By Laurie Santos, Science of Virtues scholarYale University
Imagine that you’re walking home from work one day when you’re
approached by a researcher who asks you to do a quick study. You agree, and accompany him into a
small computer lab. The experimenter explains that you’ve been paired up with a
partner who’s currently waiting in another room. In the study, you and your
partner have the opportunity to gain money as part of different allocations
that you can win from the experiment. Your role will be to make a choice
between the possible allocations for yourself and your partner. You are then asked to choose between
two donation buttons. The first button, the experimenter explains, will deliver
$90 into your bank account and $10 into your partner’s bank account. The other
button will deliver a bit less to you— now just $60— but it will deliver $40
into your partner’s account. Which
do you pick?
the past few decades, researchers used relatively simple choices like the one
described above to explore the nature of one our most important virtues: our
sense of justice. By varying the
specifics of the choices— such as the payoffs given to the participant versus
the partner— researchers have gained new insights into the principles that
underlie our intuitions about justice.
Using scenarios like these, researchers have learned that people around
the world seem to base their choices on notions of fairness (see reviews in
Camerer, 2003; Henrich et al., 2005).
For example, most people will favor choices with payoff allocations that
are relatively equal across the two partners (e.g., Fehr & Schmidt, 1999).
Interestingly, people tend to prefer such equal outcomes even when they come at
a substantial cost (see review in Camerer, 2003); people in the above scenario,
for example, tend to prefer the more equal split $60-40 split to an option that
gives them an unequally high payoff.
People also appear to take into account factors other than mere equity
when making their choices.
Participants donate more money in cases in which their partners have
contributed toward a common pool or otherwise worked to earn part of the payoff
(e.g., Oxoby and Spraggon, 2008). In addition, people are willing to punish
third parties who do not behave fairly even in cases where they stand little to
gain from their punishment (e.g., Fehr and Gachter, 2002).
those scholars of human virtue, these findings may be relatively unsurprising—
to many thinkers, it may seem obvious that people will make choices about
donations and allocations on the basis of their beliefs about justice. What is surprising— I would argue— is how
easily we can tap into the specifics of these beliefs— the essential features
of people’s notions about what’s fair and unfair— by using such simple
experimental scenarios. One of my favorite things about the field of
experimental psychology is just this— rather than having to speculate about the
deep principles that underlie people’s notions of justice, we have methods for
delving into such principles merely by using simple questions and
methods have been invaluable for informing our understanding of adults’
intuitions about justice (see reviews in Fehr and Schmidt, 1999). In our
current project, we’re using just this approach to get at an even trickier
issue regarding people’s notions of justice: where these justice principles come from in the first place. As
we’ve continued our interdisciplinary discussions about the nature of virtue,
I’ve become more and more convinced that a complete understanding of human
virtue will require more insight into the origins of justice principles, as
well as other virtuous ideals and behaviors. To lay these basic questions out most clearly: Are people
born with a predisposition to behave in ways that are just? Do people need only to be shaped by
social experience and learning to develop just behaviors? Or does a sense of justice instead take
a long time to mature, arriving in its adult form only through a lot of
practice, intentional tweaking, and hard work? The answers to these questions have important implications
for many aspects of our understanding of justice, and for the science of virtue
more broadly. If it turns out that
people gain a sense of justice (and perhaps other virtues) only through extensive
teaching and experience, we would want to incorporate these insights into designing
programs for enhancing fair behavior. Indeed, we would tailor our programs to
incorporate exactly those experiences that growing children need to develop
justice principles in the first place. In contrast, if some of children’s notions
of justice are in place without experience or teaching, then we would need to
take these more ingrained principles into account when designing ways to
enhance children’s just behave as it matures into its adult state. In addition to its implications for
policies, learning about the origins of justice (and other virtues) can also
help our debates about how to define what it means to be virtuous in the first place. If children begin acting
in accord with justice principles at the same time as they develop
self-discipline and other aspects of cognitive control, then we might assume
that these just behaviors were truly “virtuous” in the sense that they were
performed willfully and through discipline. In contrast, if we learned that
children are predisposed to act in ways that adults would say are just even
without the capacity for self-control and discipline, then we might instead question
whether these so-called just actions really qualify as virtuous to begin with. In this way, learning about the origins
of justice principles and behaviors may inform debates about which behaviors
are qualified to count as virtuous.
all these reasons, understanding the origins of human justice principles is an
important problem for a complete science of virtue. The trick, then, is finding
methods to discover where these principles come from. After all, philosophers have debated this question for
centuries and— at least historically—there has been relatively little philosophical
consensus on this issue of how virtues develop in the first place (e.g., see Aristotle
ca. 350 BC/1925; Rawls 1971). The
good news is that experimental psychology has developed an empirical way that
to explore conceptual origins: by investigating the behavior and decisions of
young children and closely-related non-human primates. These two subject populations are ideal
because they both lack the kinds of experiences that lead to the development of
the virtues we see in adult humans. In this way, young children and non-human
primates can provide a window into whether virtuous behaviors, such as justice
principles, can be present in the absence of the kinds of experiences that have
shaped adult human intuitions.
this logic, my colleague Kristina Olson and I have begun studying the origins
of justice by investigating how four year-old children and capuchin monkeys make
decisions about how to allocate resources. Do these populations care about equity and fairness even
though they lack the sorts of teaching that adult humans have experienced? To
test this, we’ve developed a version of the experimental donation task
described above for testing adults that can be used with young children and
non-human species. In the end, the
task we came up with was pretty similar to the hypothetical one explained
above. Children and capuchin
subjects are each individually paired up with a partner and are then allowed to
donate resources (different numbers of stickers in the case of children and different
kinds of food treats in the case of monkeys) to themselves and their partners
using a machine that delivers different payoffs. Just as in the adult human studies described above, we can vary
the specifics of children’s and monkeys’ choices— such as the payoffs given to
the participant versus the partner— to see if they too employ principles like
equity, fairness, and so on. We
can also vary other aspects of the situation— such as whether the subjects are
anonymous— to explore whether these populations continue to make just decisions
even when their actions can be performed without the presence of the usual
Our experiments are still ongoing, but
our studies have already revealed a few enticing hints about the origins of
some of our most basic justice principles. First, our pilot data has shown that both children and
capuchin monkeys seem to care about increasing their partner’s welfare when
they are receiving a highly-valued reward. On average, both children and capuchin subjects seem
motivated to provide the best possible reward for their partners when they’re
obtaining a highly-valued reward. Capuchins, for example, are willing to give their partner a
highly-valued grape instead of a lower-valued cucumber piece (see image above).
In this way, capuchins appear to be motivated not only by their own rewards,
but also by what happens to others.
In addition, they act on this prosocial motivation, selectively
delivering a higher payoff to their partners when they’re allowed to do
so. In addition, our pilot data
suggests that both populations seem to have the goal of increasing equity
across themselves and their partners in cases in which their partner is
watching their actions. However,
our pilot data has also revealed some limits on these populations’ justice
principles. Children, for example,
seem to become much stingier in situations where they are anonymous. Indeed, children fail to make equitable
choices when their partner can’t see them, often delivering the lower-valued
reward to their partner no matter what they’ve obtained for themselves. Such
results suggest both although both populations have some notions of justice in
place in the absence of experience, they do always live up to these principles
in their actions. These pilot
results thus indicate that there may be an interesting role for behavioral
shaping and cognitive control to play in the developmental of adult-like
Although our pilot results are an
exciting start, we still have a lot to learn about the origins of human virtue,
both in terms of our current project on development of justice as well as a
richer study of the origins of other virtuous behaviors. Excitingly, we also have empirical
methods in place that can allow us to directly investigate the starting points of
human virtue, both in terms of our early intuitions and behaviors. By gaining new insights into where
virtue begins, we hope to contribute to the larger goal of shaping where our
virtue end up and promoting increases in the virtuous behaviors of adults.
A view of our capuchin subject’s choice: he can choose to
give his awaiting partner (top right) either a less tasty cucumber piece (left)
or a tasty grape (right). So far,
our results suggest that capuchins are motivated to provide the higher valued
reward, suggesting they have some prosocial motivations towards others
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