Do External Incentives Degrade Intrinsically Worthwhile Activities?

There are many things that are worth doing on their own account, and not because of the consequences they produce. However, in a society in which there is a desire for meaningful work there is a temptation to try to take those intrinsically valuable pursuits and translate them into career opportunities. For example, someone who is drawn to the intrinsically valuable pursuit of journalism may want to try to turn journalism into a career. If this person could not cut it as a journalist they would still pursue the practise of journalistic writing on their own time, as this activity is its own reward and it does not need an external monetary, or non-monetary incentive, to draw people towards its practise. This temptation to turn intrinsically worthwhile activities, which we are willing to do without external incentives, into a career is problematic, because in many cases these external incentives will degrade the value of the activity itself. This is not to suggest that no one should try to turn such activities into a career, but rather that the value of the activity will be lessened once the activity has been translated into a career.

The danger in the transformation of an intrinsically valuable practise that one is drawn to into a career is that the external incentives, monetary or non-monetary, may crowd out the values that the practise realizes. Let us consider the person who pursues a journalistic career because of an appreciation for the intrinsic value of journalism. This person does not worry about deadlines, and is a perfectionist because she wants to ensure that her works fully realize all the excellences of journalistic practise. She may be extolling the virtues of the ideal journalist, but as a careerist she fails because she is not attentive to the fact that in a job you are being paid not to fully realize the excellence of a practise, but meet particular deadlines and produce particular “deliverables.” Consequently, it seems, that at least in some cases, pursuing an intrinsically worthwhile activity as a career will require one to compromise the integrity of the practise in favour of imperatives that bear little connection to the excellences of the practise itself.

This example helps to clarify why the careerization of activities degrades their value. Once an activity has been made into a career the person engaging in the activity cannot focus on fully developing the excellences of the practise but must produce particular outputs at particular time. This is precisely why the demand that academics produce a particular amount of research over every year is so antithetical to the excellences of the activities of the life of the mind and research. If one is worried about having to produce so many academic articles every year, one will likely not be able to fully devote oneself to ensuring that the articles are of excellent quality. Often producing articles will merely be a process of meeting deadlines rather than ensuring that one’s research fully realizes the excellences inherent in research.

In this way those who have an opportunity to pursue an intrinsically valuable activity that they are drawn to as a career are faced with a daunting choice. On one hand, they are given an opportunity to earn an income pursuing something that is valuable and that they would engage in without external incentives. Surely, this is a great opportunity. But on the other hand, they may have the sense that once this activity becomes a career they will not be able to fully devote themselves to realizing the excellence inherent in that activity. Furthermore, it is not clear to me whether it is better to pursue a compromised version of an intrinsically worthwhile activity that is not attentive to the excellence inherent in that activity, or to pursue a career that may not involve an intrinsically valuable activity, but that does not involve the degradation of an intrinsically valuable activity.


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