There is a relentless barrage of narratives about our supposed beastly nature and conduct. Since childhood, we have all watched animals routinely tear off each others’ limbs in countless nature documentaries meant to show us that survival at any cost is the natural order of life. We are fascinated by House of Cards, from which we infer that only suckers play by the book and uphold standards of decency. Many of us stumbled across the political theory of Thomas Hobbes in school; he told us that man is a wolf to other men and that the only way to reign in the beast is to resign to a larger beast — the Leviathan. We also recall that Adam Smith advised us not to rely on the charity of the butcher and the grocer for our meal, but on their self interest. We watched Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street or Costa-Gavras’s Le Capital, and they confirmed that self interest knows no bounds. International relations experts thunder that great powers have always been dangerous actors, and they will not be embarrassed to continue to be dangerous and irresponsible; others complain that too many Americans do not have the stomach for raw American might, and want their national power sautéed in moral purpose. It has become impossible to leaf through a daily newspaper without encountering stories of genocide, corruption, rape, and multiple other manifestations of humanity’s beastly nature.
And yet, none of these convinced us to be beastly as individuals. Take the Ultimatum Game: This is a game where a person is given $100, and is told to offer a split to a second person. It is called the ultimatum game because the second person has no say on what the split is and receives, in effect, an ultimatum: she has the option either to accept the split, or reject the split, in which case neither of them gets anything. If we were all convinced of each others’ beastly nature, we would expect the most common split to be $99 for the first person and $1 for the second person. The first person would be foolish to offer anything more than $1, as she is expected to do nothing other than maximize her gain, and the second would be foolish to turn down $1, as that is better than what she had a minute ago. Yet, 30 years of conducting this experiment in all corners of the world reveals that this is not at all what we do. The average split that the people offer is 55-45; it is not quite 50-50, but close enough. What is more revealing is that splits worse than 75-25 are routinely rejected by people in the second position, a thoroughly irrational move, if maximizing our self-interest is indeed the only metric we have. It seems that many among us are ready to pay a personal price to oppose gross unfairness. In these experiments, participants are not given to believe that the players are related, or somehow are part of the same community; neither are they given information that their performance in the game will become public knowledge and a part of their reputation. People are not primed, in other words, to defend fairness in order to benefit from a fair system or a good personal reputation in the long run. Instead, we seem to understand innately the importance of fairness without being lectured about it.
There is another variant of this experiment, where again $100 is given to a person, who is told to split it with a second person, but this time around the second person has no right to turn it down, and therefore no veto. In this version, called the Dictator Game, the average split is 70-30, and a quarter of the people give the second person $50 or more, even though there is no immediate material punishment to a 100-0 split. So what is going on? Could it be that we are not selfish brutes after all?
Fortunately, scholars did not stop asking questions about human nature after Hobbes. Edward Wilson, for example, has shown that while egoistic individuals have an evolutionary advantage, so do solidaric groups. Could that be why we oppose blatant unfairness at a personal cost and act far more generously than crude selfishness would dictate? Robert Axelrod has set out to discover how cooperation emerges without central authority. He designed simulation experiments wherein strategies that start with cooperation and reciprocate both cooperation and non-cooperation proved to be the most successful and resilient strategies. In other words, having some faith in our fellow humans is not foolish, but rational. Elinor Ostrom has demonstrated how we achieve cooperation and reign in selfish free riders without a Leviathan, and won a Nobel Prize for her work. She chronicles how belonging to the same normative and social communities, attending the same cafés and bars, and building reputation through the same channels all provide formidable venues for binding covenants. Other experiments have proven that we are susceptible to the gaze of our peers. When a photograph of a pair of eyes is placed over a donation box for the office coffee machine, contributions increase substantially. In addition to a commitment to an ethics of reciprocity, it seems we have learned to be attentive to the gaze and regard of our peers, and to avoid their loathing.
There is a yet another experiment that tests the rhythms of our cooperative temperament. In this experiment, called the Public Goods Game, five or more people are each given an allowance of $100. They are told that any voluntary contribution they make to a common pot will be increased by 50%, and the accumulated sum will be evenly distributed back to each member of the group. As you can infer from previous studies, some people contribute a good deal; others contribute little or nothing. Experiments have shown that the average contributions in the first round coalesce around one-third of each allowance. When this game is played in more than one round, voluntary contributions go down. We are ready to be solidaric, but we do not want to be made fools of; when we see people contributing less than we do and still benefiting from our generosity, we adjust our contributions downward. Two things have proved to be effective in raising and sustaining voluntary contributions: (1) allowing participants to punish selfish members and (2) communication among participants. The former should not surprise us. We have seen in the previous experiments that we have a propensity to punish unfair members, even if it involves a cost to ourselves. And the latter should not surprise us either; after all, we learn, produce, and reproduce norms by talking about them. In A Cooperative Species, their book on human reciprocity, Bowles and Gintis observe that our linguistic capabilities allow us as a species to formulate social norms, communicate these norms to newcomers, alert others to their violation, and organize coalitions to punish the violators. Communication elicits and elucidates norms.
The moral of the story is that we are not the beasts we are told we should feel free to be. Through evolution and successive generations of renegotiation, we have forged a strong ethics of fairness and reciprocity. It also seems that each viable society has some members who are more willing and ready to oppose unfairness, even if such opposition involves a personal cost. The fact that they are not always the majority does not seem to deter them, and that is a good thing, as we see that even minorities can be effective guardians of fair play. In our “nice-guys-finish-last” popular culture, we are prodded to think of these guardians of fairness as suckers, but they are in truth the custodians of vital civility and decency, without which the rest of our systems and societies crumble. It is not that such peer pressure can solve all problems; it is rather that without such mechanisms, it would be impossible to have a functional system at all. Since fairness, trust, and other pro-social dispositions are important and precious components of any social system, we ought to have mechanisms to celebrate and reward actors and practices that replenish their stock, and loathe those who drain it. The newest wave of research does try to ascertain precisely how small a group of people is still capable of policing the laggards, and what level of intensity of the gaze and condemnation are required. Regardless, it seems clear that we all have a say in the particular constellation of norms and conventions that are at play around us. We are all complicit, for better or worse, in the conventions that govern us.
To be sure, neither are we angels. If we were all cooperation-prone and guided by long-term interests, our societies and systems would look a lot different than the status quo. Narratives of our angelic nature are as much caricatures as those based on our beastly nature. Such simplistic models are neither accurate nor helpful. We both cooperate and compete. The interesting questions are, when do we opt for one or the other, and how does the precise mix change both over time and in response to particular incentives and feedback loops?
Idealists have at times been described as cynics-in-the-waiting, who have not yet been mugged by reality. Some have indeed discovered that the noble frameworks they used to make sense of the world and to help guide their own actions had too little correspondence to facts. Overly romantic notions of human nature serve no real purpose and are often an impediment. Our frameworks have to cohere reasonably well with real human proclivities and need to be able to account for incidences of foul play. Otherwise, disappointments will lead some to retract their commitments to fairness, and may cause them to swing wildly to the other end. The acumen to be cherished would be to nudge people toward a greater commitment to fairness, while also inoculating them to disappointments.
Getting this right is even more important today as we sail into uncharted waters of increasing interdependence. We now live in a world where what happens in one of its parts affects lives in other parts. CO2 emissions, infections, financial products, radiation leaks, and novel ideas from one part of the world have significant consequences for others. These centripetal dynamics are pushing us together and intermixing our destinies. Our lives are no longer solely authored by us, but are being co-authored with others. How we share that authorship is anything but obvious. I can think of no question more important than the one that asks what sort of rapport we wish to have with the billions of others with whom we share our planet and destinies, if not our countries.
Here, too, we come across serendipitous pockets of decency. When asked whether their country should obey international law even when their governments think doing so is against the national interest, a stunning 58% of the people around the world answered in favor of international law. What is even more remarkable is that when asked whether others in their society agree with them, that same 58% reported that they were a minority in their own society. Any conversation about how to live in an increasingly interdependent world has to start with recognizing that we are likely to encounter decency far more frequently than we are told is the case. How to seize onto that encouraging baseline, and how to strengthen and grow — and also how not to overburden — that pro-social temperament is the vital question. For centuries, we built trust over time through face-to-face interactions and through trial and error. We all have finely tuned notions of who to trust and under what conditions. Trust and other conventions involving people in faraway places will need to be forged through different and novel methods. We will need to develop, with exceptional creativity, sincerity and disclosure, of which scale and the pressure of time deprive us. It’s a shame we have not, so far, received much help from mighty popular culture in this journey.