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In Book 2 of Plato’s Republic, the character of Glaucon (Plato’s brother), who is in conversation with Socrates, argues that most people are unjust, but maintain a reputation for virtue and justice to evade the social costs of being or appearing unjust. But if a man could get hold of the Ring of Gyges and make himself invisible, he would most surely behave unjustly.

No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a god among men.

We behave justly not because we value justice, but because we are weak and fearful. The unjust man who is cunning enough to seem just will get the better of everyone and everything.

As part of his lengthy reply, Socrates famously conjures up an idealized Republic to help him define justice, first in the state and then in the individual. Justice and injustice are to the soul as health and disease are to the body; and if health in the body is intrinsically desirable, then so is justice in the soul. For Socrates, the unjust man cannot be happy because he is not in rational control of himself.

Even if Socrates is right and justice is intrinsically desirable, people with the ring of Gyges on their finger, or even without, may still choose to behave unjustly. If people no longer fear for the consequences of their actions, if they have little or nothing to lose, we can no longer rely on them, and if we can no longer rely on them, they can no longer rely on us. Trust breaks down, with each defending against the other, and even attacking the other to pre-empt an attack. The state falls into turmoil, enabling the most violent, ruthless, and devious to rise up like the scum on an angry sea. But even their tyranny will be short-lived. In The Prince (1532), his instruction manual for aspiring princes and tyrants, Machiavelli warns that ‘victories are never so clear that the winner does not have to have some respect, especially for justice’.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Plato's student Aristotle maintains that man is made good either by nature, or by teaching, or by habit. Nature, he says, is not in our hands, while it is unusual for the voice of reason not to fall upon deaf ears. All that remains is habit, and most of what passes for virtue is no more than automaton custom and habit. Good habits ultimately arise from good laws, and, in that much, justice begets justice.

The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes was born prematurely when his mother heard of the approach of the Spanish Armada. As Hobbes later put it, 'my mother gave birth to twins: myself and fear.' In his magnum opus Leviathan (1651), Hobbes argues that the absence of laws, trust, and peace, which he calls the state of nature, is so abhorrent to men that, through a combination of fear and reason—but especially fear—they come together to cooperate. Hobbes memorably characterizes the life of man in the state of nature as 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short'. 

For Hobbes, peace and cooperation are best achieved by a social contract establishing a commonwealth, a giant body politic, or leviathan, with an absolute sovereign at its head. For the sake of self-preservation, people agree to divest themselves of certain rights, restricting their liberty to that which they would tolerate in others. The sovereign’s role is to enforce the contract, which, owing to human nature, is constantly under threat. Like the human body, leviathan is prone to disease and deformity. The general inclination of mankind, says Hobbes, is ‘a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.’

Game theory helps to explain why two rational people might not cooperate even when cooperation is in their best mutual interests. In the archetypal prisoner’s dilemma, two gang members are arrested and entered into solitary confinement. The prosecutors offer the prisoners a bargain. Each prisoner can either testify against the other, or cooperate by remaining silent. If both remain silent, they serve just one year in prison. If both testify against the other, they serve two years in prison. If only one testifies against the other, he is freed and the other serves three years in prison (and vice versa). Whether or not the other cooperates, whether or not he is rational or virtuous, it is better to grass on him; and the same, of course, is true for him. But the equation changes if both know that their gang kills defectors, or if they believe that they will have to work together again. If marriage promotes trust and goodwill, it is also because both parties know that they cannot easily escape from each other. In the words of Hobbes, ‘covenants without the sword are but words…’

Assuming that my gang kills defectors, I could rely on my colleague in the other cell to cooperate, but does that mean I trust him to cooperate? If I rely on others not to attack me because they are minimally rational and it is in their interest not to break the social contract, does that mean I trust them with my wellbeing, or even that I trust them not to attack me? If a stranger robbed me, I would feel upset but not betrayed, and betrayal is the counterpart of trust. In other words, Hobbes thinks so little of human nature that he cannot even conceive of genuine trust, and, by his social contract, offers us no more than a pale imitation.

Happily, human nature is a bit brighter than Hobbes surmised. People are not cold, calculating machines, but cooperative animals equipped with social feelings such as pity, sympathy, empathy, compassion, shame, and guilt. Pity is a feeling of discomfort at the distress of others. Sympathy is a feeling of care and concern for someone (often someone close) accompanied by a wish to see him better off. Empathy is the capacity to recognize and share the emotions of others. Compassion (Latin, ‘suffering with’) builds upon empathy, and is associated with the active desire to alleviate the person’s suffering. With empathy, I share your emotions; with compassion, I not only share your emotions but also elevate them into a universal and transcending experience.

In his Treatise on Human Nature (1739), David Hume wrote that ‘the minds of men are mirrors to one another’. Empathy rests on theory of mind, which is the ability to understand that others see things differently and have different beliefs, intents, desires, emotions, and so on. Theory of mind is innate, first appearing at about four years of age. It develops over time, and can be trained in scope and accuracy. Although Hume could not have guessed it, the neural basis of theory of mind appears to reside in mirror neurons, which fire when we carry out a particular action, and also when we observe that same action in another. The neurons ‘mirror’ the actions of the other so that they become ours, or as ours.

Empathy and compassion are the main motivators of altruism, which is the unselfish concern for the welfare of others. In the short-term, an altruistic act leaves us with a feeling of euphoria, the so-called ‘helpers’ high’. In the longer term, altruism is associated with better mental and physical health and greater longevity. As per Socrates, kinder people are happier, and, conversely, happier people are kinder. At a more social level, altruism acts as a signal of cooperative intentions, and also as a signal of resource availability and so of mating or partnering potential. It also opens up a debt account, encouraging others to reciprocate with resources and opportunities that are potentially of much greater value to us than those with which we felt ready to part. More broadly, altruism helps to maintain and preserve the social fabric that protects and nurtures us, and that not only keep us alive but makes our life worth living.

No surprise, then, that some people think that ‘altruism’ is little more than a sophisticated tool of selfishness and self-preservation. On their view, the acts that people call altruistic are self-interested, if not because they relieve anxiety, then perhaps because they lead to pleasant feelings of pride and satisfaction, the expectation of honour or reciprocation, or the greater likelihood of a place in heaven; and even if none of the above, then at least because they relieve unpleasant feelings such as the guilt or shame of not having acted at all.

Whereas shame pertains to a person, guilt pertains to an action or actions, and to blame and remorse. Shame says, “I am bad.” Guilt says, “I did something bad.” More subtly, shame involves falling short of cultural or societal moral standards, whereas guilt involves falling short of one’s own moral standards. Shame and guilt often go hand in hand, which is why they are readily confused. For instance, when we injure someone, we often feel bad for having done so (guilt), and, at the same time, feel bad about ourselves (shame). Yet guilt and shame are distinct. Shame is egodystonic, that is, in conflict with our self-image, and high levels of shame are correlated with poor psychological functioning. In particular, eating disorders and many sexual disorders can largely be understood as disorders of shame, as can narcissism, which can be construed as a defence against shame. Guilt on the other hand is egosyntonic, that is, consistent and reinforcing of our self-image, and, unless it is left to fester, is either unrelated or inversely correlated with poor psychological functioning. Faced with the same set of circumstances, people with high self-esteem are more prone to guilt than shame, and more likely to take corrective or redemptive action.

The argument that altruism is self-interested has been attacked on various grounds. True, there is no such thing as an altruistic act that does not involve some element of self-interest, no such thing, for example, as an altruistic act that does not lead to some degree of pride or satisfaction. But an act should not be written off as selfish or self-motivated simply because it includes an unavoidable element of self-interest. The act can still be counted as altruistic if the ‘selfish’ element is accidental, or secondary, or undetermining i.e. did not lead to the act. It is perfectly possible for a person on her deathbed, who is compos mentis and whose reputation is largely secured, to gift all or most of her fortune to some deserving cause, against her own flesh and blood, simply because she thinks that it is the right or best thing to do. In fact, this goes to the very heart of ancient virtue, which is the perfection of our nature by the triumph of reason over passion. The truly altruistic act is the virtuous act, and the virtuous act is, always, the rational act.

Human nature may be brighter than Hobbes imagined, but like fear, habit, virtue, and even love are insufficient grounds for trust. Thus, it is entirely possible to rely on someone’s love without also trusting him, while trusting people, such as doctors and judges, who clearly do not love or even sympathize with us. Conversely, if my lover betrays my trust, it need not mean that she does not love me. I can rely on the postman to deliver my mail by 1pm, which he does every day; but if tomorrow he doesn’t, I’m more likely to feel concerned than betrayed, and certainly won’t be expecting him to apologize.

Instead, trust is established when I ask or allow a suitable candidate to take at least some responsibility for something that I value, thereby making myself vulnerable to him, and he agrees to take that responsibility, or, in the circumstances, can reasonably be expected to do so. I trust my doctor with my health because, by virtue of being a doctor, and my doctor, she has taken some responsibility for my health—and, of course, I have asked or allowed her to do so.

She may well one day decide, for one reason or another, to stop caring for my health, but I would expect her to make me aware of this fact, and maybe to make transitional arrangements so as to protect the thing that I value and entrusted her with, in this case, my health.

Perhaps we cannot trust people not to let us down, other than by a leap of faith similar to belief in God, with the length of the leap determined by such factors as fear, habit, virtue, and sympathy. But we can just about trust them not to mislead us, and to let us down gently.

Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions, Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception, The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide, and other books.

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