Cooperation, Competition and Human Nature

If there is a “bottom line” – a take-home lesson — from the many different kinds of cooperative behaviors that occur in the natural world, it is that cooperation is highly contingent and almost always instrumental to meeting basic survival and reproductive needs.  It is not an end in itself, or an unqualified “good”, as so many of our philosophers and ethicists seem to believe.  It is an opportunistic strategy that very much depends on the context.  And the same is true in human societies, by and large.  But with a big caveat.

Humankind evolved, perhaps over several million years,   in closely cooperating, interdependent small groups. Like naked mole rats, wolf packs, and Orcas (killer whales), and a small number of other species, our hominid ancestors survived, and thrived with what I call a “collective survival strategy.”

We live in an “unnatural” world in which cooperation can become an end in itself, precisely because psychological “rewards” for cooperation evolved to reinforce our constant functional need for cooperation.  But cooperation for the fun of it can carry you only so far.  Cooperation for a socially-important purpose is far more rewarding because it also evokes the sought-after approval of others around us.

Ever since classical Athens, our public philosophy has been burdened by unproven (supposedly self-evident) assumptions about human nature that are used to justify various political prescriptions.  So, if you believe with Hobbes that that state of nature is an unconstrained “war of every man against everyman,” then peace is only possible within an authoritarian police state.  Conversely, if you believe with Rousseau that “man is born free but everywhere he is in chains” – in the thrall of a corrupting, destructive, inequitable society – then society must be remade to conform with his nature.

Thought for the day:  In desperate times, ruthless men will rise to the top, and a fearful people will applaud.

Category: Social Justice