Instrumentally Rational People Will Not Follow Social Rules

Instrumentalists such as Gauthier tried to show that the best way to achieve our ends is to reason ourelves into being the sorts of instrumental reasoners who do not reason about the best way to achieve our ends. Although I have shown why this project comes to naught, the core idea needs to be explored: rule-based, cooperative, reasoning is best for us, and it tells us not to always decide on the grounds what is best for us. As Brian Skyrms has demonstrated so well, although rationality cannot explain this uniquely human characteristic, an evolutionary account can do so. Rationality, we have seen, must be a respecter of modularity and dominance reasoning, but evolution is not. Evolution can select strategy T on the grounds that those employing T outperform those who do not employ T in terms of who well they achieve their goals and yet T constitutes an instruction to those employing it not to perform some acts that would achieve their goals. The important lesson that Skyrms has taught us is that evolutionary selection can do for us what our reason cannot.

— Gerald Gaus, The Order of Public Reason (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 104–105.

The Skyrms book Gaus is citing is Evolution of the Social Contract.

Note that Gaus writes that “rule-based, cooperative, reasoning” is a “uniquely human characteristic.” I think he’s mentioned that another time since the above excerpt, except he admits that there may be a few other animals who also evolve social rules. Actually, most animals probably follow social rules, and we’re just not aware of them.

A few months ago, I went to the La Brea Tar Pits, in Los Angeles. There is an underground field of asphaltum, which seeps up through the ground. You can see small puddles of this stuff at the La Brea museum, as it bubbles and evaporates into the air. This has been happening for tens of thousands of years. The museum collects fossils from animals who were trapped in these puddles, or small lakes, of liquid petroleum. The theory is that animals lower on the pecking order would get stuck in the tar, attracting predators. These, in turn, would rush into these tar pits, and get stuck themselves — the heavier the animal is, the more difficult it is to get out.

The museum has quite a few saber-toothed cats,* including a full skeleton on display. I took a guided tour, and when we got to display the guide starting discussing several social welfare instincts groups of these cats would have. I had actually made a comment, in passing, to someone who came with me on the tour about how injured animals must have lived horribly, because they most likely died. Not so, apparently. The guide told us that saber-toothed cats would tend to their wounded, sharing their hunted food with them, and caring for them.

Why would a predator which survives on strength and agility to hunt for its prey care for weak links? Doesn’t that bring down the group as a whole? Well, injuries happened fairly often. She, the tour guide, told us about an injury to the cat’s spine, because they would jump on the backs of larger prey and these would shake violently — this was common. Prey often fought back. And, a dead cat is worth less to your group than an injured cat, especially if you can nurse the latter back to full health. No doubt, groups that could maintain a full strength membership survived over those which allowed their members to gradually die off. Thus, saber-toothed cats adopted evolutionary social rules, just like humans do.

What I wonder is if some saber-toothed cats were frustrated that their hard earned income was being re-distributed to what they saw as a bunch of lazy cats who just didn’t want to work.


* My memory isn’t 100 percent, so if the animal I have in mind isn’t the saber-toothed cat it’s okay, because the important part of this post is the general point being made.

4 thoughts on “Instrumentally Rational People Will Not Follow Social Rules

  1. John S

    Why would a predator which survives on strength and agility to hunt for its prey care for weak links? Doesn’t that bring down the group as a whole?

    While I’m certainly no expert on predator group behavior, I can think of another reason: relatedness. A little googling shows that most wolf pack members are directly related, and all lionesses in a pride are related (male lions will form coalitions with unrelated members until they can lead their own prides). Caring for one’s direct relatives would make sense from a genetic propagation POV.

    Kin selection is common among animals, but true, unambiguous reciprocal altruism among unrelated members seems to be unique to humans.


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