Leveling Out the Equality Field: An Experiment in Human Nature

There are many theories about what is human nature.  Are we naturally selfish?  Altruistic?  Rational? Or just plain dumb?  Let’s see this from an economic standpoint.  There are some people that are poor.  On one side of the argument, they choose to be poor (probably because of bad decisions).  On the other side, it was just bad luck that they happened to be born in a bad time in a bad place, that it makes it impossible to get out of that situation (being born in a ghetto, for example).

So here’s a thought experiment: Suppose we made it so that everyone was purely equal, not just in terms of economics, but also in intelligence, possessions, and status.  Everyone is equal, period.  Now this equality will have to be forced.  We’ll make sure that no one has more or less than anyone.

Let’s say we do this until everyone’s equal (this might last a few generations).  Within this time, everyone’s leveled off and everyone’s equal.

Now, suppose that after this experiment is done, we release the restrictions.  What would happen?  Would we see it revert back to how it is now?  Would we see society becoming more perfected?  Or would society become something worse than it is?

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
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15 Responses to Leveling Out the Equality Field: An Experiment in Human Nature

  1. thekillerj says:

    I think things would go right back to how they are. I think people are naturally selfish. Hell, I know I am. I do some good stuff now and again, but ultimately I’m always trying to better my (and those close to me) situation. I don’t WANT people to be poor, but I’m not going to willingly sacrifice my resources until we’re all on the same playing field.

    Then again, I don’t try to smash anybody down to get ahead either. I have a pretty good record of not intentionally sabotaging others. I just do what I can within my own power to move up. So, I guess I’m not THAT selfish.

    So, the reason for self disclosure is I believe I am not too far from the normal person. I think most people do as I do.

  2. Fare says:

    I definitely have to agree with Jeffers: I think things would go back to the way they are now. I think we all encompass that selfish gene.. or however you want to put it. Good post. Interesting to think about.

  3. Nexus Six says:

    In the experiment, you said that the people would be forced to be equal, but were the people _taught_ that being equal is preferable or that they should want to be equal? The reason I ask is because there is a part of your brain where your beliefs are, and that part of your brain filters your perceptions(the sensory input from your body). I’ve not read anybody say _why_ that happens, but I theorize that it’s because it prevents too much drift in the inputs for the massive neural networks we keep in the brain. The filtering makes the tree paths easier to traverse when making decisions and whatnot. But if the people in the experiment are not given that belief, the equal society would fall because being selfish is part of the hardware. I used to think I was just being misanthropic, but as it turns out we can easily reproduce this in robots without even trying: http://www.technologyreview.com/blog/editors/24010/?a=f
    You might say “but those are just simple robots with a few sensors and a simple neural network,” but when you simplify the human body it’s just a huge sensor array hooked up to some chemical pumps and and a big neural network. If you buy my previous statement, then the robots can serve as a simple kind of meta-model for our behavior.
    I’d like to hear what a more spiritual person thinks about this as I’m a subscriber to “The notion that nature can be calculated inevitably leads to the conclusion that humans too can be reduced to basic mechanical parts” so I’m interested in their view. My mom’s devoutly religious. I should call her and ask 🙂

  4. Kevin says:

    The outcome depends not on human nature, but on the size of humanity. I don’t agree with the sentiment that humans are naturally greedy. Humans want the best for themselves and those dear to them. We don’t enjoy rising higher at the expense of others, but we justify it. We justify it by seperating those we have to step on from ourselves, making them foreign to us, and therefore easier to disregard. The larger the society, the more people to push away from yourself, the more accustomed you become to dismissing other peoples’ needs. People would never be happy though even if all their basic needs were met on a regular basis, because human beings are NOT simple mechanical beings like robots. Each individual is different, but that delves into arguments on empiricism and a priori knowledge and blah blah blah blah blah. This answer would take a collection of encyclopedias worth of writing to answer, and it still wouldn’t be answered properly. Greed is the Occam’s razor answer, but not necessarily correct.

    • thekillerj says:

      Justifying stepping on somebody to get ahead is still greed, regardless of if you feel “bad” about doing it. I do agree with you, however, that it is easier to justify being greedy and rising above others the larger the society is. This confirms my point the way I look at it.

      If I have ten people I interact with, my relationship with them will be stronger than if I have 1000 people to interact with. Those ten will be closer to me, therefore, my interest aligns with their interests. I won’t be as likely to step on them, because it would hurt my interests in maintaining the relationship. With 1000 people, I can hurt a bunch of them and never feel the repercussion. Sounds like greed to me.

      • Kevin says:

        I define greed as actively working toward the detriment of somebody else for your own benefit. I’ve received several promotions at my job in the past few months and have moved ahead of co-workers that have applied for the same positions. Is it greed that I was chosen above them? Should I feel bad that I was more qualified for the position? I didn’t actively work toward making my coworkers less qualified, I worked toward making myself more qualified. This is what I’m talking about. Some people move ahead of others through ingenuity, hard work, or luck, not greed. This the ideal version of capitalism. Greed is something completely different and is the reason why capitalism has been distorted.

  5. shaunmiller says:

    While Kevin, Fare, and KillerJ work out the details on human nature, let me express my opinion.

    I think society would be better off. So let’s say that on a scale from 0-100, I’d say as a whole, society is probably about 60. After this experiment, I’d guess we’d be around the 70’s. Why? There is one main culprit that has caused the major inequalities: property. I’m not just talking in America alone, but the world over. Now, I’m not suggesting we abandon property, but just think how property was initially acquired. Now matter which part of the world you’re thinking about, ALL land was either stolen or unjustly acquired. So the losers got the brunt end of the deal, and after many generations, they’re in the same spot while the everyone else improves themselves.

    So if we started over, everyone would have property and most of the problems would go away. The reason why there’s major poverty isn’t because of personal choices (although, there are a few cases like that, but not ALL of them). Most people are in poverty because they were just born in that unfortunate condition. And that’s because from the beginning, someone stole or unjustly took his/her property.

    • thekillerj says:

      Property is just one dynamic out of many. I don’t think it’s this simple.

      • Kevin says:

        Not all property is equal though. This comes back to my argument of size. There isn’t an infinite amount of good land, so once the society rises above a certain number, people start getting handed less fruitful land, and equality diminishes. This is one point I just read about that Aristotle made. He said that it works best in a society when property is left private (meaning each person owns their own land), but the produce of that land is made common. This would seem to solve the property problem since even though some people will have land that can’t cultivate food, they would have access to the food produced by those with more fruitful land.

  6. shaunmiller says:

    To answer Nexus Six, for the sake of argument, let’s say that these people are taught that being equal is also a good thing. After all, we’re taught that too.

  7. Kevin says:

    There’s one thing about this whole expiriment that irks me. In order to achieve the initial equality, it must be forced upon society. Doesn’t this strip the equality from the get go? If you say equality must be forced, then you’re implying that equality can not be a naturally occuring thing, meaning that some people can not live with equality without supervision, destroying equality. Fill me in on your answer to this, I think there could be one, just not exactly sure what it is.

  8. shaunmiller says:

    In terms of property, I was thinking about Rousseau. He said that we were basically good people, but then when property came along, all hell broke loose.

    KillerJ said:

    Property is just one dynamic out of many. I don’t think it’s this simple.

    And you’re right. There are other dynamics of human life. But then again, I’d say the same thing about being selfish. It’s also just one dynamic out of many.

    For Kevin’s sake, how do we achieve initial equality? Well, for the purposes of this thought experiment, I needed something constant so that’s why we force the equality. Now some people may not like it. But it doesn’t matter. We’ll force them to understand equality, not necessarily like it. At the very least, we’ll teach them the basics: stealing, murder, slavery and violations of human rights are wrong. The details will be worked out, I’m assuming, when we let go of the restrictions.

  9. Nancy says:

    i guess i’m still hung up on the idea of equality-
    equal how? completely? that would rid our society of everything that makes it human, so i think we can’t predict what it would be.
    we’d all have to be the same gender, because where there is gender difference, there is perceived inequality as well as biological inequality. all the persons of the one gender would have to look the same- hair color, eye color, height, weight. as social animals, we are programmed to discriminate based on appearance in order to recognize family vs. threat. all their brain chemistry would have to be the same- not necessarily perfected, but the same.
    essentially, it would be a society of clones.
    i have no idea what that society would look like. i suppose it would depend on who you cloned.

    • thekillerj says:

      Great post Nancy. I hadn’t put two and two together, but you are right. Discrimination is a biological tool. We separate lawn furniture from mother at the most basic level, and eventually fine tune it to family vs. threat like you mentioned. This biological tool is what causes us to unwittingly discriminate in more negative ways.

      Nevertheless, you posit we would be a society of clones. So, discrimination is essential for diversity to exist. Equality squashes diversity.

  10. shaunmiller says:

    Sorry I haven’t posted in a while. Super busy now that school’s started. Ok, interesting posts from both Nancy and KillerJ. So I guess I have to rethink my thought experiment on what I mean by “equality.” I guess in this context, I was concentrating on economic equality (which is correlated to status, possessions, and perhaps intelligence?). As for gender, eye color, hair color and what not, those things can remain untouched because I don’t think people would view equality (or lack thereof) based on those features. I was trying to find certain variables that influence economics and so that’s why I was trying to concentrate on monetary stuff because that seems to talk mainly about economic equality.

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