Critics of contractarian theories from Hume onward point out that a society of Hobbesian savages, each living for himself (note that masculine pronoun), would not be able to get together to form Hobbes’ social contract. Any nascent society, once it got beyond the immediate kinship level, would melt back down into Hobbes’ “warre of each against all.” In a real Hobbesian world, the first two people who got together would take over—they would gang up on all those “eaches,” one at a time, and kill or convert them. No need for a contract or a king. Something like this does in fact normally occur in lawless settings.
Moreover, Hobbes got it exactly wrong about killing. Modern totalitarian societies—where people have indeed put themselves under the control of an autocrat—have the bloodiest records of any societies in history. The small-scale societies that Hobbes thought were “savages” often have raids and battles in which people kill each other, but such societies rather rarely commit genocide or other mass murder, and never display each-against-all “warre.” They do indeed kill fairly often, but, like other societies, their killing is generally in socially organized campaigns against structural opponents. Whether to call these “wars” has occasioned some controversy; most, e.g. Guilaine and Zammer (2003) and LeBlanc and Register (2002), say yes; others, e.g. Raymond Kelly (2000), define war as formal war conducted by states, thus defining the small-scale societies out. Either way, there was a lot of killing, but it was group against group—self-sacrifice and all.
History confounds many a glib generalization. When Dennis Mueller tells us that "man is an egoistic, rational, utility maximizer" (quoted in Little 1994:489), and claims to be able to predict political behavior on the basis of this principle, is Mueller seriously maintaining that there is no difference between Hitler and Gandhi, Stalin and Martin Luther King? Is he seriously maintaining that we could have predicted the entire course of 20th century politics on the basis of such an assumption? One might rather suppose that, if Hitler had indeed been a sober accountant of material utilities, the 20th century would have been quite different. (No doubt Hitler was maximizing his own insane utilities, but no one could have predicted them.) Mueller goes on to argue that people obey the law only for fear of being caught by police. But if this were true, someone would have to make the policemen do their duty, and then we are in an infinite regress trap. As the Romans said, quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will guard the guards?
Indeed, people often violate moral rules, but they violate rules that protect self as often as they violate those that protect others at the expense of self! Self-destructive immorality ranges from drug abuse to the bizarre fad of self-cutting that has recently swept high school campuses. People sometimes hurt themselves to hurt others, as when teenagers defiantly mess their lives up to “get back at” their parents. Morality thus often acts to curb people’s strange tendencies.
People can be quite irrational in the pursuit of social success, too. Deaths from fad diets are common, and deaths from excessive plastic surgery are coming into the record. More common is dying through showing off—driving excessively fast, for instance. This is especially true of those just branching out from the family’s bosom; anyone who believes humans are rational has never raised teenagers.
Most societies actually depend on assuming that large numbers of people will not act in their self-interest. This can be for good or ill. We would like to think that altruism is the commonest form of social irrationality, but suppression of women is, alas, another case. I am one of those who believes that women are suppressed by sheer force or threat, but it is sadly clear that women often internalize their oppression. There are countless women, fundamentalist heroines of "submission," who passionately defend their right to be kept down, repressed and exploited.
Weak but angry people very often develop a cringing, groveling adulation of powerful people, especially powerful and evil people. We all remember the fawning weaker kids who followed the schoolyard bullies around. On a world scale, this becomes the fanatical loyalty aroused by Hitler, Stalin, and their ilk. The philosopher Martin Heidegger is a fascinating case in point; he combined philosophical brilliance with a cringing worship of Hitler and Nazism (Bourdieu 1991, Sluga 1993).
Hate and hates
Probably the worst problem resulting from social fear is displacement of hate and fear onto minorities or other scapegoat groups. Group hate seems genuinely wired into the human brain, according to behavior biologist R. A. Hinde (2007). Most feared are structural opposites: people within one’s society who are markedly different in some salient way. This can be skin color, religion, ethnicity, class, or simply nonconformity. It can even be sports rivalry. From the Blues and Greens of ancient Byzantium to the Soccer War between Honduras and El Salvador, competition for fun has often led to competition of a serious and deadly kind.
It is a total myth that people hate and fear strangers; it is their own, their visibly different own, whom they hate and fear. There appears to be a genuine inborn human tendency to dislike and fear structural opposites. Culture, however, defines those.
Group and social hatred causes millions of deaths from genocide, aggressive war, intolerance, structural oppositon, structural violence, and the like. The various theories that blame such phenomena on rational self-interest or economic motives cannot be sustained. The costs of war and genocide are too extreme to bear and too obvious to miss. The very symbol and definition of group hatred is the suicide bomber—the modern version of the berserkers and battle-frenzied warriors of old. Sacrificing one’s life in order to take out a few enemies of one’s group is the human condition. We have seen, above, how this evolved as part of human sociability. We are a species doomed to group conflict unless tolerance and valuing diversity are promoted as major virtues.
Ordinary individual hatred is bad enough, leading to everything from wifebeating to barroom brawling. Murder, to pick the most extreme and best-studied result of individual tension, is usually over control issues or social “honor” (see e.g. Baumeister 1997). Both of these bring us right back to society. Contrary to public myth, murder is not usually for gain and it is very rarely the act of a demented “mass murderer.”
Hate famously unites, and is famously the most effective but most dangerous way to unite people. The problems of communism are in large part due to the fact that Marx saw one could most successfully unite the working classes by whipping up hatred of the other classes. This led to hate becoming a virtue, at least in such settings as Mao’s China, with predictably disastrous results. One problem is that it is easy to hate other people who constitute an imagined threat, but hard to hate the system. The fascists and communists failed to get people to hate “capitalism” or other analytical abstractions, and found it much easier to get them to hate Jews or intellectuals.
Hate, like love, means various things. A critical difference, unfortunately overlooked in the literature (e.g. Sternberg and Sternberg 2008), is between individual hate and group hate.
The typical, if not universal, case is for culture to construct defensiveness as group hate and individual cantankerousness of some form. Then, mere participating in one’s culture can trap the best of humans into evil ways. Every culture has to include defensive strategies, and people readily get trapped in these. The really evil tend to be products of culture and controllingness and meanness and insecurity—insecurity about social place, so that they are easily hurt and scared.
Hatred of a treacherous enemy is phenomenologically and behaviorally a very different thing from hatred of a traditionally despised minority. I remember from my childhood in the south and midwest how many whites liked the African-Americans they knew, got along well with them, and even worked alongside them, but still deeply hated “Black people” (they used a stronger word) in general. German hatred of Jews in the 1930s was similar; Hitler seems genuinely to have hated Jews in a personal way, but most Germans seem to have had a dutiful cultural hatred that was not a personal emotion. Descriptions of the genocides in Rwanda and Cambodia often portray the killers as being animated by a sort of hysteria that led them to do things they did not really want to do to people they had previously liked. Cultural traditions and evil leaders, not actual personal emotion, led to “hatred” and murder (see e.g. (Baumeister 1997, 2006; Staub 1989). Indeed, the (otherwise) nicest may be among the most intolerant, because they are the most successfully encultured.
One classic situation that provokes group hate and massacre is takeover of land by a strong group from a weak one (Kiernan 2007). Such settler or colonial wars frequently lead to extermination of the landholding group. Native Americans were reduced in population about 95% by 1900—mostly by disease, but a large amount of the death was from massacre and lopsided “wars,” and many groups were exterminated systematically and completely. Australian Aboriginals fared the same. The Mongols and Tamerlane’s Turkic fighters depopulated whole regions and recolonized them. Ben Kiernan, in his great work Blood and Soil, has traced dozens of such cases, with a cumulative death toll well into the hundreds of millions.
Society traditionally condemns “selfishness” (including “greed”) very harshly, and hate crimes all too often lightly or not at all. Genocide has been barely condemned, or downright praised, throughout much of history. Consider all the traditional idolization of warlike heroes and conquerors. Consider the feeble and often failed attempts to prosecute genociders in international courts; proceedings never happened at all (as with Stalin and Mao) or came so slowly that the genocider died peacefully in bed before trial (as with Pinochet).
This explains why one finds such maddening differences in evaluations of things like material wealth and patriotism, and why sensible people have always contrasted innocent enjoyment of material things with greed, patriotism with chauvinism, religion with bigotry, and sociability with social climbing.
Fortunately, though group hate is universal, genocide is rare (B. Anderson and E. Anderson, work in progress). It occurs largely under three conditions: when a war is on, when a majority group is downwardly mobile in both economic and social dimensions, and—most common of all—when a tyrant is insecure and whips up group hate to consolidate power. All three of those conditions held in Germany in World War II.
Group hate is the true original sin—the deepest, most basic, most universal, and most evil of the evils wired into our brains. It also fits the root meaning of “Satan” and “devil”: Hebrew Shaytan and Greek diabolos (whence “devil” and “diabolical”), both mean a lie, a false claim.
All our good agendas have run afoul of the inability of people to work together. This lack of solidarity is caused not by individualism or selfishness or the “warre of each against all,” but by the mutual hatred of blacks and whites, liberals and conservatives, rich and poor, and all the other invidious groupings. The world is being torn apart by increasing hatreds. In the United States today, the comments anonymously posted at the ends of online news stories show all too plainly how true this is, and how clearly it is the factor responsible for the collapse of concern for the common good. We cannot even get voters to maintain police and fire protection, let alone roads and schools. The problem is largely one of getting people to stop trying to starve opponent groups of taxpayer-funded benefits. Voters seem quite happy to vote themselves out of even minimal public safety if they can take opponent groups down with them.
Another, quite different, negative emotion is disgust (Rozin 2007; Rozin and Fallon 1987). Recent research (Jones 2007) finds that disgust is more innate, less strictly learned than we thought. Thus, it has evidently evolved, presumably to prevent higher animals from eating dangerously contaminated items.
What is most interesting is the carry-over from disgust at filthy foods to moral disgust. The physical act of rejecting sickening food—curling lip, preparing to spit—is actually shown, quite unconsciously, by people in a state of moral disgust (Chapman et al. 2009). We recognize this in saying a person’s “lip curled” when moral wrong “left her with a bad taste in her mouth.” This can lead to strong needs to feel pure, and thus reinforce moralities of purity (Horberg et al. 2009). Humans can be genuinely physically nauseated by Nazism and similar outrages (Horberg et al. 2009; Jones 2007). I strongly suspect that this disgust at cruelty has deep evolutionary roots, like disgust at filthy food. When did it start? Do chimpanzees or bonobos feel it? Chimps can be horribly cruel, but do they have to overcome deep revulsion, as humans do?
Recent work shows that there are significant differences in the form and occurrence of disgust over filth, over sexual morality, and over fairness and other basic moral issues (Tybur et al. 2009). Basic disgust—the familiar emotion described above—is clearly a response to disease-bearing filth, and we tend to feel it largely in connection with major sources of microbes, like excrement and pus. Disgust over sexual peccadilloes and moral lapses feels different and occurs in different situations, and causes something we might better call “outrage” or “contempt” rather than “disgust.” Tybur et al. (2009:122) present a useful test that will allow you to break this out. Of course culture enormously influences what is “disgusting,” let alone “immoral.” Things that make people physically sick in one culture are enjoined as necessary and praiseworthy behavior in other cultures. Remembering Herodotus, I wish Tybur et al. had put “eating one’s dead parents to give them respectful burial” in their test.
The Usual, Low-Affect Round
Fortunately, we manage most of the time without such violent emotions. We live stable, predictable lives, or try to. We keep options open, wait patiently for opportunities, learn what we need or what we can, try to make the best of it…folk wisdom is full of such phrases. If people actually worked for happiness all the time, this world might be a better place. In fact, people seem rarely to work for happiness. Most people don’t have the luxury. They spend most of their time working to survive—a process that leaves little time to think about happiness per se. Much (if not all) of the rest of their time is taken up coping with troubles. This includes ordinary daily cares, including such problems as self-defense against social hurts, and shoring up one's self-image. It also includes far more serious troubles: coping with war, death of loved ones, ruin of a marriage.
Enlightened self-interest and enjoyment of life are luxuries. The vast majority of people, including affluent ones, must prioritize immediate crises. They cannot wait for perfect information, or even for time to deliberate. Governments have much the same problem: they cannot afford to wait decades for the final word to come in on global warming, public health, or any other major problem.
Hence, people cope by winging it, by improvising, and above all by going with their preconceived biases and algorithms and heuristics. This is why evolution has selected for integrating emotional reaction and cognitive processing. Reaction without guidance is mad, but cognition without fast reaction is too slow.
People endure. We still do not understand what teaches people to bear suffering and trouble, and often to rise above their troubles. Mutual aid, integrity, and sheer personal strength are known to arise from learning in a supportive but challenging family environment (Werner 1989; Werner and Smith 1982). We can only wonder at the quiet heroism of such people as labor organizers, inner-city teachers, and small farmers. No one is paying them much respect; no one is rewarding them heavily. Yet they do dauntingly hard jobs, for low pay, often under appalling conditions.
This simple, straightforward, work-and-keep-your-word life seems to be a natural and human one: its own reward. It naturally arises in small, mutually-dependent social groups.
There is a myth that humans are highly competitive. This myth traces directly to the competitive streak in American culture, so devoted to sports and business. In fact, games are not “real” competition, and most people know the difference. Chessmasters are certainly not an exceptionally combative lot. Football players and boxers are a different story, but even there, most audiences can tell play from normal life, however involved players may be in the savagery of the game. TV violence is directly and highly correlated with real-world violence, but those actually influenced by TV to become violent seem to be generally those few people who have a hard time telling fiction from reality.
Humans do, of course, sometimes compete for mates, for power in hierarchic systems, for attention, and for scarce resources in general. They may even enjoy the competition. They do not, however, do it nearly as much as some theorists naively think. Most of the time, people are cooperating, conforming, or just living their normal lives. As with aggression and rational material self-interest, the point is not that humans are not competitive, but that competition is selectively deployed. People compete when they have to. In play, they compete because they want to, but this does not mean they enjoy the real thing very much. They compete for mates just long enough to get a stable one, since people usually know that a stable relationship is what gets them the most sex and the most descendents. Successful hunters in hunter-gatherer societies, and successful money-grubbers in urban ones, get much sex outside of stable relationships, but they too must often depend on stable mutualistic relationships rather than brute competition to get love and care and descendents. The one exception to this generalization is that people are constantly jockeying for better social recognition and social place.
V: The Failure of Rational Choice Theory
The human “…is not so much a rational as a rationalizing creature. That is, he does not act or work towards conclusions by the careful sifting of evidence but acquires them by some irrational process, subsequently glossing over the logical delinquency by secondary apologetic argumentation.” (Robert Lowie, Primitive Religion, 1948, p. 288.)
1. Rational Choice and Its Discontents
All the foregoing is fatal to theories of human action that are based on assumptions of rational self-interest.
To be sure, we make rational choices much of the time. Anthropologists notoriously undervalue this, explaining too much through “culture” or “blind tradition” when rational choice is actually at play. (Since I am an anthropologist, be warned about what follows! I am trying my best….) People may be rational only when they have exhausted all other alternatives, but when reduced to desperation they will actually think things through. And rational calculus is ideal for economic tasks when everything is indeed well known and specified.
Rationality exists within a wider shell of social life and sociability, including culture (Polanyi 1957) This in turn exists within a still wider shell of emotional reaction—the basic mood and feeling responses of the animal, the beast within.
No one seriously thought people were rational until the mid-19th century. Previous to that, every social thinker or philosopher realized that people were creatures of impulse, belief, emotion, and unreason. Rationality was a goal and an ideal. It was promoted especially by the ancient Greeks and the Enlightenment sages. It was not even an ideal in the Middle Ages; people then valued belief and mystical illumination. The Renaissance valued the complete person, and warmly involved rather than coldly disengaged. Machiavelli’s cold rationalism shocked Renaissance readers almost as much as his amorality did.
In formal economics today, “rational self-interest” means calculation of means to maximize overall “utility.” This implies careful, serious, precise calculation of the best means for achieving clearly determined ends. The actor knows exactly what he or she wants, what means to achieve it are available (the “feasible set”), and exactly what the relative values or probabilities of success are. “Utility” is defined as anything the actior wants. This puts the goals of action outside the theory. They are taken as given. The theorist looks only at whether the actor is taking the most reasonable route to satisfying them. Unfortunately, first, this reduces the theory to gibberish, since the economic theorist can simply postulate any number of mysterious goals, thus explaining away all misprediction or miscalculation (Anderson 1996; Mansbridge 1990; Taylor 2006).
A major problem occurs when people (including, all too often, economists themselves) confuse the formal sense of "rational"—coolly maximizing self-interest—with the everyday, ordinary-language meanings of the word. Ordinary language contrasts it to behavior that is "irreducibly expressive, routinized, or other-directed (Green and Shapiro 1992:184)." Some allow mindless and even mistaken behavior to be "rational" if it produces an optimal result (Green and Shapiro 1992:24). This allows anything to be “rational.” The universality of that sort of rationality is hard to question. The universality of cool rational self-interest is impossible to sustain. Thus Donald Green and Ian Shapiro, in Pathologies of Rational Choice Theory, have attacked "thin rationality" as tautological and "thick rationality" (Green and Shapiro 1994:18-20)--the idea that only money and power matter--as plain wrong.
As Jane Mansbridge has written, "Some rational choice theorists equivocate on this point, most of the time making the false claim, and backing off to the vacuous claim under critical fire (Mansbridge 1990a:20)." Mansbridge quotes one of these modelers, Dennis Mueller, as claiming that human behavior follows from conditioning, according to principles "familiar to 'anyone who has ever trained a dog (Mansbridge 1990b:255, quoting Dennis Mueller).'" It is very doubtful if Mueller has ever trained a dog. Those of us who have actually done so realize that, while simple conditioning works in the laboratory for such things as getting a dog to salivate at the sound of a bell, actually training a dog in the real world depends on rewarding the dog with affection or punishing it with disapproval, and also on dealing with higher-order behaviors and representations. You cannot train a dog for real tasks, which are cognitively rather complex, by Pavlovian stimulus-response links. Material reinforcements are usually necessary but never sufficient; a dog trained without affectionate attention turns savage. The dog tells us exactly the opposite from what Mueller is saying.
To most of us, in normal life, "rational" means one of two things. First, it means "unemotional," in a good sense. "You're not being rational" is held to mean "your thoughts are distorted by emotion." (Actually, it usually means “you're not agreeing with me.")
Often, we extend this usage to assume that wanting money, food, clothing and shelter is "rational," while doing things for religious, emotional, or cultural reasons is "irrational." For example, in one of the first applications of rational choice theory to political science, Anthony Downs wrote: "...If it is rational to vote for prestige, why is it not rational to vote so as to please one's employer or one's sweetheart? Soon all behavior whatsoever becomes rational because it is a means to some end the actor values. To avoid this sterile conclusion, we have regarded only actions leading to strictly political or economic ends as rational” (Downs 1957:276, quoted in Green and Shapiro 1994:52). I would prefer to go all the way with modern economists, and not with Downs, in maintaining that it is indeed rational to vote with one’s sweetheart. Downs thought "political" behavior is strictly about personal power. In this he was very wrong. (See Marcus 2002; Simon 1995. Materialist explanations are often associated with Marxism, but are not limited to the left. They remain persuasive among economists of all stripes, from the last Marxist holdouts to conservatives such as Downs and Milton Friedman. Marshall Sahlins (1976) used the phrase "practical reason"—not "rationality"—to refer to the classic tough-minded position that humans work only for money and power.)