Grapes of Wrath: On Morality and Fairness in the Monkey House

One of the guest speakers at the recent MAPP onsite has been Isaac Prilleltensky, who is the Dean of Education at the University of Miami. His research focus is on community well-being and its antecedents. In his lecture, he elaborated on the notion of well-being as a consequence (or at least: side-effect) of perceived fairness and justice in our lives. There is now considerable scientific evidence that these issues can have a major influence on our satisfaction with life and other important measures of psychological functioning. E.g., there´s a substantial statistical connection between a nations´ overall well-being and those countries´ Gini coefficient which, roughly speaking, measures the level of inequality in the wealth distribution of a country. I do not want to take a deep-dive into this here. If you want to know more, I would like to direct you to one of Prilleltensky´s recent papers by the name of Wellness as Fairness.

What really caught my attention is just how deeply the notion of fairness is rooted in our mammalian, tribal nature. I´ve already written a post on Paul Bloom´s research on the intuitive moral judgments of babies. But that´s by far not the end of the (moral) story. In the following video clip, you´ll see a snippet from a TED talk given by Frans de Waal, a Dutch primatologist a Emory University. He shows footage of an experiment involving capuchin monkeys. Bascially, two of them are “paid” for repeatedly carrying out a certain task by receiving cucumbers. Everything is OK. But then, the researcher starts to give one of the animals grapes instead – which (very obviously…) is considered to be a higher paycheck in the capuchin society. Watch what happens…

Can you feel that little monkey´s rage? And just for a moment: Transfer this to the realm of human emotion, multiply it by 10,000,000 (or so) – and try to understand what´s going on in countries like Egypt, Syria, and the Ukraine over the last years?

 

P.S.

If you´d like to learn even more on Prilleltensky´s work on community well-being, you might want to watch his TED talk on that subject…

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