Experimental Morality

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For the better part of history, people have held strong views about the basic moral character of human beings.   Some believe that we are all intrinsically good, with moral transgressions arising as a direct result of negative societal influences.  Others believe that we are inherently bad, or at least amoral, requiring constant societal constraints to ensure that we don’t regularly commit moral crimes against each other.  There are those who hold firm to the claim that we are community-oriented “social animals”, altruistically disposed to favour the good of the group over our own individual preferences, while still others hold fast to the belief that man is a solitary, rational being who is solely guided by his own self-interest.  

Over the millennia, a wealth of theories – philosophical, religious, legal, historical, anthropological, political, economic and more – have sprung forth, each demonstrating how their view of the basic moral character of humans could be justified through its own corresponding theoretical framework.

Rather less, on the other hand, has been done to try to objectively establish what that basic moral character actually was.

One of the few clear results that we do have, however, comes from the “ultimatum game”, an experiment performed in the early 1980s by three social scientists interested in determining whether or not one of the key axioms of contemporary economic theory – that human beings act rationally in order to justify their own self-interest – is actually true.  

Money de WaalThe basic idea is quite straightforward.  Two subjects are paired together. One (“the divider”) is given a sum of (real) money and has the power to divide up the amount how he wishes.   Once that is done, the other player (“the decider”) either accepts or rejects the offer.  If he accepts it, then both players get the money as per the divider’s chosen split.  If he rejects it, then neither player gets anything.

There are many possible variations and complications, but that is the gist of it.  And that gist, as it happens, is enough to fairly convincingly demonstrate that, at the very least, the fundamental axiom of economic theory needed a fairly substantial overhaul.

For what the experiment conclusively revealed was that it was simply not true – not by a long shot – that human beings could be regarded as acting rationally in their own self-interest.  In fact, the strategies that two rational players would adopt in such an artificial and constrained scenario turns out to be very easy to determine: it is a so-called Nash equilibrium solution (after game theory pioneer and Beautiful Mind protagonist John Nash), and simply states that the rational response for any decider is to accept any split that comes his way providing that he gets at least something (since something is better than nothing), while the divider, knowing that, will offer a split highly skewed in his favour.

So goes the theory.   The experiment, on the other hand, quite convincingly demonstrates that that’s simply not what humans do.  Over the past few decades, the test has been performed throughout a wide variety of cultures and conditions, and in virtually almost every one the overwhelming balance of evidence suggests that human actions are driven by something quite different than a dry, abstract reasoning to maximize their “utility function”, as economists had long maintained.  

To more astute observers of the human condition, this hardly comes as much of a surprise.   But the interesting point isn’t how economists could have gotten such an obvious point so fundamentally wrong for so long (it is, after all, their métier), but rather what, if anything, this experiment is telling us about how humans actually make decisions.

And – even more interesting still – how other creatures make decisions too. Because the “ultimatum game” hasn’t just been played by humans. Over the last few years, renowned primatologist Frans de Waal and his colleagues have extended its domain to chimpanzees and bonobos as well, examining if there’s evidence to objectively conclude that moral concepts as “fairness” play a role in their decision procedures as well.  

It turns out that they do.

“I used to think that monkeys would care about getting less than another, but not about getting more.  But we found that the chimpanzees do care about getting more. Sometimes they will refuse good food if another doesn’t get it as well.  And they play the ultimatum game the way humans play it.”

Such intriguing parallels, Frans immediately recognized, suggested a range of further investigations:

“We’ve done tests on cooperation with chimpanzees, where we set up a situation where they can cooperate, where two or three chimps can work together to get food while everyone else is present.

“That makes things complicated, because it’s possible that the dominant male, or perhaps even some low-ranking female, comes in and steals all the food. All sorts of competitions, freeloading and stealing can occur.

“We wanted to see how they handle that. The literature claimed that the chimpanzees, as opposed to humans, are not capable of dealing with freeloading because they don’t punish like humans do.

“But we think that in humans punishment is exaggerated, in the sense that it’s not as important as people think it is, while we also find that the chimpanzees are perfectly capable of dealing with all this.

“We have thousands of examples where they deal with the freeloaders.  Sometimes they punish them, but most of the time they sort of avoid them.  So now if you ask me what the difference is between chimpanzees and humans in terms of fairness, I don’t know anymore. It’s not clear anymore what the difference is.”

Except that monkeys, to the best of our knowledge, don’t spend their time constructing abstract theories based on an unjustifiable belief in their rational inclinations.

But perhaps they do.

Howard Burton, howard@ideasroadshow.com


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