Neo-Stoic Alternatives, c. 1400-2004: The Greater Apes

J. Perl

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


All "primates are willing to sacrifice for the cause of justice." Or so a recent article in Newsweek begins. It would be nice to regard altruism as an inborn trait of monkeys—the trait seems tenuous among the greater apes—so I read both the Newsweek article and the scientific paper that had made the news. The former concluded, on the basis of the latter, that we should not view the pursuit of justice among Homo sapiens as "a patina of culture slapped onto the human animal... forever on the verge of reverting to the natural state of brute selfishness." "Many economists," Newsweek has noticed, argue that "human motives... come down to one thing: self-interest." Whereas primatologists have now shown that humans share "an inborn sense of justice" with brown capuchin monkeys. The scientific paper, which appeared in Nature, claims that (1) a "'sense of fairness' is probably a human universal" and (2) "inequity aversion may not be uniquely human." But what the research in question demonstrates is not what the primatologists and reporters want to claim. Brown capuchin monkeys (Cebus apella) "dislike inequity"—but when, under what circumstances? When "a partner gets a better deal." If a monkey's experimental partner receives a reward perceived as [End Page 214] "more attractive" (a grape rather than a cucumber) for the same, for a lesser, or for no effort at all, a capuchin tends to refuse the inferior reward. In other words, all primates experience spite. If Newsweek assumes that spite—a feeling immature even on playgrounds—is the equivalent of fairness or justice, it is probable that the assumption is widespread. And the conclusion reached in the primatologists' paper indicates there are scientists who think likewise: People judge fairness based both on the distribution of gains and on the possible alternatives to a given outcome. Capuchin monkeys, too, seem to measure reward in relative terms, comparing their own rewards with those available, and their own efforts with those of others. They respond negatively to previously acceptable rewards if the partner gets a better deal. Although our data cannot elucidate the precise motivations underlying these responses, one possibility is that monkeys, similarly to humans, are guided by social emotions. These emotions, known as "passions" by economists, guide human reactions to the efforts, gains, losses and attitudes of others. Clearly if these reactions evolved to promote long-term human cooperation, they may exist in other animals as well. The "social emotions... known as 'passions' by economists" promote cooperation only if cooperation is defined as business (and only if by partner we mean business partner): the world as bazaar or bourse. But if the world is not an economics department, if loss and profit are of small account, reward and punishment beside the point—then what? When I saw the headline in Newsweek, I was expecting to read that monkeys, under experimental conditions, refused rewards when other monkeys were not rewarded fairly. How else could a phrase so grand as "sacrifice for the cause of justice" be applied? How could "inequity aversion" mean anything but aversion to inequities perpetrated against not-me or not-us? Defending my rights or the rights of my clan is not a defense of those rights per se or of any other "cause"; it is an assertion of self-interest, a declaration of rivalry with some other. What the primatologists' study shows is that each capuchin is, like any human, so convinced of its solar centrality that it will defend its rights—rights established, in this experiment, by a passing exposure to grape-rewards—to the point of self-inflicted harm. Justice may be done when equity is done or restored to me, mine, or ours; but a just person is one who behaves justly toward others. Just is not applicable to one who exacts or demands equity for him or herself, for his or her...
Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)214-219
JournalCommon Knowledge
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2004


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