Plato’s great philosophical dialogue, the Republic, is still widely read and admired more than 2,400 years later, yet it is often misunderstood and its enduring message has been obscured. What Plato had to say about our most intractable and divisive political problem – social justice – should be required reading for us all.
Modern students of the Republic tend to focus on, and reject, Plato’s utopian vision of a benevolent dictatorship by wise and disinterested “philosopher-kings” who would be specially selected and trained to govern in the public interest. What is often overlooked, or discounted, is Plato’s deep understanding of the nature and purpose of human societies and, more important, his analysis of the basic political challenge for any society: How do you create and sustain a thriving, stable, and harmonious community?
Though we can certainly improve on Plato’s prescription for how to solve this age-old problem, his diagnosis was impeccable, and the emerging 21st century science of human nature points the way to a more satisfactory formulation.
The political circumstances in which Plato wrote the Republic bear a striking resemblance to our own situation today. Ancient Athens was the birthplace of democracy and had enjoyed a brief golden age after its decisive military victory over the Persians in 480 BC, much like America in the years after World War Two. But all this prosperity was squandered in the protracted Peloponnesian War with Sparta, which lasted twenty-seven years and ended in a crushing defeat for Athens.
After the war, an impoverished, demoralized, and angry population became deeply divided politically, and tensions ran high. Most of Athens’ wealth was now concentrated in the hands of 5-10% of the population, while 60-70% lived in more or less severe poverty, not unlike America in the 21st century. Some historians describe the post-war Athenian oligarchy (the so called Thirty Tyrants) as a reign of terror. Eventually, the democracy was restored in name, but it amounted to another radical oligarchy. Political extremists on both sides had become the dominant players in shaping public policy.
It’s no wonder, then, that Plato chose not to use Athens as his model state in the Republic. Instead, he went back to the drawing board and tried to design an ideal state that he believed might be able to resolve what he identified as a fundamental political challenge for any state — social justice. Indeed, the little-known and seldom-used subtitle of the Republic is “Concerning Justice.”
At the outset of the Republic, Plato raises and rebuts some of the other ideas about politics that were then “in the air” in Athens, many of them attributable to the Sophists. The Sophists were a group of itinerant teachers whose pupils included many of Athens’ wealthy aristocrats, who paid generously for being told what they wanted to hear. Among other things, the Sophists taught the idea that all laws are merely social conventions and that each individual has the right to define for himself (or herself) what is right and wrong. For instance, the Sophist Antiphon suggested that some laws may even require us to do what is “unnatural” – i.e., helping others. What is natural is to pursue your own self-interest. Sound familiar?
Later Sophists went even further, arguing that all laws arise from a voluntary contract that can be changed or even subverted if desired. Since inequality is a basic law of nature and we are inherently unequal, justice is whatever the strongest and most powerful are able to impose on others. Might makes right. Thus, the character Thrasymachus in the Republic claims that justice is nothing more than “the interest of the stronger.” Centuries later, Darwin’s political champion –Thomas Henry Huxley (known as “Darwin’s bulldog”) — characterized it as “tiger-rights.” Today we refer to it (jokingly) as the 800 pound gorilla.
Plato’s rebuttal to all of these egocentric and individualistic arguments proceeded from his bedrock assumptions about the very nature and purpose of human societies. Justice/fairness is the key, but it is not primarily concerned with some higher metaphysics, or a tug-of-war over our rights as individuals. It is concerned with equitable rewards for our contributions to a complex network of economic relationships. Human societies are intensely interdependent, and this means we have a joint stake in the common good – providing for all of our basic needs. Moreover, and this point is crucial, Plato recognized that fairness also has a hard floor — a “minimum wage” so to speak. Here are Plato’s words:
If we begin our inquiry by examining the beginning of a city, would that not aid us also in identifying the origins of justice and injustice?…A city — or a state — is a response to human needs. No human being is self-sufficient, and all of us have many wants…Since each person has many wants, many partners and purveyors will be required to furnish them….Owing to this interchange of services, a multitude of persons will gather and dwell together in what we have come to call the city or the state….[So] let us construct a city beginning with its origins, keeping in mind that the origin of every real city is human necessity….[However], we are not all alike. There is a diversity of talents among men; consequently, one man is best suited to one particular occupation and another to another….We can conclude, then, that production in our city will be more abundant and the products more easily produced and of better quality if each does the work nature [and society] has equipped him to do, at the appropriate time, and is not required to spend time on other occupations….Where, then, do we find justice and injustice?…Perhaps they have their origins in the mutual needs of the city’s inhabitants.
In other words, Plato correctly identified the highest priority for a human society – to provide for the biological survival and reproductive needs of its members — and he fully apprehended the fundamental advantages of a division of labor and specialization (or what could more accurately be called a “combination of labor”). Plato specifically characterized a human society as being like an organism with many interdependent parts — a “superorganism”. Thus, Plato identified the core political challenge – how to achieve social justice/fairness, and he defined it in a way that has withstood the test of time. In the words of one of Plato’s characters, Polymarchus, it involves “giving every man his due” (and every woman, of course).
There have been countless debates through the centuries over what Plato meant by the word “due”. But a common sense interpretation is that the rewards provided by society should be proportionate both to a person’s basic needs and his/her contributions, and that the same holds true for crimes and punishments. Plato clearly did not mean equality per se. Rather, he meant an equitable portion in accordance with some criterion of fairness — a fair share. Plato’s most famous student, Aristotle, used the term “proportionate equality.”
Fairness and the Science of Human Nature
Some cynics have viewed fairness as nothing more than a mask for self-interest. As the playwright George Bernard Shaw put it, “The golden rule is that there is no golden rule.” But the cynics are wrong. One of the important findings of the emerging, multi-disciplinary science of human nature is that humans do, indeed, have an innate sense of fairness. We regularly display a concern for others’ interests as well as our own, and we even show a willingness to punish perceived acts of unfairness.
The accumulating scientific evidence for this distinctive human trait, which is reviewed in my book The Fair Society: The Science of Human Nature and the Pursuit of Social Justice, suggests that it has played an important role in our evolution as a species. It served to facilitate, and lubricate, the close-knit social organization that has been a key to our phenomenal success – at least so far.
Among other things, the evidence for our sense of fairness includes anthropologist Donald Brown’s finding, reported in his landmark study, Human Universals, that altruism, reciprocity, and a concern for fairness are cultural universals. Likewise, in the field of behavior genetics, many studies have documented that there is a genetic basis for traits that are strongly associated with fairness, including altruism, empathy and “nurturance.”
In the brain sciences, the experiments of Joshua Greene and his colleagues have identified specific brain areas associated with making moral choices. Another team, headed by Alan Sanfey, pinpointed a brain area associated with feelings of fairness and unfairness when subjects were participating in the so-called “ultimatum game” in his laboratory.
Yet another source of evidence involves the biochemistry of the brain. In a series of laboratory experiments, neuroeconomist Paul Zak and his colleagues have demonstrated that a uniquely mammalian brain chemical, oxytocin, is strongly associated with acts of giving and reciprocating. Indeed, artificial enhancement of oxytocin levels in the brain can augment these behavioral traits.
There is also the extensive research by evolutionary psychologists Leda Cosmedes and John Tooby and a number of their colleagues on what they term “social exchange” (or reciprocity) – which, as they point out, exists in every culture. Cosmedes and Tooby have concluded that humans possess a discreet “mental module” — a dedicated neurocognitive system – for reciprocity behaviors.
In a similar vein, the work on “strong reciprocity theory” in experimental and behavioral economics has repeatedly demonstrated that even altruistic behaviors can be elicited in cooperative situations if there is a combination of strict reciprocity and punishment for defectors.
Finally, it has been shown that even some nonhuman primates display in a rudimentary form some of the traits associated with fairness behaviors in humans. For instance, primatologist Frans de Waal, in a classic laboratory experiment, clearly demonstrated the existence of reciprocity behaviors in capuchin monkeys.
It seems evident that a sense of fairness is an inborn human trait. It means, quite simply, that we are inclined to take into account and accommodate to the needs and interests of others. However, it is equally clear that our sense of fairness is labile. It can be subverted by various cultural, economic and political influences, not to mention the lure of our self-interests. And, of course, there are always the “outliers” – the Bernie Madoffs.
In fact, our predisposition toward fairness, like every other biological trait, is subject to significant individual variation. Numerous studies have indicated that some 25-30 percent of us are more or less “fairness challenged.” Some of us are so self-absorbed and egocentric that we are totally insensitive and even hostile to the needs of others. Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” and the banker Henry F. Potter in Frank Capra’s timeless Christmas movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” were caricatures, of course, but many of us have seen their likenesses in real life.
Thus fairness is not a given. It’s an end that can only be approximated with consistent effort and often in the face of strong opposition. And in the many cases where there are conflicting fairness claims, compromise is the indispensable solvent for achieving a voluntary, consensual outcome.
At the individual level, fairness is an issue in all of our personal relationships — in our families, with our loved ones, with friends, and in the workplace. We are confronted almost every day with concerns about providing, or doing, a “fair share,” reciprocating for some kindness, recognizing the rights of other persons, being fairly acknowledged and rewarded for our efforts, and much more.
Fairness and the “Social Contract”
The role of fairness is especially important at the “macro-level.” The idea that every (successful) society has a “social contract” – a tacit understanding about the rights and duties, and benefits and costs of citizenship — has a checkered history. Early versions can be found in the writings of the Sophists, as noted earlier, although the idea is more commonly associated with the so-called social contract theorists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – such as Rousseau, Hobbes, and Locke – and more recently, John Rawls.
Rousseau fantasized about free individuals voluntarily forming communities in which everyone was equal and all were subject to the “general will.” Thomas Hobbes, in contrast, envisioned a natural state of anarchic violence and proposed, for the sake of mutual self-preservation, that everyone should be subject to the absolute “sovereign” authority of the state. John Locke, on the other hand, rejected this dark Hobbesian vision. He conjured instead a benign state of nature in which free individuals voluntarily formed a limited contract for their mutual advantage but retained various residual rights.
The philosopher David Hume, and many others since, have made hash of this line of reasoning. In a devastating critique, A Treatise of Human Nature (published in 1739-40), Hume rejected the claim that some deep property of the natural world (natural laws), or some aspect of our past history, could be used to justify moral precepts. Among other things, Hume pointed out that, even if the origins of human societies actually conformed to such hypothetical motivations and scenarios (which we now know they did not), we have no logical obligation to accept an outdated social contract that was entered into by some remote ancestor.
With the demise of the natural law argument, social contract theory has generally fallen into disfavor among philosophers, with the important exception of the work of John Rawls. In his 1971 book, A Theory of Justice, Rawls’ formulation provoked a widespread reconsideration of what constitutes fairness and social justice and, equally important, what precepts would produce a just society. Rawls proposed two complementary principles: (1) equality in the enjoyment of freedom (a concept fraught with complications), and (2) affirmative action (in effect) for “the least advantaged” among us. This would be achieved by ensuring that the poor have equal opportunities and that they would receive a relatively larger share of any new wealth whenever the economic pie grows larger. Although Rawls’ work has been exhaustively debated by philosophers and others over the years, it seems to have had no discernable effect outside of academia; our economic inequality has continued to increase.
I have taken a different approach. What I call a “biosocial contract” is distinctive in that it is grounded in our growing understanding of human nature and the basic biological purpose of a human society. A biosocial contract is about the rights and duties of all of the stakeholders in society, both among themselves and in relation to the “state”. It is about defining what constitutes a “fair society.”
Although it is a normative theory, it is built on an empirical foundation. I believe it is legitimate to do so in this case, because life itself has a built-in normative bias – a normative preference, so to speak. We share with all other living things the biological imperatives associated with survival and reproduction. If we do, after all, want to survive and reproduce – if this is our shared biological objective — then certain principles of social intercourse follow as essential/prudential means to this end.
First and foremost, a biosocial contract requires a major shift in our social values. The deep purpose of a human society is not, after all, about achieving growth, or material affluence, or even social equality. An organized society is quintessentially a “collective survival enterprise.” Whatever may be our perceptions, or aspirations (or for that matter, whatever our station in life), the basic problem for any society, to repeat, is to provide for the survival and reproductive needs of its members. However, it is also important to acknowledge our differences in merit and to reward them accordingly. Finally, there must also be reciprocity — an unequivocal commitment on the part of all of the participants to help support the survival enterprise. For no society can long exist on a diet of altruism. Altruism is a means to a larger end, not an end in itself. It is the emotional and normative basis of our safety-net.
The “Biosocial Contract”
As discussed at length in my book, a biosocial contract encompasses three distinct normative (and policy) precepts — equality, equity, and reciprocity – and these must be bundled together and balanced in order to approximate the Platonic ideal of social justice. The policy implications of these precepts are as follows:
- Goods and services must be distributed to each according to his or her basic needs (in this, there must be equality);
- Surpluses beyond the provisioning of our basic needs must be distributed according to “merit” (there must also be equity);
- In return, each of us is obligated to contribute to the collective survival enterprise proportionately in accordance with our ability (there must be reciprocity).
The first of these precepts involves a collective obligation to provide for the basic needs of all of our people. To borrow a term from the TV series Star Trek, this is our “prime directive.” Although this precept may sound socialistic — an echo of Karl Marx’s famous dictum — it is at once far more specific and more limited. It refers to the fourteen basic biological needs domains that are detailed in my book. Our basic needs are not a vague, open-ended abstraction, nor a matter of personal preference. They constitute a concrete but ultimately limited agenda, with measurable indicators for assessing outcomes.
These fourteen basic needs domains include a number of obvious items, like adequate nutrition, fresh water, physical safety, physical and mental health, and waste elimination, as well as some items that we may take for granted like thermoregulation (which may entail many different technologies, from clothing to heating oil and air conditioning), adequate sleep (about one-third of our lives), mobility, and even healthy respiration, which can’t always be assured. Perhaps least obvious but most important are the requisites for reproduction and the nurturance of the next generation. From this perspective, our basic needs cut a very broad swath through our economy and our society.
The idea that there is a “social right” to the necessities of life is not new. It is implicit in the Golden Rule, the great moral precept that is recognized by every major religion and culture. There is also a substantial scholarly literature on the need to establish constitutional and legal protections for social/economic rights that are comparable to political rights. Indeed, three important formal covenants have endorsed social rights, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations (1948), the European Social Charter (1961) and the United Nations’ International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966), although these documents have been widely treated as aspirational rather than legally enforceable.
Perhaps more significant is the evidence of broad public support for the underlying principle of social rights. Numerous public opinion surveys over the years have consistently shown that people are far more willing to provide aid for the genuinely needy than neo-classical (rational choice) economic theory would lead one to believe. For instance, political scientist Larry Bartels, in his book Unequal Democracy, reports that survey support for increasing the minimum wage has consistently averaged about two-thirds of the respondents ever since the 1970s and has recently risen to about 80 percent as the cost of living has outpaced wages. This is consistent with the emerging picture of humankind as a morally-grounded species.
Equally compelling, I believe, are the results of an extensive series of social experiments regarding distributive justice by political scientists Norman Frohlich and Joe Oppenheimer and their colleagues, as detailed in their 1992 book Choosing Justice. What Frohlich and Oppenheimer set out to test was whether or not ad hoc groups of “impartial” decision-makers behind a Rawlsian “veil of ignorance” about their own personal stakes would be able to reach a consensus on how to distribute the income of a hypothetical society. Frohlich and Oppenheimer found that the experimental groups consistently opted for striking a balance between maximizing income (providing incentives and rewards for “the fruits of one’s labors,” in the authors’ words) and ensuring that there is an economic minimum for everyone (what they called a “floor constraint”). The overall results were stunning: 77.8 percent of the groups chose to assure a minimum income for basic needs.
The results of these important experiments, which have been replicated many times over the years, also lend strong support to the second of the three fairness precepts listed above concerning equity (or merit). How can we also be fair-minded about rewarding our many individual differences in talents, performance, and achievements? Merit, like the term fairness itself, has an elusive quality; it does not denote some absolute standard. It is relational, and context-specific, and subject to all manner of cultural norms and practices. But, in general, it implies that the rewards a person receives should be proportionate to his or her effort, or investment, or contribution.
A crucial corollary of our first two precepts is that the collective survival enterprise has always been based on mutualism and reciprocity, with altruism being limited (typically) to special circumstances under a distinct moral claim — what could be referred to as “no-fault needs.” So, to balance the scale, a third principle must be added to the biosocial contract, one that puts it squarely at odds with the utopian socialists and perhaps even with some modern social democrats as well. In any voluntary contractual arrangement, there is always reciprocity, obligations or costs as well as benefits. As I noted earlier, reciprocity is a deeply rooted part of our social psychology and an indispensable mechanism for balancing our relationships with one another. Without reciprocity, the first two fairness precepts might look like nothing more than a one-way scheme for redistributing wealth.
Some critics might object to such incursions on their freedom, but John Rawls’s definition of fairness under a social contract provides a definitive rebuttal, in my view: “The main idea is that when a number of persons engage in a mutually advantageous cooperative venture according to rules, and thus restrict their liberty in ways necessary to yield advantages for all, those who have submitted to these restrictions have a right to a similar acquiescence on the part of those who have benefited from their submission.”
Toward a Fair Society
To conclude then, what the biosocial contract adds to Plato’s great vision is the recognition that there are in fact three distinct categories, or types of substantive fairness, or social justice, and that these must be combined and balanced in appropriate ways. The content of social justice consists of providing for the basic needs of the population as the highest priority, along with equitably rewarding merit and insisting on reciprocity – that is, everyone contributing a fair share. The biosocial contract paradigm also enlists the growing power of modern evolutionary biology and the human sciences in support of these principles, and it identifies an explicit set of criteria for reconciling (if not harmonizing) the competing claims that have been promoted by political ideologues of the Left and the Right.
Is the vision of a fair society an unattainable ideal? In fact, it would not be so very different from some of the European “welfare capitalist” societies that have developed generous cradle-to-the-grave social welfare programs. (The current European currency/debt crisis will hopefully be fixed in due course.) Denmark, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, even Germany have achieved a better balance between the three key fairness principles: equality (providing for the basic needs of everyone), equity (rewarding merit and not subsidizing undeserved wealth), and reciprocity (a more balanced system of taxes and public service). None of these European countries is perfect, but collectively they provide a model for what is possible. (A broad set of proposals for political/policy changes in our own country are detailed in my book.)
The stakes are very high. Plato stressed that extreme inequality is a powder keg – an existential threat to the stability and even the viability of a society. “Any state, however small, is in fact divided into two – one the state of the poor, the other of the rich – and these are [forever] at war with one another.” The greatest cause of civil disorder and violent revolutions, Plato noted, is an extreme concentration of wealth coupled with widespread poverty. It’s a combustible mixture. Indeed, this causal linkage has been amply confirmed by modern social science research and comparative international economic data, such as the so-called Gini inequality index.
As the prominent biologist Garrett Hardin put it, “The first goal of justice is to create a modus vivendi so that life can go on, not only in the next few minutes, but also indefinitely into the future.” The fate of our society, and of many others, depends upon it. Plato got it right; social justice is the key.