More travesties of the proverbial: Law of the jungle edition

rudyard kipling the law of the jungle for the strength of the wolf is the pack - Google Search: Keen readers of this blog will know that occasionally, just occasionally I identify a saying or concept which has somehow come to signify something close to the opposite of what its progenitor had intended. Examples include the theory of the second best, the central point of which is that if one finds oneself in a second best situation, the best you can do is aim for a second best optimum and further, by implication, if you aim for a ‘first best’ outcome (using ‘first best’ principles) you’ll end up doing worse than second best.

Likewise the original schema of the arguments now associated with Coase was not to lead to a situation where one imagined transactions costs to be zero and re-allocated property rights, but rather to point to the historically contingent way in which transactions costs had been minimised by particular allocations of property. (I think this is the case, but readers with a deeper knowledge of Coase may be able to correct me. I do know the Theory of the Second Best stuff however – though it beats me why it’s not called the Theorem of the Second Best.

Anyway, here’s a newie that I’ve just come across.

When people speak of ‘the law of the jungle’, they usually mean unions restrained and ruthless competition, with everyone out solely for his own advantage. But the phrase was coined by Rudyard Kipling, in The Second Jungle Book, and he meant something very different. His law of the jungle is a law that wolves in a pack are supposed to obey. His poem says that ‘the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack’, and it states the basic principles of social co-operation. Its provisions are a judicious mixture of individualism and collectivism, prescribing graduated and qualified rights for fathers of families, mothers with cubs, and young wolves, which constitute an elementary system of welfare services. Of course, Kipling meant his poem to give moral instruction to human children, but he probably thought it was at least roughly correct as a description of the social behaviour of wolves and other wild animals.

J. L. Mackie. 1978, “The Law of the Jungle: Moral Alternatives and Principles of Evolution”, Philosophy, Volume 53, Issue 206, October 1978, pp 455 – 464.


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