In his engaging Social Evolution Forum contribution, Networking Past and Present, R.I.M. Dunbar argues that in traditional societies, most people share the same network of friends and relatives because they belong to the same community. In contemporary society, by contrast, our social networks have become fragmented, and we live predominantly with casual acquaintances and strangers. In contemporary life, then, people are no longer willing to intervene to correct violations of social morality, and hence are not prepared to protect the wider interests of the community. In his comment on Dunbar’s analysis, Nicolas Baumard argues that the sort of third-party punishment that Dunbar considers the stabilizing force of traditional societies is very unimportant, on grounds that among hunter-gatherers, punishment is rare if not absent. What leads individuals to cooperate, Baumard argues, is the prospect of losing their reputation as reliable partners. Baumard then observes that as we move from hunter-gatherer groups to modern societies, reputation becomes less and less useful because people must cooperate with large numbers of virtual strangers. However, he argues, contemporary institutions, including firms, service organizations and government bureaucracies, take the place of informal reputational systems. In addition, he asserts, citing the work of Elinor Ostrom, groups spontaneously set up such associations and do so without the need for formal state support.
Baumard concludes that while we increasingly surrounded by strangers, our society has also appointed more and more strangers to help us – policemen, firemen, judges, teachers, journalists, epidemiologists, therapists, etc. “In fact,” he observes, “the welfare state now accounts from a third to half of GDP in most developed countries.”
I suggest that Dunbar is correct in stressing the centrality of third-party punishment of social deviants in maintaining social order in all known forms of human society. However, Dunbar views such punishment as the rational behavior of self-regarding individuals, and hence the incentive to punish is severely weakened in modern societies in which we are predominantly surrounded by strangers. In fact, there is a critical type of third-party punishment found in all known human societies that is based on moral values and is carried out by other-regarding individuals and coalitions of such individuals even though it is personally costly to the punishers. I believe Dunbar is simply incorrect in believing that contemporary societies generally have a problem sustaining a social morality, although of course there are communities and even whole nations with low ‘social capital’ that function poorly.
I suggest also that Baumard’s analysis is not well founded at all. The literature to which he refers denying the importance of altruistic punishment is incorrect. I and my coauthors, in our Behavioral and Brain Sciences commentaries, have shown that Guala’s (2012) and Baumard, Andre and Sperber’s (forthcoming) critiques are not persuasive.
In fact, human beings are not purely self-regarding, but rather have moral preferences that often lead them, in situations involving unrelated other human beings to cooperate, and to punish non-cooperators, at personal cost. The evidence for this is the high frequency of cooperation and punishment in social situations in which there is anonymity, or there is no repetition and hence no long-term reputational effect (so-called ‘one-shot’ interactions), or the probability of repetition is low. In these situations, self-interest cannot explain the observed prosocial behavior.
Christopher Boehm’s systematic studies Hierarchy in the Forest (2000) and Moral Origins: the Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame (2012), carefully document the importance of third-party punishment in extant hunter-gatherer societies. In his newer book, Boehm located 150 simple hunter-gatherer societies. Boehm coded fifty of these societies from around the world. Despite the fact that these societies have faced highly variable ecological conditions, Boehm finds that their social organization maintains an egalitarian social order by means of the collective punishment of ‘bullies,’ and they subscribe to a common human social morality, operating through internalized norms, so that individuals act prosocially because they value moral behavior for its own sake and would feel guilty behaving otherwise.
More generally, Edward O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth tells the story of human eusociality, in which other-regarding preferences and generalized within-group altruism are key to our success as a species in fitness-enhancing cooperation. Wilson summarizes his analysis of human evolutionary success as follows: “All normal people are capable of true altruism. We … attend to the sick and injured, help the poor, comfort the bereaved, and even willingly risk our own lives to save strangers… Authentic altruism… enhances the strength and competitiveness of groups, and it has been favored during human evolution by natural selection at the group level.”
For evidence from behavioral game theory analyzing altruistic reward and punishment, I refer the reader to my book with Samuel Bowles, A Cooperative Species (2011), and Joseph Henrich, Robert Boyd, Samuel Bowles, Colin Camerer, Ernst Fehr and Herbert Gintis, Foundations of Human Sociality: Economic Experiments and Ethnographic Evidence from Fifteen Small-Scale Societies (2004) and the references therein.
Baumard’s assertion that institutions can stabilize social cooperation with completely self-regarding agents who care about their reputations is obviously incorrect. Baumard refers to the welfare state as one such institution, but in democratic countries, voters determine the size of the welfare state, and the observed size cannot be explained by the actions of self-interested voters, who would never vote for a redistribution to the poor.
More generally, a political democracy would be infeasible if its members were purely self-regarding. In large democratic elections, the rational self-regarding agent will not vote because the costs of voting are positive and significant, but the probability that one vote will alter the outcome of the election is vanishingly small. Thus the personal gain from voting is vanishingly small. For similar reasons, if one chooses to vote, there is no plausible reason to vote on the basis of the impact of the outcome of the election on one’s self-regarding gains. It follows also that the voter, if rational, self-regarding, and incapable of personally influencing the opinions of more than a few others, will not bother to form opinions on political issues, because these opinions cannot affect the outcome of elections. Yet people do vote, and many do expend time and energy in forming political opinions. This behavior does not conform to Baumard’s story.
It is a short step from the irrefutable logic of self-regarding political behavior that rational self-regarding individuals will not participate in the sort of collective actions that are responsible for the growth in the world of representative and democratic governance, the respect for civil liberties, the rights of minorities and women in public life, and the like. In the self-interest model, only small groups of socially dominant individuals will act politically. Yet modern egalitarian political institutions are the result of such collective actions. This behavior cannot be explained by the self-interest model.
Except for professional politicians and socially influential individuals, contrary to the implications of Baumard’s theory, electoral politics is a vast morality play to which models of the self-regarding actor are a very poor fit.
Defenders of the self-interest model may respond that voters believe their votes make a difference, however untenable this belief might be under logical scrutiny. Indeed, when asked why they vote, voters’ common response is that they are trying to help get one or another party elected to office. When apprised of the illogical character of that response, the common reply is that there are in fact close elections, where the balance is tipped in one direction or another by only a few hundred votes. When confronted with the fact that one vote will not affect even such close elections, the common repost is that “Well, if everyone thought like that, we couldn’t run a democracy.”
Politically active and informed citizens appear to operate on the principle that voting is both a duty and prerogative of citizenship, an altruistic act that is justified by the categorical imperative: act in conformance with the morally correct behavior for individuals in one’s position, without regard to personal costs and benefits. Such mental reasoning, which has been called ‘shared intentionality,’ is implicated in many uniquely human cognitive characteristics, including cumulative culture and language. Shared intentionality rests on a fundamentally prosocial disposition, not self-interest.
The model of human strategic interaction on which my argument is based suggests that the human capacities for thriving in a society of strangers was laid down long ago in the period of our evolutionary emergence, and is part of the passage of hominins from ape-like social organization to full sociality based on an evolved social morality in which individuals behave morally under normal conditions because it is the right thing to do, not because it serves their narrow self-interest.
It is also true that moral behavior is often highly rewarded in human society, which is doubtless why we teach our children to be moral. Indeed, classical philosophers, including Aristotle, never question but that being virtuous was a critical part of human flourishing. Nevertheless, it is a key aspect of moral behavior that one acts appropriately even in situations where the personal costs are high and even extreme. It is this aspect of human morality that accounts for our success as a species.
Santa Fe Institute and Central European University