Society: Web of trust or sticks pointed everywhere?

People are strangely decent.

Like all good pessimists, I think I’m not not a pessimist– I’m just realistic. Perhaps because of that, I am impressed by how not-totally-evil humans are. If you assume that evolution is war, and we are the product of millions of years of evolution tuning us towards perfect selfishness, there’s a lot of odd stuff to see.

  • Say you go attack a random person on the street, and they start screaming for help. Random strangers may very well put their own safety at risk to help them. Certainly, they will consider responding, and feel guilty if they don’t.
  • Most of us face huge numbers of opportunities to steal. (From work, by cheating with automated checkout machines, at acquaintances parties, etc.) While there is plenty of theft, people also pass up many opportunities. If people made a cold-blooded calculation of “is the value of this good greater than the expected penalty?”, there would be much more theft.
  • Many fast-casual restaurants ask customers to clean up after themselves. There is no enforcement. Yet, most people do as asked.
  • Most people don’t like to lie, even to total strangers that they will never see again.

People appear to be constantly do things against their self-interest. Often, these behaviors are beneficial to society at large: they pro-social.

We evolved in small-scale societies with repeated interactions

From an evolutionary psychology view, these pro-social behaviors are a bit puzzling. Why do people behave like this? One answer is that we evolved in different circumstances. Take a small hunter-gatherer clan of 50 people. Just by watching each other and gossiping, these people can easily track how pro or anti-social the behavior of each member is. Social status can then be used to punish anti-social behaviors.

Thus, small-scale societies are good at making it in everyone’s interest to behave pro-socially. (If getting caught lying would lead your entire clan to scorn you… don’t lie.) In such circumstances people would evolve to be pro-social.

Modern people in large cities are still surprisingly non-evil.

In modern life, we face very different conditions. In a city of a million people, you can defect over and over again against strangers with no real harm to your reputation. Thus police, you say, and I agree. But there are still a huge number of defections that aren’t penalized. You can litter. You can cut in line. You can spill your soda on the floor of the subway. You can play your crappy music on a speaker on a crowded beach. Some people do these things. But they mostly avoid them.

Despite the weaker incentives towards pro-social behavior in modern life, people are still pro-social far beyond their incentives.

Is there evolutionary pressure towards behaviors that would make modern society impossible?

This worries me a little. If:

  1. society’s functioning depends on people doing the right thing most of the time, and
  2. we do the right thing because we evolved in circumstances where that was in our interest, and
  3. we no longer live in such circumstances,

then shouldn’t the current evolutionary pressure be away from those pro-social behaviors? Will we all inevitably become lowlifes who screw over strangers whenever we can? And might that mean that society can no longer function?

Counterargument 1: Common-sense morality ain’t that great.

One counterargument is that the above paints common-sense morality in far too positive a light. While it may be true that people were relatively good towards neighbors in small-scale societies, they were usually happy to murder people from other tribes whenever convenient. Similarly today, common-sense morality leads us to care more about the things that we happen to see in front of us. This may lead us to making grotesque moral errors by disregarding huge numbers of people we don’t see (e.g. in other countries), or issues that are less apparent to us (antibiotic resistance, existential threats).

Counterargument 2: Society is the way it is because it works.

Another counterargument is that society is like it is for a reason. Suppose you decided to create a new fast-casual restaurant. The difference is, rather than just cleaning up your table when you are done eating, you should also operate the cash-register for yourself. This should be great — the restaurant can save money on cashiers and lower prices! Obviously this doesn’t exist because it wouldn’t work.

Maybe people aren’t systematically pro-social now, they are only mildly pro-social in certain limited circumstances. Society has evolved to exploit those behaviors where it can. If people weren’t pro-social in those ways, society would develop enforcement mechanisms, just like it has to our many existing imperfections.

Which society do we live in?

The question this leaves me with is, which of the following correctly describes society today. Both of the following seem plausible to me:

  • (The “society is held together by good actors” view.) Society is able to function because people mostly do the right thing. Yes, people lie, cheat, and steal. Yes, politicians are corrupt. Yes, we need police and tax inspectors and annual performance reviews. But these bad behaviors are limited. Most police could abuse their power more with little penalty. Tenured professors could neglecting teaching much more than they already do. Even corrupt politicians make some effort to choose good policies. At the end of the day, it’s just not possible to monitor everyone all the time. Fundamentally, society has no choice but to take people, give them responsibilities, and hope that they mostly do the right thing. Fortunately, they typically do.

  • (The “sticks pointed everywhere” view.) “Society” is another word for “all the tricks we’ve created to get us to stop defecting against each other all the time”. A few random exceptions aside, people usually do screw each other over given the chance. The non-defectors get bred out. Small-scale societies developed simple institutions to align individuals’ interests. Modern societies have come up with more and better tricks. There is no limit to our ability to improve these tricks. As we get better and better, evolutionary pressure will be ever more in the pro-social direction. The 20th century offered a clear demonstration of this in the triumph of markets over socialism.

Which of these is true, I don’t know.

It’s important to remember that while the first view might sound nice, it’s the grim view. If our decency is a remnant of our evolutionary past, evolution will soon “fix it” and civilized life shall perish from the earth. On the other hand, if everyone is already mostly screwing each other over whenever they can, then great — we can work on finding better mechanisms to promote cooperation.


One thought on “Society: Web of trust or sticks pointed everywhere?

  1. I’m a believer in the second view. Unfortunately, a lot of societies have deluded themselves into believing that the first view is accurate, which is why those societies are currently in a slow state of collapse. (For example, the EU.)


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