From Tufts to a New "Truth"

Patrick Forber and the Tufts philosophy department train future philosophers — and doctors and lawyers — to question everything

Have you ever wondered where the concept of fairness comes from?  It’s tempting to assume that primitive human societies developed rules for promoting fairness — including punishments for bad behavior — because we are fair and just by nature.

But what if the exact opposite is true?

“A lot of people think that we evolved these norms of fairness because we’re cooperative individuals and we want to maintain a cooperative society,” says Patrick Forber, associate professor of philosophy at Tufts University. “Well, it could be we evolved those norms of fairness because we’re spiteful jerks and we had to find some way to mitigate the damage that we were inflicting on each other.”

Spite — in which one party pays a cost to inflict harm on another — is usually considered an ugly, if all-too-human trait, but Forber and his colleagues put a new twist on the standard story: fairness and spite may need each other.

Why do we have spite? from Tufts University on Vimeo.

 

Eric Griffith M.A. ’09 is a research associate in the Department of Neurobiology the Harvard Medical School. When he came to Tufts in 2007, Griffith already had a Ph.D. in biology from MIT. Before starting the M.A. program, he had taken exactly one philosophy course, but he knew that the problem-solving logic of philosophy would strengthen him as a scientific researcher.

“I loved my time at Tufts,” Griffith says. “I definitely have a better appreciation of how evidentiary reasoning works in different scientific disciplines. When scientists talk about their conceptual methods, they usually say, ‘There’s the scientific method, you have a hypothesis, you derive certain consequences and you test them.’ But what goes on in the lab, if people reflect on it, is a lot more complicated than that. The philosophy of science I learned at Tufts helped me realize that what scientists are doing in terms of reasoning is more complex than what they give themselves credit for.”

 

“The value of philosophy is that it allows scholars to take a step back and try and get a sense of the big picture, how everything hangs together,” says Forber, who is also director of graduate studies at the Tufts Philosophy Department, home to the top-ranked terminal M.A. program in philosophy in the nation, according to the latest ranking in The Philosophical Gourmet Report.

Forber’s specialty is the philosophy of science, or as he calls it, “the science of science.”

“I’m trying to understand how science — our most successful enterprise for creating knowledge — works,” Forber says. “In particular, when does it work well? What are the standards that distinguish good science from bad science?”

Forber is not satisfied pondering abstract “truths,” as we might imagine philosophers doing all day. He takes what he’s learned studying the “science of science” and applies it to some of the most fascinating questions in evolutionary biology, including the surprising importance of spite.

To test his theory that spite breeds fairness, Forber used something called the Ultimatum Game, a fascinating exercise popular with economists. The game has two players. Player One has a sum of money — let’s say $100 — and offers to split a percentage of the cash with Player Two. If Player Two accepts the offer, they both get their share. If Player Two rejects the offer, they both get nothing.

“Game theorists say that the rational strategy for Player Two is to accept all positive offers, because something is always better than nothing,” says Forber. “But human behavior isn’t always rational.”

The “spiteful” strategy tells Player Two to punish lowball offers, even when it means both players lose. What Forber and his colleagues proved — using a lot of complex math and computer simulations of the Ultimatum Game — is that the very existence of spiteful behavior in early human societies may have scared the rest of us into acting more altruistically, creating an overall equilibrium of fairness.

Forber’s method might seem out of place in a philosophy department, but that’s because most of us don’t grasp the interdisciplinary rigor of contemporary philosophy.

“It’s no accident that philosophers are attracted to interdisciplinary fields — intersections between conceptual puzzles in science, or the communication between politics, society, ethical concerns and justice,” says Forber. “These require pulling together the threads of a lot of different ways of thinking and approaching the world.”

The Tufts Philosophy Department boasts exceptional interdisciplinary strengths in the philosophy of language, political and social philosophy, and the philosophy of the mind. The philosophy faculty includes intellectual giant Daniel C. Dennett, author of the groundbreaking Darwin’s Dangerous Idea and co-chair of the Tufts Center for Cognitive Studies.

The Tufts M.A. program attracts students from richly diverse academic backgrounds: math, photography, biology, creative writing and more. Their shared goal is to apply the analytical tools of philosophy to solve a wide variety of interdisciplinary puzzles.

For students who go on to pursue a Ph.D., the Tufts M.A. program places graduates in the country’s best doctoral programs in philosophy. Other alumni go on to law school, medical school and coveted research positions.

Learn more about the Master of Arts (M.A.) in philosophy at Tufts, and the department’s distinguished faculty, as well as the more than 45 world-class graduate programs offered in the arts & sciences and engineering.