Friday, February 03, 2012

Preaching to the Randomness

Recently, I was asked to fill in on a Sunday that our minister had off -- even ministers get to sleep in on a Sunday now and then. I have since been asked by several members to send them a copy of the sermon. A better idea, thought I, would be to post it here, with the various bits that help make some of the sermon coherent, as it references a portion of the other bits. Keep in mind, if you were there that Sunday, the sermon here is not exactly as given -- I teach for a living and sometimes I ad-lib to highlight a point, or to throw in a bit of humor, to help students grasp what I'm saying.

Thus you have, "Every Little Bit Counts", given January 29, 2012:

Opening Words:
The UU church I grew up in would start each Sunday Service with the reciting of the Covenant. I'd like to share that with you. (#471 in the Hymnal -- Typical for UUs, the reference to God at the end was dropped):

Love is the doctrine of this church, the quest of truth is its sacrament and service is its prayer.
To dwell together in peace,
to seek knowledge in freedom, to serve humanity in fellowship, to the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with the divine,
this do we covenant with one another.

Children's story:
The Native Americans believed that before there was man on the earth, there was just the animals. The Great Spirit had given the animals rules to live by, but after a while they stopped following the rules. The Great Spirit, to punish the animals, took away the sunlight by drawing a veil over the earth.

The animals had a great council to discuss the problem. It was decided to send the strongest, the fiercest of them to talk to the Great Spirit, to apologize in order to get the sunlight back.

The animals turned to the Grizzly Bear, but he said that he was sleepy and was going to take a nap. They turned to the Wolf, but Wolf said she had a hunt to organize. They turned to the Coyote, who was the cleverest of them, but Coyote said, "I kinda like the dark". Next came the Owl, but Owl was happy being able to hunt in the dark. The Eagle was too busy getting ready for his own hunt. Down the list of animals the council went, but each animal didn't want to make the effort. All but the Hummingbird. "You're too small," said the animals, "the Great Spirit would never listen to you."

So the Hummingbird decided to make an effort anyway. So she flew into the heavens, having just enough energy to poke her beak through the veil before falling back to the earth. Over and over the Hummingbird did this. Thousands upon thousands of times she tried to break through the veil to speak with the Great Spirit. Finally, the Great Spirit noticed that there were a bunch of holes in the veil between the earth and sunlight, and a tiny beak poking through over and over.

The Great Spirit pulled back the veil, and scooped up the Hummingbird. "Little Hummingbird, what are you doing?"

"I am trying to break through the veil to see you, to tell you that the animals are sorry for breaking the rules. Please give us back the sunlight."

The Great Spirit saw the tremendous effort the little Hummingbird had made, and decided to give back the sunlight. To remind the animals of that effort, and to not break the rules again, the Great Spirit pulls that veil back over the earth every night, and we can see the holes the Hummingbird made -- they're the pinpoints of light in the night sky.

As a professor, I'm used to speaking to a crowd, I'm just not used to the crowd being really interested in what I have to say. I usually start with a review from last time, but as this is my first time, I'll start with a joke.

A wild fire raged into a town, and embers set the roofs of three houses of worship alight. The religious leaders begged the fire chief to allow them in to retrieve their most sacred items. Granted only a few minutes, each rushed into the burning buildings. The priest grabbed the golden crucifix off the altar; the rabbi grabbed the torah; and the UU minister grabbed .... the coffee pot.

While funny, this joke points to the heart of UUism: Community. We gather in a community to share our joys and sorrows, to feel bound together in something greater than ourselves. Coffee hour is but one way we express this communion.

And yet....

Coffee hour is the reason why I'm giving this sermon. The volunteer coordinator for a previous month was bemoaning the difficulty in getting people to volunteer to make the coffee, to bring the snacks, and to clean up afterward. I pointed out that, like any community with more than 2 people, we suffer from what Political Scientists and Economists call a Free Rider problem and the result is the Tragedy of the Commons.

When I explained what these concepts were, I found myself "volunteered" to give today's sermon.

The Free Rider problem occurs when a person derives what Economists call a "positive externality" from the actions of another person. That positive externality is a benefit from the action to which the first person did not contribute. The problem lies in that it is impossible to exclude those who do not contribute from some common good or action.

National defense is the classic example of a public good with a free rider problem. Everyone benefits from national defense, whether or not (s)he pays taxes.

Aristotle noted that "what is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it"

Thus the free rider problem creates a paradox: If there is no incentive to contribute, there is diminished incentive for others to provide the benefit. It is for this reason that valued public goods are often undersupplied. The logic of collective action then results in a "Let Mikey do it" mentality, in which Mikey represents everybody else in the world.

We all want the maximum good possible, but cannot agree what is good, nor how to go about supplying it. Adam Smith, in Wealth of Nations (1776) discussed the idea of allowing each individual to pursue the good he values most. In his analysis, Smith seems to promote the idea that as each seeks the most personal gain, that person is “led by an invisible hand to promote … the public interest.” The assumption was that each would be driven by rational analysis to reach a decision that would simultaneously benefit the individual and society.

Garrett Hardin, a former professor of Human Ecology at UCSB, wrote on this idea, calling it the Tragedy of the Commons.

Imagine, says Hardin, a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will want to have as large a herd as possible on that pasture, trying to maximize his gain. The rational herdsman reaches the same conclusion as all the others sharing the common pasture: a larger herd is good. Thus, the pasture is then ruined by overgrazing.

A satellite photo in 1974 gave proof to this. Areas of northern Africa showed that land that had been held in common had been overused, and thus devastated. Only in the privately held areas was the land still fertile – there the owners had incentive to protect the productivity of the land.

In Federalist #51, James Madison wrote that “If men were angels, no Government would be necessary.” The reality is that humans are not angelic, and thus each human is guided by self-interest when it comes to the common good, even when individual benefits are the result of societal suffering.

Some have argued that there are solutions to this problem. Theorists believe that education can counteract human’s natural tendency to do the “wrong” thing. As an instructor, I can tell you that education must be re-enforced constantly. As children we were taught to share, but as adults we must be reminded.

The size of the society has an effect on cooperative behavior. A look at the Hutterite religious community demonstrated that an unmanaged commons became more harmed the larger the community became. A study done of this community showed that when the community’s size approached 150, the individual members began to undercontribute abilities and to overestimate needs.

The researchers investigating found that when the community was below 150 members, distribution of benefits was regulated by the use of shaming those who did not engage in a balance of abilities and needs. It is when the group becomes too large, the fear of what others would think no longer works to regulate the behavior of the community.

In the modern, secular society in which we live, there are more than 150 of us. The problem becomes one of the Bystander Effect. This refers to the phenomenon in which the larger the number of people present, the less likely individuals will get involved. Researchers have repeatedly found that people are more likely to get involved in an emergency situation if there are few or no witnesses.

Bibb Latane and John Darley did a series of now classic experiments exploring this phenomenon. In one experiment, college students were sat in a cubicle from which they could hear what they thought were real people. At one point, one of the voices calls out for help and is heard choking. If the students thought they were the only other one there, 85% of the time they rushed to help the “choker”. When they thought there was at least one other person among the cubicles who could help the choker, the response rate dropped to 65%. When they thought there were at least four other people, the rate plummeted to 31%.

In another experiment, participants were sent to a room to fill out a questionnaire. The room then began to fill with smoke. If the participants were alone in the room, they were likely to report the smoke 75% of the time. To test the bystander effect, Latane and Darley placed in the room two confederates who would note the smoke and then ignore it. In those cases, the participant would report the smoke only 10% of the time.

Theorists have come up with two possible explanations for the bystander effect.

First, the presence of others creates the belief in the diffusion of responsibility. Because there are other observers, individuals do not feel the need to take action – the responsibility to take action is shared by all present; there is the “Let Mikey take care of it” mentality. The larger the group, the more the responsibility is diffused.

Second, humans have a need to behave in what is perceived to be the correct and socially accepted manner. We are herd animals and thus do not wish to be seen as being “not herd”. When others fail to act, individuals see this as a social signal that a response is not needed or not appropriate.

Psychologists, addressing these ideas, posit that the solution then is to ask people directly, by name, to do something. Allowing the assumption that someone else will do it will result in it not getting done.

How does this apply to us, as members of a UU community? We pride ourselves in our commitment to others – our Social Action Committee routinely, and wonderfully, guides us to greater commitment to the local community’s needs. But it is the little things that fall through the cracks.

The point of all this is not to ask for money – though if the roof caught on fire, the Building & Grounds committee won’t say no to donations – but to ask of you to be more conscious of your actions. Are you falling victim of the Tragedy of the Commons, do you Ride for Free, are you merely a Bystander in life?

To paraphrase JFK, Ask not what your community can do for you, ask what you can do for your community, whether it be this UU Fellowship, the town you live in, or the wider world as a whole. Let not your decisions be driven solely by self benefit, for Adam Smith was wrong – it will not lead to societal benefits – but instead consider the greater good your actions can create.

Our religious tradition calls on all religious texts to guide us to “grow into harmony with the divine”. So I call on the variety of texts that teach us the same message, that of the Golden Rule:

From Christianity (Matthew 7:12 and Luke 6:31):
“Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you.”

From Hinduism (Mahabharata, Ansusana Parva 113.8):
“One should not behave towards others in a way which is disagreeable to oneself. This is the essence of morality. All other activities are due to selfish desire.”

From Confusianism (Analects 15.23):
“Tsekung asked, "Is there one word that can serve as a principle of conduct for life?" Confucius replied, "It is the word shu--reciprocity: Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you."

From the Yoruba (Nigeria) tribal proverb:
“One going to take a pointed stick to pinch a baby bird should first try it on himself to feel how it hurts.”

From the Talmud (Shabbat 31a):
"What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah; all the rest of it is commentary; go and learn."

Let us all be the hummingbird of our own community.

Go in Peace, Be at Peace. Blessed Be.

[The Volunteer Coordinator for February tells me that at Coffee Hour, she had lots of members volunteer to make coffee, to bring snacks, and to clean up. Yea!]

1 comment:

Riley Knight said...

The story you used for the kid portion is my favorite. I used to tell it every week when I taught at a local science camp back in the 90's. It's great to see other kids are still hearing it.