The Theosophical Society in America

From the Editor's Desk

Printed in the  Fall 2017  issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Smoley, Richard, "From the Editor's Desk" Quest 105:4(Fall 2017) pg. 2

It turns out that chimps are smarter than humans. Or more rational. At least when it comes to playing the ultimatum game.

The game can be played by humans and higher primates. It involves two players and a pile of things (M&Ms, dollar bills) that are perceived as desirable by the species in question. One player has to decide how to split up the pile, which he can do as he wishes. The other player has only the choice of whether to accept or reject the offer. If he refuses, nobody gets anything.

Chimps as a rule will accept any offer, no matter how small. Humans will not. They tend to reject any offer that is lower than 20 to 30 percent of the goods. In this sense, chimps are more rational. After all, they started out with nothing and will end up with something, however little. But humans will refuse bad offers as a way of punishing the other player for making an unfair allocation.

Though, from the point of view of rational self-interest, the human response is less prudent than the chimpanzees’, researchers say this fact points to a “fairness gene” in humans, which makes us hold others accountable. Some go so far as to say that this is humanity’s killer app—the feature that enables us to cooperate and build sophisticated societies and great civilizations.

 Whether this is so or not, these experiments do suggest that humans find fairness—justice, if you like—important if not central to life. As the Irish poet and Theosophist Æ (George Russell) wrote, “I could not so desire what was not my own, and what is our own we cannot lose. Desire is hidden identity.”

It often seems that people will endure great hardship if they believe it is fair, whereas they grumble at the slightest inconvenience if they believe it is unfair. It’s easy to see this in daily life. People often grow impatient in supermarket lines: the customer in front of you is taking too much time; the clerk had to send someone back to check on a price; the other line is moving faster than yours. None of these inconveniences cause the slightest harm in themselves; but we have a subconscious (and far from accurate) sense that we are being treated unfairly, even if we admit that none of this is being done on purpose.

It appears too that many criminals operate out of a sense of fairness, at least as they perceive it: the criminal feels that life has given him no breaks, so he is entitled to make his own. Or he believes that the whole of human society is a con game, and that he would be a fool if he acted otherwise. Some of this reasoning is mere rationalizing, but often the individual really believes that he has been unjustly used by life and is fully justified in taking his recompense, with or without the approval of the law.

So, then, we demand justice from other people; it is part of what makes us human. But we go further. We demand justice of the universe—of God, if you like. And often it does not seem to be there. The innocent suffer; the wicked triumph. I sometimes wonder whether every news headline is trying to communicate this message in some form or another.

But why should we demand justice of the cosmos? Are we simply projecting the standards of the human fairness gene on a universe that operates by quite different principles? This seems to be the sobering message of the book of Job: At the end, the Lord, appearing to Job out of the whirlwind, does not explain himself; quite the opposite. He confronts Job, asking, “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?” (Job 38:4). He goes on to show Job how little he knows of the workings of the universe, and that he has no business demanding any explanations. Job finally backs down, saying, “Therefore have I uttered that I understood not; things too wonderful for me, which I knew not” (Job 42:3).

Usually the answer to Job is regarded as a kind of show of divine force that grinds all questions down to dust. I myself do not think so. I believe that it points to one, possibly the only, answer to the problem of evil (which of course includes injustice). Again it is from the Hebrew Bible: “I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace and create evil; I the Lord do all these things” (Isaiah 45:7).

It’s not hard to see this statement as equivalent to that of the one “Omnipresent, Eternal, Boundless, and Immutable principle” of which H.P. Blavatsky speaks in The Secret Doctrine. From this one principle everything arises—light and dark, good and evil. And we have been called into being to experience all these things. Some say that evil and injustice are part of the divine plan; others say that it was an enormous cosmic detour known in some traditions as maya, illusion, in others as the Fall. In either case, we have all eaten of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and in our lives on earth, we will get more than a taste of each.

Richard Smoley