Everyday Philosophy: The Cooperation Principle

by Gary Wood

One of the six basic principles of my philosophy is that: Human morality comes from the fact that we are social animals that benefit from mutual cooperation. I call it the cooperation principle.

Biologists are very familiar with the concept of social animals. A classic example are the social insects, like ants or bees. Consider the complex life of a honey bee with the simple life of a house fly and you see the difference cooperation can make. Where a house fly lives an isolated life of hunting for garbage on which to lay eggs, each individual bee is dedicated to the benefit of the whole hive rather than their own welfare. Each bee haΩs its own duties and obligations, and the hive lives or dies together. When a honey bee stings, it has condemned itself to death. Its stinger has reverse barbs that causes it to stay in place. As the bee flies away, it leaves the bottom of its abdomen behind with its weapon. The one-shot bee has just given up its life to help protect the hive.

I am not trying to imply that the bee thinks about what it is doing. It is just running on the pre-programmed responses that are built into its genetic knowledge. My point is that social behavior is well known throughout the animal kingdom and has obvious advantages for certain species. Social cooperation is part of their basic nature.

Many mammals display even more complex social behaviors than the social insects. Current research shows that higher forms like dolphins, whales, elephants, and apes feel compassion for their social mates. This means that their moral actions are not just pre-programmed buÕt involve a thoughtful process. Different reactions to different individuals show that social interactions are being learned as part of experience as well as being part of the basic nature of the species. With human beings the social interaction gets even more complicated. Our improved reasoning abilities combine with our nature and our experience to give us a wide range of impulses toward our interactions with other people. Add to that the wide range of cultural instructions we get from our parents, schools, churches, and governments and morality gets very complicated from a biologists point of view.

Morality seems to get even more elusive from a philosopher’s point of view. They argue where morality comes from because they are not sure it is purely rational, yet they can’t agree that it comes from religion, either. Immanuel Kant is one of the best accepted philosophical authorities on morality. His “Categorical Imperative” was his attempt to form a single ≈law that could guide all morality. It goes: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” In other words, if you lie, then all lying should be acceptable; but that would lead to a serious breakdown of trust and communication. He wrote two later versions of his law, but you get the idea.

Modern social sciences including psychology, sociology, and anthropology all involve the exploring of the nature of humanity. Of special interest to these scientists is an understanding of our feelings of morality and how we relate to each other. How much of morality is learned by experience, accepted from culture, discovered by reason, or just part of human nature?

To me, the ultimate answer is that morality is part of our basic nature. Our hunter gatherer ancestors learned to cooperate better than the Neanderthals and the other groups with which they competed. Yes, reason teaches us that cooperating makes sense. And we learn from our own experiences that making friends gets you more than making enemies. We also learn from our churches and others that being good to other people is the proper thing to do. But, the bottom line is that our ancestors were able to multiply faster in the good times and survive longer in the bad times than the other groups that did not cooperate amongst themselves as well. That is why we are here and they are not. That’s why our genes are hard wired to have us to work together, and why being moral is part of our human nature.

Regardless of the biologist’s views, the philosopher’s arguments, the social scientist’s studies, or what some other authority tries to tell us; we all know right from wrong. Unless we are some sort of sociopath who is no¯t quite human, we know how to treat people. Follow the Golden Rule and treat people the way you would like to be treated. Love the people close to you and treat all people with respect. That is the human way.

Community can make a huge difference in how people treat each other. I was raised in Southern California, in the LA suburbs. I lived in large apartment complexes and went to a university with thirty-thousand students that mostly commuted to school in cars on busy freeways. I saw people get lost in the concrete jungle and lose their humanity by spending too much time reading books and watching TV. A person can end up trapped by avoiding the masses of people outside their door they don’t know and don’t want to know. I’ve seen people from big citi¯es treating waitresses and other people with little respect because they know they would probably never see them again.

Small town America is the best place to live. Everyone knows everyone else and they care about each other, so they treat each other right. Cloudcroft is the best little town I have ever seen. Not only do the locals know and love each other, but the tourists that get to know this village fall in love with its people as well. Gloria and I spent thirty years in Cloudcroft but had to move away for health reasons. We know and love the warm and moral people that live there. We have already seen them pulling together to help each other through this tragic fire. That’s how loving humans should treat each other. Well done, and keep it up.

This article originally appeared in the January 2011 print edition of the Mountain Monthly.