Social Debt

In several social situations lately I have heard the phrase ‘debt to society’ thrown around as though the concept were a given, but I find it an interesting one. I do not know offhand whether he is the originator of the phrase or not but I encountered it reading Thomas Paine.

From one side of the political spectrum, speakers referred to criminals and each individual’s responsibility- like a boy scout or a doctor- to leave the world better than you found it or at least no worse; do no harm, and if you do then you are obligated to make up for it so that society continues growing in infrastructure, technology, health, and wealth. This paints a utopia wherein each person contributes however they choose with their resources, free and ultimately unhindered. It is the spirit of classical science fiction: To the stars, imaginative, wild growth like a jungle complete with competition, conflict, and struggle. An inherently masculine and viewpoint where the pleasure is in the journey, not the destination, and no one man matters; Valar morghulis, and your contributions are all for you will fade.

On the other side, there was much focus on the wealthy, citing modern structures (legal systems) and networks (telecommunications, public safety) and technology (factories) as the primary source of the accumulated wealth. Because they (and the poor also) owe so much to the works of their ancestors, they are obliged to ensure that advances and benefits are fairly shared to all: The benefits and rewards of the advances is in seeing your fellow man happier and more fit in a world hostile to life. An inherently feminine viewpoint where the pleasure is in the destination, and all travel the journey at different paces, but none deserve more or less than another, and it is the individuals not the setting which matter; the props on stage will come and go, but human lives and the quality thereof are all that matter.

Naturally there were accusations back and forth; you’re heartless and you’re unfair, you don’t reward achievement and you miss the point entirely, back and forth. Ultimately, to my observation, the former argument argues that there is an essentially unenforceable debt- much like a parent is owed by a child- by each soul to the collective race that has come before it, while the latter argues that the collective race owes each individual unique soul a debt regardless of what that soul has or hasn’t done. There the razor falls, for the truth shines brightly: One admits it can’t force you to contribute but incentivizes and honestly cheers, the other demands and uses force and diminishes all ego which is the primary force that drive not just advancement, but also stability and maintenance in any human system.

Here we see the importance of incentives; I will be discussing incentives more in depth in my next few posts, using a fair number of examples from game design as opposed to the real world. Stay tuned.

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