Tuesday, June 30, 2009

That's Not Fair!

I've only got the one kid, and we still spend plenty of time on the tiny homiletic lessons: oh, well, do you really think that's how you should act when someone calls you a name? Okay, so Doug's been acting like a total tool all week, do you think it might be because everyone in class is picking on him? And like that.

As I think I've mentioned before, we use Rabbi Hillel as our main moral compass -- he was the Rabbi who was awakened in the middle of the night by some drunken students demanding that he teach them what the Torah was about while standing on one leg (with the implication that they would beat him up if he couldn't, yeah, because students were so much more civilized back in the old days): his reply: "Don't do anything to anyone else you wouldn't want done to you. That is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary."

(I paraphrase, obviously.)

This article here, on the other hand, suggests humans may have a need, an evolutionary reason, to harm one another.


A clue is provided by laboratory experiments known as public goods games. In a standard public goods game, each participant is given the same amount of money, some or all of which they can pay into a common pot. What's in the pot is then multiplied by the experimenters and divided equally between the players, so that even those who put in nothing get a share of its contents. The best outcome for all is if everyone puts their cash into the pot. But that does not naturally happen. In repeated rounds of the game, some individuals hold on to their own cash and hope to leech off other people.

Deterred by these freeloaders, the players who at first cooperate start to hold onto their cash. Cooperation breaks down entirely, and the whole group misses out on the bonus - society as a whole suffers (see diagram). But allow participants to pay for the privilege of punishing defectors, and it is a very different game. Cooperative players eagerly part with still more of their cash to punish cheats - who soon learn that cooperation is the cheaper option (Nature, vol 415, p 137).


This, of course, is interesting news. So we should smack Dougie in the head for being a twerp? I should teach my kid not to share?

But. as we read on we find things are not so simple:

...high-caste players were more likely to punish their fellow gamers spitefully than low-caste players, leading her to suggest that context is everything. It is not that people in Uttar Pradesh are nastier than elsewhere, but rather that the structure of their society makes them acutely conscious of status. The sensitivity of higher castes to their position makes them tend not to support any changes that threaten to level the social hierarchy, such as development projects. But higher castes can also put others down, safe in the knowledge that "untouchables" are unlikely to strike back. "If you're low caste it's dangerous to rise in status," says Hoff. "You'll get beaten up or worse."

The moral seems to be that, while spiteful behaviour can be a powerful force for keeping a society functioning smoothly, the structure of that society must be able to contain and channel those spiteful urges.

If we're wired for spite and damage, as maybe we are --- and this seems likely to me, I live inside this head, I know when I am harmed, I want to return the harm that's been done to me, that impulse is a strong one: it does feel natural --then what has to be done, if we're going to raise children who will create a just world, is to raise them to resist the tidal pull of that surge to harm.

That's what Rabbi Hillel was on about.

3 comments:

jeannie said...

You are going to find this interesting. That being mean to other people isn't an evolutionary trait; it is, however, a trait acquired through education. A sociologists by the name of Rist did a study back in the 60s or maybe 70s and found that children all come to school basically on the same level of decency; however, as soon as the teacher begins breaking the kids into groups of smart, smarter, and smartes or dumb dumber and dumbest or dumber, dumb, and smart based, not so much on intellect but on class, looks, language, ect, the students in the top groups begin picking on the children in the lower groups. Read him. He is my new hero.

jeannie said...

Okay, why did that give my name?

delagar said...

Half the time you show up as Z now and half the time as J. I can't figure it out.