, the plight of millions of unprotected workers who suffer and even die to produce cheap and plentiful goods, and the rate at which we’re causing mass extinctions, pollution (especially in poor countries), and climate change, they promise to undermine social cohesion and destroy our ability to sustain ourselves if we don’t start to seriously re-examine our behavior, re-commit to our values, and change our hyper-consumerist habits.

None of this is to say that we do wrong when we take into account how sharing our resources will impact our own lives. It’s actually quite an important consideration, especially given the fact that our own wellbeing is connected to the wellbeing of others, often closely. To clarify: I’m not a believer in so-called pure altruism. For example, I don’t believe, as did the great Immanuel Kant (at least according to some interpretations of his ethics) and as do some other philosophical and theological traditions, that an action is only fully morally praiseworthy if you don’t benefit from it in any way, even if only by feeling good about it. Kant thought that all actions that benefit the doer even a little are less morally good than they could be, because it means such actions are at least partly selfish. Only actions done purely out of duty, that are difficult or come at a cost to the doer, in this view, can be considered truly good.

But this extreme view of selfishness, which holds that doing anything that benefit’s one’s self is less than fully good, has a fatal flaw. It implies that there’s at least one human being in that’s less deserving of care than others, namely yourself.  So if you believe that all human beings have equal moral worth, or at least should be treated as if they do, then acting without concern for one’s own wellbeing offends justice just as much as acting without concern for others. The extreme view of selfishness also implies that human beings are atomistic, that the wellbeing of one is disconnected from the wellbeing of others, which we can easily recognize is untrue. It’s a demonstrable fact that the lives and fates of human beings are intimately intertwined in a way that’s unique among living creatures, due to our human nature as hypersocial creatures with highly developed, complex skills of communication. From the moment we’re born, we need human connection and human assistance to sustain life and enjoy happiness. As we saw earlier, the most pressing problems we face today, just as it’s been throughout history, concern the wider impact of individual human behavior and thought. I challenge the reader to think of any action or idea that doesn’t have consequences of any sort outside the life of an individual. Our own private thoughts habituate and instigate us to act in one way and not another, thereby manifesting themselves in the wider world. Even withdrawing ourselves from the human community, which gave us our being in the first place, is depriving it of our help and our participation, and therefore affecting it.

This all means that there’s no such thing as pure altruism or pure selflessness for human beings since, as we’ve seen, what we do affects others as well as ourselves as a matter of course. Concern for ourselves is bound up in everything we do and think. We’re all aware of this: human beings generally behave in a cooperative and even generous way because we know, by instinct, reason, and observation, that if we behave badly, it’s likely to come back and hurt us. When we behave badly, we seek ways to minimize the harm to ourselves, knowing it’s an expected result. When we consume too much, pollute too much, are greedy with our money when so many others are in want, and so on, we undermine the human community that sustains us (yet, this even includes those far away). We don’t trust bad actors, we are prone to respond in kind, and we aren’t as willing to cooperate and share with them. But when humans routinely do good, everyone benefits, ourselves included.

Even actions that are generally classified as selfless, such as self-immolation or martyrdom, are not really selfless. When we choose to sacrifice at least some portion of our well-being for other people or for an idea, we are satisfying some need of our own, such as the satisfaction of being fully committed to a cause, or of believing we’re saving our own souls, often at a cost to the wellbeing of others, such as that of the friends and family we leave behind. (I have some serious problems with the idea of martyrdom too, which I’ll explore more fully in another piece.)

In sum, pure altruism and the extreme view of selfishness and pure altruism are useless concepts, the first because it’s impossible in a hypersocial species such as ourselves, and the second since it would apply to every thought we have and everything we do, and thereby rendered meaningless.

If I seem to digress, I do this for a good reason: this discussion of altruism and selfishness directly relates to an objection that may seem to undermine the project of this essay, which is to demonstrate why it’s important we don’t restrict sharing our resources only to those situations where we can recognize and identify the potential payoff. Returning from the consideration of altruism and selfishness back to the idea of investing in people, it seems that my critique of the first two undermines my critique of the latter. Since the wellbeing of everyone is linked, and everything that goes around comes around, doesn’t that indicate that we should only want to spend our resources in ways that might benefit ourselves as well as others?

Well, for one thing, the term investment doesn’t generally apply where the returns might be to indirect or too spread out to be readily identifiable as benefiting the investor. It also doesn’t generally apply where non-monetary or at least non-material returns are irrelevant, if we wish the term investment to include expectations of more noble returns, such as decreasing suffering or protecting the rights of others. But even if we extend the meaning of the term to include these, I still think that using the rhetoric of investment is not only unhelpful, it can instill a bad habit of thinking. In a democratic society that ostensibly protects the rights of all of its members equally, a rhetoric that originates with the monetary concerns of the the most wealthy, or at least only those with material wealth to invest, is a very poor fit with the more broadly humanitarian aims of the public endeavor it refers to. At best, it implies that we should apply a market mentality of only spending money in hopes of personal reward to situations where human rights and dignity should be of primary concern. At worst, it ends up crowding out the habit of thinking we would do better to instill in one another, that human beings are worth sharing our resources with for their own sake, and that anything we can do to make it more likely that human rights are protected is a worthy goal in and of itself.

Returning to Kant, investing in people sounds like a violation of his great categorical imperative, that every person should be treated as if they’re an end in themselves, never as if they’re just a means to an end. Human beings, in his view and in the context of a humanitarian, rights-based value system, are worthy of respect and of support for their own sake.

You may object, who cares what it sounds like? We should only care about what we really mean by ‘investing in people’. Well, in case this whole discussion leaves you wondering if this is really all just a case of nitpicking about verbiage, that I would do better just making a case for why we should do more for those who need our help, well, I think that words really can matter. While the theory that language itself influences our thoughts is controversial, what’s not controversial is the knowledge that the words we choose both directly convey and imply our ideas and our values. When we choose the language of investment rather than the language of virtue or of human rights and dignity to talk to each other about why we should share our resources, I think we imply that we place a higher value on the return than on the persons being helped. And when our political leaders and the media flood the internet and the airwaves with this rhetoric, I think they do a disservice by making people too comfortable with that implied idea through repetition. After all, the American people (though not alone, by any means) are bombarded right and left with the message that to be a happy person and a good citizen we should work tirelessly to get ahead, and that the measure of our success is to be as well-dressed, well-housed, well-fed, and possessed of as much money in the bank and as much stuff as possible, whatever the wider ramifications.

I think that it would be an excellent thing if our political rhetoric more regularly emphasized the idea that the human community, and the world that makes its possible, is worth our respect and our support for their own sake. ‘Investment in people’, to my mind, does nothing to emphasize that point. While it’s true that a public commitment to sharing our resources where needed does benefit ourselves as well as others, that’s the gravy. The meat is the commitment to protecting human rights and to making lives comfortable and happy as befits their human dignity, and to preserving the wonderful world we are so fortunate to find ourselves in and which makes our lives possible, just because we know it’s the right and the beautiful thing to do.

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Sources and inspiration:

Rohlf, Michael, “Immanuel Kant”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2014/entries/kant/>

Sandel, Michael. What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012. https://books.google.com/books?id=06-54FCTQ9AC&printsec=frontcover&dq=

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