The Rationale of Reward

Book I

Of Rewards in General

Chapter III


There are some cases in which it would be improper to employ either reward or punishment alone. They are those in which the two forces may with advantage be united---in which the legis1ator says to the citizen, obey, and you shall receive a certain reward; disobey, aud you shall suffer a certain punishment.

The two modes may be properly united when the service required by the law depends for its performance upon a small number of persons, in a virtue of the peculiar circumstances in which they happened to be placed. If, for example, the object be the securing a delinquent at the moment that he is about to commit an offence, to inform against him or to prosecute him---it will be found expedient, in order to ensure the rendering of such services, to combine with a reward for their performance, punishment for their omission.

In such cases, punishment is useful in two ways: beside the effect produced by its own force, it also sustains the value of the reward. There is a very strong prejudice in the public mind against persons who accept pecuniary reward for the performance of such services; but when a penal motive is added, the public resentment is abated, if not altogether removed. The prosecution of a criminal for the sake of the pecuniary benefit derivable from it, is generally regarded as discreditable; but he who undertakes the prosecution to avoid being himself punished will be considered at least as excusable. The desire of self-preservation is called a natural propensity; that is to say, is regarded with approbation. The desire of gain is a propensity not less natural; but in this case, although more useful, it is not regarded with the same approbation This is a mischievous prejudice: but it exists, and it is therefore necessary to combat its influence. We must treat opinions as we find them, and not act as though they were what they ought to be. This is not the only instance in which it is necessary to put a constraint upon men's inclinations, that they may be at liberty to follow them.

An instance of the judicious mixture of reward and punishment is furnished by the practice pursued in many schools, called challenging. All the scholars in the same class having ranged themselves around the master, he who stands at the head of the class begins the exercise: does he make a mistake, the next to him in succession corrects him and takes his place; does the second not perceive the mistake, or is he unable to correct it, the privilege devolves upon the third; and so of the rest;---the possession of the first place entitling the holder to certain flattering marks of distinction.

The two incitements are in this case most carefully combined: punishment for the mistake, loss of rank; reward for the informer, acquisition of that same rank; punishment for not informing, loss of rank the same as for the offence itself.

If, under the ordinary discipline of schools, in the case where the scholar has no natural interest which should induce him to point out the mistakes of his associate, it were attempted to produce these challenges by the force of reward alone, the opinion which the general interest would create would oppose an obstacle to the reception of the reward, most difficult to be overcome: but when the young competitors have to say in their defence, that they have depressed their neighbour merely to avoid being depressed themselves, they are relieved from all pretence for reproach; every one without hesitation abandons himself to the suggestions of his ambition, and, under the sanction of the law, honour combats with unrestrained impetuosity.

This ingenious expedient for exciting emulation is one among the other advantages of a numerous class. In the private plan of education, there are seldom actors in sufficient number for the performance of this comedy. The most favourable opportunities for legislation are those in which the two methods are so combined, that the punishment immediately follows the omission of the duty, and the reward its performance

This arrangement presents the idea of absolute perfection. Why? Because to all the force of the punishment is united all the attractiveness and certainty of the reward.

I have said certainty: but this requires to be explained. Denounce a punishment for such or such acts: the only individual who cannot fail to know whether or not he has incurred the punishment, is interested in concealing his having incurred it. On the other hand, offer a reward, and the same individual finds himself interested in producing the necessary proofs for establishing his title to it. Thus a variety of causes contribute to the failure of punishment---the artifices of the person interested, the prejudices against informers, the loss or failure of evidence, the fallibility or mistaken humanity of judges---while to the attainment of reward no such obstacles occur: it operates, then, upon all occasions, with the whole of its force and certainty.

Before a celebrated law, which we owe to Mr. Burke, the lords of the treasury were charged, as they still are, with the payment of the salaries of certain of the public servants. Justice required that all should be paid in the same proportion as funds for that purpose were received. But no law was as yet in force to support this principle. As might naturally be expected, all sorts of preferences had place: they paid their friends first, and it cannot be supposed they forgot themselves. When the funds set apart to this service were insufficient, the less favoured class suffered. The delays of payment occasioned continual complaints. How would an ordinary legislator have acted? He would have enacted that every one should be paid in proportion to the receipts; and that his regulations might not be wanting in form, he would have added a direct punishment for its breach, without inquiring if it were easy to be eluded or not. Mr. Burke acted differently: he arranged the different officers in classes; he prepared a table of preference, in which the order is the inverse of the credit which they might be supposed to possess. The noble lords, with the prime minister at their head, bring up the rear, and are prohibited from touching a single shilling of their pay, till the lowest scullion has received every penny of his.

Had he permitted these great officers to pay themselves, and prescribed his table of preference for the rest, under the penalty of losing a part of their salaries, what embarrassment, what difficulties, what delays!--Who would undertake the odious task of informer? How many pretences of justification would they not have had? Who would hare dared to attack the ministers? In this arrangement of Mr. Burke, till they have fulfilled their duty, they lose the enjoyment of all their salary; they lose it without inquiry and without embarrassment. Thus rendered conditional, their salary becomes in reality the recompence of their regularity in paying the others.

The advantages of this invention may be thus summed up. Their salary, depends upon the performance of the service, is no longer a barren gratification, but a really productive reward. The motive has all the force belonging to punishment: by the suspension of payment, it operates as a fine. It possesses all the certainty of a reward: the right to receive follows the completion of the service, without any judicial procedure.

[RR, Book I, Chapter II] [RR, Book I, Chapter IV]