Saturday, December 12, 2009

Define Your Terms

I offered a definition of "reward" in the comments section of a previous post and wanted to bring it front and center--for comments. Here it is again: a reward is something given or received in response to or recompense for some action.

Notice that this is very close to the standard dictionary definitions for the term. The Free Dictionary, for instance, defines the term as something given or received in recompense for worthy behavior or in retribution for evil acts.

Central to the concept of reward is compensation, or justice. The concept is wide enough to include responses to good or bad actions. And it leaves open what is good or bad (as it should given that it's a broad definition).

Some examples: paying a salary to an adult for providing work agreed to, paying a child an allowance for doing the same, buying a friend a beer in honor of a good story told, buying a toy for a child in exchange for demonstrating some skill, celebrating an achievement with anyone for something great, and so on.

The concept of reward, broadly defined, also leaves open who or what (in the case of reality) is providing something in response to some action. In any case, given the above definition, to be anti-reward, literally means to be against giving or receiving something in response to or recompense for some action.

While agreeing that a child's primary feedback should come from reality, I will be making an argument (at some point) that there is nothing wrong with rewards--so defined--and that there is nothing wrong with incentives either.

As a preview, here's a brief point: Some grown-ups never have the experience of getting paid for something they love to do. When they do get paid to do that thing which they love they do not become second-handed or focus on the payback. They love it all the more, because what gives them happiness internally improves their situation externally (in this case more money to spend). Letting kids experience this seems like a good--and not a bad--thing. Especially within a proper context.


  1. For some reason, Amy Mossoff--of the delightful Little Things blog--couldn't post the following, so I am posting it for her:

    Interesting. That is a very broad definition of reward. I'm very rusty with my epistemology, but doesn't a definition require integration and differentiation? (The genus and the differentia).

    If so, in this definition, how would you differentiate "reward" from "consequence" or even "trade?"

    In my reading of the Mirriam Webster definitions, I see a connotation of purposeful incentivization. I also don't think that reality can give a reward, even though we speak colloquially that way sometimes. Here are the definitions:

    1 : something that is given in return for good or evil done or received or that is offered or given for some service or attainment

    2 : a stimulus administered to an organism following a correct or desired response that increases the probability of occurrence of the response

  2. Amy:

    The definition of "reward" I used--as "something given or received in response to or recompense for some action"--is very similar to the first one you provided by Mirriam Webster.

    Off-the-cuff, "consequence" is a much broader term, especially if you're right that reality can not be said (except colloquially) to give a reward.

    I think you are correct about this by the way. "Consequence", the broader concept, includes this (and much else) whereas "reward" does not.

    The latter concept is differentiated from the former in that it assumes a valuer--and by implication a standard of values (leaving open whether that standard is proper or not).

    The second definition you posted from Mirriam Webster is using "reward" in the more limited sense as it was used by the behaviorist school. I don't think the term, etymologically, means this--and am sticking almost word for word to the exact definition.

    Interestingly, in a recent Google search for "reward definition" I spotted an author who used the word in the sense of it being a compensation for something by a valuer. The quote follows (though I'll let you guess the auther):

    "Love is the expression of one's values, the greatest reward you can earn for the moral qualities you have achieved in your character and person, the emotional price paid by one man for the joy he receives from the virtues of another."

    It is this sense of "reward" that I think is correct and that ought to be used as a base for (more) meaningful work in the area. As it is, I think the term is being used much like "selfishness" usually is--and thus the conversations about it suffer for the same reasons (of vagueness).