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General Propositions

by George C. Homans

In: Elementary Forms of Social Behavior (2nd Ed.) New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974.

George C. Homans
The Succes Proposition
The Stimulus Proposition
The Value Proposition: Reward and Punishment
The Deprivation-Satiation Proposition
The Aggression-Approval Proposition
The Historicity Implied by the Propositions
The Rationality Proposition
The Rule of Distributive Justice
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The Succes Proposition

Our first proposition relates a man's (or woman's) action to its success in getting a favorable result. In classical psychology it is called "the law of effect." Because we believe another name will make its meaning more obvious, we shall call it the success proposition.

We may state it as follows:

I. For all actions taken by persons, the more often a particular action of a person is rewarded, the more likely the person is to perform that action.

The proposition in itself says nothing about the reasons why the person performed the action in the first place. In the case of an experimental animal like a pigeon, its repertory of innate behavior seems to include a tendency to explore or investigate its environment by pecking at the objects within it. The psychologist may have so arranged its cage that the motion of a metal key will release a grain of corn to the pigeon. If, in the course of exploring its cage, the pigeon happens to peck at the key and thus gets the corn to eat, the probability that the pigeon will peck the target again will increase. Not until then will the psychologist be able to use the pigeon's tendency to repeat its action for the purposes of further experimentation. The same sort of behavior is characteristic of men. What the success proposition says is that, whatever be the reason why a person performs an action, once he has in fact performed it and the action has proved successful the result has for the person what we shall later call positive value — then the person is apt to repeat the action.

The result of an action is what follows it. The success proposition holds good even if success was not, in the eyes of some informed observer caused by the action but was rather a matter of chance. Much of the magic men have performed has been maintained by fortuitous success, especially when success is much desired and alternative means of producing it are not known. After all, rain usually does follow the magic of rainmaking — sooner or later.

The proposition may sound as if it said that an action were caused by its result, which is absurd to those of us who do not believe in teleology. But it does not say that. What we observe is a sequence of at least three events: (1) a person's action, which is followed by (2) a rewarding result, and then by (3) a repetition of the original action or, as we shall see, by an action in some respects similar to the original. It is the combination of events (I) and (2) that causes event (3), and since the former two precede the latter in time, we are saved from teleology. It is natural to call the original sequence of three events a learning process, and therefore the general propositions we shall use are often called the propositions of "learning theory." We believe this to be a mistake, since the propositions continue to hold good long after the behavior has in every ordinary sense of the word been learned.

The fact that a person's action has been rewarded on one occasion makes it more probable that he will repeat it on the next occasion. If there are many such occasions, the probability that he will perform the action will vary directly with the frequency with which it has been rewarded, and we have deliberately cast the proposition so that it takes this form. Remember that we are particularly concerned in this book with the process by which social behavior gives rise to relatively enduring social structures. Without repeated social actions there are no enduring social structures.

The proposition implies that an increasing frequency of reward leads to an increasing frequency of action, but it is obvious that such an increase cannot go on indefinitely. It has built-in limits, as we shall see later when we consider satiation. The proposition also implies that the less often an action is rewarded, the less often it is apt to be repeated. At the extreme, if an action once rewarded is never rewarded thereafter, a person tends in time never to perform it at all. In the technical language of behavioral psychology, it eventually becomes extinguished. But the time required for extinction may be very long indeed, and a single occasion on which the action is rewarded may be enough to reinstate it at full strength.

Let us now consider some qualifications of the success proposition. The shorter the interval of time between the action and the reward, the more likely the person is to repeat it — the more likely, to use the language of everyday life, he is to "see" the connection between his action and its reward. If we wish a person to learn, we shall do well to reward his correct responses promptly. This is the principle on which "teaching machines" are based. The reason why we do not use ordinary language but a proposition which merely sums up the facts is that everyday language is apt to embody assumptions about human behavior that are not always justified. Thus prompt reward is apt to make action more probable even if the person does not "see" the connection between his action and its reward in any conscious sense. The greater, moreover, is the value of the reward, the more likely is the person to make the connection, but we shall have much more to say about value later.

The frequency with which the person performs the action depends also on the pattern in which the reward comes. (On this matter see especially Ferster and Skinner, 1957.) For a given total number of rewards within a given period of time, it looks as if a man, like an experimental animal such as a pigeon, will repeat an action less often if it is rewarded regularly — for instance, if it is rewarded every time it is performed — than he will if it is rewarded at irregular intervals of time or at irregular ratios between the number of times he performs the action and the number of times it is rewarded. Furthermore an action once regularly rewarded will, when the reward ceases, become extinguished sooner than one rewarded irregularly. One reason why people are willing to work so hard at gambling, fishing, or hunting, even when they have little success, is that such actions are characteristically rewarded irregularly. Indeed the tendency to repeat an action more often if its reward comes irregularly may have arisen in animals, including the ancestors of men, because of its survival value. If one depends for one's food on activities such as fishing and hunting, one had better not give up too easily if one is unsuccessful, but persist. The tendency implies that animals will do just that.

Though we take note of these relationships subsidiary to the success proposition, we shall have little more to say about them. They do not render invalid the success proposition itself. Even in its crude form, the latter holds good over a wide range of behavior. In gross and in a first approximation it will serve us well in explanation.

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The Stimulus Proposition

We turn now to the second of our general propositions — but remember that they are "our" propositions only in the sense that we use them and not that we discovered them. This proposition concerns the effect on action of the circumstances attending it. Since in many accounts of operant or voluntary behavior these attendant circumstances are called stimuli, we call this the stimulus proposition.

We may state it as follows:

II. If in the past the occurrence of a particular stimulus, or set of stimuli has been the occasion on which a person's action has been rewarded, then the more similar the present stimuli are to the past ones, the more likely the person is to perform the action, or some similar action, now.

In formulating their theories some psychologists include the reward of the action itself among the stimuli, referring to it as a reinforcing stimulus. We believe it is confusing to do so. It is true that the sight of some object that we have coveted and obtained earlier is a stimulus to our efforts to obtain it again; but it is the sight of the object, not the success in obtaining it, that is the stimulus. If we confuse the two, proposition (II) would seem to say the same thing as proposition (I), whereas they really say something different.

Proposition (II) says that the reappearance of the circumstances attending successful action make more probable the repetition of thg action. Thus a fisherman who has cast his line into a dark pool and has caught a fish becomes more apt to fish in dark pools again. The connection between the stimuli and the action is subject to both generalization and discrimination. If our fisherman has been successful in a dark pool, he may come to fish more often in any pool that is to some degree shady. Indeed his action itself may generalize. If he has been successful at one kind of fishing, he may become prepared to try other kinds and even other related sports, such as hunting. On the other hand, he may learn to fish only under very specific conditions of water, light, and shade, provided he has been successful under these but not under other conditions. In this case, the stimuli that govern his behavior have become highly discriminated. Should the conditions under which success is alone possible become complicated, they may not establish themselves at all as stimuli for his action. He is, as we say, unable to recognize them. As in the case of reward, the temporal relationship between stimulus and action makes a difference: if the crucial stimulus precedes the action by too long a time, the actor may not make the connection. The greater the value of the reward, the more sensitive to stimuli the person may become — so much so that if the value to him of a potential reward is very high, he may become oversensitive and, until corrected by failure, respond to irrelevant stimuli. Finally, alertness to stimuli or attentiveness to stimuli is itself an action which, like any other kind of action, a person may perform more often if it has brought him reward. All of these relationships should be looked on as subsidiary to the main stimulus proposition.

In social behavior persons and their attributes become crucial stimuli. Did this person, rather than another, reward a man's actions? If he did, his identity was one of the circumstances attending successful action, and his presence on some new occasion is a stimulus making it more likely that the man will once more direct similar action toward him. Does this person display the cold blue eyes that a man's father did when the father punished him long ago? Then the grown man may show some slight tendency to avoid such a person. In human social behavior, what complicates the stimuli even more is the fact that they are largely verbal. The use of language sets the behavior of men further apart from that of animals than does anything else. The same general propositions apply to the behavior of both, but within these propositions the complexity of the stimuli available to men in their interaction with each other make possible a higher order of complexity in their behavior.

The crucial variable in the stimulus proposition is obviously the degree of similarity between present stimuli and those under which an action was rewarded in the past. Yet similarity may not vary along a single dimension but along many, and indeed it may depend on a complicated pattern of measures. The ways in which persons discriminate among, or generalize across, combinations of stimuli is the subject of the field of psychology called perception or cognition. So various and so many are the findings in this field that in this book we shall only state the stimulus proposition, though we shall feel free to use more specific findings ad hoc to explain particular cases. The real intellectual danger is not that the findings are complex but that some social scientists should believe perception and cognition to be essentially different from other behavior and thus require a different type of explanation. They are not essentially different. The ways in which men perceive and think are just as much determined by the results they achieve as are other kinds of behavior.

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Imitation and Vicarious Reward

Yet we do not wish to appear so rigidly behaviorist as to deny reality to some processes in which perception plays a large part and which are of great importance in social behavior. Our view of these processes has been greatly influenced by the work of Bandura (1969).

Men, like many animals, often imitate the behavior of others of their kind. Imitation of others naturally requires some degree of observation of their behavior. We believe that a tendency to imitate others is genetically inherited and not initially learned through operant conditioning. Yet, whatever its origin, a man will not persist in performing an action he has imitated unless that action eventually brings him reward. If it is successful in bringing him reward, he will not only be apt to repeat it but also to adopt imitation as a generalized form of behavior. Then his practical success will support the genetic tendency; and the persons he has imitated will become stimuli in whose presence he will be especially likely to carry out imitative actions again.

Evidence is also accumulating that men can learn to act in a certain way even when, at first, the reward they get from the act is only vicarious. Suppose that a child sees another child put a box against a wall and use it to climb successfully out of his yard. At the moment, the first child has no occasion for climbing a wall himself, but if he does have such occasion later, the evidence suggests that he is much more likely to look for a box than he would have been if he had not observed the other child, even though he has as yet received no reward himself. Naturally he will not go on repeating the action unless sooner or later he is personally rewarded for performing it, but the initial stimulus to the action is the observed success of the other child, not his own. This kind of learning has been called model learning. The success of any one action originally modeled on the action of another may lead to a generalization of modeling behavior. As Bandura and Walters put it (1963:5): "Most children develop a generalized habit of matching the responses of successful models." They cannot help developing at the same time a generalized habit of observing those who are successful, or indeed of observing others to discover whether they are successful. The matching presupposes the observation.

If we did not accept the reality of model learning, we should be hard put to it to account, as we shall try to do later, for the effect of a man's behavior not only on the others with whom he is in immediate contact but also on members of an audience, who take no part in the social behavior themselves but only watch it.

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The Value Proposition: Reward and Punishment

In proposition (I) we stated the effect of the success of an action in obtaining a reward on the probability that a person will repeat it. In speaking of the reward, we assumed that the value to the person of the result of his action was greater than zero — that is, he was not indifferent to it nor did he find it actually punishing. But the proposition had nothing to say about how rewarding the person found it. This variable, the degree of reward, we shall now bring in and call it value. The value in question is always that of a given unit of the reward, no matter how that unit be defined, since, as we shall see, the values of successive units may change. The gross effect of this variable upon behavior may be expressed by the value proposition:

III. The more valuable to a person is the result of his action, the more likely he is to perform the action.

The variable, value, may take either positive or negative values (now used in the mathematical sense of the term). The results of a person's actions that have positive values for him we call rewards; the results that have negative ones, punishments. The zero point on the scale is where the person is indifferent to the result of his action. The proposition implies that just as an increase in the positive value of the reward makes it more likely that the person will perform a particular act, so an increase in the negative value of the punishment makes it less likely that he will do so. And by an obvious extension of the stimulus proposition, if the occurrence of a particular stimulus was the occasion on which an action was punished, the recurrence of the stimulus on a new occasion makes it less likely that the person will perform the action. All of this is obvious enough.

Any action that has the result of allowing a person to avoid or escape punishment is rewarded by that result, and the person becomes more likely to perform the action. Thus there are two classes of reward: intrinsic reward and the avoidance of punishment. Similarly, there are two classes of punishrnent: intrinsic punishment and the withholding of reward.

The use of punishment is an inefficient means of getting another person to change his behavior: it may work but it seldom works well. On the other hand, it may give great emotional satisfaction to the man who does the punishing, and that is something not altogether to be despised. Punishment may be enough when all that is required is that the person stop doing something. Even then, if his action has otherwise brought him valuable reward, it will soon reinstate itself unless the punishment is often repeated and severe. Much more efficient as a means of eliminating an undesirable activity is simply to let it go unrewarded and thus eventually become extinguished, but applying this method sometimes takes strong nerves. Suppose we wish to stop a child's crying when we suspect he cries only because it gets him attention. The best thing for us to do would be to ignore him when he cried. But a mother often finds it heart-rending to carry out a policy like this. What if there really were something wrong with him?

Punishment or its threat it still less efficient when it is used not just to stop a person from doing something but to get him to perform a particular action. Then we punish him if he does not perform the action. The difficulty here is that punishment makes rewarding any action that allows him to avoid or escape the punishment and not just the one we have in mind. Accordingly, we must also be prepared to punish or otherwise block off all avenues of escape except that one. Doing so is apt to prove a costly business, especially if we add the cost of surveillance to determine whether he is really doing what we wish him to do. Punishment, moreover, is apt to produce hostile emotional behavior in the person punished, and we must be prepared to cope with it. We shall have more to say about such emotions in later chapters. To get a man to perform an action by rewarding him if he does it, rather than by punishing him if he does not do it, avoids these costs — but then the positive rewards may not be available. We must face the fact that positive rewards are always in short supply. Accordingly, while recognizing its disadvantages, there are times when we shall use punishment, for lack of anything better, as a means of controlling behavior.

The things that men find rewarding — their values — are infinitely varied. Some of them are innate that is, genetically determined and therefore shared by many men, such as the value set on food and shelter. Even some social values may be innate. It now looks as if men had evolved from apes that hunted in packs in open country. As a result, we seem today to be more "social" in our behavior than our cousins, the present anthropoid apes, just as wolves, who hunt in packs, are more "social" than their cousins, the jackals. Men could hardly have maintained pack behavior if they did not find social life as such innately rewarding. But this is speculation, and in any event, the capacity to find reward in social interaction must be highly generalized, not tied down to specific kinds of social reward.

What makes values infinitely varied is that, besides being born in men and animals, they can also be learned. A value is learned by being linked with an action that is successful in obtaining a more primordial value. (See especially Staats and Staats, 1963: 48-54.) Suppose a mother often hugs her child and getting hugged is probably an innate value in circumstances in which the child has behaved differently from other children and, as the mother says, "better." Then "behaving better" than others is a means to a rewarding end and is apt to become, as we say, "rewarding in itself." In other words, it is an acquired value. The reward may generalize, and the child may be well on the way to setting a high value on status of all kinds. By such processes of linking, men may learn and maintain long chains of behavior leading to some ultimate reward. Indeed apart from obvious anatomical differences and the use of language, the chief difference between the behavior of men and that of other animals may lie in the capacity of men to maintain longer chains relating, as we say, means to ends. For the animals the ultimate reward cannot long be postponed, if the sequence of behavior is not to fall to pieces. And even for men the ultimate reward must come sooner or later. Note that the process by which values are acquired and linked to one another is the same for men as for other animals, but the number of links that can be put together in a chain is greater for the former than for the latter. As usual, the differences are not differences in kind but in degree.

Since different individuals may encounter different circumstances in the course of their upbringing and thus acquire different values, men are apt to be more unlike one another in their acquired than in their innate values. Yet there are some values that men in particular kinds of society would have difficulty in not acquiring. These are the so-called generalized values, good examples of which are money and social approval. The act of fishing can be made more probable only by its success in getting a rather specific reward, that is, by the catching of fish — though some men seem to use fishing only as an excuse for daydreaming or admiring the scenery. But money and social approval can serve as rewards for a wide variety of actions and not just for some single kind. It is for this reason that they are called generalized values. In this book we shall be especially interested in social approval as a generalized value.

So numerous are the values men can acquire, and so varied are the circumstances in which they acquire them, that it is idle to make any general statement about which ones they will hold. But if the particular values held by particular individuals in particular circumstances are known or can be reasonably inferred from the attendant circumstances (if the values in question can be taken as given and they often can be) then this variable can certainly be used in accordance with our propositions to predict or account for other aspects of behavior. But let no one talk about human values in abstraction from the past history and present circumstances of particular men.

In spite of all this talk about rewards, the reader should never assume that our theory is a hedonistic one, concerned only with materialistic values. The values a man acquires may perfectly well be altruistic. All our theory asks is that the values in question be a man's own values, not those that somebody else thinks he ought to have. A man's success in obtaining altruistic values has just the same effect on his behavior as his success in obtaining egotistical ones: he becomes more likely to perform the actions that have proved successful, whatever they may be. My sisters and I once knew a woman who set a high value on doing good to others, including ourselves. People sometimes say that virtue like hers is its own reward, that no external reward, no change in the behavior of others, is needed to maintain it. We soon discovered that this was not true in her case. Her high-minded behavior did require an external reward, and it was nothing less than our willingness to allow her to do good to us. Strangely enough, we were sometimes unwilling, and then she got as angry as the most materialistic of women deprived of the most material of goods. The language she used was more likely to disguise her anger, but we soon became aware that it was anger just the same. We suspect that the same sort of thing may be true of other persons who hold altruistic values, which does not in the least mean that we must be cynical about them or admire them less. They are out to help others, and why should the fact that in so doing they also reward themselves be held against them?

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The Deprivation-Satiation Proposition

It is something to know what a man finds rewarding or punishing what his values, positive or negative, are. But the value proposition (III) is not really concerned with what a person's values are. It is concerned rather with how valuable they are, how valuable a person finds a particular reward in comparison with other rewards. This question in turn must be divided into two separate ones. First: Is the same kind of reward more valuable on one occasion than on a different occasion? Does a person find catching fish more rewarding, for instance, this morning than he will this afternoon? Second: Is one kind of reward more valuable than a different kind on the same occasion? Does, for instance, a person this afternoon find catching fish more rewarding than the results of working in his garden?

What we shall call the deprivation-satiation proposition deals only with the first question. We may state it as follows:

IV. The more often in the recent past a person has received a particular reward, the less valuable any further unit of that reward becomes for him.

If a man has received the reward often, he is beginning, as we say, to be satiated with it. Its value for him decreases, and by the value proposition (III), he becomes less apt to perform an action that is followed by this reward. The proposition emphasizes the "recent past" because there are many rewards with which a man can only temporarily be satiated. Food is the best example. If, on the other hand, a man has learned to value a particular kind of reward but has received it only rarely in the recent past, we say he is deprived of it. For him, its value increases and by the value proposition he becomes more apt to perform an action that is followed by this reward.

Obviously the deprivation-satiation proposition is not very precise and states only a very general tendency. What constitutes the recent past within which deprivation or satiation takes place must be different for different kinds of rewards. Food can satiate men quickly, but it soon recovers its value. Most persons are not so easily satiated with money or status, if indeed they ever can be wholly satiated. The reason is that these are generalized rewards, which can be used to obtain a large number of more specific ones. Unless a person is satiated with all the things that money can buy, he will not be satiated with money itself.

As for the second question —whether one kind of reward is more valuable than a different kind on the same occasion— we can state no general proposition that will help us to answer it. We can only try to deal with particular cases. The number of possible comparisons is infinite, and in each case we must rely as best we can on the accumulated experience and knowledge that men have of other men and even at times of our own knowledge of particular persons. We know, for instance, that a man caught out in a chill rain without a coat is likely for the moment to set a relatively high value on shelter compared to other rewards, but that even then he would stay out in the rain if seeking shelter meant losing his life. Again, we know that a man who is new to his job is likely to set a relatively high value on getting good advice on how to do it. At the other extreme, there are preferences, differences in value, which are far from obvious. Thus we are told that the Chinese, faced with a choice of drinks, do not like milk and far prefer tea. It is easy to say that they have been taught to like tea and not milk, but that is not really an answer to the question. Why should they have been taught the preference? The ultimate answer may lie in differences between the traditional agriculture of China and that of the West. Yet if we have some confidence that we know what the values of a man or of a group of men are, even if we do not know why they hold these values — if we can take their values as given in given circumstances — we can, with the help of our general propositions, make some good bets on what their other behavior is apt to be.

We have begun by separating the two kinds of questions about relative values. In the end we may have to bring them together again, so that we do not leave the different values of the same reward at different times wholly unrelated to the different values of different rewards at the same time. In general, a man's satiation with a particular reward renders all his other rewards relatively more valuable to him. Moreover, it may turn out that the values can be placed in some kind of rank order, or hierarchy, of values, such that unless a man is first satiated with a particular kind of reward, the next higher kind in the hierarchy will have little value for him. Or rather, to bring in the success proposition (I), the man, if not actually satiated, must be pretty sure of getting enough of the first kind before he can set much store by the next. (See Maslow, 1954.) Thus unless a man knows where his next meal is coming from, he is unlikely to set a high value on some other reward such as status: he can forgo status more easily than he can food. Americans are said to set a high value on democratic processes. Would they do so if democracy got in the way of their getting enough to eat? One may guess that democracy would be the loser, but fortunately most Americans have not had to make the choice. There are some intangible and ideal rewards on which men will set a very high value but only if other "lower" needs are being met. We can only raise the question here. We know too little about the ways in which men rank values in a hierarchy of this sort.

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The Aggression-Approval Proposition

So far we have had nothing to say about the emotional behavior of men, and thus have left out much that makes them humans. A fuller psychology than ours pretends to be would include several propositions about emotional behavior, among the most important of which would be statements about the causes and effects of anxiety. But in this book, in order to keep the treatment as simple as possible, we shall introduce only one proposition about emotional behavior, the only one we shall badly need in order to explain the findings about social behavior considered in later chapters. This proposition we call the aggression-approval proposition and we can perhaps state it most conveniently by dividing it into two parts, one concerned with aggression and the other with approval.

The first part is usually called the frustration-aggression hypothesis (Miller and Dollard, 1941):

Va. When a person's action does not receive the reward he expected, or receives punishment he did not expect, he will be angry; he becomes more likely to perform aggressive behavior, and the results of such behavior become more valuable to him.

Let us now comment on each clause of this complicated proposition.

When a person does not get what he expected, he is said to be frustrated. A purist in behaviorism would not refer to the expectation at all, because the word seems to refer, like other words such as "purpose," to a state of mind. Yet if we did not use it we could only replace it by a long circumlocution, without any offsetting gain in rigor. Nor need the word refer only to an internal state; it can refer to wholly external events, observable in principle not just by the person himself but by outsiders. What a man expects to get by way of reward or punishment under a given set of circumstances (stimuli) is what he has in fact received, observed, or was told others received, under similar circumstances in the past; and none of these things are private events confined within the individual's head. This is what we shall mean by the word expectation. In later chapters we shall be especially interested in a kind of experience many men have shared, which gives rise to a very generalized expectation Aristotle (1967) called a rule of distributive justice. Since what a man expects depends in the long run on what has actually happened to him, his failure to receive an expected reward, if repeated often enough, finally results in a change in what he expects. What was once unexpected now becomes the expected thing, and his anger fades, but it may take a long time to do so.

When a man is frustrated, he is apt to feel some degree of the emotion we call anger. Again, a purist in behaviorism might not refer to anger in his version of the proposition but only to the aggressive behavior; we keep the anger in so that we may not do too great violence to the common sense of men. Men show that the experience of anger has much the same meaning for all of them through the ease with which they can communicate to others the fact that they are angry. No doubt the more valuable to a person is the reward he expected or the more painful the punishment he did not expect, the greater is his frustration and hence his anger.

When a man is frustrated, he is apt to perform aggressive actions. These are actions that attack, break, hurt, or threaten the source of the frustration, whether the real source or what the man perceives it to be. If for any reason the real source cannot be attacked, almost any target will do in a pinch. The target may of course be an inanimate object. We do not kick a stuck door just because a kick will help to open it, for it usually will not. We kick the door in order to hurt it. But in this book we are naturally much more interested in human sources of frustration and targets of aggression. In anger, moreover, the successful results of aggressive action reward a man as they would never have done without the anger. When we are furious at someone and hit him, the sight of his wincing under our blow becomes intensely rewarding.

In our first four propositions we were dealing with voluntary or, as the behaviorists call it, operant behavior. Operant behavior and emotional behavior such as aggression differ in the initial conditions that make their appearance more probable. No previous stimulus can automatically get a man to perform an operant the first time. He must just happen to perform it, even as a matter of chance, and be rewarded by it before he will perform it again. Only after he had been rewarded will the attendant stimuli begin to get some control over his action. Aggressive behavior can, on the contrary, be automatically produced the first time by a stimulus — the failure of an action to get the expected reward. In this respect, its initial release by a stimulus, aggression resembles a reflex like the familiar knee jerk.

Yet in another and more important respect aggression differs from a reflex. A reflex cannot be learned — one cannot learn to do a convincing knee jerk but aggression can be learned. That is, an aggressive action, originally purely emotional, can become voluntary. Whatever the conditions of frustration that led a man to perform an aggressive action in the first place, if in fact his aggression is followed by a reward, wholly apart from the satisfaction of his anger, he becomes more likely to perform it again, just as if it were an ordinary operant. As we all know to our cost, aggression may pay, and if it does will be repeated. Many men and groups use aggression simply as an instrument for attaining practical results. In their case, the aggression may create the anger, not the anger, the aggression. But by the same token, a man may come to perform aggressive actions less often if they have not been successful or have actually resulted in punishment. He may learn to get his outward aggression, if not his inward anger, under control. Or he may still attack but may learn to displace his attacks from targets that respond with punishing reprisals to less dangerous ones. In this book aggression and the like will be treated as if they were, at one and the same time, both emotional and voluntary activities.

Let us now turn to the second part of the aggression-approval proposition. We have long believed that the special emphasis psychologists have placed on the first part, that is, the frustration-aggression hypothesis, has tended to give a one-sided view of the emotional behavior of men since it has pointed only to their negative emotions. But if they can be frustrated and hate, they can also be fortunate and love. Let us therefore propose with some diffidence the following as the second part of the aggression-approval proposition:

Vb: When a person's action receives reward he expected, especially a greater reward than he expected, or does not receive punishment he expected, he will be pleased; he becomes more likely to perform approving behavior, and the results of such behavior become more valuable to him.

If the reader is not altogether happy with the words pleased and approving which we have used in the proposition — and we confess we are not altogether happy ourselves — let him find his own opposites to angry and aggressive.

Many of the comments that we made about the first part of the proposition we may repeat, mutatis mutandis, for the second part. Two points are of particular importance. First, though men often give what we call their spontaneous admiration to others who have provided them with unusual reward, they obviously can also learn to give approval to others simply as an instrument for getting further reward from them, apart from the expression of the admiration itself. Approval can become such an instrument because many men find the approval they receive from others rewarding, just as they find aggression punishing. In short, approval like aggression may become a voluntary as well as an emotional action. In later chapters we shall have a great deal to say about approval as one of the most important rewards of social behavior. Second, if what was once an unexpected and unusual reward becomes by repetition an expected and usual one, the person's original emotional reaction will tend to decline in strength, which need not mean that he will cease to use approval instrumentally. Following The Human Group (Homans, 1950) we shall refer to variables like anger and approval, whether spontaneously or instrumentally expressed, as sentiments.

The Propositions as a System of Propositions

Now that we have stated the general propositions we shall later use in explaining social behavior, we must make one or two comments on the set of propositions as a whole. We have stated each proposition baldly, without qualifications, without adding the escape clause that each holds good only under the condition that "other things are equal." The reason we have done so is that what these "other things" are and where they are "equal" are determined for each proposition by the other propositions in the set. The effects that would be predicted by any one of the propositions may, in concrete cases, be masked or modified by the effects of other propositions in the set. That is, the set must be taken as a whole system of propositions.

Let us offer just one crude illustration. The success proposition (I) says that the more often an action is rewarded, the more often a man will perform it. But this relationship certainly does not always hold good in real life. For if the reward comes often enough, the value the man sets on a further unit of it will, by the satiation proposition (IV), decline, perhaps even to the extent that he is indifferent to it for the time being. But as the value of the reward decreases, then the man, according to the value proposition (III), becomes less likely to perform it and not more likely. What follows from the three propositions taken together is that a man will perform an action at the fastest rate when the action is rewarded only just often enough to keep him slightly deprived of it. If he were wholly deprived, it would mean that his action was utterly unsuccessful in getting the reward; and complete lack of success leads to inaction just as much as satiation does.

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The Historicity Implied by the Propositions

The propositions imply, if we did not know it already, that the past history of men makes a big difference to their present behavior, and not just the recent past but often the past of long ago. A man's past history of success, of stimulation, of the acquisition of values all affect the way he behaves now. The choices he made in the past may still be limiting the opportunities available to him today, or he may perceive them as limiting; hence the great weight attached to a man's early experience by all schools of modern psychology. The ill effects of some early experiences may of course be overcome, but it may be difficult to do so there is something to be overcome.

The effect of past experience extends beyond the history of individuals to the history of societies. Since children learn much of their behavior and values from parents and other members of the older generation, the past culture of a society tends to perpetuate itself. We need not believe that a society maintains itself by teaching its members just those actions it is prepared to reward, just those values it is prepared to satisfy. If a child acquires at his mother's knee a value like independence, he may, when he grows up, try to change his society radically instead of preserving it. Indeed we know that old values and actions whose success in attaining these values were learned long ago may, in new circumstances, lead to radical, unforeseen, and quite unintended social change. For instance, it was old values and old types of action that finally, in new circumstances, created the Industrial Revolution. Yet there is always some tendency for past behavior to maintain itself, at least in the sense that every new generation has to start from something that already exists; it can never make a wholly fresh start. Indeed the men of the past may, in pursuit of the values of their time and by its methods, have created institutions to which their descendants are committed, at least to the extent that they cannot change all their institutions at once. Past institutional commitments have the same effect on the history of societies that past choices often have on the history of individuals.

It is this historicity that makes it difficult to explain human behavior and human institutions. Other sciences do not suffer from it nearly as much. It makes little difference in explaining the mechanical action of a lever what sort of past history the material it is made of may have had. All it needs to be is strong enough, and there is an infinite number of paths by which it could have become strong. Were there only a single path by which a lever could meet the requirement, we might be called upon to explain why a particular lever took just that path and not some other. But there are cases, such as that of magnetic hysteresis — the tendency of a piece of iron to acquire a magnetic field in particular circumstances, which it then tends to preserve in new circumstances in which historicity does make a difference even in physical science, and then the science has as much trouble in dealing with it as social science does.

Historicity makes least trouble when the forces acting on men or societies are convergent, when, that is, strong forces are tending to make men or societies more like one another, whatever their initial differences. In explanation we can then afford to neglect the details of the paths by which they reached this similarity. The real difficulty comes when we deal with divergent phenomena, such as the one we cite in the proverb: For want of a nail the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe the horse was lost; and so on. Then a force weak in itself but just tipping the scales in a balance of stronger forces may have great and widening effects over time.

If the present precipitates of a man's past history — the acts in which he has been successful, the stimuli that have accompanied them, the values he has acquired — can be taken as known and given, we can then apply our general propositions to these given conditions in order to explain or predict his behavior. But we seldom know enough about these conditions to predict or explain accurately. In practice, we cope with the problem as best we can by predicting or explaining the behavior of a number of men at a time, so that if we go wrong in some instances the general tenor of our results may still hold good. We cope with it also by assuming that, the more similar are the known "backgrounds" of men, the more similar their past histories must have been, and so the more similar their behavior in present circumstances is likely to be. We assume, for instance, that sophomores in American universities are apt to have shared some kinds of past experience. In this respect they resemble one another more than they do, say, their French contemporaries. If we know from acquaintance with American sophomores what these similarities are, if we can take them as known and given, we can often predict with the help of our general propositions what some other features of their behavior are likely to be; but we shall never be able to do so perfectly. Through some accident in his upbringing a particular sophomore may, for instance, have acquired values altogether unlike those of men who appear on the surface to share the same background, and so may not respond in the same way to our questionnaires or experimental manipulations. For this reason our findings, our correlations, can at best be only statistically significant and never perfect.

In any event, this book cannot include a treatise on what is called developmental psychology, the study of the process by which a newborn child becomes morally and intellectually an adult. In studying social behavior we shall simply assume that we are dealing with persons who have experienced some of the same gross features of psychological development.

This may be a useful point at which to enter a warning. Although the general propositions we shall use are often called the propositions of "learning theory," we are far from believing that men are equally likely to learn anything in the way of behavior, provided only that they encounter in the social and physical environment the appropriate stimuli and rewards. They do not, so to speak, start life as blank sheets of paper on which the environment can readily write whatever occurs to it to write in the way of learning. Not only their experience but their genetic endowment — not only nurture but nature, to use the neat antithesis — determines what they learn.

It is not a question of which is the more important, nurture or nature, though that was the question psychologists asked themselves for several decades. The real question is how the experience of men interacts with their genetic inheritance. To take an obvious example, a big, strong man is more likely than a small, puny one to find that certain kinds of action, such as physical aggression, get him reward in his contacts with other men. Accordingly big, strong men are more likely than small, puny ones to learn and to perform physically aggressive actions. Size and strength, apart from differences in nutrition, are genetically inherited characteristics. Yet they do not affect the behavior of men directly; they affect it only because they alter the contingencies in which learning takes place. Less obviously, an intelligent person may be able to learn, under appropriate conditions of stimulation and reward, types of behavior that a less intelligent person cannot learn, or cannot learn so quickly. Yet intelligence, if it is the sort of thing measured by intelligence tests, is certainly in some degree genetically inherited. Mankind itself, as we have already suggested, has probably inherited and not just learned a generalized capacity to find social contact with other human beings rewarding, and if it had not inherited this value, it would probably not be able to learn and maintain some of the forms of social behavior it does in fact learn and maintain. It may also turn out that individuals inherit different degrees of this general value, and that these differences, interacting with their experiences of the social environment, produce further differences in learning.

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The Rationality Proposition

We have less need to bring in past history in explaining some kinds of behavior than others. In order to understand this point let us begin by looking at a proposition that in effect sums up the first three of our propositions, those concerned with success, stimuli, and value. (As for the last two propositions, the deprivation-satiation proposition (IV) states one of the causes for a change in the value of a reward and the aggression-approval proposition (V) states the conditions under which the results of certain kinds of actions become valuable.) The proposition has been called the principle of rational choice or the rationality proposition. (See, for instance, Harsanyi, 1967.) It may be stated as follows:

In choosing between alternative actions, a person will choose that one for which, as perceived by him at the time, the value, V, of the result, multiplied by the probability, p, of getting the result, is the greater.

In so acting, a person is said to maximize his expected utility (Ofshe and Ofshe, 1970: 3). In the case of repeated actions, the rationality proposition implies that, if the rate at which a man performs an action is designated by A, then

A = pV (10)

Suppose, for example, that a man faces a choice between two actions. The first, if successful, will bring him a result worth, let us say, three units of value to him, but he estimates the chance that his action will be successful as only one out of four. The second will bring a result worth only two units, but he estimates its chance of success as one out of two. Since 3 x 1/4 is less than 2 x l/2, the rationality proposition predicts that the man will take the second action.

The proposition becomes simplified if each of the alternative actions is certain of success, so that p = 1. Then the man's choice depends only on the relative value of the results. This condition is, of course, sometimes satisfied in real life. For instance, in the kind of market which classical economics for its purposes of analysis assumed to exist and which some real markets in fact resembled, a willing buyer could always find a willing seller. His success in the act of buying was certain, and so his decision to buy depended only on whether he was ready to pay the price — whether the value of the goods bought was greater to him than that of the forgone alternative of keeping his money to spend on something else. Much economics uses the rationality proposition in this stripped-down form as its single general proposition, often without actually stating it.

Now let us consider in what sense the rationality proposition embodies, or corresponds to, our first three propositions. It states that one of the two factors determining whether a man will perform an action is its probability of success as he perceives it. But the proposition says nothing about what in turn determines his perception. In the case of actions repeated over time, one of the determinants of his perception will be the actual frequency with which the past action has been followed by the reward. Then this aspect of the rationality proposition is stated by the success proposition (I): the more often the action is in fact rewarded, the more often it is performed. Let us write this in the form of Herrnstein's equation (1, p. 21), substituting for his variable P, the rate at which a pigeon pecks, the more general variable A, the rate at which a man performs any given action.

A = kR (11)

Here R, the actual frequency with which an action has been rewarded replaces the variable p, the perceived probability of success, in the rationality proposition.

The rationality proposition also embodies our stimulus proposition (II), in that a man's perception of the probability that his present action will be successful is further determined by the similarity of the circumstances attending the action at present to those under which the action was successful in the past.

Now let us look at the constant of proportionality, k, in Herrnstein's equation. It is a constant there because the actions of his pigeons were identical in form (pecks) and in reward (grain). They differed only in the rates, R, at which pecks at two different keys were rewarded. But most alternative actions differ in form and in the kind of reward they receive. When they differ in form, they generally also differ in cost; and when they differ in reward, they generally also differ in the value of the reward. That is, they differ in the net value of the reward they receive. In a more general formulation the constant in Herrnstein's equation must be replaced by the variable, V, and then the equation takes the form

A =RV (12)

We should now be able to recognize how each variable in this formulation corresponds to a variable in the rationality proposition, remembering that "corresponds to" does not have the same meaning as "is identical with."

Just as the rationality proposition has nothing to say about why a man perceives his chances of success as high or low, so it has nothing to say about why he has acquired certain values and not others, why he sets a higher value on one reward than he does on another, or why he values a particular reward more highly on one occasion than he does on another. A more fully developed psychology, and one that deals with the effects of a man's past history on his present behavior, is needed to account for these things.

Yet we must always remember that, besides what a man perceives to be his chances of success in various actions, there are always the actual chances of success as given by the outside world independent of his perceptions, including at the extreme the certainty that some kinds of actions will be successful. Suppose we have reason to believe that a man's perceptions of the outside world are accurate, that the outside world and his map of it coincide. Suppose we can assume further that his values are common values, values that most persons share, or that are common to a class of men to which he is known to belong. Then, in explaining his behavior, we can neglect the details of his past history. For example, if we know a man is a skilled carpenter, then we explain what he does in building a house, though not necessarily in other activities of life, by the laws of physics, so to speak, and not by reference to his individual past. Nor do we have to account for his particular values. We confidently assume that, simply because he is a carpenter, he will set some value on building a house that will stand up. Apart from professional pride, he will set some value on it if only because he will not earn his living very long as a carpenter if his houses will not stand up. If a man's chances of success in his actions are given by the outside world, and if his values are those known to be held by the class of men to which he belongs — if, that is, his values and his perceived chances of success can simply be taken as given — then the rationality principle alone, without the use of a broader set of propositions, will explain and predict his behavior pretty well. Of course, our carpenter may make mistakes, but in the long run his behavior will approximate to what the rationality proposition predicts. Much human behavior, of course, meets these conditions and can be explained in this way

But much behavior cannot be explained by the rationality proposition. If a man's values are somewhat queer, not as easily taken for granted as those of a skilled carpenter in the exercise of his trade, and if his chances of success are not given by the outside world, or at least not accurately known by him, then the rationality proposition by itself may not help us much. Our favorite examples among the enormous number that could be cited, is the decision by William the Conqueror (then simply the Bastard), Duke of Normandy, to invade England in 1066. That he set a high value on the result of successful conquest, becoming king of England, those of us who have some knowledge of other feudal lords will find no difficulty in accepting. But what about the other term in the rationality proposition, his chance of success as perceived by him? He could not know what his chances were. As the economists would say, his condition was one of uncertainty and not of risk. In risk the odds on success are accurately known; in uncertainty they are not known. Even if he were fairly sure he could get an army and a fleet together, there remained for him the dangers of a sea voyage, of landing on a hostile shore, and of battle with an English army under the experienced and hitherto successful command of Harold Godwinsson. Defeat in battle would almost certainly mean death. William's contemporaries might well have judged his chance of success to be small. On the record, we have no reason whatever to believe that he was a foolish man. Why then did he go ahead with the enterprise? In trying to answer this question it is surely relevant to point to the almost unbroken series of his military victories over the preceding twenty years. It is not the rationality proposition but the success proposition that will account for the effect of these victories on his decision. Past success in military action made his future military action more probable. Or, as we say in ordinary language, past success had given him confidence.

Certainly, if we keep the rationality preposition firmly in mind, we shall never forget that human action is determined by two kinds of factor, not one. Many persons, including many social scientists, talk as if what determines a man's action was his "motivation" alone — in our terms, the value he sets on the result of his action. But a man may be highly motivated in this sense and still not take action, if his similar actions in the past have been uniformly unsuccessful. Again, some social scientists talk as if the reason why some lower-class groups, like blacks in the United States, remain unassimilated to the larger society in which they live is that their values are different from those of other groups in the society. Their values may be just the same as those of the rest of society, but if their actions have been, for whatever reason, unsuccessful in obtaining those values, they will turn to alternative actions. If these alternative actions are successful in obtaining a different kind of reward, their actions may keep them as effectively cut off from the rest of society as if their values had been different all along. The rationality proposition serves to remind us that action is determined by success and value jointly

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We must recognize that not one of the propositions we have put forward is new. It is not just that they are not original with us but have been put forward, if not in the same words at least with the same substance, by many psychologists. They were not new even to the psychologists. Undoubtedly in one crude form or another they have been known to men for ages. They hardly come as a surprise to any of us, though some of their further implications, in psychopathology for instance, may indeed be surprising. Accordingly, the propositions may appear to be obvious, but they are not to be rejected just for that reason. It is also obvious that the obvious need not be untrue, and what we seek is the truth. Perhaps there are general propositions in social science that remain to be discovered, but those that have long been known are not made trivial by that fact.

Let not a reader reject our argument out of hand because he does not care for its horrid profit-seeking implications. Let him ask himself whether he and mankind have ever been able to advance any general explanation why men change or fail to change their behavior other than that, in their circumstances, they would, as they see it, be better off doing something else or that they are doing well enough already. On refiection, the reader will find that neither he nor mankind has ever been able to offer another explanation; it is a truism. He may ease his conscience by remembering that if hedonists believe men take profits only in materialistic values, we are not hedonists here. If men's values are altruistic, they can take a profit in altruism too. In fact, some of the greatest profiteers we know are altruists.

Though we have called the last proposition the rationality proposition, we should be aware of the different meanings men have given to the word rationality. The first is rationality from the point of view of some omniscient outside observer who views behavior as irrational if he knows its reward is harmful to a man. A person is irrational if he pursues rewards that he ought not to find valuable. In this sense a man who takes certain kinds of drugs, including tobacco, behaves irrationally. So is a masochist, a man who finds punishment rewarding, though here the criterion of "goodness" or "health" is not so clear. But since in this book we are not interested in how men ought to behave but only in how they do in fact behave, we care not here — though surely we do care elsewhere — whether a man's values are rational or not. What we are interested in is what he does with them once he has somehow picked them up. Suppose a man is a masochist. Is it still true that, if he has taken a lot of punishment recently, he will find further punishment for the moment somewhat less valuable? Will the first kick in the teeth give him more of a kick than the last? Will the satiation proposition apply to him too? These are the types of question we are interested in.

Even if, in the eyes of the omniscient observer, a man's values are rational, his actions may still be irrational if they are not well designed to obtain these values. A man may be ill-informed or misperceive the situation that faces him or fail to realize that a different action might be more successful or successful at a lower cost. If the standard of rationality is set by the omniscient outside observer, the man's behavior is then irrational. All we can say is that the rationality assumed by the rationality proposition is not of that sort. Whatever a man's information, perceptions, and designs might conceivably be, if he does not in fact possess the best possible ones but acts in accordance with those he does possess, though they may be wrong or inadequate, he is acting rationally.

The second meaning of rationality is closely related to the first. Whatever a man's values may be, his behavior is irrational if it is not consciously calculated to get him the largest supply of these values in the long run. Here the emphasis is not on the kind of value being pursued — it may be capital gains or eternal salvation — but on the way it is being pursued: the emphasis is on calculation and the long run, the longer the better. By this standard an irrational man is one who is either unwilling to forgo some immediate reward in order to invest in some greater future or unwilling to acquire the knowledge and make the calculations that would show him how to reach that future. A large part of many sciences, from divinity to the Theory of Games (Von Neumann and Morgenstern, 1944), is devoted to providing him with this knowledge and enabling him to make the calculations. The Theory of Games should, for instance, make him better able to choose a strategy among alternative courses of action, when the risks and returns of each are matters of probability, not certainty.

Although calculation for the long run plays its part in human affairs, we make no special allowance for it in our propositions. Above all we assume that the propositions hold good whether the behavior in question is conscious or unconscious. In the fields of human endeavor we shall be interested in, conscious and unconscious behavior very often come out at the same place. One man may offer another a greater reward in social approval in return for a more valuable kind of help; his behavior may be utterly economic, without his being any more conscious of what he is doing than a pigeon is — but then we do not know how conscious a pigeon can be.

We neither rule out nor rule in conscious calculation. Our first justification is that we shall not often need it in order to explain the research results considered in this book. And our second lies in plain sight: calculation for the long run is the exception and not the rule. The Theory of Games may be good advice for human behavior but a poor description of it.

The fact is that the question whether behavior is rational or not by any of the definitions proposed is irrelevant to our purposes. All the good advice, from ethics to economics, that wise men give their fellows is meant to change behavior and not to explain it; but our business is with explanation. The advice tries to answer the question: Given that you value the attainment of certain ends, how could you have acted so as to attain them more effectively? But what men or pigeons could have done is what they did do, and much social science has gone to show some of the surprising reasons why they could not do in fact what some wiseacre says they could. This does not mean that all the advice goes for nothing. So far as men will take it, so far as they will learn from it, it may change the way they behave the next time. But behavior observed is behavior past, and for the purposes of explaining how men have indeed behaved it is seldom enough to ask if they were rational from the point of view of an omniscient observer. The relevant question is what in fact determined their behavior — though of course the advice they have listened to may be among the determinants.

The persons who will appear in this book are, if you like, no less rational than pigeons. If it be rational of pigeons to learn and take the shorter of two paths to a reward, so it is of our men. They choose among a few alternatives immediately open to them; they choose with little regard for the really long-term results of their choice, which sometimes surprise them. But the short-term results they do know, and they often know them less as matters of probability than of certainty. Within these limits, our men do not choose foolishly — that is, at random — but only in the way our propositions say they do. All that we impute to them in the way of rationality is that they know enough to come in out of the rain unless they enjoy getting soaked. To be sure, such rationality as we have now left them may not amount to much, for rational behavior in our sense, and not in that of the omniscient observer, is only behavior that is determined.

Let us make sure we are not snobs about the common pigeon or the common man. When the future is not easily foreseen and science is weak, the pursuit of immediate reward is by no means irrational even by the austere standards of the Theory of Games. "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" is by no means always an unintelligent policy. And so far as the pursuit of rationality entails study, forethought, and calculation, and such things hurt, as they often do, the pursuit of rationality is itself irrational unless these costs are reckoned in the balance. The costs of rationality may make rationality itself irrational.

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The Rule of Distributive Justice

The rule we have found to be implicit in the behavior of the employees of the Customers' Accounting Division we believe to be implicit in the behavior of many persons in many different societies. Nor does it remain merely implicit in behavior; it is often explicitly stated. Thus Jouvenel (1957: 149) writes: "What they [men] find just is to preserve between men as regards whatever is in question the same relative positions as exist between the same men as regards something else." But we ought to consider with special care and veneration the first statement about distributive justice, which we owe to Aristotle. It appears in Book V, Chapter 3, of his so-called Nichomachean Ethics, which consists of drafts of his lectures on ethics, put together by himself or, more probably, by his pupils. He distinguishes between corrective justice, such as the proper punishment of criminals, and distributive justice, which is what we are interested in. Of it he writes (Aristotle 1 967: 269):

It follows therefore that justice involves at least four terms, namely two persons for whom it is just and two shares which are just. And there will be the same equality between the shares as between the persons, since the ratio between the shares will be equal to the ratio between the persons; for if the persons are not equal, they will not have equal shares; it is when equals possess or are allotted unequal shares, or persons not equal equal shares, that quarrels and complaints arise.

A little later he goes on to say:

Justice is therefore a sort of proportion; for proportion is not a property of numerical quantity only, but of quantity in general, proportion being equality of ratios, and involving four terms at least.

Let us try to restate in our own terminology what Aristotle is saying here. Distributive justice involves a relationship between at least four terms: two persons, P1 and P2, one of whom can be assessed as higher than, equal to, or lower than, the other; and their two shares, or as we would say, rewards, R1 and R2. The condition of distributive justice is satisfied when the ratio of the measures of the persons is equal to the ratio of the measures of their respective rewards. That is, if the two persons are equal, they should, in justice, receive equal rewards; if one is better than the other, he should receive the larger reward. That is, the condition of distributive justice is satisfied when:

P1 / P2 = R1 / R2 (1 )

In the fourth century B.C., Aristotle was saying just what was implicit in the behavior of the employees of the Customers' Accounting Division, provided only we recognize that what he calls the measure of a person should include both his investments and what he actually contributes to social exchange.

We believe, though we confess we do so without adequate evidence, that something like the rule of distributive justice is either explicitly stated or stands as an implicit major premise in the arguments and behavior of many men in many, and probably all, human societies. We do not argue in the least that it is the noblest rule of distributive justice a philosopher or saint could devise; we argue only that it represents what many men in fact find fair. No doubt, through their proverbs and, by implication, through their comments on the behavior of themselves and others, members of the older generation in many societies teach the young some form of the rule, as a condition that ought to obtain, but often of course does not. Though, again, we cannot claim to be experts on the development of moral standards in children, we also believe that, even if the rule were not taught to the young, they would discover it anew for themselves every generation.

The reason we think so is that the rule of distributive justice is a statement of what ought to be, and what people say ought to be is determined in the long run and with some lag by what they find in fact to be the case. Now we have seen that ordinary exchanges between people, exchanges such as we have illustrated in our little group of Person, Other, and the Third Man, when they are unconstrained by fear of punishment or by the actions of outsiders, do in fact result in persons who produce superior contributions to the exchange, contributions recognized as superior by the parties themselves, getting superior rewards; in persons who produce similar (equal) contributions getting similar rewards, and so on. Thus, as we have pointed out so often, Other in our little group gives the best advice and gets the most approval. So many people, we believe, encounter this process of distributing rewards so often in their own actual experience that they come to generalize it as the kind of distribution that ought to obtain always.

Unfortunately, the fact that people accept the same general rule of distributive justice need not mean that they will always agree on what is a fair distribution of reward between them. Even if they concede that reward should be proportional to investment and contribution, they may still differ in their views of what legitimately constitutes investment, contribution, and reward, and how persons and groups are to be ranked on these dimensions. Aristotle himself recognized the difficulty. Speaking at the beginning of Book V of his Politics (Aristotle, 1967: 371-372) about the conflict between the parties of oligarchy and democracy in the cities of Greece, he stated:

Thus democracy arose from men's thinking that if they are equal in any respect they are equal absolutely (for they suppose that because they are all alike free they are equal absolutely); oligarchy arose from their assuming that if they are unequal as regards some one thing they are unequal wholly (for being unequal in property they assume that they are unequal absolutely) and then the democrats claim as being equal to participate in all things in equal shares, while the oligarchs as being unequal seek to have a larger share, for a larger share is unequal.

That is, the oligarchs and the democrats, while accepting implicitly the same general rule, differed about how it should be applied. The oligarchs thought property the only legitimate investment. Since they had more property than the democrats, they believed they should have more than the democrats in other respects, such as political rights. The democrats, on the other hand, considered free birth the only legitimate investment. Since in this respect they were the equals of the oligarchs, they believed they should be equal to the oligarchs in political rights. (Presumably both parties agreed that in all respects they were superior to the slaves and should allow them no rights at all.)

What was true of ancient Greece has probably been true of all other groups and societies. In the Customers' Accounting Division, management talked as if only skilled work and good wages ought to enter into the balance of fair exchange, whereas the ledger clerks thought that other features of their job, such as its lack of autonomy, ought to be brought in as well. In industry everyone agrees that promotions ought to be in line with the employees' investments and contributions, but the general rule is not of much help in answering the next question: Which should count most in gaining promotion for a man: his skill or his seniority? Many labor unions have in effect come down on the side of seniority, partly because differences in seniority can be determined more objectively than can differences in skill, and so leave less room for argument.

Moreover, what people agree on counting as legitimate investments change from time to time in many societies. Once upon a time ancient lineage counted as a legitimate investment, but in modern American society it counts officially not at all, though one can sometimes feel it playing its part unofficially. Once upon a time, too, the fact of being a man rather than a woman counted as more of an investment than it does today in America: a man doing the same job as a woman might demand more pay than hers. Today he is much less likely to make such a claim. And the same, of course, was true of being a white rather than a black.

All the arguments about surplus value from John Ball to Karl Marx and his followers amount to one long attempt to prove that what employers and owners count as their investments and contributions ought not to be so counted, and that therefore they get more than their fair share of the returns from economic enterprise and exploit the workers. Naturally none of the arguments prove the point; such things are not capable of proof; they are matters, so to speak, of taste. When someone says that one group is exploiting another, all his words mean is that he personally does not approve of the way in which rewards are distributed between the two groups. They mean no more: there are no objective means of determining whether exploitation is taking place.

Only perhaps for rather brief spans of time or in rather small groups are men fully agreed not only on what the rule of distributive justice is but also on what particular investments, contributions, and rewards should fairly be placed in the scales and at what weights. Men certainly assess their own investments, contributions, and rewards; but to make a rule of justice work, they must assess those of others by the same measures and on the same dimensions. The others, for their part, must agree at every point, which does not make consensus any easier to achieve. The evidence, as we might expect, is that it is easier to achieve among persons who, through similar experience, reflected in similar backgrounds, have acquired similar values; but even here consensus is always in danger of breaking down. This means that there is no just society, though there may be societies and groups that are more or less just, to the extent that their members agree in their evaluations and maintain a rough proportionality between contributions and rewards. By these standards the Customers' Accounting Division was a pretty just place. Except for the ledger clerks everyone believed that she was getting something like her fair share relative to the others, and as for what was happening to the ledger clerks, almost everyone agreed at least that it was an injustice — which is more than can be said about injustice in many places.

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