Evolved Benevolence:
Hutcheson and the Moral Engines of Community

Francis Steen, Communication Studies, University of California, Los Angeles

A talk given at the Annual Convention of the MLA in Toronto in 1997
Special Session on Evolutionary Psychology and Literature

Even the hardened heart of Primate Boulter responded to Ireland's troubles in 1728. Without the intervention of sudden charity, he wrote the Lord Lieutenant in early December, "some thousands will perish before the next harvest" (279). The prohibition against the export of wool had crippled the economy, and unscrupulous absentee landlords prodded ever more deeply into the living flesh of the people. By August the city streets were "crowded with living specteres" in search of food, scavenging dead horses. An anonymous pamphlet suggested instituting a new trade in an existing and plentiful product: poor Irish children—mostly Catholic—could be profitably butchered as yearlings for the tables of the Protestant Ascendancy. The arguments are spookily rational. By applying the logic of investment yields to human bodies, Swift's Modest Proposal points to the limits of reason, and to the space within which human communities can exist.

The debate over the basis for sociability, pivotal to the Enlightenment, reaches a turning point in the late 1720s. Starting with the mythical origins proposed by the Leviathan, I would like to challenge the line conventionally drawn from Hobbes through Darwin. Through the use of recent game-theoretical work in evolutionary theory, and with the gracious aid of John Gay, I propose a novel and perhaps firmer basis for the emerging age of sensibility, supporting the conviction of the Irish moralist Francis Hutcheson that sociability is a natural state, mediated by emotions.

"It is remarkable," Marx wrote to Engels in 1862, "how Darwin has discovered anew among beasts and plants his English society… It is Hobbes's bellum omnium contra omnes" (157). "Life was a continuous free fight," Huxley chimed in; "and beyond the limited and temporary relations of the family, the Hobbesian war against all was the normal state of existence" (165). The sentiment is perhaps refreshing—a candid effort to look the facts in the eye. But is it true? Arguing from the other side, Rousseau is more circumspect. "Some have not hesitated to attribute to men in that state of nature the concept of just and unjust," he writes in A Discourse on Inequality, "without bothering to show that they must have had such a concept, or even that it would be useful to them." What he raises is the issue of evolvability, or the conditions of possibility of justice.

For the concept of justice to emerge, Rawls has pointed out, "[s]omehow we must nullify the effects of specific contingencies which put men at odds and tempt them to exploit social and natural circumstances to their own advantage"—a task proposed accomplished by his famous "veil of ignorance" (36). Though "somehow we must," it is not clear that individuals are ever adequately ignorant about the roles they can expect to play in society. As Brian Skyrms demonstrates in his recent Evolution of the Social Contract, however, natural selection provides just such veil (10).

The focus of the contemporary model of evolution is not individuals struggling with each other, but impersonal strategies that play themselves out in a number of individuals, and as a result become more or less frequent in the population over time. Evolutionary replicator dynamics operates by changing the frequency distribution of alleles (that's the functional units of the genome) through differential reproduction. Since the strategies are passed on as a result of a large number of events, they are blind to "the effects of specific contingencies."

Imagine, then, a community of Hobbists. Everyone is effectively equal, since any differential in brawn is canceled out by tools or coalitions, and as for brains, "there is not ordinarily a greater signe of the equall distribution of any thing," as Hobbes reasons, "than that every man is contented with his share." If two individuals desire the same thing, we have what game theorists call a symmetrical bargaining problem—in this case, as the Monster from Malmesbury rather more colorfully puts it, "that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man" (70). The strategy is one of "Demand 100%." Since the players' strength and cunning are ex hypothesis equal, the struggle will continue until there is nothing more to fight over, and life is "solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and"—this comes as somewhat of a relief—"short" (69-70). Unfortunately, "Demand 100%" is an equilibrium condition, in the sense that, given the behavior of the other players, you cannot do better with a different strategy—everyone has a steady payoff of zero. Hobbes' thesis amounts to a claim that human psychology is such that in the natural state, before the formation of a commonwealth, society will be stuck at this level of extreme inefficiency.

But look, on the other side of the mountain, a community of Rousseauans engage in similarly symmetrical bargaining games. Eschewing the extremes of greed, these noble savages prefer to share. Some ask only a third, others half, others yet two thirds. When Peter, who will take a third and a third only, encounters Mary, who consistently demands two thirds, they divide the resource amicably, and come out clearly ahead of their poor and brutish neighbors. However, asking two thirds is sometimes too much—if you encounter another with the same strategy, there can be no peaceful solution. Similarly, asking one third is too little if the other is like you. Given a certain preference for interacting with individuals who follow the same strategy as yourself, such polymorphic communities will tend to evolve towards a single strategy: that of share and share alike.

Luckily, this strategy can also move Hobbesville out of its compulsive squalor. While a chance mutation producing a single Rousseauan would have no advantage, a small group of fair-minded individuals could establish a foothold if they had a preference for dealing with each other. In contrast, no other strategy can invade a community of Rousseauans that share alike: every demand that deviates from half would either get less than the others, or nothing. Fair division is the single evolutionarily stable strategy.

An inclination towards fair division, then, is the predicted outcome of the evolutionary process. Experimental economists have confirmed that in symmetrical bargaining games, people are far more generous than rational decision theory predicts (Skyrms 25-32). This means we should expand the subjective utility function to include a sense of fairness. Rather than assuming, as Hobbes did, that selfishness is the bedrock of human motivational psychology, an evolutionary consideration leads us to expect fairness to be valued for itself. As Kropotkin put it, "besides the law of Mutual Struggle there is in nature the law of Mutual Aid" (x).

Fair sharing, however, is a windfall mentality, and does not solve a host of other problems relating to cooperation. What if I slave all day, yet have no special right to the fruits of my labor? Can I trust you to keep a secret, or to undertake an extended project with me? What if there is no property, no trust, and no commitment? "In such condition," as Hobbes says, "there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain," and it is above all the putative inability of primitive society to solve this problem of investment that renders "the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short" (70).

His solution is a social contract, initiated with a promise: "I Authorise and give up my Right of Governing my selfe, to this Man, or to this Assembly of men, on this condition, that thou give up thy Right to him, and Authorise all his actions in like manner" (95). The rational act is predicated upon the extreme case of interacting exclusively with individuals who have the same strategy as yourself—what game theorists call perfect correlation. In this situation, evolutionary replicator dynamics yields a Darwinian version of Kant's categorical imperative: "Act only so that if others act likewise fitness is maximized" (Skyrms 62).

In the Hobbesian situation, however, since there is no veil of ignorance, such a commitment means very little. Even in the act of surrendering his rights, the Hobbist will remain modularly rational—that is, he will evaluate each situation in light of his own interest. As Jean Hampton puts it, the contract fails "because [Hobbes] cannot establish, given his psychology, that men and women are able to do what is required" (348). At any time, Filmer and other early commentators were quick to point out, the subject may determine her life is in danger and act to preserve her own interest (276-77). Even more damagingly, the Hobbist made the promise when it was in her interest, and should rationally treat the commitment as an expedient, seeking to reap the benefits without paying the costs.

The result is something like Mandeville's Grumbling Hive, where "No Calling was without Deceit" (64), or St. Giles, the London parish of thieves in Gay's Beggar's Opera. Swift felt this 1728 comic satire on the Walpole administration revealed "the whole System of that Common-Wealth, or that Imperium in Imperio of Iniquity, established among us, by which neither our Lives nor our Properties are secure" (36). Here, modular rationality is represented by the reduction of all human relationship to "interest" (III.i.35-7), or money. Interest, however, cannot ensure cooperation, since betrayal can be profitable—at another's expense. Mandeville's celebration of fraud is misplaced; more than anyone else, the cheat needs morality. The act of lying, Wittgenstein noted, is parasitical upon the conventional practice of telling the truth, and cheating is similarly predicated upon the honest dealing of others. As Gay's Lockit puts it, "He that attacks my honor attacks my livelihood" (II.x.37).

Granted that the strategy of deception is so advantageous, why doesn't it spread in runaway fashion, until the cost of interactions exceeds the benefits? To prevent this descent into Hobbesville, Cosmides argues, we need a special talent for cheater detection (177): the cheater must be identified and exposed. If the perpetrator is too powerful to be confronted, as Walpole was, the logic of his behavior can still be displayed in a grotesque, exaggerated fashion—in a word, he can be satirized. Yet the moral reasoning implied in satire aims not merely to supply information, but to frame available information in such a way that the emotions of shame of one's own actions, pity towards the plight of others, and energy to do something about it are aroused. In so doing, it provides the hints for a solution to the problem of a rotting social fabric—a solution beyond modularly rational self-interest, based in some striking features of human psychology.

The standard game-theoretical formulation of the problem of modular rationality is the Prisoner's Dilemma, and Gay's Opera provides a dynamic variant. Macheath has been arrested, and awaits the gallows; Lucy, the jailer's daughter, is expecting his child. The cooperative solution is obvious: Macheath will promise to marry her, and she will help him escape. However, what makes it rational for her to think that there is even a possibility he will not defect, leaving her with a sucker's payoff? Clearly, we need a language of the heart, which is not modularly rational, as Lucy frequently proclaims. Hirshleifer and Frank have argued that emotions serve as guarantors of threats and promises, and in The Beggar's Opera they function to initiate and sustain commitment across what is appropriate to modularly rational self-interest. "I did not marry him (as 'tis the fashion) cooly and deliberately for honor or money," Polly says. "But I love him" (I.viii.61-2). Even though Lucy is acutely aware of the irrationality of her feelings—"My love is all madness and folly" (III.i.51)—she is unable to let go of them. Since natural selection acts on strategies behind a veil of ignorance, solutions to the problem of commitment that are not modularly rational can survive.

The spread of the strategies of trust and commitment, however, needs a nudge from cognitive abilities that can increase the likelihood of interacting with like-minded cooperators. To the rescue Hutcheson, whose Essay on the Nature and the Conduct of the Passions appeared in Dublin in 1728. He argues for the existence of a moral sense, and finds evidence that "an ultimate desire of the happiness of others" to be "as certainly implanted in the human breast, though perhaps not so strong as self-love" (300). An important action of the moral sense is to increase correlation, a basic requirement for the establishment and survival of a cooperative community. "We are all then conscious," he writes, "of … that approbation or perception of moral excellence, which benevolence excites toward the person in whom we observe it…. The reason … must be this, 'That we have a distinct perception of … excellence in the kind affections of rational agents; whence we are determined to admire and to love such characters and persons'" (264). The kind acts of others dispose us kindly towards them, increasing the chances that we will interact cooperatively with them.

When Macheath does defect, our good will for the kindness of Lucy and Polly remains. This sense of waste is the moral aim of the satire, posing the problem of how to organize society in such a way that goodness and trust are not squandered. This is a project in which the moral reasoning within imagined, fictional communities assumed an important social role. The discovery of "a sociability which is dependent upon the communication of passions and sentiments," John Mullan argues, "was formative of that fashion of eighteenth-century fiction now called 'sentimental'" (2). Contemporary evolutionary theory, in proposing a rational basis for the modularly irrational foundations of sociability, provides an additional dimension to this debate, which we need to continue on several fronts.

Works Cited

Boulter, Hugh. "Letter of 4 December 1728." In Letters Written…to Several Ministers of State… Ed. Ambrose Philips. Vol. 1. Oxford, 1769-70. Quoted in Ehrenpreis, Irvin. Swift. The Man, His Works, and the Age. Vol. III. Dean Swift. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1983, p. 609.

Cosmides, Leda, and John Tooby. "Cognitive Adaptations for Social Exchange." In The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. Eds. Jerome H. Barkow, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.

Filmer, Sir Robert. Observations concerning the Originall of Government. [1652]. In Hobbes, 1997.

Frank, Robert H. Passions Within Reason: The Strategic Role of the Emotions. New York: Norton, 1988.

Gay, John. The Beggar's Opera. [1728]. Ed. Edgar V. Roberts. Lincoln, U of Nebraska Press, 1969.

Hampton, Jean. "The Failure of Hobbes' Social Contract Argument." In Hobbes, 1997.

Hirshleifer, Jack. "On Emotions as Guarantors of Threats and Promises." In The Latest on the Best: Essays on Evolution and Optimality. Ed. John Dupré. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Ed. Richard E. Flathman and David Johnston. New York: Norton, 1997.

Hutcheson, Francis. An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections. [1728]. An Inquiry Concerning the Original of our Ideas of Virtue or Moral Good. [1725, 1738]. In British Moralists 1650-1800. Vol. 1. Hobbes—Gay. Ed. D. D. Raphael. Oxford: Clarendon, 1969.

Huxley, Thomas Henry. "The Struggle for Existence and Its Bearing upon Man." Nineteenth Century 23 (1888):161-80.

Kropotkin, Petr. Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. London: Heinaman, 1908.

Marx, Karl. "Letter to Engels, June 18, 1862." In The Letters of Karl Marx. Ed. S. K. Padover. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1979.

Mandeville, Bernard. The Fable of the Bees. New York: Penguin, 1989.

Mullan, John. Sentiment and Sociability. The Language of Feeling in the Eighteenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon, 1988.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. A Discourse on Inequality. Trans. Maurice Cranston. London: Penguin, 1984.

Skyrms, Brian. Evolution of the Social Contract. New York: Cambridge UP, 1996.

Swift, Jonathan. The Prose Works of Jonathan Swift. Ed. Herbert Davis. Vol. XII. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1955.

Session Information | Cognitive Literary Studies | Vita

© 1997 Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California, Los Angeles