The Rationale of Reward

Book I

Of Rewards in General

Chapter XVI


Beccaria accuses modern legislator of indifference to this subject. ``Punishments'', says he, ``and, in many instances, unduly severe punishments, are provided for crimes; for virtue there are no rewards''. These complaints, repeated by a multitude of writers, are matter of common-place declamation. So long as they are confined to general terms, the subject presents no difficulty;---but when an attempt is made to remove the ground of complaint, and to frame a code of remuneratory laws for virtue, how great is the difference between what has been asserted to be desirable, and what is possible!

Virtue is sometimes considered as an act, sometimes as a disposition: when it is exhibited by a positive act, it confers a service; when it is considered as a disposition, it is a chance of services. Apart from this notion of service, it is impossible to tell wherein virtue consists. To form clear ideas concerning it, it must altogether be referred to the principle of utility: utility is its object, as well as its motive.

After having thus far spoken of services to be rewarded---that is, of manifest and public acts which fall not within the line of ordinary actions---it remains to be shown, in relation to virtue,---1. What cannot be accomplished by general rewards---2. What it is possible to accomplish, either by particular institution, or occasional reward.[1]

1. We may observe, in the first place, that those civil virtues, which are most important to the welfare of society, and to the preservation of the human race, do not consist in striking exploits, which carry their own proof with them, but in a train of daily actions, in an uniform and steady course of conduct, resulting from the habitual disposition of the mind. Hence it is precisely because these virtues are connected with the whole course of our existence, that they are incapable of being made the objects of the rewards of institution. It is impossible to know what particular fact to select, at what period to require the proof, to what particular circumstance to attach the distinction of reward.

2. Add to these difficulties, that of finding a suitable reward which shall be agreeable to those for whom it is designed. The modesty and delicacy of virtue would be wounded by the formalities necessary to the public proof of its existence. It is fostered by, and perhaps depends upon esteem: but this is a secret which it seeks to hide from itself, and those prizes for virtue which seem to oppose that conscience is bankrupt, would not be accepted by the rich, nor even sought after by the most worthy among the poor.

3. Every virtue produces advantages which are peculiar to itself: probity inspires confidence in all the relations of life; industry leads on to independence and wealth; benevolence is the source of kindly affections;---and though these advantages are not always reaped, they generally follow in the natural course of events. Their effect is much more steady and certain than that of factitious reward; which is necessarily subject to many imperfections.

In the reign of Louis XIV. a treatise was published---``On the Falsity of Human Virtues''. What is singular, and what the author probably never suspected is, that by some slight alterations it would be easy to convert this work into a treatise on their reality. The author appears to have considered them as false, because they were founded upon reciprocal interest---because their object is happiness, esteem, security, and the peaceable enjoyment of life---because men in their mutual intercourse settle with each other for their reciprocal services. But without these felicitous effects what would virtue be? In what consists its reality? What would it have to recommend it? How would it be distinguished from vice? This basis of interest, which to this author appears to have rendered it false, is precisely that which gives it a true and solid, and we may add, an immutable existence; for no other source of happiness can be imagined.[2]

But if the most important class of virtues are already provided with sufficient motives to lead to their performance, either in the sufferings they prevent, or in the advantages to which they give birth, is it not superfluous to add factitious motives? The interference of legislators is useful only in supplying the deficiency of natural motive.

4. What would be our condition were things in a different state?---were it necessary to invite men to labour, honesty, benevolence, and all the duties of their several conditions, by means of factitious reward? Pecuniary rewards, it is evident, it would be impossible to bestow. Honour it is true, remains, but how would it be practicable to create, in the shape of honour, a sufficient fund of reward for the generality of human actions? The value of these rewards consists in their rarity: so soon as they are common, their value is gone.

In this case, as in so many other cases, there is an analogy between rewards and punishments. It is an imperfection common to both these sanctions, that they are applicable to actions alone, and exercise only a distant and indirect influence upon the habits and dispositions which give a colour to the whole course of life. Thus, rewards cannot be instituted for parental kindness, conjugal fidelity, adherence to promises, veracity, gratitude, and pity: legal punishments cannot be assigned to ingratitude, hardness of heart, violations of friendly confidence, malice or envy---in a word, to all those vicious dispositions which produce so much evil before they have broken out into those crimes which are cognizable before legal tribunals. The two systems are like imperfect scales, useful only for weighing bulky commodities; and as an individual, whose life has been less guilty than that of a man of a hard and false heart, is punished for a single theft, there is also often a necessity of rewarding a certain distinguished service, performed by a man who is otherwise little entitled to esteem.

Thus, in regard to the moral virtues which constitute the basis of daily conduct, there is no reward which can he applied to them by general institution. All that it is possible to do is limited to seizing upon those striking actions, readily susceptible of proof, which arise out of extraordinary circumstances, as opportunities of conferring occasional rewards.

Rewards of this nature cannot be bestowed periodically: the occasions for performing eminent services do not regularly recur. It is the action, and not the date in the almanack, which ought to occasion the reward. The French Academy annually bestowed a prize upon the individual who, among the indigent classes, had performed the most virtuous action. The judges had always one prize to bestow, and they had but one. They must occasionally have experienced regret at leaving unrewarded actions of merit equal to that which gained the reward, and sometimes at being obliged to reward an action of an ordinary description. Besides, by the periodical return of the distribution, this prize would soon be rendered an object of routine, and cease to attract attention.

The institution of La Rosière de Salency may he produced in answer to the above observations: but it should be remembered that a village institution is of a different nature. The more limited a society. the more closely may its regulations be made to resemble those of domestic government;---in which, as we have already seen, reward may be applied to almost every purpose. It is thus that annual prizes may be established for agility, skill, strength---for every other quality which it may be desirable to encourage and of which the rudiments alway exist. There is not a village in Switzerland which does not distribute prizes of this nature for military exercises: it is an expedient for converting the duties and services of the citizens into fêtes. Geneva, whilst it was a republic, had its naval king---its king of the arquebuss---its commander of the bow---its king of the cannon. The conqueror, during the year of his reign, enjoyed certain privileges, little costly to the state; the public joy marked the return of the national exercises, which placed all the citizens under the eyes of their grateful country. La Rosière de Salency, designed to honour virtues which ought to be perpetuated and renewed from generation to generation, might have a periodical return, like the roses of summer.

The Humane Society, established in England for the purpose of affording assistance to persons in danger of drowning, and providing the means of restoration in cases of suspended animation, distributes prizes to those who have saved any individual from death. In this case, the reward is not, as in the French Academy, confined to the indigent class alone: men of the first rank would consider it an honour to receive a medal commemorative of so noble an action. Besides, the mode of conferring these rewards has not been dramatised; the retired habits of virtue have been consulted, there is no public exhibition to which it is dragged, to be confounded or humiliated. Greater eclàt might, however, without adding to the theatrical effect, be given to these rewards, were an efficient report made of them to the king and both houses of parliament.

An institution of a similar nature, for the reward of services rendered in cases of fire, shipwreck, and all other possible accidents would still further contribute to the cultivation of benevolence; and these noble actions, brought in the same manner under the eyes of the legislators, and inscribed in their journals, would acquire a publicity of much less importance to the honoured individual than to society in general

Indeed, though the reward applies only to one particular action, the principal object designed is the cultivation of those dispositions which actions indicate: and this can only be accomplished by the publicity which is given to the example, and the public esteem and honour in which it is held.

When, upon the site of the prison which had been the scene of an exalted instance of filial piety, the Romans erected a temple, they inculcated a noble lesson: they proclaimed their respect for one of the fundamental virtues of their republic.

Independently of these eminently meritorious and always rare actions, governments might render publicity subservient to the perfection of a great variety of services, in the performance of which the regular discharge of duty is more important than the display of extraordinary virtues. This project might be realized by the formation of a comparative table of the subordinate administrations of cities, parishes, or counties. This table would require to be renewed at fixed periods, and might be made to show which districts were most exact in the payment of taxes---in which the fewest crimes had been committed---in which useful establishments had been formed---in which the most liberal exertions had been made for the relief of calamity---what hospitals had been conducted with the greatest economy, and had been most successful in the cure of diseases; what tribunals had decided the greatest number of causes, and from which the smallest number of appeals had been made; in what instances efficacious precautions had been adopted for relieving any particular district from causes tending to render it unhealthy,---from mendicity, from smuggling, from vice, and from misery.

Such official reports, independently of their political utility to the government, would, without parade, produce all the good effects of reward---of that reward in honour which costs nothing to the country, and yet maintains all the moral energies in full activity. Every distinguished service might find a place in these annals; and the people, always prone to exaggerate the vigilance and means of information possessed by their governors would soon be persuaded that a perpetual inspection was kept up, not only with respect to their faults, but also their meritorious actions.

This project is borrowed neither from the Republic of Plato, nor the Utopia of More. It is even inferior to what has in our time been carried into effect, in an empire composed of more than a hundred departments; in which tables, exhibiting in columns all the results of civil, economical, rural, and commercial administration, were formed with greater facility and promptitude than would have been experienced by any Russian noble had be been desirous of obtaining from his superintendents an account of the state of his property.

If rewards were established for virtue, when exhibited by the indigent classes, it would be improper to seek for striking instances of its display, or to suppose that they are actuated by sentiments of vanity, which operate feebly upon men accustomed to dependence, and almost constantly employed in making provision for their daily wants. Institutions of this nature, suited to small communities, ought to be adapted to local circumstances and popular habits. In a village or a town, for instance, it might be proper to assign a distinguished place in the church for the old men: this distinction, united to a sentiment of religion, and granted with discretion, need bear no appearance of flattery, but might be a mark of respect towards old age, rendered honorable by the blameless life which had preceded it. There exist in England many charitable institutions for decayed tradesmen, in which their situation is much preferable to that of the inhabitants of poor houses: they have their separate dwellings, their gardens, and a small pension. Those only whose conduct has been generally honorable being admitted to these asylums, the metal badge which is worn in some instances, so far from being considered as a disgrace, is regarded as a mark of honour.

Different agricultural societies bestow rewards upon servants who have lived during a certain number of years in the same place; this circumstance being with reason considered as a proof of fidelity and good conduct.

Some of these societies also give rewards to day-labourers who have brought up a certain number of children without having received assistance from their parishes. This is an encouragement to economy, and to all the virtuous habits which it implies: but as a means of remedying the inconveniences arising from the poor laws, its effect is extremely feeble.

In both these cases, the reward generally consists of money: but the money is connected with honour, the notoriety given to the reward operates as a certificate in favour of the individual in his particular district.

By examining everything which has been done in this respect in Holland, Switzerland, England, and elsewhere, we should become possessed of an assortment of remuneratory expedients, applicable to almost every class in society. Everything depends, however upon the mode of application. For this duty governments are entirely unfit: it is local inspection alone which can gain a knowledge of circumstances and superintend the details.

After all, just and discriminating public esteem---that is to say, public esteem founded upon the principle of utility---is the most potent, the most universally applicable, of all the species of reward. If virtue be held in public estimation, virtue will flourish: let it cease to be held in such estimation, it will decline in the same proportion. The character of a people is the moral climate which kills or vivifies the seeds of excellence.

An inquiry into the causes of the high respect in which, under certain governments, particular virtues were held---why the virtues of a Curtius, of a Fabricius, of a Scipio were nourished and developed at Rome---why other countries and other times have produced only courtiers, parasites, fine gentlemen and wits, men without energy and without patriotism,---would require a moral and historical analysis, only to be completed by means of a profound study of the political constitutions and particular circumstances of each people. The result would, however, prove, that the qualities most successfully cultivated, were those held in most general esteem.

But public esteem, it may be said, is free, essentially free, independent of the authority of governments. This copious fund of rewards is therefore withdrawn from the hands of the supreme authority. This however is not the case: governments may easily obtain the disposal of this treasure. Public esteem cannot be compelled, but it may he conducted. It requires but little skill on the part of a virtuous sovereign to enable him to apply the high reward of public esteem to any service which his occasions may require.

There already exists a degree of respect for riches, honour, and power: if the dispenser of these gifts bestow them only upon useful qualities---if he unite what is already esteemed to what ought to be estimable, his success is certain. Reward would serve as a proclamation of his opinion, and would mark out a particular line of conduct as meritorious in his eyes. Its first effect would be that of a lesson in morality.

Unrewarded, the same service would not acquire the same degree of notoriety. It would be lost among the multitude of objects soliciting public attention; and remain undistinguished from the pretensions, well or ill founded, respecting which public opinion is undecided. Furnished with the patent from the sovereign, it becomes authentic and manifest: those who were ignorant are instructed, those who were doubtful become decided: the inimical and the envious are rendered lest bold: reputation is acquired, and becomes permanent. The second effect of the reward consists in the increase of intensity and duration given to public esteem.

Immediately, all those who are governed by views of interest, who aspire to honour or fortune---those who seek the public good but who seek it like ordinary men, not as heroes or martyrs---eagerly press into that career in which the sovereign has united private and public interest. In this manner, proper dispensation of favours directs the passions of individuals to the promotion of the public welfare, and induces even those who were indifferent to virtue or vice, to rank themselves upon that side which promises them the greatest advantage.

Such being the power of sovereigns, he must be extremely inexpert in the distribution of honours, who separates them from that public esteem which has so decided a tendency to unite with them. Nothing, however, is more common. Instances may be found, in most courts, of splendid decorations of stars and garters in double and triple range, which do not even give a favourable turn to public opinion. They are considered as proofs of favour, but not as signs of merit.

``Honours in the hands of princes resemble those talismans with which the fairies, according to the fables, were wont to present their favourites: they lose their virtue whenever they are improperly employed.'' (Helvetius.)

[RR, Book I, Chapter XV] [RR, Book I, Chapter XVII]