In Spite of Everything

Scott McLemee explores Spite: The Upside of Your Dark Side by Simon McCarthy-Jones.

July 30, 2021

More notorious in its day than the title would ever lead you to suspect, Bernard Mandeville's The Fable of the Bees (1714) depicts a hive crowded with millions, like a human city. It is as vibrant and prosperous as beehives proverbially are, although with a hierarchy and division of labor far more diverse than in real life. Mandeville's bees are truly social insects. They have their own doctors, lawyers and pharmacists. There are workers and idle aristocrats as well as "sharpers, parasites, pimps, players, / Pickpockets, coiners, quacks, soothsayers …" Bee morals are not what they could be, but those complaining loudest tend to be as self-serving as anyone. Still, the honey gets made.

But the protests reach the ears of Jove, king of the gods, who decides to abolish hypocrisy among the bees. With vice no longer having a disguise, the virtues flourish. The bees all turn honest, modest, thrifty and content with their lot in life. Most of the attorney bees no longer have any clients; the ranks of the clergy thin out. The state largely withers away. But hark! The impact on the hive's GDP is absolutely catastrophic. Bee society loses its dynamism. No longer driven by avarice, ambition or the fickle whims of fashion, the economy shrinks. Now "peace and plenty reign, / And every thing is cheap, though plain." The hive's reputation for wealth and industry, as well as military prowess, declines abroad.

Mandeville announces the moral in a postscript ("So vice is beneficial found, / When it’s by justice lopp’d and bound") and elaborated upon it with rather less wit in a set of essays and remarks that he added over the years, turning a pamphlet's worth of verse into what, by 1723, was a book-length analysis of human social and economic behavior. The poem alone would have been recognized by his contemporaries as a satire -- mildly amusing but neither dangerous nor especially memorable. It hardly has Jonathan Swift's bite. But drawing out the logic and implications of his vision in candid prose was much more troubling to readers. While admitting that "Private Vices, Publick Virtues" (the subtitle of the book) was paradoxical, he insisted that the social order could -- and did -- make good use of immoral behavior. Even thieves and burglars? "They are, I own, very pernicious to human society," wrote Mandeville, "and every government ought to take all imaginable care to root out and destroy them; yet if all people were strictly honest, and nobody would meddle with, or pry into any thing but his own, half the smiths of the nation would want employment; and abundance of workmanship (which now serves for ornament as well as defence) is to be seen everywhere both in town and country, that would never have been thought of, but to secure us against the attempts of pilferers and robbers." QED.

Three-hundred-odd years later, readers are less shocked by amoralistic cost-benefit analysis of this variety. Nobody's ethical moorings will be loosened by Simon McCarthy-Jones's Spite: The Upside of Your Dark Side (Basic Books). In ordinary usage, spitefulness covers a variety of malicious behaviors, but the author -- an associate professor in clinical psychology and neuropsychology at Trinity College Dublin -- focuses on a specific kind of spite. "We can," he writes, "act in a way that benefits both ourselves and the other (cooperation) or in a way that benefits ourselves but not the other (selfishness). A third behavior involves a cost to us but a benefit to the other. This is altruism … But there is a fourth behavior, spite. Here we behave in a way that harms both ourselves and the other."

The private vices that Mandeville saw generating public virtue fall into the second category -- beneficial, or at least enjoyable, to the persons committing them and harmful to others. This has a certain rationality insofar as self-interest is taken as a given. Spiteful behavior of the "strong" variety, as McCarthy-Jones calls it, seemingly violates that principle. He recalls the story of the man granted one wish, with the caveat that whatever it is, his enemy will get twice as much. So he makes the wish to be blind in one eye.

A more prosaic example is exhibited by the Ultimatum Game, a widely replicated experiment involving two human subjects. One is given $10 and told to choose how to split it with another person, who may accept or reject the offer. If the offer is rejected, neither gets any of it. In the strictest sense of rational decision making, the second person ought to accept any offer. Following the same logic, it would be in the interest of the first party to offer as little as possible. One dollar is more than zero dollars. This is axiomatic. But it turns out to be a very poor basis for predicting actual human behavior. About half of participants refuse any offer of $2 or less. In an experiment where the pot was $100, only a quarter of those making the decision would accept an offer of $10, and even with an offer of $30, nearly half rejected it.

The Ultimatum Game has been run under a variety of conditions: with both sides hidden from each other, or not; with communication possible between the participants in either direction, or both, or not at all; and so on. Apparently people are a little more likely to accept an insulting offer if they can return the insult in a note. But in general, the principle holds that when free money is to be split between two parties, people are willing to sacrifice any share of it to punish what they regard as the selfish overreach of someone dividing it up between them. This is a laboratory-tested example of spite, i.e., behavior "that harms both ourselves and the other."

Two points can be made here. One is that the Ultimatum Game has less to do with spite than with a tacit standard of fairness not quite squaring with Homo economicus's literal calculations of profit and loss. This is also reflected in the fact that most players of the game intuitively know better than to make too one-sided an offer, or they figure it out soon enough. In a Fable of the Bees-type move, McCarthy-Jones suggests that spite may reinforce social bonds, albeit indirectly. Understanding that the other side of an interaction may be willing to suffer, just to make you suffer even more, is some incentive to equitable behavior.

The other point is that spite, when encountered in the wilds of human society, tends to carry a much higher emotional charge than anything likely to play out in the Ultimatum Game. The author identifies dominant and counterdominant varieties of spite -- associated with either asserting status over subordinates or striking out at people too powerful or successful for one's amour propre to tolerate -- although the distinction can blur when it comes to cases. Studies find that the low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin associated with depression also increase activity in a region of the brain that "lights up when we anticipate a reward" but also when punishing someone. Which is to say, "Reducing serotonin increases spite because it makes harming others more pleasurable." High levels of testosterone also correspond to increased spiteful behavior.

It seems reasonable to extrapolate from this that the widespread use of antidepressants combined with an aging population (i.e., one producing less testosterone over time) might lead to a society in which spiteful behavior is much less common. The 2016 campaign season and its long aftermath do not confirm the hunch. Perhaps the problem is life online, which "not only loosens the natural shackles of spite; it rewards it like never before," writes McCarthy-Jones. "If a Machiavellian mind set out to make spite flow, it could not have done better than create social networks. They decrease the cost of spite and multiply its benefits. Social media creates a perfect storm for spite. Online anonymity cuts a crucial real-world brake on spite. It eliminates the threat of retaliation. Released from this fear, people freely aim counterdominant spite at those who have more status or resources. They manically snort justice, burn others and revel in the joy of destruction. It doesn’t matter if the target earned their excess. If they got ahead on merit, they will be hated all the more."

This sounds bad. But maybe not? Evidently, the "upside of [our] dark side" is that spite keeps us on our toes: careful not to tread too often on other people's, cautious about status claims and unfair conduct, and so forth. Bad behavior is just good behavior's roundabout way of encouraging itself. Experience yields precious little evidence of this. The argument is all too familiar in its paint-by-numbers Gladwellian contrarianism. It encourages resignation to norms that are only getting more toxic. At least when Mandeville did it, the doggerel had some zest.

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