Arc Digital
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Arc Digital

Human Beings Are Wired For Morality

Though our news coverage paints a grim picture, we have grounds for optimism

Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed, or nearly as well developed, as in man.

The primatologist Frans de Waal has documented a sense of fairness in various primates, even if it is a bit less sophisticated than our own. Using examples of cooperation and fairness in our closest relatives, he argues persuasively that morality has a solid foundation in biology. In his book Primates and Philosophers, de Waal argues that

A human being growing up in isolation would never arrive at moral reasoning. Such a [person] would lack the experience to be sensitive to others’ interests, hence lack the ability to look at the world from any perspective other than his or her own. I thus agree with Darwin and Smith that social interaction must be at the root of moral reasoning.

At the height of the calamity, the bank’s executives went back to the institution’s founding charter, more than a century old, and noticed that it focused entirely on serving people and taking care of communities.

The word “profit” never appeared.

So, Hancock Bank’s executives did something remarkable — they enlarged the tribe. While the winds were still subsiding, Hancock employees stood in front of forty of the branches knocked offline, operating from card tables, under tarps, and out of mobile homes, and offered two hundred dollars in cash to anyone who would sign a slip of paper with his or her name, residence, and Social Security number. Not just Hancock customers — anyone. No ID, no problem.

Many of us — probably most of us given the nature of news coverage — have been conditioned to respond to a story of this kind with a strong measure of cynicism. Even if we can be convinced the bank wasn’t simply doing this as some sort of PR stunt, we’re likely to think they were surely naive if they thought they would ever get that money back.

Hancock’s incredible act of trust paid off handsomely for the bank: Within months, thirteen thousand new accounts were opened at Hancock and deposits had risen by $1.5 billion; within three years, all but $200,000 worth of the initial $200 loans — 99.5 percent — had been paid back.

It’s difficult not to feel at least a little hope for a species which, when handed $200 and knowing that, given the circumstances, the bank will never be able to collect, pays back the money anyway. Many of these individuals were no doubt extremely poor to begin with. These are the individuals we are led to believe frequently feel “entitled” and who often abuse society’s welfare programs. The Hancock Bank story should challenge our preconceptions about human nature, from bankers right down to those living in poverty. Are there stories where the opposite traits are showcased? Certainly, but perhaps greed, dishonesty, and laziness, aren’t nearly as common as we’re made to think.



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Craig Axford

M.A. in Environment and Management and undergraduate degrees in Anthropology & Environmental Studies. Living in Moab, Utah. A generalist, not a specialist.