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Make Them Accountable / The Big Lie

The Big Lie

Eric Michael Johnson, Scientific American:

The Gospel of Wealth Fails the Inequity Test in Primates

Fairness is the basis of the social contract. As citizens we expect that when we contribute our fair share we should receive our just reward. When social benefits are handed out unequally or when prior agreements are not honored it represents a breach of trust.

Based on this, Americans were justifiably outraged when, not just one, but two administrations bailed out the wealthiest institutions in the country while tens of thousands of homeowners (many of whom were victims of these same institutions) were evicted and left stranded. It smacked of favoritism, the corruption of politics by corporate money, and it was also just plain unfair. But isn’t that the way the world works? Isn’t it true, as we were so often told as children, that life is unfair?…

While this perspective may be common among those primates who live in the concrete jungle of Wall Street, it doesn’t hold true for the natural world more generally. Darwin understood that competition was an important factor in evolution, but it wasn’t the only factor. Cooperation, sympathy, and fairness were equally important features in his vision for the evolution of life…

By working cooperatively, by sharing resources fairly, and by ensuring that all members of society benefited, Darwin argued that early human societies would be more “fit” than those societies where members only cared about themselves…

According to research published in the journal Animal Behaviour (pdf here), fairness is not only essential to the human social contract, it also plays an important role in the lives of nonhuman primates more generally…

In 95 trials chimpanzees that received a grape were significantly more likely to refuse the high-value reward when their group mate only received a carrot (p = 0.008). Even those who benefitted from inequality recognized that the situation was unfair and they refused to enjoy their own reward if it meant someone else had to suffer…

When we were children we wouldn’t have understood that using financial derivatives to repackage subprime loans in order to resell them as AAA-rated securities was an unfair thing to do. Few of us today (including members of the commission charged with overseeing the financial services industry) can even understand that now. But we did know it was unfair when our sibling got a bigger piece of pie than we did. We began life with a general moral sense of what was fair and equitable and we built onto the framework from there. Chimpanzees, according to this study, appear to have a similar moral sense…

What this also suggests is that we’ve been swindled… As we move to regulate financial markets it might be wise to consider Darwin’s understanding of human society and follow the lead of our ape cousins. By emphasizing cooperation and sympathy with other members of our society we stand a better chance of success than each of us working alone. But if the situation is unfair we should refuse to perpetuate it, even if that means giving up a larger share of the pie for ourselves.

Yes, and I’d write a book about it, if I could ever find a publisher.

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