Opinion: Why it’s Easier to be Nice than to be Noble

The guest writer of this article has requested to remain anonymous.

Most honest Rafflesians will admit that paying attention during Assembly isn’t something they do very well. By the end of the school year, they just seem to blend into one long and fairly undifferentiated stream of waffled words, pleasant performances and boring briefings. Every now and again, however, there are moments in Assembly that do remain stuck somewhere in the recesses of our minds.

One such moment was when, during a Year Head Assembly for Year 5s, Mr. Jeremy Ng shared the story of how Jon Montanez, an American high school basketballer, passed the ball to Mitchell Marcus and allowed the opposing player to score his first ever basket. Marcus is a developmentally disabled student who, despite his love of the sport, had never played a high school basketball game and was finally given the chance by his coach and teammates to play in the last quarter of their match. Montanez, Mr Ng said, gave him the chance to score.

The story was immediately considered inspirational. The media lapped it up, and Montanez was praised as Marcus’s benefactor, someone who had changed his life and done a wonderful, wonderful thing. There was even an interview on the Ellen DeGeneres Show.

Montanez is probably a great guy. He seems the sort of person everyone is pretty cool with, who does nice things for others and whom most would say is a good person. There is also no denying that, in turning the ball over, he made Marcus’s day. The fact that it was in a competitive basketball match lends the whole occasion a sense of sacrifice- that despite knowing it might hurt his team (and thus himself), Montanez did it anyway.

It is on the last point that the praiseworthiness of the action rests. The question of sacrifice. People do things which are nice all the time, be it help collect notes, clear trays or simply hold doors open. What we might want to look at in determining how ‘nice’ this person is is the amount of effort it took him/her to do that nice thing- perhaps, in Year 5 Econs terms, the opportunity cost.

Take the example of EOM submissions, which, given the frenzied activity on Sept 5, probably involved a lot of people asking classmates to help them to print/photocopy/submit some variation or other of their EOM. Someone who has to submit their own EOM volunteering to help submit yours as well is doing something nice, in that it helps you avoid a trip to the com labs, but let’s face it- he’s basically carrying an extra few sheets of paper. Not exactly the good deed of the month.

On the other hand, if someone who had already submitted his/her work offered to go back to the staff room and help submit yours, we would consider him/her to be doing something ‘nicer’ than what was described in the earlier scenario. Why? Well, because doing so didn’t just help you out, it also imposed a cost upon him – in effect, a sacrifice.

Take this to hypothetical levels, and it becomes pretty clear that it is the level of sacrifice required to do someone a favour that determines just how nice, or good, someone is being in performing that favour. Assume, ceteris paribus and all that, this marvelous friend of yours has offered to submit your EOM. He’s already submitted his, so really he could sit back and watch the latest episode of Suits while you struggled to find the staffroom. Assume, once again, that while you could submit your own EOM simply by walking to the staffroom, he would have to first get past some fiendishly devious obstacles set by teachers who would much rather you submit it yourself; perhaps complete a full Math paper, or recite the periodic table backwards, or perform a full soliloquy from Shakespeare. It doesn’t really matter- the point is, while in any case your benefit (being able to continue watching How I Met Your Mother instead of walking about 200m) is the same, the changing nature of the cost to your friend means that you’ll probably revere him as either the nicest guy ever created or slightly insane.

This brings us back to Montanez and Marcus. Assuming the benefit to Marcus is large, what about the cost to Montanez? He’s been praised as a wonderful human being. His act of kindness has, at least according to YouTube comments, moved people to tears. He’s been made out to be a hero.

Montanez’s team lost. But they lost by 15 points; by the time Marcus got on the court, in the fourth quarter, the game was over. The basket Marcus scored had absolutely nothing to do with the result.

Is Montanez a nice guy? Yes. Was what he did right? Yes, of course. Was what he did nice? Yes, because there was still a cost involved in turning over the ball, albeit an exceedingly small one. But is it really as inspirational and noble as the rest of us, and Mr Jeremy Ng, might have thought? Probably not.

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