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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 08-Jan-09


Thursday 08-January-09

Justice and the mendacious ape

I went to an RSA lecture recently which was alluringly entitled 'The Philosopher and the Wolf'. It starred a philosophy lecturer who kept a wolf. I hesitate to say 'pet' as the wolf seemed to be in charge and would destroy whole rooms if left alone. Inevitably, the conversation turned to our relationship with animals, whether it was fair to keep a wild animal and, interestingly, whether a wolf could have a concern for justice.

This brought up the question of the 'mendacious ape', the notion that only apes are deceptive. This can be seen in chimps who will deliberately trick one another and send insulting messages behind one another's backs. But this is simple stuff. To be really deceptive needs humans. We are by far the trickiest species and can be expert both at lying and detecting lies. There is a related a view that our brains developed largely for the evolutionary necessity of staying one step ahead of the next person. Scary, but have we evolved mostly to deceive?

The neat balancing bracket that I'd not thought of before is the notion that our need for justice and fair play springs from our mendacious tendencies. Where there is deceit, there is a need for justice. Where there is no mendacious intent, as amongst wolves, there is no need for a sense of fair play.

But we are not wolves and need to guard against trickery. And indeed many of our social structures, from values to policing, are largely required to protect us from those who would slyly do us harm.

Being a wolf, then, seems cleaner and simpler. Aaaoooohhh!

Your comments

Being a good con artist requires superficiality. There is a difference between being a good con artist and being a bad one. Figure it out!

-- Arnold K

If human beings were "animals", then they would be the stupidest animals that I've ever seen.

-- Arnold K

 That last statement contains two ideas which are both "stupid". First we are indeed animals, second no we are not stupid, we just try to outsmart each other. Our complex communications systems sometimes result in further miscommunication.

-- Joey H

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