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The ability of humans to properly observe rules and live up to moral values and social capital Part of 2022 report "Exploring the limits of social capital"

Another theme I identified was the ability of humans to properly observe rules and live up to moral values. Many aspects of social capital are related to morality, and this was a recurring theme found in my analysis of limits. Humans have evolved to be social, to be cooperative, and consider the needs of others. However, we are independent beings, capable of independent thought, and free to pursue our individual desires and needs. This results in competition between individual and common needs in some situations. We have the capacity to consider the relative efficacy of various courses of action and make decisions in complex situations of competing needs. We are capable of putting group interests before our own. We are not limited to acting on instinct and impulse. This ability, referred to as inhibitory control, is essential for effective social interaction (Kim and Phillips 2014). Humans have the capacity to suppress instinctive or dominant responses and consider alternative actions that fulfil other goals. Without this ability, social life would not be possible since individual needs would undermine common goals. Cooperation would not be possible since individuals would only be interested in pursuing their own goals.

Not only can we consider alternative actions, but we are also capable of assessing the morality of actions. Humans have the urge and predisposition to judge human actions as either right or wrong in terms of their consequences for other human beings (Ayala 2010). Morality is a social phenomenon that arises out of the social need to consider others. Social life would not be possible without the ability to judge our own and others’ actions as moral or immoral. Morality is so important to human existence it has been suggested that humans are not only Homo sapiens, but also Homo moralis (Ayala 2010). The need to consider the impacts of our actions on others is fundamental to our justice system and is a key aspect of most religions. We create social structures that include rule and enforcement systems that encourage moral action and sanction for deviation from established norms. As such, morality is normative since rules are socially defined. If humans were not social, there would be no need for the concept of morality. We accept that many other animals operate according to a natural order that favours survival actions. Some animals kill each other for sexual selection, carnivores kill for food, and many species leave their young to fend for themselves against great odds. Morality comes about out of necessity to create society.

Our ability to exhibit inhibitory control and to consider the morality of our actions means humans can act in the interests of the collective, not just their own self-interest. However, sometimes individual and collective interests conflict, and when individuals choose to pursue self-interest at the expense of collective interest, social capital is undermined. In even the most cooperative social groups, there tend to still be some individuals who seek to take advantage of others’ goodwill. This could take many forms; free-riding, failing to fulfil normative or contractual obligations, theft, corruption, or fraud. This prohibits the possibility and desirability of unconditional cooperation. It relates to the tension between individual and collective good. At times humans tend to place their own interests above collective interests. I am not suggesting that collective interests should always be prioritised above individual interests in all cases. I am not sure this is a desirable situation and one that may lead to the loss of individual rights. However, the trade-offs between individual and collective interests have implications for social capital. The pursuit of self-interest is an important factor limiting social capital that will be discussed further below.

Religion is extremely important for many people since it gives purpose and explanation to life and provides a moral code for action. Virtually all the major religions include some version of the Golden Rule: do to others as you would wish them to do to you. This is the cornerstone of moral consideration. For many people, their religion provides the structure and motivation for a moral life. For some, it is required to get into heaven or to have a favourable afterlife. This belief provides a powerful force for prosocial actions and provides a positive influence on social capital.

Yet despite all these reasons for moral action, there is still immorality in almost all societies and social groupings. In many ways, this is not surprising, considering morality is judged based on the consequences for other humans, and often one’s own needs are in competition with the needs of others. In these situations, individuals need to make complex value judgements that take into account their needs, the needs of others, and the consequences of their actions, for themselves and others. The average individual is poorly equipped to make these judgements. We operate with imperfect information, without the benefit of retrospection, and often our behaviour is habituated, resulting in actions that are inconsistent with our values. Our reality is constructed and often does not allow us to make the best decisions. How can robbing a bank be logical? Yet, for some people, in the reality they have constructed, it is the most logical action at a given point in time. How can someone be a purse-snatcher? Do they not think of the impact of their actions on their victims? Are they not aware of, or care about, the consequences if they are caught? To most people, this type of behaviour is wrong and illogical. However, for those who perpetrate these actions, it is justified and therefore appropriate. The flaws in an individual’s constructed reality create errors in judgement that precipitate immoral actions.

The ideas discussed above are related to those discussed in the section on the limitations of human cognitive abilities and particularly to the impact of cognitive biases. Social capital can be improved where misconceptions and unhelpful beliefs are identified and debunked. In general, when people understand the importance and value of moral action and incorporate these beliefs into their value systems, they are more likely to act morally and in the collective interest. Often our own preconceptions or predispositions negatively influence our actions towards others, impairing social capital. Logically, strategies to change these predispositions could improve social capital.

Citing this article

This report was prepared for the Institute for Social Capital. You should reference this work as:

Claridge, T., 2022. Exploring the limits of social capital: Can social capital be continually improved or is there a maximum?. Report, Institute for Social Capital, Dunedin, New Zealand.

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