David Giacalone, from his non-blawging undisclosed location, forwarded along this New York Times opinion piece by Adam Cohen, which jumps off from a study reported in the journal Nature, much commented upon elsewhere, involving capuchin monkeys. Nature’s report gives the gist as follows:
[Sarah] Brosnan [of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia] and her colleague Frans de Waal taught brown capuchin monkeys (Cebus apella) to swap plastic tokens for food. Normally, monkeys were happy to exchange a token for some cucumber.The import of these findings would seem to be that capuchins (the females at least) are economic conservatives who object to the existence of “free riders” who receive greater rewards for the same work or investment. Or perhaps we’re dealing with simple envy: “How does that other monkey make her tokens go so much further than mine? Ooooh, I’m so put out I could just fling a cucumber!”
But the monkeys took offence if they saw a neighbour getting a grape for a token. In about half of such trials, the short-changed capuchin either refused to hand over its token, or rejected the reward. Some threw the token or cucumber clean out of their cage.
The animals' umbrage was even greater if another monkey got a grape for nothing. About 80% rebelled in some way in this situation.
In the Times, however, Adam Cohen is drawing other conclusions:
There is, certainly, a risk of reading too much into the feeding habits of 10 research monkeys. But in a week when fairness was so evidently on the ropes -- from the World Trade Organization meeting in Cancun, which poor nations walked out of in frustration, to the latest issue of Forbes, reporting that the richest 400 Americans are worth $955 billion -- the capuchin monkeys offered a glimmer of hope from the primate gene pool.While the poorer nations’ aggravations in Cancun [on which much more can be found at this blog] may be vaguely comparable to the monkeys’ situation, the extrapolation to the Forbes 400 is a bit much: Is Cohen objecting to the bare fact that those 400 fortunate souls possess substantial wealth, no matter how each may have earned or deserved it? The monkeys’ annoyance seems, rather more rationally, to be with the unequal return on investment: “What? She gets a grape for the same price I paid for this lousy cucumber? Outrageous!”
The study's implication that we are, to some extent, hard-wired for fairness speaks with special force to the legal system. American law has undergone a transformation in recent years, led by conservative Supreme Court justices and scholars, away from a focus on broad principles of fairness and toward a willingness to subject people to treatment that might be unjust, on the grounds that it is legal. The monkey study suggests, however, that fairness might be more than a currently unfashionable legal concept. It may be integral to who we are.
But Cohen is prepared to go further, leaping from distribution issues to unrelated platonic ideals of The Good and The Fair, which have been lost to us through the wicked machinations of the usual villains, Conservative Male Humans Who Are Republicans:
Today, in law's eternal battle between strictly applied rules and broader principles of fairness, the pendulum is rapidly swinging back toward strict rules. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court considered the case of Leandro Andrade, a father of three who, because of California's harsh ‘three strikes and you're out’ law, was sentenced to 50 years to life for stealing $153.54 worth of videotapes. The court's four liberals protested the unfairness of the sentence, arguing in dissent that if it was not ‘grossly disproportionate’ to the crime, and therefore a violation of the Eighth Amendment's bar on cruel and unusual punishment, ‘the principle has no meaning.’ But the court's five-justice conservative majority concluded, in effect, that rules are rules, and that the sentence ‘was not an unreasonable application of our clearly established law.’We have come a long way from our starting point and the path has been lost in the underbrush. Whatever the substantive merits of Cohen’s thoughts on crime and punishment (which are beyond the scope of this post), they seem to have little to do with the price of grapes in Atlanta.
In death penalty cases, criminal appeals, discrimination suits, the conservative majority regularly shows an indifference to the sort of fairness claims that would have prevailed in the 1960's. Lower federal court judges are also engaged in heated battles between rules and broader fairness principles, notably over the federal sentencing guidelines. The guidelines can pressure judges to impose sentences that, given the facts of a particular case, would result in unfairness. But the Justice Department, egged on by Republicans in Congress, is collecting data on judges who give lighter sentences than the guidelines recommend, which critics say could be used to create a blacklist.
In fact, the monkeys seem to be dealing in "strict rules" themselves -- 1 token = 1 cucumber -- and objecting when that rule isn't followed. Cohen, apparently, sees cucumber-tossing as a sort of noble hunger strike: "I'll starve myself rather than condone this inequity. No justice, no cucs!") But perhaps the entiry result can be explained by simple envy: "She gets a grape and all I get is this stupid cucumber? That grape should be mine, I tell you! Ooooh, I'm so mad, I could just throw a vegetable!" One sees what one wants to see, I suppose.
Elsewhere, Chris Bertram at Crooked Timber has a long and thoughtful look at the study (he leaves the Cohen article behind early) with particular emphasis on the evolutionary biology angles. The attendant reader comments are thought-provoking as well.
[An earlier version of this post was unceremoniously destroyed by some sort of Blogger server glitch. I have attempted to recreate it, with what success I leave you to judge. Ifyou don't like this version, I promise you the earlier one was better.]