To explore the interaction of moral sentiments and self-interest, Bowles begins with a case where six day care centers in Haifa, Israel imposed a fine on parents who picked their kids up late. The fine aimed to encourage parents to be more prompt. Instead, parents reacted to the fine by coming even later. Why? According to Bowles: "The fine seems to have undermined the parents' sense of ethical obligation to avoid inconveniencing the teachers and led them to think of lateness as just another commodity they could purchase."
And I thought, 'Exactly!'
When I was in year 4, aged 9, I remember Molly Muldoon, our teacher, berating us about picking up rubbish from the floor around us in the classroom because otherwise, the cleaners would have more work to do.
And I thought, how is that a problem. For one, they're paid to do it. So you're telling me that I should do for free what someone else has been paid to do. Why? Will I be punished if I don't? Will I feel better if I do?
For another, what if I do pick up the rubbish. What then? Aren't cleaners paid by the hour? I admit I didn't check this assumption, but hey, I was 9 years old and what do you expect. And anyway, I think the assumption was right, although I still haven't checked.
The point being, though, that if I delayed them the micro-millisecond that it would take to pick up whatever it was the teacher had thought that I dropped (and the floor was invariably clean, because really, what do you drop in a classroom during the course of an average day) and if all my classmates had dropped the same quantity of stuff that I had, then couldn't it conceivably push their cleaning duties into the second hour, thus guaranteeing them a few extra dollars of pay? And isn't that a good thing? These guys have families to feed, and maybe they wanted to take them to the movies on the weekend or for a trip to Luna Park or something. Sure, they would be a bit annoyed at being late home for dinner because I hadn't picked up whatever it is you drop on a classroom floor when you're 9 years old, but wouldn't they be sitting on the Big Dipper at Luna Park that weekend thinking, if I hadn't got that extra hour of overtime at Epping Public School this week, I couldn't of afforded this.
And anyway, let's say I dropped some pencil shavings or a tissue—and why would I, because the pencil sharpener was in the corner of the room, and we all used handkerchiefs in those days—then even if I picked it up, wouldn't the cleaner's broom go over exactly the same area that I had just cleaned, only more effectively? So I'm not sure I could have made the cleaner's job go longer, even if I wanted to.
For me, thinking through all this stuff, there was a strong moral argument for finding something I could drop on the floor and ensuring (insofar as it lay in my power so to do) that those cleaners and their kids—for all I knew, my classmate buddies—could enjoy a few extra hours of fun that weekend, or maybe just an extra dollop of sauce on their meat pies.
In the end I just looked at my shoes for a moment, grabbed my bag like everyone else and marched off out the door and into Norfolk Rd.
1970. Not a bad year.