A passion for equality?


Jason Collins


December 11, 2011

In Benoit Debreuil’s Human Evolution and the Origins of Hierarchies, the opening chapter contains the interesting argument that egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies were not built on a wish for equality. Dubreuil writes:

Egalitarian social arrangements must build on what Boehm (1999: 66) called an “egalitarian ethos,” which is culturally constructed and transmitted and does not straightforwardly result from our passion for equality. This does not mean that equality does not matter per se. People arguably have a certain preference for equality, which, at the level of cultural evolution, might create a bias in favor of more egalitarian social organizations, albeit indirectly by making cooperation among equals more efficient. However, because our egalitarian motives are limited in intensity, action often comes under the influence of more powerful passions: lust, greed, fear, or hatred. Consequently, the emergence of egalitarian social outcomes depends on other factors that are not directly connected with equality, such as the various motivational and cognitive mechanisms related to social norm and sanction.

Dubreuil’s conclusion comes from a review of the literature in experimental economics (which forms the basis of the first chapter of the book), where he examines what motivations drive people to punish behaviour by other players. Many of these experiments suggest that norms about fairness are a stronger driver of punishment that equality. For example, punishment for unequal distribution of resources was much increased where the distributor stated their desire for an unequal distribution.

Dubreuil does not suggest that inequality aversion is completely irrelevant, and points to experiments where players are willing to cut the income of top earners and augment that of bottom earners. However, arguments can be crafted to suggest even these actions are driven by other motives. The punishment of top earners might be driven by envy, while augmentation of bottom earners might be based on the desire to encourage cooperation and build alliances.

Despite arguing that inequality aversion is not the main driver of our actions, Dubreuil does consider that inequality can have harmful effects. It can reduce cooperation and trust. It can change people’s sensitivity to sanction by others. And in many ways, Dubreuil’s arguments match my own intuitions about inequality. Even if concern about inequality is not the primary driver of our actions (such as the Occupy movement), it affects important elements of human interaction such as trust and cooperation.