The Rationale of Reward

Book I

Of Rewards in General

Chapter VII


Wherefore, throughout the whole field of legislation, cannot reward be substituted for punishment? Is hope a less powerful incentive to action than fear? When a political pharmacopoeia has the command of both ingredients, wherefore employ the bitter instead of the sweet?

To these natural but unreflecting inquiries, I reply by a maxim that at first view may appear paradoxical:---``Reward ought never to be employed, when the same effect can be produced by punishment.'' And, in support of this paradox, I employ another:---``Let the means be penal, and the desired effect may be attained without giving birth to suffering: let the means be remuneratory, and suffering is inevitable.''

The oracular style, however, being no longer in fashion, I shall in plain language give the solution of this enigma.

When a punishment is denounced against the breach of a law, if the 1aw be not broken, no one need be punished. When a reward is promised to obedience, if everybody obey the law, everybody ought to be rewarded. A demand for rewards is thus created: and these rewards can only be derived from the labour of the people, and contributions levied upon their property.

In comparing in their respective properties of punishment and reward, we shall find that the first is infinite in quantity, powerful in its operation, and certain in its effect, so that it cannot be resisted: that the second is extremely limited in quantity, oftentimes weak in its operation, and at all times uncertain in its effect: the desire after it varying exceedingly, according to the character and circumstances of individuals. We may remark again, that the prospect of punishment saddens, whilst that of reward animates the mind; that punishment blunts, while reward sharpens the activity; that punishment diminishes energy, while reward augments it.

It is reward alone, and not punishment, which a man ought to employ, when his object is to procure services, the performance of which may or may not be in the power of those with whom he has to do. This considered, were it necessary to draw a rough line between the provinces of reward and punishment in a few words, we might say, that punishment was peculiarly suited to the production of acts of the negative stamp---reward to the production of acts of the positive stamp. To sit still and do nothing, is in the power of every man at all times: to perform a given service is in many instances in the power of one individual alone, and that only upon one individual occasion. This arrangement of nature suits very well with the unlimited plenitude of the fund of punishment on the one hand, and the limited amplitude of the fund of reward on the other. The negative acts, of which the peace and welfare of mankind require the performance, are incessant and innumerable, and must be exacted at the hands of every man: the positive acts, of which the performance is required, are comparatively few, performable only by certain persons, and by them on certain occasions only. Not to steal, not to murder, not to rob, must be required at all times at the hands of every man: to take the field for the purpose of national defence---to occupy a place in the superior departments of executive or legislative government---are acts which it is neither necessary nor proper to exact at the hands of more than a few, or of them except on particular occasions. To discover a specific remedy for disease, to analyze a mineral, to invent a method of ascertaining a ship's longitude within a given distance, to determine the quadrature of such or such a curve,---are works which, if done by one man, need never be done again.

It is thus also with regard to such extraordinary services as depend upon accident; such as the giving of information when required, either in the judicial or any other branch of administration. Are you ignorant whether an individual is in possession of the information in question, or if in possession of it, whether he be disposed to communicate it? Punishment would most probably be both inefficacious and unjust as a means of acquiring this knowledge: resort, then, to reward.

In regard to extraordinary services depending upon personal qualification, the impropriety of punishment and the propriety of reward are the greater, when the utility of the service is susceptible of an indeterminate degree of excellence as is the case with works of literature, of science, and the fine arts. In these cases, reward not only calls forth into exercise talents already existing, but even creates them where they did not exist. It is the property of hope, one of the modifications of joy, to put a man, as the phrase is, into spirits; that is, to increase the rapidity with which the ideas be is conversant about succeed each other, and thus to strengthen his powers of combination and invention, by presenting to him a greater variety of objects. The stronger the hope, so that it have not the effect of drawing the thoughts out of the proper channel, the more rapid the succession of ideas; the more extensive and varied the trains formed by the principle of association, the hetter fed, as it were, and more vigorous, will be the powers of invention. In this state, the attention is more steady, the imagination more alert, and the individual, elevated by his success, beholds the career of invention displayed before him, and discovers within himself resources of which he had hitherto been ignorant.

On the one hand, let fear be the only motive that prompts a man to exert himself, he will exert himself just so much as he thinks necessary to exempt him from that fear, and no more but let hope be the motive, he will exert himself to the utmost, especially if he have reason to think that the magnitude of the reward (or what comes to the same thing, the probability of attaining it) will rise in proportion to the success of his exertions.

Such is the nature of extraordinary services, that it is neither practicable nor desirable for them to be performed by a large multitude of persons. If punishment, then, were the means employed to induce men to perform them, it would be necessary to pitch upon some select persons as those on whom to impose the obligation. But of the personal qualifications of individuals, the legislator, as such, can have no knowledge. The case will also be nearly the same, even with the executive magistrate, if the number of the persons under his department be considerable: for antecedently to specific experience in the very line in question, a man's personal qualifications for any such extraordinary task are not to be conjectured a priori, but from an intimate acquaintance---such an acquaintance as it is impossible a man should have with so large number. The consequence is, that among any multitude of persons thus taken at random, the greater number would not perform the task, because they would not be able to perform it. But in this case, by the supposition, they must all be punished: here there would be a vast mass of punishment laid on in waste, and perhaps the end not compassed after all---a mass of punishment imparting beyond comparison more pain than it would cost to provide a sufficient quantity of reward.

On the other hand, let reward be employed and not an atom need be spent in waste; for it may be easily so applied, and it is common so to apply it, as that it shall be bestowed in those instances only in which the end is compassed---in those instances in which not only a benefit is attained, but a benefit more than equivalent to the expense. By punishment, a great expense would he incurred, and that for the sake of a faint chance of success; by reward, a small expense is incurred, and that not without a certainty of success.

Again, punishment in these cases would not only be less likely to produce the requisite effect, but would have a tendency to prevent it. How little soever the magistrate might be qualified to collect and to judge of appearances of rapacity, for such appearances he would, however, naturally keep some sort of look-out. To exhibit those appearances would therefore be to run a chance of incurring the obligation and the punishment annexed to it. The consequence is obvious: to make sure of not appearing qualified, men would take care not to be so. We are told, that in Siam, when a man has a tree of extraordinary good fruit, it is seized for the king's use. If this be true, we may well imagine that gardening does not make any very extraordinary progress in the neighbourhood of the court of Siam. Nature must do much, for art, we maybe certain, will do nothing. We are told upon better authority, of a time when it was the custom to give commissions to officers to look out for the best singers, and press them into the king's service: unless they were well paid at the same time, which would have rendered the alarm occasioned by pressing needless, one would not give much to hear the music of that day.

That selection, which in cases like these is to impracticable in public, is not equally so in domestic life. To parents and other preceptors, it is by no means impracticable to make use of punishment as a motive. They are enabled to use it, because the intimacy of their acquaintance with their pupils in general enables them to give a pretty good guess at what they are able to perform. It may, perhaps, even be necessary to have recourse to this incentive---before the natural love of ease has been got under by habit, and especially before the auxiliary motive of the love of reputation has taken root, and while the tender intellect has not as yet acquired sufficient expansion and firmness to receive and retain the impressions of distant pleasures.

I say perhaps---for it certainly might be practicable to do with much less of this bitter recipe, than in the present state of education is commonly applied. All apparatus contrived on purpose might at least be spared. Towards providing a sufficient stock of incentives for all purposes, a great deal more might be done than is commonly done, in the way of reward alone: by a little ingenuity in the invention, and a little frugality in the application; by establishing a constant connexion between enjoyment and desert; granting little or nothing but what is purchased; and thus transforming into rewards the whole stock of gratification, or at least so much of it as is requisite. If punishment should still be necessary, mere privations seem to afford in all cases a sufficient store. A complete stock of incentives might thus be formed out of enjoyments alone: punishment, by the suspension of such as are habitual: reward, by the application of such a occasionally arise.[1]

But even when applied by parents and preceptors, punishment, how well soever it may succeed in raising skill to its ordinary level, will never raise it higher: one of the imperfections of punishment remains still insuperable. Accordingly, in the training of young minds to qualify them for the achievement of extraordinary works of genius, the business is best managed, and indeed in a certain degree is commonly managed, by punishment and rewards together; in such sort, that in the earlier part of man's career, and in the earlier stages of the progress of talent, a mixture of punishments and rewards both shall be employed: and that, by degrees, punishment shall be dropt altogether, and the force employed consist of reward alone.

There remains the case in which reward is proper, because punishment---at least punishment alone---would be unprofitable. By unprofitable, I mean not inefficacious, but uneconomical, unfrugal---the interest of the whole community together being taken into the account, not forgetting that of the particular member on whom the burthen would be to be imposed, and consequently the punishment, in case of non-performance, to be inflicted.

This seems to be the case with all those offices which, standing alone, are offices of mere burthen, whether the party favoured be the public at large or any individual or class of individuals: in all cases the labourer is worthy of his hire; and unless it be when every man must labour, no man ought to be made to labour without his hire---the common soldier no more than the general, the common seaman no more than the admiral, the constable no more than the judge.

True it is, that take any man for example, it may with propriety be said, that the public has a right to his services, has a right to command his services, for that the interest of any one man ought to give way to the interest of all. But if this be true as to any one man who happens to be first taken, equally true is it of any other, and so in succession of every man. On the one hand, then, each man is under an obligation to submit to any burthen that shall be proposed; on the other hand, each man has an equal right to see the burthen imposed, not upon himself, but upon some other. If either of these propositions be taken in their full extent, as much may be said in favour of the one of them as of the other. In this case, if there were no middle course to take, things must rest in statu quo, the scale of utility must remain in equilibrium, one man's interest weighing neither more nor less than another's; the burthen would be borne by nobody, and the immunity of each would be the destruction of all. But there is a middle course to take, which is, to divide the burthen, and lay it in equal proportion upon every man.

The principle is indisputable: the application of it is not free from difficulties. There are many cases in which the individual burthen cannot be divided: an office, the duties of which it requires but one man to perform, cannot be divided amongst a thousand. But a mass of profit may be formed sufficient to counterbalance the inconvenience which a man would sustain by bearing the office. Let the requisite mass of profit be taken from the general fund, and the burthen is distributed proportionably amongst the different members of the community.

An expedient sometimes practised in these cases, is, instead of distributing the burthen of the office, to lay it on entire upon some one person, according to lot. This prevents the injustice there would be in laying it upon any one by design: but it does not correct the inequality. The mischief of partiality and injustice are obviated; but not so the sufferings of him upon whom the unfortunate lot falls. The principle of utility is in this case only partially followed.

It is one of those instances in which the principle of utility would seem to have given occasion to a wrong conclusion. According to this principle, it is said that the interest of the minority ought to be sacrificed to that of the majority. The conclusion is just, if it were impossible to avoid a sacrifice; palpably false, if it is. But to charge this as a defect upon the principle itself, is as reasonable as it would be to maintain that the art of bookkeeping is a mischievous art, because entries may be omitted.

We are now prepared for establishing a comparison between punishment and reward.

1. Punishment is best adapted for restraint or prevention---reward for excitement and production: the one is a bridle, the other, a spur.

2. In every case where every extensive mischief may be produced by a single act, and particularly in the case of such acts as may be performed at any time, punishment is the only restraint to be depended on: such is the case of crimes in general. When the act endeavoured to be produced is in an eminent degree beneficial, it is proper to employ reward alone, or to combine punishment with reward, that the power of the governing motive may be doubled.

3. Considering the abundance of the one, and scarcity of the other, punishment is the only eligible means of regulating the conduct of people in general: reward ought to be reserved for directing the actions of particular individuals. By punishment, mischievous propensities are subdued; by reward, valuable qualifications are improved. Punishment is an instrument for the extirpation of noxious weeds: reward is a hotbed for raising fruit, which would not otherwise be produced.

4. Necessity compels the employment of punishment: reward is a luxury. Discard the first, and society is dissolved: discard the other, and it still continues to subsist, though deprived of a portion of its amenity and elegance.

5. In every case where the service is of such a nature as that no individual possessed of the qualifications requisite for its performance can with certainty be selected, the denunciation of punishment would only produce apprehension and misery, and its application be but so much injury inflicted in wanton waste.

In every such case, offer a reward, and it travels forth in quest of hidden or unknown talents: even if it fail in its search, it produces no evil---not an atom of it is lost: it is given only when the service is performed, when the advantage obtained either equals or surpasses the expense.

By the help of these observations, we shall be enabled to appreciate the opinion of those politicians who, after a superficial examination of this subject, condemn legislators in general for the sparing use made of the matter of reward.

The author of The Wealth of Nations, who has displayed such extraordinary sagacity in all his researches, has upon this point been led away by mistaken notions of humanity. ``Fear'', says he, ``is in almost all cases a miserable instrument of government.'' (Wealth of Nations, B. V. ch. 16.) It is an instrument which has often times been much perverted from its proper use; but it is a necessary instrument, and the only one applicable to the ordinary purposes of society.

A young king, in the first ardour for improvement, having resolved to purge his kingdom from all crimes, was not satisfied with this alone. His natural gentleness was shocked at the idea of employing punishment. He determined to abolish it altogether, and to effect everything by reward. He began with the crime of theft: but in a short time, all his subjects were entitled to reward; all of them were honest. Every day they were entitled to new rewards; their honesty remained inviolate. A scheme for preventing smuggling was proposed to him. ``Wise king'', it was said, ``for every penny that ought to be paid into your treasury, give two, and the hydra is vanquished.'' The victory was certain; but he perceived that, like that of Pyrrhus, it would be somewhat costly.

A distinction which exists between domestic and political government may be bere worth noticing. No sovereign is so rich as to be able to effect everything by reward. There is no parent who may not. At Sparta, a bit of black bread was the reward of skill. The stock of pleasures and of wants is an inexhaustible fund of reward in the hands of those parents who know how to employ it.

[RR, Book I, Chapter VI] [RR, Book I, Chapter VIII]