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How Catholic Church manages Hyperbolic Discounting


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Human beings have a fundamental problem – we are unwilling to connect the future with what is required of us in the present. The future is uncertain. Instead of inspiring caution, our brains’ typical response to this uncertainty is to sharply reduce the importance of the future in our decision-making, an effect Behavioural Economists call ‘hyperbolic discounting’. We discount larger future gains for the sake of smaller, but more immediate ones. Consequences which occur at a later time, good or bad, tend to have a lot less bearing on our choices the more distantly they fall in the future – even when one’s life is at stake. One of the large global initiative most affected by hyperbolic discounting bias is the conservation of environment. The translation of the awareness around conservation of the environment into concrete behaviour/actions fails because the benefits are in the future and as it takes the self out of the equation – the benefits are not for you but your future generations. If an individual discounts his future, he will discount the future of his future generations even more.

How can one deal with such strong biases – especially one as deep rooted as Hyperbolic Discounting? Educating people out of biases is an uphill task, close to impossible. So mere ‘awareness’ campaigns on the need to protect the environment are not the route to create the required ‘action’.

It is in this context that I view recent encyclical Laudato Si’ by Pope Francis with lot of interest. With this encyclical, Pope Francis has decided to enter into an area where no religion so far has ventured into – the protection of environment. Some  have even questioned as to why a religious leader has got involved in such worldly issues. But I applaud the decision of the Pope to get involved in building a sustainable environment. Because organised religions like the Catholic church are  few of the institutions who have demonstrated their ability to manage the problem of hyperbolic discounting.

By instilling the concept of heaven and hell among its followers, the Church has managed to create an indelible link between one’s present day behaviours and  its future consequences. This has drastically curtailed the human tendency to eat, drink and be merry and just live for today,forgetting the consequences of one’s actions in the future. All teachings of the church reinforce the fact that every present day action of an individual has consequences in the future and this no doubt reduces the tendency to discount one’s future. The teachings of the Catholic Church reinforces the fact that each individual is solely responsible for one’s actions and even thoughts. One cannot wriggle out of the responsibility of one’s action by blaming others or the circumstances.

The concepts of sin is well articulated in all church teachings with absolutely no room for ambiguity as to what is wrong and what is right. The consequences of indulging in each type of sin too is clearly articulated. Mortal sins have the most serious consequences.Recently the catholic church has declared polluting the environment as a mortal sin. Thanks to this decision, now every catholic is expected to confess any transgression on this front to a priest and do the required penance. By declaring environmental degradation as a deadly sin that needs to be mentioned in one’s confession, the consequences of one’s present day actions against the environment are no more in the future, it is immediate. So every time a catholic confesses his environment related sin, the effect of hyperbolic discounting bias is dwindling. Besides this, the act of confession, admitting one’s mistake to a person, generates emotions of guilt and shame. Generation of these emotions are excellent starting points for creating new, correct behaviours.

There is no doubt the concepts of heaven and the eternal fires of the hell are one of the most effective tools to take care of human bias to discount one’s future. If these beliefs are now used to create a sustainable environment, even the staunchest atheist would not complain.

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