Being Fair
Jun 2012 20

Being Fair

Posted In Activism,Animals,Blog,Politics

by Steven Whitney

It may seem odd that a 2½ minute video documenting an experiment with capuchin monkeys serves as the starting point of what is essentially a political blog. But often when things like human behavior and voting patterns don’t make sense, it’s useful to go back to the basics, to look beneath the surface to examine the mechanisms that create both predictable results and their often irrational anomalies.

The truth is, politics may be just as much about sociology – the way different groups
behave and interact – as it is about ideology and demographics. Today, we evaluate candidates, their actions, and their parties mostly within the context of a 24/7 news-cycle that inevitably creates a tabloid sensibility. And sometimes it’s necessary to pull back to a wider view to gain better perspective.

Eminent primatologist and ethologist Frans de Waal has devoted much of his life to the study of morality in animals. The recognized standard that de Waal employs to measure animal behavior is the Two Pillars of Basic Morality – one representing Reciprocity (sharing and fairness); the other signifying Empathy (compassion and concern for others).

In the video, two Capuchin monkeys in adjoining Plexiglas cages are given the same task – to take a small rock and hand it through an opening to their handler – after which they receive a reward. But the reward is on two levels – a slice of cucumber, an adequate tidbit, and a grape, a much better and more nourishing treat. When both monkeys receive the cucumber, all is good. But when one is given a grape and the other gets only a cucumber, the second rebels – stomping his hand and hurling the cucumber back at the handler. He’d rather have no reward than an inequitable one.

Other basic tests show that when one monkey is given a large number of nuts or grapes and another gets none, the rewards are shared instead of hoarded by one. These results (and others showing shared work) have been replicated hundreds of times in tests given throughout the world with a variety of animals – elephants, dogs, dolphins, and many more – providing evidence that an innate (or genetic) fairness and willingness to cooperate is widespread in the animal kingdom. On an evolutionary level, this ingrained attribute of fairness – of sharing both rewards and workloads – is how species and communities thrive. Indeed, Jane Goodall – the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees – views primates as nothing less than our moral ancestors.

Because humans are evolved from chimps, capuchins, and other primates, our DNA is 98.5% identical to theirs. And like them, our sense of morality and fairness is genetically embedded – we possess it from birth and then reinforce the concept of sharing at home, in daycare centers, and in early school grades. Ask almost anyone and they’ll tell you they believe in fairness and teach it to their children. Indeed, fairness in all things is a universal human ideal.

So how do Republicans, in actions instead of words, stack up against monkeys on the most basic moral standards?

At a time when America faces its biggest and most threatening economic crisis in 80 years – one that could negatively affect our country for decades – Republicans are thwarting all efforts by the President and Democrats to jump-start any sort of middle-class recovery. It’s not just a Do-Nothing congress, it’s the Stop-Anything-That-Might-Help-Democrats-Even-If-It-Helps-Our-Country platform that pollutes every word and deed of the GOP. When they’re not obstructing positive action through a record number of filibusters, they’re filing lawsuits against any reform (like Obamacare) initiated by the Democrats. They refuse to confirm a huge number of judges (who would ease the mind-numbing backlog in our courts) and high-level cabinet nominees, like Elizabeth Warren and the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection, to block any needed regulation or oversight. They cut taxes on the rich and want to plunk the full financial burden on the poor and what just a few years ago was the middle-class. They are not willing to make even the smallest token sacrifice for their country – not even one added penny in taxes for any billionaire. And if anyone questions their agenda or motives, they scream “Class Warfare!” or “Socialism!” – two Big Lies that are growing very thin.

For the last 30 years – no matter what they have said – Republicans have consistently acted to cut education, welfare, and seem hell-bent on reducing Disaster Relief and “reforming” (i.e. getting rid of) Social Security. They want to reduce the number of police, fireman, and teachers, thus risking our health and safety while at the same time limiting our children’s opportunity. They attack and try to defund any social program (like Planned Parenthood) that actually helps people. They have calculatedly and deliberately hijacked any attempt to properly fund government just to prove that it doesn’t work so they can choke it to death and hand all responsibility over to the corporations that they clearly favor over real-life people

Does this sound like a party that seeks and works in harmony toward the healthy growth and common welfare of the community-at-large? Or does it come off as a dysfunctional, dissonant, and destructive faction that places its party and money before its country and people?

Morality – the essence and practice of cooperation, empathy, fairness, and reciprocity – was long thought to be a solely human attribute. And since it contains a democratic as well as an ethical aspect, it is one of the cornerstones on which America was founded. But these days, even the most basic moral standards are sadly more evident in animals than in the Republican Party and its minions. To the frightening extent that if Mitt Romney and the GOP slate sweep the November elections, the rest of us will be better off living on the planet of the apes.

Related Posts:
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A Last Pitch For Truth
America: Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.
Gotcha!

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