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Swaying Public Beliefs

Steven N. Durlauf

In their provocative article, Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis argue that public attitudes are not fundamentally anti-egalitarian; instead, people are hostile to current antipoverty policies because they think those policies violate basic requirements of distributive justice by extending benefits to undeserving recipients. They use public opinion surveys and anthropological data to support both this argument and a more novel claim: that attitudes towards reciprocity and sharing have a genetic component that conditions public opinion.

For the sake of discussion here, I will assume that the aspects of human nature described by Bowles and Gintis are entirely genetic in origin. They do not take a precise stand on the balance of genetic and cultural explanation, but if the cultural component moves slowly, then the arguments I make below can be modified to apply to that case. I also stipulate that the authors' claims about public attitudes towards fairness are correct. What import do these claims have, then, for public support of particular policies? My view is that fixed or nearly fixed background dispositions concerning justice or fairness may be of little relevance to policy design or advocacy.

The general question of how a genetic component to human nature restricts social evolution has been well-known since the early days of sociobiology. It is clear that human nature places some constraints upon institutions and culture, but it seems clear, too, that the relationship is sufficiently complicated to preclude any strong statements about which aspects of a possible social order are or are not compatible with our nature. As Marshall Sahlins has said, "between the basic drives that may be attributed to human nature and the social structures of human culture there enters a critical indeterminacy."1 This point is self-evident when one remembers that genetic dispositions represent an essentially constant background to social evolution and therefore cannot, by themselves, explain change. At most, genetic dispositions can delimit the range of possible social histories; the actual history will be determined by other, variable factors. The extent to which general dispositions have actually restricted the course of society is of course an empirical question. But this means that, without a much more detailed historical discussion of such delimitation, Bowles and Gintis's argument is best regarded as speculative.

With respect to inequality in particular, the public's sense of justice is clearly malleable. Consider the most important egalitarian movement in the United States in this century: the struggle to increase political and social freedoms for African Americans. Civil rights advocates did not urge that we adapt policies to conform to a fixed homo reciprocans or any other conception of human nature. And the changes brought about by that movement were associated with profound shifts in the public sense of equality and justice. For example, National Opinion Research Center2 surveys indicate that support among white Americans for segregated schools moved from 50 percent in 1956 to 4 percent in 1995. Similarly, the percentage of whites who agreed either weakly or strongly with the proposition that whites have the right to keep blacks out of their neighborhoods decreased from 60 percent to 13 percent between 1963 and 1996. And on the sensitive issue of intermarriage, disapproval shrank from 96 percent in 1958 to 33 percent in 1997. Taken as a whole, this survey evidence illustrates that what was morally acceptable 40 years ago is nearly universally rejected today. Further, this sea-change in attitudes occurred in a relatively short time span.3 I agree that human beings are endowed with an abstract sense of justice which corresponds in many ways to egalitarian ideals. But the political and policy implications of this abstract sense depend critically upon contingent, historically grounded beliefs as they evolve within a given society. The racist America of the late 1950s and early 1960s evolved into the America that repudiated those views as the civil rights movement forced a confrontation with racist attitudes and brutality.4 What gave way in the struggle for civil rights was not the content of the demand for racial equality, but the attitudes of the public.

While Bowles and Gintis's image of Homo reciprocans should, then, fuel optimism among egalitarians, historical experience does not suggest that policies need to be tailored to humanity's immutable (or near-immutable) sense of right and wrong. Rather, this immutable sense can be cultivated by egalitarians so that the American public embraces new, more encompassing conceptions of equality.


1 Marshall Sahlins, The Use and Misuse of Biology (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1976), p. 15.

2 These poll findings are taken from Howard Schuman, Charlotte Steeh, Lawrence Bobo, and Maria Krysan, Racial Attitudes in America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997), pp. 104-08.

3A possible criticism of these survey numbers is that they reflect a decreased willingness to espouse racist views, rather than a decrease in racism per se. Even if so, this decline in the public acceptability of racism says something very significant about the evolution of the shared public philosophy of the United States

4 Similarly, one can contrast contemporary hostility to welfare to the widespread support for the War on Poverty in the 1960s.

Originally published in the December 1998/January 1999 issue of Boston Review



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