Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Sexual charity   posted by p-ter @ 8/08/2007 07:56:00 PM

I'm as much of a sucker for the flawed thought experiment as the next guy, so I'll pass on this one, via Robin Hanson:
Scott Aaronson asks a great question:

Consider two men, A and B. Man A steals food because he's starving to death, while Man B commits a rape because no woman will agree to have sex with him. From a Darwinian perspective, the two cases seem exactly analogous. In both we have a man on the brink of genetic oblivion, who commandeers something that isn't his in order to give his genes a chance of survival. And yet the two men strike just about everyone - including me - as inhabiting completely different moral universes. The first man earns only our pity. We ask: what was wrong with the society this poor fellow inhabited, such that he had no choice but to steal? The second man earns our withering contempt.

One problem with the question is that in our society giving enough sex to satisfy is expensive, while giving enough food to satisfy is cheap. So it might help to imagine a society where the person who lost the food was also in some, though less, danger of starving.

But even then food and sex seem to be treated differently. When we give food aid we don't just give rice and beans to keep folks from starving; we give them enough money to have a moderately tasty diet. We do nothing remotely similar for sex.

To me the obvious answer is that our concern about inequality is not very general - compared to inequality in access to food, humans are just not that concerned about sexual inequality, especially for men. Presumably for our ancestors, the gene pool of a tribe could benefit from equalizing food in ways that it could not benefit by equalizing sex.
Hanson's answer is far too simple a selective scenario. I'm even inclined to think that the evolution of sexual jealousy and the evolution of "justice" are less different than the question presupposes. It's easy to say "imagine a situation where stealing from an individual would lead to their starvation", but less easy to actually imagine it. How different were food and sexual access to our ancestors?

The answer, I'm inclined to think, is: not so different. Among chimpanzees, food and sex are both commodities to be traded:
Political coalitions were recognized early on as part of an elaborate 'marketplace of services' in which chimpanzees trade grooming, sex, food and support. The rules of reciprocity governing social exchange are only beginning to be understood, but evidence is accumulating that chimpanzees repay both positive acts (for example, sharing food preferentially with previous grooming partners) and negative acts (for example, squaring accounts with those who previously opposed them) [citation]
While it's difficult to study these sorts of exchanges, a specific instance of male chimpanzees exchanging sexual access to females for political support was recently documented [citation], suggesting that perhaps this moral instinct Hanson is ready to justify evolutionarily isn't quite so universal.

That's all in chimpanzees, of course, and it's true we live in a society where rape is certainly considered more reprehensible than stealing (of course, rape in wartime was considered par for the course until very recently). I'd be interested to see a study, however, comparing punishments for rape versus stealing across different societies, ranging from hunter/gatherer to our own. Is stricter condemnation of the forceful taking of sex as compared to the forceful taking of food a human universal?

Labels: ,