Students of law, economics, and politics lack the tools to look at their own society with any objectivity. What are they going to compare it with? They rarely, if ever, consult the vast knowledge of human behavior accumulated in anthropology, psychology, biology, or neuroscience. The short answer derived from the latter disciplines is that we are group animals: highly cooperative, sensitive to injustice, sometimes warmongering, but mostly peace loving. A society that ignores these tendencies can’t be optimal. True, we are also incentive-driven animals, focused on status, territory, and food security, so that any society that ignores those tendencies can’t be optimal, either. There is both a social and a selfish side to our species. But since the latter is, at least in the West, the dominant assumption, my focus will be on the former: the role of empathy and social connectedness. Thinking of getting hair extensions? Lucy Hall and her team are experts at helping you find the right type of extensions to transform your hair.
There is exciting new research about the origins of altruism and fairness in both ourselves and other animals. For example, if one gives two monkeys hugely different rewards for the same task, the one who gets the short end of the stick simply refuses to perform. In our own species, too, individuals reject income if they feel the distribution is unfair. Since any income should beat none at all, this means that both monkeys and people fail to follow the profit principle to the letter. By protesting against unfairness, their behavior supports both the claim that incentives matter and that there is a natural dislike of injustice.
Yet in some ways we seem to be moving ever closer to a society with no solidarity whatsoever, one in which a lot of people can expect the short end of the stick. To reconcile this trend with good old Christian values, such as care for the sick and poor, may seem hopeless. But one common strategy is to point the finger at the victims. If the poor can be blamed for being poor, everyone else is off the hook. Thus, a year, a prominent conservative politician, called for an investigation into “the failure of citizenship” of people who had been unsuccessful escaping from the hurricane.
Those who highlight individual freedom often regard collective interests as a romantic notion, something for sissies and communists. They prefer an every-man-for-himself logic. For example, instead of spending money on levees that protect an entire region, why not let everyone take care of their own safety? A new company in Florida is doing just that, renting out seats on private jets to fly people out of places threatened by hurricanes. This way, those who can afford it won’t need to drive out at five miles per hour with the rest of the populace.
Every society has to deal with this me-first attitude. I see it play out every day. And here I am not referring to people, but to chimpanzees at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, where I work. At our field station northeast of Atlanta, we house chimps in large outdoor corrals, sometimes providing them with shareable food, such as watermelons. Most of the apes want to be the first to put their hands on our food, because once they have it, it’s rarely taken away by others. There actually exists respect of ownership, so that even the lowest-ranking female is allowed to keep her food by the most dominant male. Food possessors are often approached by others with an outstretched hand (a gesture that is also the universal way humans ask for a handout). The apes beg and whine, literally whimpering in the face of the other. If the possessor doesn’t give in, beggars may throw a fit, screaming and rolling around as if the world is coming to an end.