Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Lockean Monkeys

Locke was closer to the truth than Hobbes.  That is not a surprising sentiment coming from an American; even less so coming from an American patriot.  The United States is a Lockean regime.  It was founded on principles derived explicitly from Locke’s political thought and more or less explicitly on a rejection of Hobbes’ account of politics.  I would argue, however, that modern biopolitical research is backing up John more than Thomas. 
Both Hobbes and Locke began with the early modern assumption that human beings are by nature individual animals and that human society is largely an historical artifact.  All our instincts, in so far as we have any, are those of a creature as naturally asocial as a bear.  Human social life is as artificial as umbrella: it is something we cobbled together to meet our needs.  This is a mistake.  We were social long before we were genuinely human. 
Hobbes supposed that we were and remain perfectly amoral and selfish in our motivations.  What makes us dangerous to one another, when we come together in social groups, is precisely that selfishness combined with a distrust of one another.  Government is necessary to force us to suppress these selfish mutually hostile inclinations and cooperate with one another.
Locke recognized that we also possessed a sense of justice.  When someone transgresses on my rights I am offended.  I am offended even when I observe some transgressing against a third party in a case where my own interests are not involved.  It is this sense of righteous indignation that makes us most dangerous to one another.  We may pursue retribution beyond any selfish interest and, if the perceived offender believes he is the one who has been wronged, we become locked in a cycle of retribution.  That is what necessitates the formation of governments.  Only by turning over such disputes to an arbitrator can we resolve them without perpetual war. 
This question, whether pure selfishness is the motivation or whether there is a moral or proto-moral motivation has been playing out in primate studies.  I have been digesting a lot of research on capuchin monkeys.  Brown capuchins are “known to engage in rich cooperative behaviors… and more consistently exhibit other-regarding tendencies in donation tasks than chimpanzees.”  That is, in experiments where one individual must cooperate with another to reap a reward (food), capuchins seem more concerned with what the other partner is getting or not getting. 
In experiments modeled on the ultimate game, the capuchin subject must decide whether to pull a lever that will distribute food to herself and a conspecific partner.  When the distribution is unequal-the subject receives less food or a lower value food, the subject will often refuse the distribution.  At first glance, the subject appears to be acting out of sense of fairness.  If I can’t get what’s coming to me, then no one gets anything.  But is this right?
The subject may be motivated by inequity aversion, a distaste for unfair distributions.  Let us call that the Lockean motive.  However, a lot of research indicates that the real motive may be simple frustration.  The subject wants the greater share or the better reward and rejects the distribution because of a frustrated desire.  Let us call that the Hobbesian motive. 
Capuchin researchers have parted along the Lockean/Hobbesian divide.  Franz de Waal and his associates began the argument with a series of studies that pushed the Lockean interpretation.  In response, other researchers made the case for the Hobbesian-frustration interpretation.  I thought that the balance was tilting against the Lockean side until today. 
Kristin L. Leimgruber et. al., have a report in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior [37 (2016) 236-244] that tells for the Lockean view: “Capuchin monkeys punish those who have more.”  Here is the abstract:

Punishment of non-cooperators is important for the maintenance of large-scale cooperation in humans, but relatively little is known about the relationship between punishment and cooperation across phylogeny. The current study examined second-party punishment behavior in a nonhuman primate species known for its cooperative tendencies—the brown capuchin monkey (Cebus apella). We found that capuchins consistently punished a conspecific partner who gained possession of a food resource, regardless of whether the unequal distribution of this resource was intentional on the part of the partner. A non-social comparison confirmed that punishment behavior was not due to frustration, nor did punishment stem from increased emotional arousal. Instead, punishment behavior in capuchins appears to be decidedly social in nature, as monkeys only pursued punitive actions when such actions directly decreased the welfare of a recently endowed conspecific. This pattern of results is consistent with two features central to human cooperation: spite and inequity aversion, suggesting that the evolutionary origins of some human-like punitive tendencies may extend even deeper than previously thought.
These findings present a decidedly Lockean monkey.  It isn’t just that I, capuchin that I am, am not getting what I want.  It’s that the other hairy fellow is getting more, dammit.  
Capuchin monkeys are more distantly related to John Locke than chimpanzees.  Spite and inequity aversion are part of our emotional pallet that go beyond self-interest.  A purely selfish individual doesn’t care what others get; she only cares what she gets.  An animal who is genuinely offended when a distribution is unfair is a moral animal.
I think it is clear that human beings are Lockean animals.  If capuchin monkeys are as well, that suggests that morality is older than we are.  As the trajectory of evolution pushed into primate design space, it opened up the dimension of genuine moral consciousness. 

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