Even I Agree – This Is a Bribe

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Last month I got into a little back-and-forth with Fordham’s Liam Julian after we simultaneously published columns about the practice of financially rewarding students for good performance – mine for and his against.

Well, as a token of goodwill, here’s a form of “performance pay” for students that even I will agree is an impermissible bribe. Baylor has been caught paying students for good SAT scores. The catch: it’s paying them to go back and retake the SAT after they’ve gained admission, so that the statistical profile of incoming freshmen at Baylor will look better.

“I think we goofed on that,” said a spokesman. Gosh, do ya think?

What’s the difference between rewarding student excellence and bribing students? In our exchange last month, Julian tried to outline what he thought was the difference between a legitimate “reward” and an illegitimate “bribe.” I wasn’t buying his definition but offered no alternative of my own (I had been using the word “bribe,” in sarcastic scare quotes, to refer to financial rewards for student performance, so I wasn’t in a good position to make the distinction systematically). I’ll take a crack at it now, and to make things even more fun I’ll add a third category.

I understand a “reward” to be an incentive for a certain activity that arises organically from the nature of the activity itself. An Olympic runner is not “greedy” and “mercenary” for wanting to win the race; victory is the reward for (i.e. the natural fulfillment or fruition of) athletic excellence. Nor is he necessarily greedy for wanting to win a shiny gold medal and stand on the top level of the victor’s podium and thrill to the cheers of the crowd, because the medal and the podium and the cheering are rightly taken as tokens and recognitions of his victory – he can desire them not for their own sake, but as embodiments of the victory. (Of course he may also desire them for their own sake, to gratify his vanity, which is wrong – but that is his fault, not theirs. They remain the natural and proper “rewards” of his excellence even if he doesn’t desire them as such.)

Note that while we usually use the word “reward” only in the context of good behavior, in this sense a “reward” can attach just as easily to bad behavior as to good. For example, those who behave greedily sometimes end up making money as a result, but we don’t call this a “bribe” as such. It’s just the natrual result of his behavior. This is what the New Testament means when it repeatedly emphasizes that those who sin “have already recieved their reward.”

On the other hand, we can provide incentives for behavior that do not arise organically from the nature of the behavior itself. Here I see two categories.

If the act of providing the incentive does not change the nature of the behavior itself, we call that simply “pay.” Managing a business, or laying pipe, or providing heath care, or teaching (or blogging about education reform) is not a different activity simply because one recieves a salary to do it, which is why the salary is called “pay” rather than a bribe. And note that, just as with “rewards” for bad behavior, there is also “pay” for bad behavior; we don’t speak of mobsters “bribing” hit men to kill people.

Whereas if providing the incentive changes the nature of the activity, that incentive is a bribe. Signing a contract with a vendor, supporting a change to government policy, or (in the Baylor case) retaking the SAT becomes a different kind of activity when you’re doing it for money as opposed to when you’re doing it for the right reasons. The corporate officer who steers contracts to a vendor who is giving him kickbacks is not engaged in business for his company, but rather defrauding it. The politician who supports a bill because he’s getting paid under the table is not serving his constituents, but oppressing and exploiting them. And the Baylor student who retakes the SAT because the school pays him is not seeking educational excellence, but collaborating in fraud.

As C.S. Lewis once put it, a man who marries a woman for money is mercenary, but a man who marries a woman because he loves her is not, even though in both cases he is “getting what he wants” by marrying her; marriage is the natural fulfilment of love but it is not the natural fulfilment of acquisitiveness, and marrying someone out of acquisitiveness changes the nature of the act (or so some of us believe).

(One potential weakness of my definition of a “bribe” is that the word implies moral turpitude, and it’s concievable there may be incentives for an activity that change the nature of the activity without creating moral turpitude. I can’t think of any off the top of my head, though. But if there are any such incentives, we would need a different word for them.)

The question before us, then, is whether paying students to learn changes the nature of the activity of learning. I think the answer is no, for the reasons I stated in my Pajamas Media column:

These days, if a child asks why he should care about doing well in school, what kind of answer does he get? He gets the same answer from every source: from parents, teachers, and school administrators; from movies and TV shows; from public service announcements, social service programs, and do-gooder philanthropies; from celebrities, athletes, and actors; from supporters and opponents of education reform; from everybody.

The answer is always some version of: you need to do well in school in order to have prosperity later in life.

Well, if you scrape away the sanctimony, what is this but a “bribe” on a colossal scale? Why is it vulgar and horrible to tell kids that if they pass their APs they’ll get a $500 check, but noble and uplifting to tell kids that if they pass their APs they’ll be able to get a better job five years from now?

Let’s quit kidding ourselves that it’s somehow shocking that somebody would come up with the idea of paying students to do well in school. For at least a decade, money is more or less the only motive we’ve been offering students to do well in school. We’ve just been insisting that the payoff has to come later in life. But morally, the timeline doesn’t make a difference. If it’s OK to pay someone five years from now to do something today, then it’s OK to pay him today, too.

If learning isn’t learning when the student is motivated by his own material well-being, then there probably is no such thing as learning and never has been.

Not that I think that’s the only motive students have, or should have:

Now, as it happens, I would prefer that the cash motive not be the only reason we offer kids to do well in school. I think our culture has been remiss in emphasizing education as an opportunity to become a better person, both morally (through character formation, a concern that the government school system seems to have largely dropped or subordinated, though private schools make it a top concern) and developmentally (because those who learn more and develop their capacities more fully have richer, more blessed lives).

But I also think that denying the presence of a strong financial motive in education is a fool’s errand. Kids will always care about how their education impacts their material well-being. And so they should — looking after one’s own material well-being is a good and natural concern.

Moreover, kids aren’t fully able to appreciate the moral and developmental motives for education until well after their education is complete. The 30-year-old, looking back, may well say, “If I hadn’t worked hard in school and had such great teachers, my personal character and my capacity for a fully human life would have been infinitely poorer.” But try explaining that to a ten-year-old.

Concern for one’s own material well-being is one of the natural motives for education, always has been, and always will be. Admitting this doesn’t negate the other motives.

8 Responses to Even I Agree – This Is a Bribe

  1. I agree with Greg’s conclusions but don’t understand or see the necessity for his fine definitional distinctions. Deciding whether to call these activities rewards, bribes, or whatever you want to call them is not a moral dispute, but a dispute about effectiveness.

    Providing students with a concrete and more immediate reward is no different than the abstract satisfaction of learning or the delayed reward of higher lifetime incomes except in the form and timing of the reward. The theory is that students not currently motivated could be motivated if the rewards were made more concrete and immediate. Perhaps their high discount rates undermine delayed rewards, like higher lifetime incomes.

    Whether we provide more immediate and concrete rewards should be decided based on whether doing so motivates students to improve their achievement, not on fine definitional distinctions.

  2. Greg Forster says:

    Well, I felt the disquisition on definitions was necessary for a few reasons:

    1) I’m an amateur philosopher and I find it fun.

    2) I wanted to make it as clear as possible why I oppose the Baylor policy as morally wrong while supporting programs such as Michelle Rhee’s in DC as morally right.

    3) Liam Julian’s argument was based on a distinction between the concept of rewards and the concept of bribes, and I do think the distinction is meaningful but I disagree with him about how he draws it. However, last time I only sniped at his definition without offering my own as an alternative, and in general it’s bad form to say that your opponent’s answer to a question isn’t as good as yours without saying what your answer to the question is!

  3. I agree that what Baylor did was wrong, but that is because it clearly does not and clearly was not intended to motivate students to higher achievement. It was intended to deceive, which is wrong. Rhee’s proposal is to motivate, not to deceive.

    A bribe to a politician is motivational, but it is illegal. In the context we are not primarily concerned about motivation but about the fairness and legitimacy of the process. In education those concerns are not an issue.

    Besides, I have to confess that I enjoy Greg’s amateur philosophizing. I’m just griping.

  4. Greg Forster says:

    I think that’s just a different way of saying what I said in my post – shorter, but less precise.

  5. Brian says:

    I like the new movement to pay students for performance. But I do think something is being missed in this discussion.

    To make his argument, Greg portrays all current attempts to motivate students as being based on the promise of future monetary rewards (the student “gets the same answer from every source”). Thus paying students is only making the eventual reward more immediate. Greg also says that if learning isn’t motivated by a student’s material well-being, then there is no such thing as learning and never has been. But, to cover all bases, Greg then shifts away from these strong “material reward” statements and admits other motives are also at work.

    You can’t have it both ways, not in this case. It is fine to claim that learning is motivated by material rewards and that paying students is consistent with that motivation. But you can’t also say that there are other motivations at work and still come up with the statement that paying students doesn’t “change the nature of the activity for learning.” It most certainly affects the balance between material incentives and other incentives in the minds of students. I think that qualifies as a change.

    If other motives are also at work, it must be the case that offering the reward, “changes the nature of the activity.” By Greg’s definition, then, it is a bribe. In fact, after thinking about this (only for a short while) I am not sure there is a difference between a reward and a bribe as they have been laid out here. A bribe is illegal I suppose. Ok, enough about the reward/bribe discussion.

    I like rewarding/bribing students because there are immediate incentives around students that encourage them not to learn. There are immediate incentives for students to play sports, hang out at the mall, talk or text on the phone, etc. Students often must make the choice to be a geek or a “cool” kid with lots of “cool” friends and maybe even a “cool” boyfriend or girlfriend. It is hard to convince these kids that if they keep studying they’ll win in the end. Hopefully the material rewards will help them stick it out, and who knows, it might even help them be cool. (Give them enough to buy designer jeans or help buy a car and see how fast test scores go up!).

    But let’s be honest–don’t we have a secret hope that providing material rewards for learning will have the consequence of instilling a love for learning? This is the central motivation of those who oppose paying students–they are afraid that the notion of a love for learning for its own sake will be lost. Of course, as Greg mentions in his closing, there is no reason we can’t do both.

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  7. Brian says:

    I thought about this a litle more. One could argue that a reward is something that a person unexpectedly receives for a job well done. This would meet Greg’s idea that a reward does not change the nature of the activity–the knowledge of a reward happens after the fact and is not a motivating force.

  8. Greg Forster says:

    Sorry for the delay while I was travelling.

    I’m not trying to have it both ways. I did say that the system’s efforts to motivate students are offering them only material rewards. But that doesn’t mean other motives aren’t present. It only means the system isn’t explicitly encouraging those motives. Students can be motivated by something other than material rewards even if the system doesn’t make explicit attempts to motivate them in those ways.

    That said, I was engaging in a little hyperbole when I said that the system was “only” offering those rewards. Obviously that’s not literally true.

    Likewise, I can say that material rewards are always at work without denying that other motives are also sometimes (or even always) at work. People do what they do for more than one motive. (In fact, I wonder if anyone ever does anything for only one motive. But that’s speculative philosophy so let’s leave it to one side.) There’s no contradiction between saying that students always are, always have been, and always will be motivated by self-interest and also saying that other motives can and do work alongside self-interest in education.

    For that matter, the distinction between material self-interest and other kinds of motives is not always all that distinct. Aristotle says that the desire to become a better person is as much a form of self-interest as the desire to acquire more goods. But now we’re wandering off into philosophy again so I’ll come back to the point.

    You argue that if other motives are at work, offering material incentives must change the nature of the activity. I don’t see why. I do my job partly for material motives (because I get paid) and partly for other motives (because I enjoy it, because I think it makes the world better, etc.). I don’t think the presence of the material motive or my employer’s willingness to satisfy that motive changes the nature of the activity.

    Perhaps instead of “changes the nature of the activity,” which is a little vague, I should have said “subverts the original purpose of the activity.” That has the merit of being more precise and the additional merit of incorporating the element of moral turpitude which (as I mentioned before) was not represented in my original definition.

    I don’t think your definition of a “reward” lines up at all with the way the word is normally used – by your definition, a gold medal is not a reward for winning an Olympic competition. Aside from that, an unexpected reward might not motivate the original behavior, but it can certainly motivate the person going forward if it’s expected to be repeated. If I win the race without knowing that there’s a cash prize, the prize clearly didn’t motivate me – but now that I know cash prizes are (at least sometimes) given to the winners, it will motivate me in the next race (even if I don’t know whether I’ll get a prize again – because I’ll know that I might get one).

    There are, of course, some benefits from a behavior that don’t provide incentives either before or after they’re given. I think the word for that is a “windfall.”

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