Shiny! Let’s be bad guys!

These days, I know a lot of nice people, by my definition of “nice”. They are people who treat people with as much kindness and respect as the situation allows; who endeavour to get along rather than fight whenever practical; who feel good when they do good. To them, goodness is essentially its own reward. A large proportion of them seem to struggle understanding how people may end up doing Bad Things. They need to explain “badness” as if it was a difficult thing to achieve: a disease of the soul, a mishap, the result of desperation or deprivation or some other “-ation”, because to them, doing Bad Things feels Bad. The only way they would do something bad is if they absolutely had to. Unfortunately, this rather leaves them rather unprepared to deal with those people for whom doing Bad doesn’t feel bad at all. Insert much wringing of hands and earnest debate about the innate goodness of Humankind, and/or moral relativism.

I reckon most of the misunderstanding and all the moral dilemmas would evaporate if we remembered that humans are still mammals, still animals, and absolutely still subject to Operant Conditioning.

Most if not all of us know about OC, though we might not realise it. In its most basic form, it’s rewarding good behaviour and punishing or ignoring bad behaviour (ignoring, depending on the critter you’re dealing with, can be a form of punishment; hence it working in some situations, and blowing up in your face in other situations). It works on most animals. It’s how we train our pets (or how our pets train us: “every time I do x thing my dog bites me, so I stopped doing x thing” is perfect OC). It’s also very much an aspect of how we raise our children, particularly when they’re very young. Santa’s list and scout badges and martial arts belts and school grades are a form of OC. “What’s the magic word?” is a form of OC. We teach children to have manners, share, not snatch, not steal, not hit, be honest, do their chores, etc. by rewarding them for doing the “right” thing, either with material or emotional/social rewards, and punishing them when they misbehave. It’s not rocket science. We make being good feel good for them.

That’s how WE raise our kids. Other kids are getting a completely different message, either by their parents/carers, by their peer group, or by life. “I did all my chores and still got belted” is OC. “I committed X crime and all my friends said I was super cool ” is OC. “I was hungry and stole some food and then I wasn’t hungry anymore” is OC. Over time, it can result in kids who get a buzz out of committing all kinds of illegal, unpleasant, or immoral acts. They don’t have to overcome an aversion beforehand and deal with their guilt afterwards: doing what we could class as “being bad” feels good to them. It’s their default setting, and its own reward.


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